These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Losing My Religion

Posted on June 19, 2012 by Ma'ayan Dyer

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(X-posted from my blog Lost in Jerusalem:

Two weeks have passed since I said goodbye to Jerusalem and hello to an old familiar foe, Medford, Oregon. The job hunt continues, and the sudden realization of how far away the nearest shul is, a mere ten miles, seems as though it might as well be a thousand miles, considering my lack of mobility. The only kosher meat I can find here are the Hebrew National Franks in the supermarket, and believe me, I know from experience that those get old really quickly. Israel is practically another planet, and I feel like an alien that has been away to see what’s on the other side of the galaxy, and has forgotten what the home world is like. The air is different. The sun doesn’t even shine the same way here. And then, of course, I’ve always felt a bit out of place here. The memories of those feelings are still with me, and every time I walk down a familiar path from my past, those memories rise up to the surface of my psyche and overwhelm me.

But I’m not a teenager anymore and I’ve changed considerably in the eight years it has been since I’ve lived here. There is some comfort in this realization, but still; old habits die hard, and instead of sticking with the positive attitude that I have been cultivating to guide me through the challenge of living a Jewish existence on a non-Jewish planet, my old friends from the past, good old Self Doubt and Despair, have shown up on my doorstep, and they have been overstaying their welcome. But since they are old friends, just because they have been around for so long and we know each other so well, I’ve been having a hard time telling them to go away and leave me alone. This was me before Judaism. This is miserable me.

It would be easy to blame the environment that I find myself in for my sudden regression but I share a good part of the blame as well. It would appear that my old habit of sitting and staying stuck with a bewildered sense not knowing what to do, so I’ll do nothing, has never really left me. I don’t think people every really break old habits. I think they’re always there, lying dormant, and once something triggers them to wake up again, getting them to go back to their slumber takes a monumental, single-minded effort. There it is again, that old habit staring you in the face, while you’re trying to sleep or get the motivation to get up and out of the house. “Hello,” it says to you in a mocking tone. “You didn’t really think you broke me, did you?” So, here they are; Old Habits, Self-Doubt and Despair are sitting here with me right now as I write this, just hovering. How annoying.

During these last two weeks, I’ve exhausted myself looking for a job (I’ve submitted dozens of applications) and making a concrete plan for my return to Jerusalem. It’s been all-consuming, and with each day that passes that I remain unemployed, my already overactive anxiety level amps itself to such a degree that my stomach gets tied up in knots, and I find myself perusing my mother’s wine rack once again. Not too surprisingly, somewhere in the middle of this stressful mess, I’ve been slowly losing my grip on my Jewishness. You see, the plan for my Jewish survival this summer, was to daven twice a day, every day, always light Shabbat candles, always say kiddush and hamotzi over challah and to make sincere efforts to make it to shul at least once in a while, even if that means breaking some of my Shabbat observances, such as paying money for transportation (though there were more than a few times last year when I lived on French Hill when I had to choose between a Shabbat meal at someone’s home, or not paying money for a cab and instead, sitting in my dorm, gazing gloomily at the flickering lights of my Shabbat candles, all alone. Needless to say, I always opted for the meal and paid for the cab, of course). The plan has been…well, discarded, for lack of a better term. Today was the first day that I davened mincha, realizing that I was giving up on the challenge of being a one-Jew army until I can be reunited with the tribe. I had no Shabbat dinner the night before, I hadn’t lit candles, and no blessings were recited over anything. I am not proud of this, and it bothers me that I put forth such little effort in keeping my Judaism thriving even when out of its element, but I think the most shameful thing I did this Shabbat, was do something that I would consider work, and davening the weekday mincha…because I actually forgot it was Shabbat.

Now, I’m not entirely a halakhic Jew. Far from it. But I am observant in many ways that are meaningful for me, and not working on Shabbat is about as basic as it gets when it comes to Jewish observance. The “work” that I did this Shabbat, was for the sake of a precious job interview at the mall, buying people’s unwanted jewelry for cash. At a lonely kiosk in the middle of the mall, I underwent a one and a half hour interview process, a large chunk of which required me to hand out fliers to passersby, awkwardly asking them in they wanted to sell me their jewelry. As I bugged people walking by the kiosk, getting tongue tied as I’m prone to do and having a hard time hiding my complete lack of enthusiasm for what I was supposed to be getting them enthusiastic for, I started to have unpleasant flashbacks of my past mall jobs, trying to sell people things they don’t need, or possibly even want. I hate this kind of job, because if there is one thing I am not, it’s a salesman. So when I found myself saying, in my too quiet voice, “Hi, how are you? Do you have any broken or unwanted jewelry that you’d like to sell to us for cash?” what I appeared to be saying, considering my overall demeanor, is this: “Hi, how are you? Yeah, I don’t care. Look, we’ll give you cash if you have unwanted jewelry to sell us, but then again, you can read the sign above our kiosk, and I’m probably annoying the hell out of you by being one of those people who get paid to pester other people until we find the rare person who is actually interested in what I’m pitching to them. In fact, I’m annoying myself right now. Just take the flyer, please? The guy who might hire me is watching and he says these fliers fulfill a quota. Yes, I know I’m awkward and I just told you that we’ll take your cash for unwanted and broken jewelry and it’s kind of funny, but I feel ridiculous. I’m no good at this, but I need a job. I didn’t leave Jerusalem to come here and buy jewelry off of people from a mall kiosk…I want to go home.” That’s the general vibe I believe I gave off. I tried to fake my attitude, but I’m not a good actor, either. I have the unfortunate “blush intensely when you’re nervous and uncomfortable” gene, along with a tendency to get tongue tied when I’m forced to speak to absolute strangers who I have no interest in speaking with, whatsoever. I’ll find out on Monday if I get the pleasure of actually getting paid to recreate this awkward scene for hours at a time. Pray for me, will you?

After coming home and taking a nap and glaring at the walls of my bedroom, resenting them for not being the walls of my bedroom in Jerusalem, I distracted myself from my bad mood by reading a book with a cup of coffee outside in the waning sun. “I need to daven,” a tiny voice suddenly said to me, and I realized it had been two weeks since I had. I got my siddur from my bookcase, went out into the back yard, faced East, and began praying. It felt good, and I took my time, lingering over the Hebrew words, enjoying the sound of my voice whispering the holy tongue, feeling nostalgic for Jerusalem. I thought of davening in the beit midrash at Pardes with an actual minyan, taking a pause from a long morning of studying chumash or mishna, just before lunch. I reminisced of the time I was on a tiyul to the Golan Heights, and our bus pulled over to the side of the road so we could daven in the parking lot of a closed cafe, the setting sun coloring the sky with such vibrant pinks and oranges, you felt like God was right there in that beautiful atmosphere, looking straight at you as you stood there with your siddur open, rocking gently back and forth in prayer. And then there was the time we had Kabbalat Shabbat services on the roof of a hostel during a tiyul to the Galilee against the backdrop of the sun setting over the sea, where I had just been happily wrestling with the forceful waves, letting them knock me over and buoy me back up again, without a care in the world. It was a good feeling, and I wondered why I had allowed myself to be so distracted with everything else to the point of forgetting this meaningful feeling. Taking a moment out of the day to just center yourself and reconnect with your spiritual side helps make life so much more bearable. I had been needing to do this.

…then I had this thought, right in the middle of the Shemonah Esrei: “Oh $#!^, it’s Shabbat. I’m doing the weekday mincha! Oh, I just said “$#!^” in my head during the Shemonah Esrei! Sorry, God…” Nothing breaks your concentration and snaps you out of a moment quite like realizing that you’re doing something of immense importance to you the wrong way, because in your laziness, you actually forgot how to do it.

So, I did what any person slipping away from their faith would do; hitbodedut. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this practice, it has its roots in Chasidism, and simply put, requires one to go off into nature (if possible) and talk directly to God. “We need to talk, don’t we?” I said, as I closed my siddur on the wrong page. “Okay. Let’s go to the park.”

Hitbodedut may be a highly unstructured form prayer in a religion that has just about everything structured, but it never the less, I think, fills a void for those of us who have trouble leading a structured life. There’s also something so biblical about it. This is how Abraham, Sara, Jacob, Moses and, well, everyone in the Tanakh prayed to God. There’s something profound in its casualness, something comforting in its nonchalance. I am not going to lie: I could spend hours practicing hitbodedut when I’m feeling particularly troubled or confused. I always come out of it with a clearer head, and a feeling of being rebooted. It would be easy to be cynical and say, “well, you’re just talking your problems out to yourself…” In a way, that’s true. I have, in the past, talked to myself in a very earnest, serious manner, as if there were someone else in the room with me. One summer, when things were really bad and life was stuck in a horrid, never ending phase of confusing transition, I had some very insightful one-sided conversations with my cat. But there is something different about addressing God, and being removed from your usual environment. While the park down the street from my parent’s house isn’t exactly remote, it is nice and green and has a beautiful view of the mountains surrounding the valley that this town is situated in. In fact, I didn’t even wait until I got to the park to start talking; I talked the whole way there, strolling through the ‘anywhere in suburbia’ streets. I might have looked a bit crazy, but hey, I used to talk to my cat.

In any case, I got to the park, lay down in the middle of an unoccupied soccer field, stared at the sky and gazed at the mountains, and talked to God. When I walked away, I felt more centered, more grounded, more inspired to keep my Judaism ever-present in my life, no matter where in the world I might find myself…even in the town that fills my mind to the brim with memories of my angst-ridden youth, without even one synagogue, and a Jewish community that is so small and quiet, I don’t even think they exist. No, it’s not like living in Israel, let alone Jerusalem, but what in the world is?

On the bright side of this conundrum, I do have a mother that goes out of her way to make sure there’s something I can eat at dinner with the family that isn’t treyf, who found me a chanukiah so I’d have something Jewish to decorate my room with, and there is a store here that sells challah. The guy at the kiosk in the mall told me that if he were to hire me it would be no problem to work me into a schedule where I’d never work on Shabbat, and I have a Skype date with my former Hebrew professor who has graciously offered to converse with me through the summer to keep my Hebrew from slipping into oblivion. And I finally got around to chastising myself for feeling like I live under impossible circumstances to practice Judaism, when Jewish history is full of Jews defying much more tragic circumstances than I can even fathom to keep their Jewish identity intact, and Jewish tradition alive. If the starving can find matzah for Pesach in the hell of a ghetto, and if the dying can say their prayers all the way up their last moment of life in a death camp…well, then I suppose it’s about time I got some perspective. Besides, if absence makes the heart grow fonder, then that will only make the homecoming all the more sweeter, whenever I find myself back home, in my beloved Jerusalem.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go show Old Habits, Self Doubt and Despair to the door. They were never good friends, anyway.