It has been coming for a long time…I’ve been fighting it, fear of going it alone, fear of letting go, of not being able to rely on G-d anymore, social pressure, not wanting to ‘break up’ the family, not wanting to distress Yaf and the kids, not wanting to turn their lives upside down…
The marriage had become a sham. I am a round peg and I was trying to push myself into a square hole. “Where did it all go wrong between us, God?”
Rabbis and other observant Jews, other believers, understand when someone who wasn’t religious suddenly ‘sees the light’, when he or she ‘finds God’ but I imagine they don’t find it as easy to understand why that same person might suddenly ‘lose’ God.
I was watching the news on tele today:
Ebola in Liberia.
The reporter told (and the cameraman showed) the tragic story of a little boy called Saba, who has Ebola, such a cute kid but despite the doctors’ attempts to connect with him, there was no response, the kid was in a sort of trance…utterly, utterly heartbreaking! Prognosis? Appalling.
We saw a man, wailing, tears flowing, who had just learnt that his sister had died….he walked to his shack of a house, howling, no one even turned towards him in sympathy, everyone paralysed by the trauma of their surroundings and by fear.
I can’t reconcile a belief in an all-powerful, MERCIFUL God with that hell on earth?!
Either an all-powerful, omnipresent God exists and he has decided these people can rot OR he is very upset but he doesn’t have the power to help OR there is no God.
I couldn’t say that there is a MERCIFUL, LOVING God and then go to Liberia, witness Ebola sweeping through poverty-stricken communities and tell children who have lost their parents, tell parents whose children have died after being ravaged by Ebola, tell them that a good, caring, loving, merciful God is caring for and does love them. Tough love!
How did God and I meet?
It all happened rather quickly…one day I was eating cheese burgers in Mcdonalds, the next, I met God. I was in a ‘bad place’ (not an auspicious beginning…better to start from a position of strength!), I wasn’t in the best of health, (yup, was easy for me to get caught on the hook of a religious fishing rod!) I don’t know what mental dynamic was at play but I can only guess that I was looking for help, looking for some comfort, looking for some peace of mind, a place to relax, a crutch to stop me collapsing…I remember feeling rested and feeling a sense of calm in Shul. I remember one particular Shabbos, sitting in Shul after the Kiddush, after everyone had gone home for lunch…it was a kind of sanctuary. My health got worse, really bad, cardiac arrest, intensive care and it was ‘touch and go’….clearly my health improved and I think my overpowering sense of joy and gratitude was God-focused. Text book!
Let me back track a bit…the timeline: it’s not quite true to say I went from McDonalds straight to observance. Yaf and I got married in 1997, in my cheese burger days. I was doing nothing religiously and Yaf moved me over to Kosher meat (I’m now a vegetarian – a pescatorial vege), putting on tefillin etc. She was not brought up in an observant household but saw Kosher meat as one of the non-negotiables and she had also been brought up to see the donning of tefillin as not necessarily the sole domain of the religious but also of those for whom Jewish culture and tradition was important. So, I had moved a bit ‘to the right’ but not so much through conviction but more to placate my wife and I guess in the spirit of compromise and home building.
Ok, back to the illness(es) and downward spiral…I found myself developing a relationship with God and we got pretty close. I’m not a qualified psychologist but I’ve got to know myself well over the last 48 years and my struggles and crises have given me, I think, a real insight into what was going on throughout this time.
Some key words (not in any order of priority):
OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
So, brain washing:
I think I was brain washed…I think I brain washed myself. Other people who were also brain washed might have ‘infected’ me but I don’t feel, looking back now, that there was ever any intention to do me any mental harm. I look back now at all the religious people who have been in my life and who have had an effect on me and I only smile…all well-intentioned.
Fear, superstition, OCD:
probably the main driving forces. I spent so much of my life telling myself “I can’t” and “I must”. I was always afraid that if I didn’t say a bracha or if I didn’t wear a kippah, God would punish me. I did, for a time, feel ‘love’ for/of God, I was driven by a desire to make God happy, to not disappoint him but the overriding emotion has been fear. Superstition and my OCD has definitely played a part in my being trapped. The OCD element of my observance has made the Judaism within our family unpalatable and oppressive, zero flexibility. I have also adhered to the importance of consistency. Keeping Kosher has meant keeping Kosher, not sort of keeping it. If I live in such a way that I/we sort of keep it, if we allow some flexibility, I have always felt that it won’t take long before we don’t keep it at all. So, for me, only restaurants with a hechsha. I have been saying “no” to even vegan restaurants (and I could have avoided lettuce etc as I don’t suppose it would have been washed appropriately). I ruined a family holiday once, California and Vegas, all of us with mum and dad, by sitting in restaurants with them and eating nothing. No flexibility. So, that consistency shows our children what’s what, no misunderstandings or shows that my religion is simply about restriction and misery, is all about “can’t” and “must”? The latter! My way of doing religion is one which my kids are more likely to run away from, not to keep. I now believe that (to use a word a friend of mine referred to the other day) our Judaism/observance must be ‘liveable’ or it won’t be sustainable. If it’s a chore, they’ll run a mile from Judaism at the first opportunity. My way of life is not aspirational in any way, or rather it hasn’t been throughout my children’s lives.
Need (with fear), crutch:
I have a fear of dying and death. The idea that when we die, that’s it, nothing, finished, gone, I find it hard, very hard, to digest. By believing in God, the after-life, Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden), dying and death is a much more palatable thought.
More on the crutch:
the idea that God is with me, guiding me, helping me, it’s a crutch. It holds us back. “God will provide”: no, he won’t! You yourself will provide…or you won’t…you have to look to yourself if you want to better your lot, don’t rely on other people and certainly don’t rely on God. That belief, I feel, will hold you back and stop you getting on with life. If you want something in life, you have to decide if you are going to be your own worst enemy or your own best friend. Often, the only hurdle standing between you and where you want to get to is yourself. You will provide, God won’t provide.
…and the social/family element:
My life and that of Yaf and our children (16, 12 and 7) is religiously structured or, more precisely, is built within an infrastructure of Judaism and observance, domestically, educationally, socially, culturally, in all aspects of our life. How will my ‘changes’ match up with their lives, the fact that they go to Da’ati schools? Of course, the answer is “not very well”. Certainly some work to do in that respect. I still want to identify with Am Yisrael. I still feel very Jewish, that hasn’t changed but I think it will move to more of a tribal/cultural association rather than one based on strict adherence to Torah and the road map aka the Shulchan Aruch. I am a proud Jew. I’ll still maintain a fully kosher home and will remain Shomer Shabbos. The friend who referred to the importance of making one’s observance ‘liveable’ also said that we can’t pass our Judaism from generation to generation simply by eating ‘lox and bagels’.
…and then there’s Israel and how I reconcile what I was when I made Aliyah and what I am now. Well, I’m the same person so I should refer to motivations. Why did we make Aliyah? Many reasons but very much with the children in mind, the Jewish community was getting so small in Newcastle (UK) and the children had virtually no Jewish social life – we wanted to give them more. Choice was London v Israel: no brainer (no disrespect to Londoners intended). Nothing has changed in that respect and what was a good idea and motivation back then still feels like a good idea and motivation now. Vis a vis Yaf, it’s kind of like the tables have turned. She started me on the religious road, I then overtook her and had to tread carefully, for a time we were kind of in the same place and now she’ll be ahead of me, in this respect, and we’ll have to work things out yet again but that’s marriage, a continually evolving relationship and dynamic with lots of compromises.
Besides making Aliyah for Yaf, for the kids, for the family unit, I also made it for myself personally and I suppose religious Zionism was my personal motivation. Now therein does lie an issue because the religious element is no more. I’ll have to see how things pan out, how I develop going forward, but I envisage the connection to Am Yisrael and my Zionism remaining very much in tact.
There was definitely a change in how I felt, religiously, as soon as I made Aliyah. I have not ‘connected’ spiritually, I don’t feel as ‘connected’ religiously as I did when I lived in Newcastle. I enjoy our Shul’s Kabbolos Shabbos service but that’s about it. Is it that one feels a need to connect with one’s Kehilla when living outside Israel because Judaism isn’t in the air and one has to actively connect to stay in touch? Maybe not in North West London but perhaps in Newcastle. Here, in Israel, of course, it’s in the air, so perhaps one feels less of that need to actively participate, less of a need to make the effort? That might be part of it but I also believe that I connected with my Kehilla in Newcastle because I grew up in it, I loved it, it was home and no Kehilla, despite its dwindling size, could ever replace it. There’s no doubt that I have felt claustrophobic in Ra’anana. Ra’anana is great on so many levels, in so many respects, but its Jewish identity is overpowering and it can be stifling. In some respects, I live in a cosmopolitan melting pot, Jews from all over the world, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, North Americans, South Americans, Brits, Australians, South Africans, Zimbabweans, but also other Europeans, Asian and Arab-rooted Jews as well as Muslims and Christians but one can sum up the demographic as, basically, predominantly Jewish – great in many respects, our country, our home, the one country on the planet whose leadership’s primary function is to protect Jews (and, of course, her other citizens). No other country in the world can give me the peace of mind and sense of security which I get here but every now and then, I do crave more of a mix, to see Jews, non-Jews, whites and blacks, Chinese, Indians, Africans, to be away from the heaviness and tension inherent in I guess any and all religious centres. Maybe that’s what holidays are for….need a few days in New York!!
Do I feel liberated today? No.
How do I feel? Emotional, tearful, lost…like I’ve taken off but don’t know where to land. I hope I soon feel much more relaxed Jewish-wise, less fraught, less tense and that I’ll be able to see and feel Israel beyond the confines of religion. If that happens, I imagine that I’ll feel even more at home in Israel than I have felt over the last two years.
I also hope that I’ll feel ‘lighter’ generally, more free, that this break/change will give me impetus, will inspire me to make other changes in my life, to kick away the hurdles, to take control, to be active rather than passive, to explore work avenues and take on other life challenges that, to date, I have shied away from and which I felt were beyond me.
I have to stop saying “I can’t”, I have to stop making excuses.
Big day today.