Bedbugs are like questions; you never know when they’re going to bite.
Bedbugs, like questions, transformed by my summer in Tel Aviv from hostel to hostile when they appeared, then proliferated and then became an epidemic. People asked if I was scared of being bitten, or when we were relocated to the slums of Tel Aviv, if I was scared to walk home at night. But I wasn’t. What they should have asked was whether I was scared to open my mouth and try to explain to the non-Jewish and non-religious members of my program how not cooking a goat in its mother’s milk justified why I couldn’t accompany them to dinner and “just eat vegetarian.”
Because I was terrified.
At stake lay 13 years of Jewish education, the entire Orthodox community and maybe even the bringing of Mashiach. At stake lay a process for raising, killing and preparing food in a way I didn’t really understand.
I knew this summer program was going to be different than the traditional Orthodox Jewish summer programs I had previously attended on the first night of the first trip. Each of us was gifted with our very own rustic (and perhaps bedbug infested?) sleeping bag and told to settle down for the night. After a few frantic moments of searching for the girls’ side, which previous traditional Orthodox Jewish summer programs typically placed in a remote, completely mechitza’ed off area from the boys’ side (preventative of mixed dancing, chas v’shalom), I realized there was no “girls’ side.” There was no “boys’ side,” either. Because, like any non-religious program, there were no sides.
Why, the others on the program would ask, would Judaism even propose the need for sides? (mixed dancing aside, of course)
It was in this moment, in this rustic sleeping bag, that the questions, and perhaps the bedbugs, started to bite.
So instead of scratching and itching from the bugs or the slummy air that permeated my new hostel, I scratched from internal hostility over my own gaps in knowledge and itched to find answers.
I turned to two places:
1. My older brother, who after one semester of studying for smicha, has been declared the family Rabbi. Don’t worry; he’s not a woman.
2. My weekly chevruta with an old friend on the program, which, like most weekly chevrutas, met every other week at best.
After a few weeks of exploration, I found that I was better able to field these basic Jewish questions. Once my friends on the program saw that it wasn’t offensive to inquire why I somehow became Amish every Saturday, they probed more. And more. I grew more and more confident in my answers, and now, as the official TAMID fellowship Rabbi, claim the title Chief Lord Rabbi Doctor Kira. And yes, I am a woman. (Somehow, it didn’t matter here.)
While there’s a ton I still don’t know, this summer was a true “flipping out” experience. But “flipping out” for me wasn’t radical religious change in a gap year of isolation from secular influences, nor was it a dance move prominent in the Tel Aviv nightclubs; it was somewhere between the two.
On one occasional chevruta meeting, my friend and I sat by the beach with our gemaras and learned the halachot of swimming on Shabbat (a natural question stemming from being on the beach all summer). We were approached by a man who could not believe his eyes: religious girls … learning gemara … on the beach! I realized that man was stuck in a world where girls, gemara and the beach don’t intersect when instead of asking questions, he asked to photograph us. Although we may not have made the cover of Ha’aretz if we had let him, the incident became a hallmark snapshot of my summer experience.
Like that man’s narrow definition of girls, gemara and the beach, we sometimes carry a narrow definition of “flipping out.” We don’t want to offend, so we hesitate to ask, and judge or assume instead – as “religious” or “not religious,” “allowed” or “not allowed” and “Orthodox” or “Conservative” or “Reform.” But offending can lead to pushing, and pushing can lead to great things, from giving birth to getting extra credit on an exam to being first in line at a kiddush. “Flipping out” really means flipping yourself out and reflecting, to let others in through teaching. If you’re not convinced, it’s all in the gematria (so long as you multiply by 14, halve your answer, round up to the nearest tenth, and add three).
The questions, and the bedbugs, taught me it’s healthy to flip around and be a little uncomfortable sometimes, because it can lead to real answers and real growth.
So as you say shema each night, I urge you to say:
“Goodnight, sleep tight, and don’t let the questions bite.”