Deena Levenstein

Losing My Religions & Finding Myself in Jerusalem

“Are you religious?”

I sat there frozen, with five sets of eyes turned towards me. I had an idea of what he wanted to hear but I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I wasn’t willing to feed into that need to define anymore. And this was the kind of question that needed a great comeback!

And then I got it…

“That question is one of the reasons I left Israel.”

It was my first Shabbat in Vancouver after moving there for an undefined amount of time. It was also the last time (besides Yom Kippur) that I made sure to find a family to stay by who lived walking distance from the community center I’d end up spending most Shabbat meals at while in Vancouver.

The following week I’d start taking a bus to shul, of course preferring to get off in the front where it would be the non-Jewish bus driver opening the door for me and not me opening it in the back.

A few weeks following that, after a Shabbat meal, a guy I’d just met would innocently ask if I wanted a lift home.

With slight trepidation I said yes.

The ride is a clear memory for me. I forlornly looked out the window as the world — or was it my life? — passed by, and my path was clearly changing in grave and scary ways. I tried to explain to the guy what it was like, riding in a car for the first time on Shabbat. But of course he couldn’t understand — for he had not grown up with a set of rules literally written in stone (by God, no less!).

This is not the only memory etched in my brain. All the “firsts” and some of the “seconds and thirds” are clear memories since they all had an aspect of trauma to them.

So… Was I religious?

I’d definitely tried to be. I’d stayed “religious” for seven years following my realization that it wasn’t sitting right with me. That I wasn’t sure exactly what I believed, that the complete Shabbat experience did not really work for me. That the way I feel at a Passover seder – which I love and makes me feel warm and happy inside — is similar to the way I feel watching a Christmas scene in a movie — which I love and makes me feel warm and happy inside.

For seven years I continued to keep Shabbat the way I was supposed to, date the guys I was supposed to and basically dressed the way I was supposed to. Because I wanted the envisioned life to work.

Those seven years are actually split into two parts:

For the first couple of years I tried desperately to fix myself. I went to Torah classes, talked to rabbis, read books and went to therapy.

For all my trying, I just kept feeling worse.

(Of course, by the way, the message I’ll probably always get from some is that I just haven’t yet read the right book or met the right rabbi. In other words, I am still the one that needs fixing — see above.)

When trying hard to connect only had the opposite of the desired effect, I decided to not try. In other words, I decided to continue with the lifestyle that I didn’t want to leave, and this time, I wouldn’t try to convince myself of anything. The hope was that מתוך שלא לשמה, בא לשמה – that doing it without feeling connected, would lead to feelings of connection.

But then I was 25 years old and it felt like seven years of trying, and, of course, not trying, had been quite enough. Over those years I had gotten progressively more depressed and it got to the point where I truly had to make a choice between living the correct life or, possibly, living a happier one.

And so with my heart heavy, I left Jerusalem, the city I’d come to hate; its narrowness – in the streets and in the people – made me feel constricted and claustrophobic.

I knew I wanted to go somewhere completely new. I envisioned a place that was naturally beautiful, with a small Jewish community, where I might be able to start exploring – what, I had no idea, especially considering my fatalistic expectations. You see, the way I saw it, I would indeed be a less complete Jewess without the complete Torah and mitzvot. I thought it might be impossible to live with a sense of purpose and meaning without living an Orthodox life.

But deep down I hoped there was something to discover “out there.”

Vancouver turned out to be the perfect “out there” for me. I was there for over three years in the end during which time my heart got progressively lighter. I worked in the Jewish community and went to the community center on weekends and for holidays – both of which exposed me to Jewish people from all kinds of fascinating backgrounds who are living their Judaism in all kinds of ways.

Throughout I kept to one cardinal rule which probably allowed it to be such a healing time for me: The day I arrived I told myself that while in Vancouver, I must never let anyone have religious expectations of me. It was my sweet little religious oasis.

I was involved in the Jewish community religiously but I didn’t pray if I didn’t feel like it (even if it meant standing at the back as an observer), I took the bus on Shabbat if that’s what seemed right for me, I dressed how I wanted and I ate what felt right to me.

In fact, it was during those years that I started understanding something of the utmost importance: That it didn’t make sense that I was only trusting others to know what was best for me, while giving myself almost no place in that dialogue. This was, and continues to be, an important part of my maturing process.

But what about Jerusalem?

Throughout my time there I was worried that I’d end up “stuck there forever.” My eye continued to be turned toward Zion, where my family is and where I figured, at some point, I’d still want to live.

Once I started considering returning, it took me six months to convince myself to give Jerusalem a second chance. The idea of returning to Zion was in many ways scarier than leaving it. In this case I was returning to a place where I’d been miserable. A place where I’d felt like I had to be one way in order to fit, where it had felt like there were limits everywhere I turned, where the narrowness had swallowed me up.

But something made me believe that it was worth another try.

And so on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, just over three years after my initial arrival in Vancouver for that undefined amount of time, I sat on an El Al flight with a one-way ticket and truly, some hope and anticipation in my heart.

Upon my return I slowly started seeing how a lot of the narrowness had been in my mind, a lot of the limits were viewed only through a certain perspective. I found all kinds of people here, all kinds of Jews living their Judaism in all kinds of ways. And I learned that many religious people are far more accepting of different lifestyles than I’d assumed.

I started feeling that I really might be able to explore who I am as a Jewess in all its real complexity, right here in Jerusalem.

In a way, Jerusalem and I have a lot in common. It is the city of peace without peace. It dreams big but is inherently flawed – just like me. And maybe that’s why I now feel so comfortable here.

Actually, it is specifically the complexity I experience in myself, in others and in the city that inspired me to start organizing social-cultural events, giving a platform to my fellow Jerusalemites to express the ideas and thoughts that are dear to them.

But wait. You might be thinking that this is a fairy tale ending but let me put your mind at ease – it is not. It is not as though I finally feel completely comfortable in my own skin. It is not as if I now understand my Jewish identity, that I get how I want to live my life or that I have exactly found my place.

I still have dozens of unanswered questions that will very possibly remain unanswered – about what I believe and what works for me. I often do still feel restricted while living here. But I no longer feel the need to go away in order to figure it out.

I love Jerusalem and I feel like I want to figure things out right here. I love Jerusalem’s different dimensions and I love my part in them.

And I always think, if I was blind to the diversity in Jerusalem and now I see it, I wonder what my eyes will be opened to tomorrow! And the next… And if I continue to evolve, how much more so does the city continue to as well?

Last week someone asked me if I’m religious (really!). I said: The moment I try to define myself in that regard, I’m in big trouble.”

I’m not sure if that worked for him but it works for me and it works in Jerusalem, my home.

About the Author
Deena is a new mother, a project manager and a writer living in Jaffa.