Among the many things that surprised me when my teenage son become baal teshuva was how I was criticized. Many secular Jews told me bluntly that I never should have “catered to him” by kasherizing my kitchen and permitting him to attend a yeshiva high school. I’ve been told multiple times that he’s “obviously been brainwashed” and that I should have put my parental foot down to save him from himself. Those who aren’t critical of me feel sorry for me, as if having a baal teshuva child is a tragedy. The media, especially the Jewish press, is full of tragic tales of such children who cruelly cut themselves off from their parents.
Of course, there were plenty of secular Jews who supported my teenager’s decision and my response. There were even a few who admired him for adopting a lifestyle that entails considerable sacrifices and rigidity. But these weren’t the majority views, especially in my central Tel Aviv neighborhood.
I imagined how it could have been different. If my son had announced, for example, that he was becoming transgender then he and my parental support would have likely been supported. The response would likely have been similar if I had been religious and my son had decided to become secular.
Obviously, becoming secular or transgender are life choices sharply criticized by religious people. But here’s the key difference: the religious have never made any pretense that their views and values were open-minded on all matters.
I don’t mean to be excessively critical of those who have criticized my son. After all, having been raised in a secular household I once held similar views myself. But things look different when it’s all in the family. The decision to accept my son’s new religious life was (relatively) easy because I saw how he freely chose this lifestyle – no brainwashing rabbi here — how it made him happy and that it was not destructive to others or to himself.
There has been little research explaining why some Jews become baalei teshuva. I’ve tried to understand the appeal religious life has for my son during frequent conversations. He told me his path to religiosity started with attending a 6th grade class bat mitzvah, a dance party held at a south Tel Aviv bar, where he felt especially alienated. It deepened with his own bar mitzvah lessons that year. And then, of course, there was the impact of his father’s terminal illness.
I admit I didn’t take it that seriously when Daniel began wearing a kippa and eschewing some of his favorite foods because they weren’t kosher. I thought this religiosity would probably go the way of the fencing lessons he abandoned at age 10 and the soccer obsession that petered out at age 12. But I suspected something deeper was happening when Daniel announced one Thursday that he was going to observe the upcoming Shabbat. This was a boy who could while away an entire Saturday playing computer. I gave him a few hours until he caved in and began playing Call of Duty. He recently spent his 260th Shabbat.
The religious fervor deepened when Daniel’s prayers for his father’s recovery coincided with the cancer’s relapse. But when, a year later, the cancer returned, the prayers were what helped keep him going. He described to me his love of prayer.
“You’re saying things that mean something, and which aren’t random,” he said. “It reminds you that everything you do and say has a meaning and that life is not something passively done. You’re part of a bigger purpose.”
When his father died, Daniel accepted that, too, as part of G-d’s plan. I was grateful for how Jewish religious practices made mourning easier. On the second day of my husband’s shiva I stumbled out in my bathrobe to the kitchen to make coffee. There in my living room was my son’s entire religious school class swaying alongside him in prayer, a sight that filled me with warmth and optimism. When the shiva was over I worried what would happen next. My only expectation was that Daniel would get up in the morning. He did and even earlier than I did. He left the house to attend morning services and do what Judaism instructed: to pray and say the mourner’s kaddish after each of the three daily prayers.
I’ve considered many times how I would feel if my son came home one day, took off his kippa and cut off his peyot. I think I’d be worried at what would replace the comfort, self-discipline and purpose this life has given him.
In 1989, not long after I graduated from college, Jewish novelist Anne Roiphe published “Lovingkindness,” a literary novel about a feminist American professor whose troubled daughter chose to become ultra-Orthodox and live in Jerusalem. Her mother was both appalled by and disappointed in her daughter’s choice to embrace this religious lifestyle so antithetical to everything she believed. But at the novel’s end, the mother understood that this religious life met her daughter’s needs in a way she never could. I remember being surprised and disappointed by what I viewed as this decidedly non-feminist ending. Now, I understand.
So, no need to criticize me and especially, please, don’t feel sorry for me. I don’t feel sorry for myself.