My interview with Jenna Maio Esq., author of Princess without a Crown and host of the Modern Jewish Girl Podcast.
Eitan (איתן) Yakhin
Chag Kasher V’Sameach to You All.
I had the great privilege of having a conversation with Jenna Maio Esq., an up-and-coming Jewish Author who’s written about her story in her newest book, Princess without a Crown. We discussed with Jenna, among other things, the challenges Religious Judaism can pose, especially to those of us who are coming on to the scene without an Observant background.
How can we motivate ourselves to do the things that we know are right, even if we don’t feel like it?
Well as Jenna says, “There’s something to be said for doing things when we’re not in the mood. It creates a real spirituality.”
I’m typing this late at night, in between cleaning and kashering my kitchen for Pesach. As I write, I am certainly not in the mood to finish cleaning the kitchen. However, something I’ve learned is that love isn’t what you do when you’re feeling good, it’s what you do when you’re not interested in doing. You get out what you put in.
When we are stuck keeping mitzvot that we find inconvenient, like stopping in the middle of our workday to catch a minyan, or checking our lettuce for bugs, it is wise to remember what our lives could be like without the structure the Torah gives us.
I think back to the days before I used to have a minyan I would go to. My life was a mess. And these days, without Shabbat to recharge at the end of every week, I don’t know what I would do.
Jenna says much the same thing herself in her book. While others in her Law School were baffled by her ability to take a day off schoolwork every week and still maintain her grades, she felt the opposite. Taking Shabbat off every week helped her keep her sanity.
Judaism has given me the tools to get what I want out of life, and that includes getting the things I didn’t know were important to me.
On the show, we discussed how some people in Jenna’s life wondered why she would ever limit herself by becoming religious. Jenna, though, felt differently:
“The secular lifestyle might be a lot more freedom, quote-unquote, but I see a lot of people just enslaved to their desires.”
Before I was religious, someone explained it to me this way. Imagine basketball, but with no rules. So life is basketball, but Torah is the rules. It is only through limitation that we can even manage to be. What kind of game could you play with no rules?
My co-host, Itai, wondered whether Jenna felt that her newfound Observance had ultimately made her life better or harder. Jenna responded “Constriction leads to more freedom“. Jenna went on to point out that we (the Jewish People) went from being slaves in Egypt to being serving Hashem in the desert. So in a way, we went from one kind of bondage (Egypt in Hebrew, “mitzraim”, can literally mean bondage), to another kind of bondage. But as Jenna puts it, a much better kind of bondage.
Rav Kook shares a similar idea, explaining that “One may find an educated slave whose spirit is free, and a free person with the mindset of a slave.” In Rav Kook’s eyes, we can only live a truly fulfilling life by focusing on our soul’s inner goals. (Rabbi Gerstein sourcing Rabbi Chanan Morrison, Gold from the Land of Israel, pgs. 113-114)
While Jenna spoke, I realized something else. Pesach is full of restrictions. A lot of people start cleaning even a month in advance. We spend an exorbitant amount of money on food for the holiday, and sometimes even more than that on aluminum foil. When Pesach finally arrives, we restrict ourselves to an extremely limited diet. We have all these restrictions, and yet Passover is called “zman geulateinu“. Time of our Freedom. Isn’t that strange?
Isn’t it a bit ironic that at a time when we are at peak stress from chumrot (Jewish stringencies), we are supposed to feel the most free?
People might think that when we say the mitzvot free us, that we’re just saying that to make ourselves feel better. But at the end of the day, the ones I hear saying that mitzvot free them are the ones that became religious. We chose this. And we can stop anytime we want. But the truth is, once you taste the Torah’s goodness, you don’t need convincing. Because that’s the taste of real freedom.
Think back to all the Seder’s you’ve sat at. Think back to all the happy memories. Why are those memories so happy? You weren’t even allowed to eat bread! But you didn’t care. And why is that? It’s because the restrictions set you free.
It’s the Restrictions that Set you Free.
Happy Omer-counting Everyone. And all the best.
Jenna Maio Esq. is a wife, mother, and freelance writer. She studied English and creative writing at Emory University and then completed a joint degree in law and environmental studies from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Over the years, she learned at Neve Yerushalayim and Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya in Jerusalem, where she deepened her Jewish learning. She recently published her first book, Princess Without A Crown: Returning to My Jewish Roots, which was a serial column in AmiLiving magazine, and which can now be bought at Pomeranz Bookseller. She also hosts the Modern Jewish Girl podcast, available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. She can be contacted through her website, www.modernjewishgirl.com.
Ethan Yakhin is the co-host of Open Book with Eitan and Itai, a Podcast both with and about Jewish Authors. To stay updated on upcoming episodes, you can follow Open Book on Instagram. The show is available on Spotify, Apple, YouTube, and wherever else you hear your podcasts. You can have a look here at their podcast page.
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