I have a membership at the local aquarium and I often walk over there on Shabbos. I have my card and don’t have to use money. I don’t like handling money on Shabbos. There is a religious injunction against using money on Shabbos, the Sabbath. And the truth is, I’m not so good at this “off the derech” thing – literally, “off the path”, a euphemism for being formerly-religious. My soul is too connected to Torah to just let it all go. No matter how far I try to run, it is a part of me, my identity, my soul. I know in my heart that this is just a stage in my journey toward healing.
I hear the squeak of the dumbwaiter as they pull up our dinner from the basement kitchen. My nose tells me that tonight I will be eating cornbread and lasagna. Tonight, I will eat dinner because it is not meat or chicken. Although I am officially off the derech, I still can’t bring myself to eat traif, non-kosher meat. I don’t know if I ever will. The cornbread is soft and moist, and the cheese in the lasagna melts, creamy on my tongue. When I leave the bathroom, I start to automatically recite asher yatzar, the blessing you make after using the bathroom. I quickly catch myself and remind myself that I am off the derech and not saying blessings.
Going off the derech is not simple for someone with my intensely religious background. But it is necessary. I think that religion should be a physical manifestation of our spirituality. Religion should be about our connection with a Higher Power. Unfortunately, I think that many times, the religion becomes more important than the connection with self and with God. That is when it begins to seem fanatical, oppressive, and stupid.
In my parents’ home, I always felt like religion was above protecting people’s feelings, or caring about them for that matter. God came first, before people or feelings. Damn it, I get so confused. How do I know what God really cares about? I don’t want to measure anything against what my family believes. I always felt separate from them. Like the real me didn’t exist among them spiritually or emotionally.
To sort this out I need to separate Torah from my family, and that means I am taking a break from it.
This is easier said than done. On Shabbos, I hear the lamed tes milachos song, a song about the 39 types of work that are forbidden on Shabbos. I taught my pre-one-A boys this song when I worked in the preschool. The song plays over and over in my head. I know every melacha, forbidden work, that I am violating intimately. After all, I taught them. I can’t get away from it.
And there is something else that, if I am honest with myself, I have to admit causes me crushing sadness. I miss Shabbos. I miss the family time, the sense of connection and belonging. As excruciating as sitting at the Shabbos table was, because of my misophonia, my phobia of eating and mouth noises that I struggle with since I was seven. I miss belonging to something.
I wonder if God is angry with me for needing to leave religion for a while. And then I have an epiphany: I realize that God likely doesn’t mind. A loving God wants me to heal. A loving God wants a genuine relationship with me. God created man on Friday and only afterwards He created Shabbos. First man, then Shabbos. This proves to me that first you must be a person before you can bring religion into your life and serve God. You have to exist first in order to recognize God. Right now, I am learning to exist. I am just becoming a real person.
I share with a friend that I miss Shabbos, and she suggests that I contact an assistant rabbi in a nearby suburb who she knows to be open minded. We speak on the phone a few times and I explain my ambivalence about religion. Rabbi Fried listens and validates my conflict. He is warm and supportive. He assures me that there are many ways to be a religious Jew and that my family does not own the Torah or religion. He promises that his community and its culture, although Orthodox, is as different as night and day from my family.
After a few months of speaking on the phone, Rabbi Fried gently encourages me to join his congregation for the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashana. It is an appropriate time to begin something new, he tells me. I go anxiously, and I am amazed to discover a brand-new kind of Jewish community that is diverse, and open minded, as well as committed to Torah and halakha. One main difference between this community and my family is that culturally they are completely American. No one here is obsessed with how people dress, how much Torah they learn, and what “yichus” – a well-connected family name – they have. No one judges anyone else religiously. We are all on a journey to come closer to God, we are all growing and learning. We are all different. Everyone is treated with equal respect regardless of their job title, how much money they have, or their gender.
I encounter many warm and wonderful families of religious Jews who are not afraid of the real world, and are in fact an active and empowered part of it. My jeans and shorts don’t bother them. The people who wouldn’t dress this way assume I have my legitimate reasons. In fact, one of my new friends takes off his black hat when he sees me because he knows the sight of it makes me queasy. The Torah is not his hat. He is not his hat.
This community is diverse. All the way from black hat and wig, to shorts and no hair covering. Some of the members don’t look so Jewish on the outside, but the prayers they say, the Torah they read, the Shabbos they keep is the same one I am familiar with. It is a perfect bridge for me between two worlds and I am so grateful to have found somewhere I can belong spiritually.