Color in a ‘Colorless’ World

I have written on several occasions in the past about the people who were opposed my writing. Most of them had good intentions. Many of them cared for my well being and the sanity that I would eventually lose by throwing myself into such a project. It was not easy to convince people that I had not lost my mind and that the ideas that I had were not terrible and ugly, but rather beautiful and fulfilling. There were those who simply believed that I did not have what it took to commit myself to the writing of a large scale novel without being ‘committed.’ Others simply thought I was finding an excuse to rid myself of the insane boredom that my high school classrooms enveloped me in. But, for many people, it was a matter of forsaking everything that I knew and understood about the world. To quote R.E.M., they believed I was “Losing My Religion.”

I am an Orthodox Jew. My family began the process of becoming “Ba’al Teshuva” when I was about six years old. Both my parents were born and raised in Israel, though their affiliation and relationship with Orthodox Judaism were very different. My mother, raised by Safardi immigrants from Turkey, was raised semi- Orthodox. She grew up keeping Shabbat and basic Kosher, and adhered to Jewish law to the strictest level that her parents knew of. Meanwhile, my father, born to Holocaust survivors from Romania, was raised in a household that had anger towards religion.  While they respected their Orthodox neighbors and kept certain traditions alive in their household, Orthodoxy was not something that they smiled upon. So, you can imagine my grandmother’s surprise when my father began sporting a long beard, and wearing the garb of an Orthodox man. My mother began her return to G-d when I was two; my father, when I was fifteen. We began to keep Shabbat and kosher at home very slowly, and by the age of twelve, our home was a fully flipped. It was an especially interesting experience to begin my return to religion at such a young age, while attending public school all through elementary school. My mother sent us a homemade lunch with kosher food, and we were taken out of school on days when Jewish holidays fell out on weekdays. I began wearing only skirts at the age of ten, which made playing soccer a bit difficult, but I managed. By sixth grade, we relocated to a Modern Orthodox middle school, where we spent two years before moving to a Chabad day school. By the time my eighth grade graduation rolled around, my family relocated to Southern California so that my siblings and I could attend an Orthodox school.

I have been asked in the past if I felt pressured by either parent to live a certain lifestyle, and to that I say that no, I wasn’t at all. My parents respected each other. My mother wished to keep Shabbat and cover her hair, and my father wished to use Saturdays to go to the movies. They never forced each other to commit to anything, and the same rule applied to us. How could my mother pressure my sister and I to dress modestly and keep Shabbat when our father didn’t? It seemed backwards to them to impose things on us. Eventually, my father found his way back, and today, our entire family is religious.

Now, coming from a “Baal Teshuva” household, especially one of such diversity as mine was problematic in certain situations. Many of my friends did not trust our Kosher standards growing up, and would bring food from home with them when they would come over for a sleep over. I had friends who believed I was too religious, and that the Orthodox world had brainwashed me, while many of my Orthodox ‘friends’ saw me as too modern to run in their circle. It was a challenge, especially coming from an incredible warm and loving community (shout out to Chabad of SF), to be pushed away by other people whose goal and purpose in life was to welcome everyone, regardless of their level or their standards. Having an opened minded out look didn’t exactly work well with my sheltered, home schooled classmates who didn’t know Mozart or Chopin from a hole in the ground. To them, one could not consider themselves “religious” if they remained cultured, educated and open minded. It was a cause for many fights between myself and many people who believed that I simply had to choose: Religion, or a cultured lifestyle. I could not have both if I expected to succeed in a life of a standard Jewish girl. I realized very quickly that there was no use to argue with them, and try to prove that my cultured ideas did not detract from my connection to G-D and to my faith. Closed minded people don’t have big ears with which to listen either.

I have never thought that the passion that I have for the written word as detracted from my close and personal connection to my faith. I have a passion for life, it is a full circle of love and zest for the world that I live in. And, while I consider myself cultured, well educated and open minded, my religion comes first. It always have, and it always will. There was never a time in my life where I felt that what I love doing subtracted from who I am, because they are one in the same. Who I am is not separate from what I do with my life. I am, first and foremost, a child of G-D, a follower of the Rebbe and a proud member of the Orthodox community. The uncontrollable power that holds me down to my roots is the same power I feel that pushes me to continue doing what I love. And what I love has never taken me away from who I am. If anything, it has brought me closer to who I am.

It would be a lie for me to tell you that at times, the unconditioned, baseless hatred that I was met with for the life I wanted to lead didn’t throw me off course. I never left my faith, and it never left me. But, there were times when the disapproving looks and the harsh comments of those around me felt too harsh to bare. When I share my experiences with others, they seem shocked and cannot help but ask how it is that I managed to stay religious throughout all of my hardships. My answer is clear every time: How could I ever leave what I love? It’s like asking me to stop breathing. Leaving the world I know would be like not living at all.

When I began spreading the word about Shattered Illusions all those years ago (yes because, at this point in my life, high school feels like it was in a different life time), I was met by the same wave of disbelief and lack of faith that I had been met whenever I shared a passionate goal with those who believed that I was out of my mind for wanting the best of both worlds. They didn’t trust my ability to balance of my faith and my love for the written word.

I mentioned my last blog post that I had endured several harsh experiences during my year in Seminary, in regards to the book in particular. The principals of the seminary had been given the “message” early on into the school year that I was much different than everyone else. Through the grape vine, they were made aware of my writing talents and the very shocking fact that I was indeed chest deep into writing my first novel. They were very calm and warm when they bluntly told me that my writings were not of the acceptable kind for their institution (though they were not aware of the story line), and that the continuation of such an act while attending their school was unaccepted. They did not want to hear of it, and if it was to be brought up again by any students in the school, I would be asked to leave. They wanted me to take the color out of my world, but that was simply out of the question.

My intention is not to bash the community that I am so fond of. In every community, I find people just as closed minded. I have friends who are not Jewish who are surrounded by people who are much less open minded than the principals of my seminary. Every community faces their own issues, and I am not hear to highlight those faults. I would never exchange my life for anything in the world. Ever. But, that does not take away from the fact that I encountered difficult people along the way. I am sure such people exist in every culture, every race, every community.  I see the logic in their actions, and I understand very clearly why so many people were opposed to my decision to take writing seriously. Although they were seriously misinformed about my goals, I understand. They could not see how my creativity was to better serve G-d, they saw it as a waste of time.  The more I see, the more I understand why people have such a hard time opening themselves up to anything different. What they could not understand was that I was coming from the exact same place that they were, only I had a different way of expressing it.

I recently attended a lecture by Rabbi Manis Friedman, titled “Finding Color in a Black and White System.” It was held in a beautiful, temporary art gallery which featured the incredibly talented artists of our community. During the days that proceeded that lecture, I had been bombarded by questions about the novel and the course I was taking that made feel extremely insecure and unsettled about myself and the path that I had decided to take. It was as though this lecture was a flat out message from G-d, drawing me to my source.

“All creativity begins on a canvas of black and white. The background is black or white, not the system. To discover your individuality, you must first be the same as everyone else. You discover your individuality when you take what everyone else does and make it your own… You must tease greatness out of something ordinary….The stronger your morality, the stronger your creativity. G-d created the world and then created you to see what you are capable of doing…”

It was the first time I had heard someone say something “different’ about the approach that one should take towards a life of creativity. It was exactly what I had spent years trying to tell people who could not understand my need to live a creative, passionate life. It was a refreshing take, and exactly what I needed to hear.

In the past month since the lecture was held, it has become my “go to” guide whenever I feel the least bit weighed down by my decisions. When a person is in tune with who they are and their purpose in the world, only beauty can rise from such a creation.

G-d put every person in this world with a specific purpose. If my purpose is outlined early on in life, why should I not follow that path?