Thursday, October 08, 2015

Why Do They Embrace Orthodoxy?

I often say that there are two types of people that fascinate me. Those that are raised as Orthodox Jews and abandon it - commonly called ‘Off the Derech’ or OTD. And those who go the other way – non Jews or secular Jews that go from a completely secular lifestyle to an Orthodox Jewish one (converts and Baalei Teshuva or BTs).

There have been a variety of memoirs published by OTDs that have been quite poignant in describing their journey away from observant Judaism. For me, the most memorable was Shulem Deen’s honest account. Which gave me not only a glimpse into why he left but also described his former community of Skver. Which showed both its beauty and draw… and its warts.

But there is practically nothing written about the journey towards Orthodox Judaism.

(Except for ArtScroll type books and articles designed and read almost exclusively by the Orthodox Jewish public. These books are mostly inspirational stories that make us feel good about ourselves – seeing others joining us and thus improving their lives. But as with all ArtScroll type book or stories - anything negative is left out.  ArtScroll type publishers are true to their creed of never saying anything negative that would put even the slightest negative light on anything Orthodox – even if it’s true.)

Rabbi Avi Shafran has commented on the dearth of such published stories in a Forward article: 
Why is there no counter-flood of essays and books by some of the many who came from other Jewish places to Orthodoxy? Why no vivid descriptions of what impelled them toward traditional Jewish observance? Why no accounts of the emptiness they experienced in their secular lives, or the inadequacy they perceived in less observant ones? 
Although  he answers the question somewhat , a far better answer has come in a subsequent Forward article by Julie Sugar, a BT.

She lists her reasons which supplement the 2 listed by Rabbi Shafran. But these are more than just reasons, they tell you something about the converts and BTs themselves. Things which many people may not realize about them. Which make them real people – and not some inspirational and yet unrealistic ArtScroll caricature.

As Ms. Sugar points out - becoming an observant Jew is not as interesting as a once devout Chasid like Shulem Deen becoming a non observant atheist. Publishers want to sell books and the latter will by far sell better than the former. Which as she also points out has a limited readership. Other than Orthodox Jews, there aren’t going to be too many people buying that book.

Another fact that is omitted by an ArtScroll type BT memoir is the fact that past relationships do exist. They do not go away. Non Jewish and/or non observant friends and family (especially parents and siblings) still have strong ties. Although not always the case, I’m sure that in many cases those family and friendship bonds do not go away just because you start keeping Shabbos. Especially if your friends and family are accepting of you. The things you might say about your past that led you away from it and into observant Judaism could easily be hurtful to them.  I see that as a major impediment discouraging anyone from writing about his journey toward observant Judaism.

And then there are the secret doubts or even regrets a BT or convert may once in a while feel – even while fully embracing their new lifestyles. She calls it an ‘imperfect return’. An honest memoir would mention that. An ArtScroll type book would not.

There are also the many absurdities that even someone raised observant sees. An honest memoir would mention that too – and not just plaster their story with only the positives of their new lifestyle. As she indicates, there are Halachic reasons for these apparent ‘absurdities’ that will explain why we observe them. But at the end of the day, they are going to seem absurd to most normal people no matter how well we try and explain them. The excellent example she gives is not being able to carry an umbrella on Yom Tov when it’s raining.

I applaud Ms. Sugar for her honesty.  She tells us why a memoir about becoming observant is important: 
It matters because you are a human being who has gone on an extraordinary journey, and your life is wildly different now than it was or five or ten or forty years ago. You see the world through the lens of this story, and you feel deeply that there is something about this way of seeing — this way of being — that others should know about too. 
I would humbly ask her to write that book  - warts and all. It would be not only be fascinating reading – it would contain the truth - which in my view is far more inspirational than that of the typical ArtScroll variety.