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Chava Tombosky Headshot

Kicking the Box Open, Defeating Orthodox Labels

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Recently a curious woman looked me up and down, and followed her inquisitive look with this question: 

"What are you?" 

"I beg your pardon..?" 

"What do you call yourself... you know, your Jewish affiliation..."

"My affiliation?"

"Yes, what are you -- your Jewish label?"
Once again, I am forced to reckon upon myself a single label. A label that will probably be fueled with stereotypes and misconceptions. Truth is, I hate the "What am I?" question. For to answer it means I am giving into the loaded label marred with assumptions that others wish to fasten to me. Sometimes it means others expect me to defend my lifestyle. Other times it means they wish to talk me out of my lifestyle. Either way, I'd rather not weigh in at all.  For to weigh in forces me to be seen through the eyes of only one layer, when in actuality I have so many other layers that define me.   This box the world has built for labels has gotten so small. How many articles in the media filled with judgements claiming my observances are archaic, or on the other side, claiming my observances are too modern must we read already?

"What am I?" 

Such a strange question filled with so many answers yet with no answers at all.  What am I? I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a wife -- a Hasidic rabbi's wife! (Get a load of that label.) I am a filmmaker. I am a singer. I am a writer. I am strong. I am weak. I am a coward. I am a warrior. I am a dancer. I am fierce. I am a mourner. I am a celebrator. I am tired. I am awake. I am me.

Must we label ourselves?

For if I label myself, then it may cause isolation. Isolation breeds separation, separation breeds segregation, which can then breed intolerance, elitism, and separatism. Why must we label ourselves at all? More importantly, why must others label me? 

Man, I hate labels. But since I put it out there already, I might as well come clean about what its really like living a Hasidic lifestyle. The truth is I still struggle to carry the "rabbi's wife" title.  "Rebbetzin Chava" still seems like a most unlikely epithet for the person I see in the mirror. Black and white. White and black. I don't like black and white, I actually like color. Loaded words like orthodox and religious attempt to describe my lifestyle as oppressive, like I have managed to suck the joy out of life and live a regimented lifestyle that is infused with stifling rules that wreak havoc on my freedom. 

Which brings me back to the reason why I hate labels. But more than anything I hate the box. The stuffy, claustrophobic, choking box that others in the media create with their own assumptions of how I must conform in order to observe the beauty of Hasidic life. I am in constant search for meaning and purpose and refuse to accept the phrase "because I said so" as the basis for my belief system. Hasidic teachings refute blind faith and encourages me to honor the world by asking questions. It is my duty, my obligation to continually search for answers and live curiously. Living curiously, according to Jewish mysticism means to be defined as a citizen of the world willing to explore the human frontier.  I have learned that all human beings have a social and moral obligation to utilize our talents to pursue this endeavor.  I take my moral obligation to raise consciousness and reveal the world's higher purpose collectively and universally very seriously.  Therefore, it is not just my own purpose I seek but those of other's as well, which is why I am refuting the label. Because to label means I must conform to how other's see me. To label means I must abandon a part of me that is authentic. To label me means to segregate myself from the very world I have taken an oath to explore and improve.

I don't want to get judged for how many laws I observe, how my observances are overkill, or even how little I observe. The only one that gets to judge my path is G-d. And I try to understand G-d's will in order to work on redefining that journey for myself every single day using the tools of mystical wisdom passed down from way more holy people than I can ever claim to be. I do this freely and without judgment because my Hassidic teachers encourage me to choose and use my higher consciousness every day.

To be Hasidic means to have focus; it means to grapple with doubt, to be one with our Higher Power and to be on a constant quest. One cannot be on a quest while remaining in a box. To be Hasidic is to live outside the box, outside the label. It means to be part of the symphony of life. Every single note on the musical scale brings purpose and yet has clear rules that help create a myriad of songs. Without those rules music would be discordant noise. I would much rather play in harmony rather than in conflict where direction and principles permits freedom to reign and self discovery to become palpable; where life's meaning is exposed.

Maybe I need to change and evolve and accept the label "Orthodox Jew," which has been defined as ultra, rigid, intolerant, elite and extremist.

Or maybe I will stay the same, and watch the world do the changing instead. Maybe the label Orthodox Jew can finally mean something else. Maybe living a Hasidic life can stand for living out of the box. Maybe it can mean leaving the confinement of the media's opinion of what my life should look like. For if I allow the media to dictate how my label should be defined, then I lose joy, I lose my full expression, an expression Hasidic philosophy has paved from me.  If I acquiesce to what the world's script thinks my label should be, then I lose myself, I lose the ability to write awesome music, produce fabulous films, sing moving lyrics and paint my life in the colors that inspire my children and my children's children through the revolutionary hassidic lens that has enabled my dramatic journey. 

So what am I? What answer shall I give? Here it is in black and white, like the composition on a musical scale, and if you squint you might see the color in between and hear the layers of notes dancing to the tune of my answer.

I am the light that shines when the colors go dark. I am the face that smiles when the world tears. I am the cries that sing when the pain has creeped in.

I am me.

I am my beautiful soul. 

I am the one that screams at injustice and the one that comforts the unfortunate.

I am kicking the box open.

I am the unlabeled and the labeled.

I am everything and I am nothing. 

If we dare to try, we can break down the stereotypes, the dogma, the social rules that tell us we must have an answer to "What am I?" and instead yearn to answer the question "Who am I and how do I find meaning in it?"