Growing up, I couldn't help mixing the notion of being more religious with being a better person. Every Rosh Hashanah, I prayed that God would forgive me for the skirt that was too short, the gum that I probably should not have chewed and the gelatinous marshmallow I once snuck, for talking in the back of the synagogue with my friends and other "transgressions." The Rosh Hashanah following my 25th birthday, I really asked myself this question for the first time: "How does God really judge us?"
It was a good question and one that recapped a very confusing year of my life. For 24 years I had been an observant, modern orthodox Jew, always questioning yet accepting that not all my questions would be answered in a way that was clear to me. I was content in my tight-knit community until I felt the community turn on me. At 25, I had met a 30-year-old lawyer and my friends in the orthodox Jewish community of Upper West Side Manhattan did not approve of the match, or the fact that he had previously dated someone else in our circle. My synagogue became an unsettling place and I was the recipient of many dirty looks. I stopped going.
When I had first started dating the charming lawyer, I knew he was trouble and literally a "bad boy" but he was hilarious, captivating, intelligent and cultured in a way that the other boys I was meeting were not. Totally under his spell, we began spending a lot of time together. I knew he wasn't Mr. Right with his inexplicable outbursts from time to time (i.e. getting enraged that I had confused Flushing and Forest Hills) but I was definitely stuck in the Right Now. I also felt trapped: I did not have my old Upper West Side "community" of friends to go back to. Although this new boyfriend was Jewish, he wasn't at all religious, and slowly, I began to wonder how much I cared about being orthodox, how much of what I had done I believed and how much had to do with routine.
But I was lonely. I had been a part of something for so long and now, it seemed I was out in the world with doubts and no place to go. I found comfort with my family but I was scared to tell them all that I was questioning. I remembered something that I had learned in school about what the Jewish philosopher Maimonides said: The ideal is the Shvil Hazahav, the Golden Mean or optimal middle path. He said that when it comes to character traits, extreme is never the way to go. Growing up as a modern orthodox Jew, my friends and family always referred to people who were "to the left," "to the right" or "in the middle," but each person had a different definition of those categories. They were entirely subjective. Maimonides said you needed to be in the middle and that too was open to interpretation.
During Rosh Hashanah, I am thinking about my relationship with the lawyer, my relationship with the community, and my relationship with God. In my own mind, I was now bordering on agnostic and for me personally, that was too far "to the left." I needed to get to my Golden Mean. It wouldn't be where I had started, gone was the complacency to accept without question. It also wouldn't be where I had recently found myself -- completely lost.
A week before the high holidays, I decided to sign up for a spiritual retreat where mainly Jews who are looking to become orthodox go. I was a rarity there being an FFB -- a Frum (Yiddish for "orthodox") From Birth -- but I went for one reason: to see the beauty in Jewish people, orthodox and non-orthodox alike. I went to see the fire, the passion that I remembered had inspired me in the past, and that had excited me so much about the Jewish people.
And I saw it there. I also learned... and learned. I met orthodox rabbis who embraced Jews of many walks of life, rabbis who didn't scoff or undermine questions about liberal issues, rabbis who had clear answers to the very questions I had deemed unanswerable. And I met Jews who were eclectic, open-minded and warm, Jews who were straight and Jews who were gay. Everyone was embraced on this retreat. Like me, everybody on this retreat was longing... for a community.
When I got back, the lawyer continued treating me badly but I strengthened my resolve to break up with him. I was not trapped and I did not have to go back to the group that had snubbed me. There were other observant Jewish people that I could associate with who were warm, like girls I had known in high school. There were observant Jews, "Landsmen" who had helped me find Shabbat meals in foreign countries. There were observant Jews -- perfect strangers -- who had embraced me and welcomed me into their homes. There were others who had taken an interest in me and had set me up on dates. There was so much more that my community had to offer, more than cliquey women in a synagogue who didn't know me but had decided to hate based on hearsay.
I broke up with the boyfriend and remembered something else that I had heard about the Golden Mean: Sometimes you have to hit the opposite extreme in order to reach the middle.
Had I reached "the opposite extreme?"
Well, it was subjective, but for me, yes, I had. In the back of my mind I had always believed in God, but for the past year, I had been out of touch. As I thought about the concept of Teshuva (repentence), an intrinsic part of Rosh Hashana and the high holidays, I knew what I had to do. I gradually began to pray -- not the traditional prayers of the religious Jewish people, but prayers said in my own words. It was strange for me as I had always prayed in Hebrew (and truth be told, hadn't always understood all of what I was saying). Just like I didn't necessarily believe that He wore a yarmulke (I had always pictured George Burns laughing down on me), I didn't think he would not accept my prayers because they were in English. I turned to this God for strength and guidance as I slowly returned to my community and made new friends.