Are you Insane?

No, I am just different. Why when someone is labelled as mentally ill, do we suddenly see them as less than? Why when someone leaves the orthodox derech, do they suddenly become inferior, a no good free person? Because I am different? Deep down, each of us is different. I have my struggles, you have your strengths, I put my shoes on left to right, you put your shoes on right to left. We are different, but we are equal.

When a person seeks help for depression, anxiety, one is showing one’s own vulnerability, but also one’s own strength.To even recognize and be willing to reach out for assistance takes an inner strength, because you are admitting your shortcomings and attempting to deal with your demons.

There are so many depressed, worried, compulsive people who cannot get over the barrier of denial and they are in danger, far graver danger than anyone who willingly puts their shortcomings in front of another human being to ask for assistance.Torn up and tortured inside, their strength ebbs away.

But the barrier of denial is both inside the individual and between us, when we label the mentally ill as inferior. We all have our strengths and weakness and it is not a weakness to seek help, if anything that shows incredible strength.

When I think about how the late Deb Tambor put herself up for scrutiny by seeking psychiatric help, I think of how her strength to admit and deal with the trauma and depression that had weakened her, was turned into a reason to label her as inferior, incapable of being the strength she could be to so many others and her own children.

Deb Tambor was the strength for so many of us, because she had pushed through her own demons, because she had taken the first step to acknowledge and deal with weaknesses that we all have but often push down into a dark place of fear of the label of inferiority.

Untreated depression can incapacitate you, make functioning day to day difficult. But she wasn’t in denial and she was seeking treatment. And for her courage to seek help and make herself whole again, she was punished with the stigma of mental illness, with the denial of her abilities to take control of her life and the future of her children.

And she was a strong and capable woman, who reached out and helped so many of us in Off the derech. But she was denied that role of being a source of strength to her own children and that is unjustifiable.

An Off the Derech Manifesto

On the eve of Deb Tambor’s Off the Derech Memorial, may her memory be for a blessing.

I am feeling, we are feeling like we are at a turning point in our history. It’s hard to put your finger on a turning point, so many things preceded that brought us to this moment. But tonight we are seeing the first signs of what the OTD community is becoming. We didn’t necessarily come to this community because we wanted community. We were suffering alone, becoming disengaged from our communities of origin. We had no idea that a community could even exist outside the confines of “the derech”. For many of us it felt like anarchy, faced with so many decisions and possibilities, each as promising or disappointing as the next. There was no clear path.

But we have grown. Our members have brought new members into what we called Off the Derech and some have said “my own derech”. As we gathered we became increasingly aware not just of our own pain and our own discoveries: we began to empathize, to see commonality, to see the value of being oneself within a larger whole.

You are not alone. When you take your first bite into a non-chalav yisroel cheese, or treif turkey, or even ham sandwich, you are following down the path of so many of us who have gone before.

When it starts to dawn on you that what is divine cannot be contained in a single text, a single religion, you are not alone.

When it hits you that as a thinking, feeling human being, your purpose and morality does not come from peer pressure or rigid rules, but rather from within, you are not alone.

You/We are not alone. We are on this path of going down our own path together. I am holding hands with you, you are holding hands with another, and it is a very broad path and a way open to many possibilities, many different ways of being.

We are not alone. We are on our own derech together.

1975

Green is the color of the curtains wrapped around my little body. I am the princess trapped in my tower. 27 floors above the Bronx sky. I feel a bump, Jonathan, my older brother has invaded again. I settle on the green grass carpet to watch the latest Mister Rogers and my brother pours out the wooden colors, an architect and builder. Later I’ll take the elevator by myself, pushing the shiny metal buttons, down to the ground. On the greenway, the grass is tall in a forgotten patch. I walk through, a country girl, up to her knees in wheat. Down the path come my Bubbe and Zaide, a Sabbath meal waiting at the end. I feel a pinch on my cheeks. Cutie pie, says my Dad’s Dad. Bubbe’s cheeks are smooth as silk. My stomach tells me it is time to ascend the 27 flights again. I am too late. The elevator door opens, not another accident! My mom is furious. She doesn’t intend to be mean to a little girl lost in her imagination. But she has to clean the yellow sticky mess, as the little girl forgets to hold the silver open door. Later we will descend again, and take the bus to Orchard Beach. I stare out at the forever sky, the waves lapping up to my knees. Our chinese waiter that night shows me earth, fire, air, water. Mom has her Hebrew alphabet in hand, practicing the “Shin” for Shabbat, “Bet” for Bayit, “Tav” for Torah, drawn to a heritage her 2nd generation American parents skipped over. We have a new sign over our doorpost: “This is a Kosher Kitchen”. But tonight, in someone else’s kitchen, we delight in Szechuan Shrimp and Moo Shu Pork.

DIY Judaism for the Days of Awe

I’m sure this has been done before, but thinking about what I will be doing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I start to wonder if there isn’t a better way to introspect and celebrate, without forking over $200 for a ticket to a religious institution. How about create your own High Holiday service? How about a bunch of people rent a room in a school or community center and bring our own prayer books, poems, instruments, chairs, cushions, toys for the kids, snacks, lechayims. How much would that cost? One of us could be the facilitator and we’d take turns to either choose from the liturgy or some other related poems, meditations, comments. The kids could run around in the same room with the adults, so we wouldn’t need to hire a babysitter. We could even stop every now and then to include them in a kid-friendly song or activity. I know there’s the small problem of a torah. I know it’s a sacred scroll. But what are the high holidays really about? Expensive ritual items or a chance to get in touch with what you really hold sacred? What about people holding different beliefs or non-beliefs? Well, how about for a short time, we just withold judgement and try to learn from each other. Okay, so God is supposed to be judging us, but really it’s an inner court that we are holding. My guess is that God whoever, whatever that may be, if it is, has less need to judge us than we do ourselves. The question we need to ask ourselves is: How can I live up to my values? Because that is what really matters. I may not hold to certain doctrines as taught in the torah and oral torah, but what kind of commitment am I making to the causes I hold dear? I know this doesn’t sound so kosher, but I think it is in the spirit of the Jewish high holidays, more so than following the minutae of ritual and prayer. We have become automatons, reciting words we do not even understand, standing and sitting, bending and bowing. Maybe it would be a big flop, but then again, it might just lead to lasting memories and communal bonding. What do you think?

A new day

Writing a new blog feels rather overwhelming. Where do I start? What is it’s purpose? I haven’t written in several days, since my first inspiration to begin writing. So now I must begin again. I was inspired by a sudden access to an audience of people who have been on a similar path to mine. That is, we started out as religious “orthodox” Jews and have made our way to new identities. I didn’t actually start out orthodox. I am not FFB, although very close to it. When I was young, I remember eating out at authentic chinese restaurants and asking the waiter what the chinese symbols meant. I remember cringing as my parents chose a lobster from a tank to be cooked and eaten. Shrimp was a treat for me, I loved the smell of bacon. We were definitely not kosher. Until one day, my mom put up a wooden sign “I have a kosher Kitchen” or something like that. So still we ate out wherever, whenever, but I had to eat my cooking class creation out on the front steps. It happened slowly and one day I was having my last cheese burger, I think I was seven. I knew it would be my last, because my mom told me it would be. Suddenly, friday night became “family time” instead of hanging out with the other kids on the block. We started attending shabbat services in a decrepit but grand old synagogue that had once been filled from top to bottom. By then me and my older brother were attending a Jewish day school, and we both started to feel embarassed by our family’s driving on shabbat. I remember driving through monsey when my parents wanted to attend their friends’ daughter’s bat mitzvah and crouching down in the back seat, so no one would see me. I think that was the last time I rode in a car on shabbat until, well, that’s a another story.

New

How do you start a blog? I used to be a writer, before I owned a computer. Journals, poems, hopes of one day writing a great novel, that was 15 or so years ago. I almost paid good money for a graduate degree in writing, but decided to study Hebrew literature instead, with a stipend and tuition free. I thought I would be a professor, but after three years my studies ended with a masters degree. I should say I got my MRS degree since grad school is where I met my husband, but I didn’t take his last name, so I don’t think I will ever be a Mrs. We’ve been married for 9 years, we have two little children, who are now my chief occupation.

I should have started with: An orthodox Jew and a reform Jew meet at a dance… Why are orthodox Jews against premarital sex? It could lead to mixed dancing! No really, my husband did pick me up at a Hillel dance, and being that I was orthodox, I probably shouldn’t have been there, but I love to dance. Yes, I love to dance so much that I walked several miles through the snow one friday night to perform at a dance recital (actually after the performance. I first took the subway, attended kabbalat shabbat services nearby with leotard and tights underneath my shabbat clothes, did my dance and then walked across town to my cousin’s apartment to spend the rest of the shabbat).

It’s rather late and my little ones will be waking me up before long, so I’ll have to write another day…