The Cowardly Baalas Teshuva by Yentl Eisenberg

The Cowardly Baalas Teshuva by Yentl Eisenberg

We were invited to a celebration in honor of my niece’s high school graduation. Just a nice simple dinner at my brother’s vacation home down the shore.

Only there were potential problems.

There are always problems, but this time I really didn’t want to deal with any of it. We are frum and the rest of the family is not. They are really nice about it and try to accommodate our needs. Only, it’s never really good enough.

There are the problems of kashrus, of where to get kosher-enough food.

There is our relatives’ insistence on serving wine to make a toast, non-kosher of course.

And then there’s the complicated family politics, this one won’t talk to that one. That one is too liberal, this one is too right-wing. Further complicated by a diverse array of spouses, the exes, the soon-to-be exes, the “companions,” the children of girl-friends, children of second marriages, significant others, etc.

And then there’s me, the crazy religious one with 10 kids and a zealot for a husband.

In a room full of Jews, they all agree on one thing: nobody likes Jews who think like me.

The questions are insistent and invasive. At first they seem genuinely interested in the answers. But as the hour passes, it becomes evident that I have entered a trap to show how inferior and useless religion is. How can I ascribe to a way of life if I don’t know “why” I am doing these senseless things? How can I live a life of poverty, because as frum people, we no longer have the same material aspirations as them?

And then there is the deeper trap. The obvious glaring difference between a life of material plenty and comfortable religious non-observance vs. our life of material hardship and what they see as overly strict religious adherence. As my grown son said, “I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that a person can have two houses. One to live in and the other just for weekends and vacations.” We don’t even own one house, let alone go on vacations.

I have kept away from these innocent family gatherings for 20 years. I knew it would be too difficult to gracefully figure out the kosher food thing (with hand washing and bentching, not to mention arranging mincha davening etc…). I stayed away from the parties that were held at someone’s poolside to avoid the bathing suit problems. I stayed away from the vast riches of upper middle class American Jewish success so that my children wouldn’t become tempted by the glitz. I stayed away from the relatives so that I could avoid the intellectual and emotional Inquisitions.

Which today leaves me with a burning question.

I know that I am living the Way of Truth—the Way of Torah and Hashem. I am supposed to be a Light Unto the Nations.

So how come I am such a coward when that Nation is mine?

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24 comments

  1. A powerful piece…

  2. Very recognisable unfortunately.

  3. I’m glad that the word “cowardly” accompanied this post. One side of my family is not religious, and the other side is not even Jewish. While there were some growing pangs when I returned from seminary, aside from a family cruise which went over shabbat which I chose not to attend mainly for financial reasons (the one day at port was on shabbat so I didnt want to pay to just be on a boat), otherwise I would have gone and try to go to as many family events as possible.

    I love my family and they love me, I bring my own food (and I don’t make a big deal about it)and eat the kosher chips and soda and fruit that is often there, I wear my “kosher” swim dress to the pool, and I focus on what ties us together rather than what makes us different. If you can show you are still YOU and are still the person they love, just with a few new ‘quirks’ there is no reason to be cowardly about your religious choices. If you cant hold your own and respect the differences, how can you expect them to respect your choices?

    Also, I NEVER talk about religion, when asked the digging questions “what’s so bad about wearing pants!?” I politely change the subject to a neutral topic, ex: “what was it like growing up with my mom?” Rule no. 1 of kiruv: DO NOT try to mekarev your family! It is only your job to be overtly respectful and non judgmental of their lifestyle and not walk around like you think you are better than they are, because we are not. If you don’t believe that, neither will they. And, to me, THAT is what “being a light” means. This is your family and your history, OWN it!

    • I agree that we need to be open and connected to our family. Some situations are more difficult than others or bring up problematic situations, but avoiding people will only give religious people a bad name. I hope at least that the author invites these relative to her own simcha events. It is usual in families to have differences of opinion on lots of things as long as people can agree to disagree and not cut each other off.

    • well said 🙂
      (posted on the wrong comment the first time!)

  4. I think the author is really being too hard on herself. Who in the world would feel comfortable in that type of situation? How would one of her relatives feel if the tables were turned and they were in her frum home, surrounded by her religious friends, and being questioned about his/her lifestyle and beliefs? Were they really asking with a sincere wish to know and understand or were they just asking to marvel at the “weird” things she does and believes? Every kiruv professional I have ever heard speak has said that no one could have all the answers. And if you don’t know how to answer a question, it is more natural to say, “That is a good question. I don’t know, but I will ask and get back to you about that”.

    I think her biggest mistake is to think that she actually needs to defend herself and her lifestyle. She would be better off just to state that even though there are material challenges, her life is meaningful and full of joy. Then ask them if the secular world is so great and filled so much material abundance, why are so many dissatisfied with their lives, seeing therapists, doing drugs, and suicide rates are on the rise.

  5. Why do you say you’re a coward? I would say that you’re a hero!

  6. Now it seems Sheena is being too hard on the author.
    Even though there are some similarities in your situations, you should not judge so harshly. This woman has 10 children and a husband to consider and that complicates matters exponentially when dealing with non-frum relatives and these types of gatherings. Do you have to deal with making sure your husband and sons have a minyan available to them at the right time? At poolside you can wear a kosher swim dress, but you don’t have to worry about the difficulty bikini-wearing cousins will pose for your husband and bar mitzvah age boys in terms of shmirat aynayim and making brochot before exposed ervah.
    Also, people are always more vulnerable when it comes to dealing with family than when relating to strangers, and obviously her family is not as respectful of her choices as your family is of your choices. Perhaps she could have handled dealing with her family in a better way, but please don’t judge her when you don’t know her, her life circumstances, her personality, etc. I have the utmost respect for her as a person, as a JewishMOM, and for her ability to be self-critical in a public forum.
    May we all have siyata dishmaya and clarity of mind to each deal with our own challenges to the best of our abilities.

    • The author pointed out:
      “They are really nice about it and try to accommodate our needs. Only, it’s never really good enough.”
      I am not judging, but it makes me sad that she doesn’t seem thankful for their efforts. So I was merely trying to give some advice for what has worked for me, and my FFB husband.
      I personally believe that Hashem does not want us to distance ourselves from these challenges in the name of religion, we were born into the family we were for a reason. Thankfully there are lenience’s (especially when it comes to family) for the sake of being a kiddush Hashem.
      I think we all over-think our differences instead of just accepting others for who they are. Live your life, be proud, and let others do the same. That was what I meant by “OWN it!” There is no need to be ashamed of washing and benching, or to be “cowardly”, or miss out on family events.
      Would Hashem rather you daven without a minyan for one day so that you can show your less religious family that they are still a part of your life and their life events are important to you? I don’t know. But I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, it’s worked for me and I hope maybe it might help someone else too.

      • We asked Rav Rafael Levine how we should relate to a relative that was married to a non Jew and he responded the we should interact with them and treat them with love and kindness and that we should Mekarev them.
        The question isn’t about our comfort but about how we should relate. If you want to be a light unto nations, learn to treat people with respect and they will reciprocate.
        I can understand the author’s difficulties, but it seems to me that they stem from the fact that she is being too fanatic in her religion, a common ailment of many Baali Tchuva. Many come back to themselves or the middle path after many years of being extreme. Some don’t. Seems like she is taking all the difficulties and letting it get her down instead of enjoying the scenery. By the shore. Take the family for a walk. Enjoy HaShem’s creation. Make the most out of the situation.

      • well said! i agree 100% percent.

  7. Thank you, Yentl Eisenberg. I enjoyed reading this, it was well written and also eye-opening.

  8. Martha Bernstein

    This past Shabbos we went for lunch at the home of a local rabbi. He asked me how it was possible that we had never “mekareved” our family members, even though my husband works in kiruv. I didn’t really know what to answer him. And then he said something I loved. He said, “I get it, it’s like they say in Yiddish, ‘With family, you talk about kugel.'” In other words, in many families (like ours) you talk about parve topics — which means there is no conflict and also no real discussion about meaningful things like “Why I am religious and think this is the best life for a Jew to live.”

    I think that readers should keep in mind that Yentl has 10 kids, many of whom are already teenagers. It’s one thing interacting with our non-religious families when kids are teensy, but when they are older then interacting with non-religious relatives (especially vocal and somewhat aggressive ones like Yentl’s) can be trickier.

    Thank you Yentl for sharing your thought-provoking story. I see myself in your words.

  9. אַל תִּירָא כִּי עִמְּךָ אָנִי אַל תִּשְׁתָּע כִּי אֲנִי אֱלֹהֶיךָ אִמַּצְתִּיךָ אַף עֲזַרְתִּיךָ אַף תְּמַכְתִּיךָ בִּימִין צִדְקִי
    Do not fear for I am with you; be not discouraged for I am your God: I encouraged you, I also helped you, I also supported you with My righteous hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

  10. yentl eisenberg

    thank you all for your comments
    to sheena and others who are married to FFB’s: both my DH and i are BTs and it is a different situation. when we are with family, we are always the only frum ones. if one side of the familly were frum, then we could (in a way) relax, be ourselves without being on display.
    to those who interpreted my article as being a result of my intense BTness, you read too much into my account. for the record, interactions with both sides of our family have been positive and “light”. i was describing my thoughts-looking-back, not my actual behavior. if you ask our relatives about us, they will tell you that they are proud of us and find us “inspiring”. we recently had a chasuna and the non-frum relatives were all in tears, impressed with the tangible kedusha, impressed with the feeling of genuine simcha, and the religious adherence was so subtle, they “didn’t even realize there was a mechitza there”.
    we have always tried to keep our interactions “light” and positive. B’H my relatives are successful materially, they are happily married, work, travel, have much nachas from their intelligent and well-mannered children (who are mostly adults now). since they don’t see their lives as being “empty” or unfulfilling, they ask questions so that they can understand why i have chosen my path. the article was not about the answers i give, it is about my inner feelings when being asked.

    • Wow! this paints another picture entirely than the original article. Keep writing!

    • Yentl, I am impressed–it sounds like you did teshuva me-ahava. I grew up with friends whose parents were divorced, or whose father left their mother when he came out of the closet; friends on drugs; friends who “converted” to Christianity, etc. It wasn’t hard to see the error of their path and make a switch. It’s much harder to see the truth when your secular family seems so successful and well-adjusted. And altho’ I agree that you shouldn’t cut yourself off, I do agree that your children need to be exposed to your family in a very limited way. Be’ezrat Hashem they will see your confidence in the path you have chosen, and it will rub off on them as well.

      • yentl eisenberg

        read my previous article on this sight : a conservative jew in boro park

  11. I applaud the author’s exploration of this tough topic, and hope this discussion in this forum can lead to an improvement in her situation.

    Based on what she described, it could be that her family members are more “difficult” or critical than not. This might not only affect how she relates to them, but also to the practicality of being able to “bring them around”, if not to religion, per se, at least to being respectful of her lifestyle.

    But clearly this has been a long-standing dynamic and the conflict was there long before there were teenagers to worry about. The good news is that ultimately Sheena is right — people do respond to love and warmth and genuine interest. If many secular relatives of ba’alei teshuva have a chip on their shoulder, it comes from perceiving that they are judged as “less than”. Which attitude, with all due respect, does seem to emanate from the essay.

    Even if you can see the lacks in their lifestyles, if you can see what is valid or worthy of respect in your family members and affirm THAT, you really CAN draw them closer to you.

    We have teenagers now and have “eased off” the family get togethers for the reasons that you mention, but honestly, I’ve put a lot of energy into establishing rapport with family based on whatever there was to agree upon, and it’s worked to some degree. I can’t say they’re absolutely bowled over by us — I really don’t know, but aside from whatever I accomplished, at least I feel I’ve tried to be a kiddush H’, and the results are not up to me.

    The best idea is to host something on your turf — We used to make a big chanuka party (no restrictions and plenty of secular Jews are looking for some action that time of year) and that way we controlled the food, entertainment, etc. It was definitely easier than trying to “act normal” at their pool party!!

    But either way, you’ve achieved something magnificent in building your family — Give yourself all the hugs and kisses that you wish your relatives could give (as opposed to the “You’re pregnant again?!?!” comments) and trust that if you try to see the good in them, they will likely appreciate it — and you!!

    And ultimately, if your children are friendly to them, as well as being just totally more healthy and moral young people that message will come through.

  12. Dear Yentl,

    You have shown that you are an introspective individual who is always self-evaluating and looking to improve. These regretful feelings you have show just how important your secular family is to you. However, don’t beat yourself up over the choices you made as you were raising your family – sometimes, we can’t have our cake and eat it to, and you put your and your family’s spiritual well-being first. How can you have regrets?

    • yentl eisenberg

      no regrets
      just feelings and thoughts

      i believe it is natural as we get older

      thanks for the kudos, it always helps to hear support!

  13. Rabbi Lazer Brody once told a BT who was having trouble with hostile parents ( not yentls problem) the only thing she can do is become a better person after doing teshuva. The rest is in Hashems hands.
    I really liked this advice because really, we do teshuva for our own reasons and need to work on ourselves and our own avodat Hashem and not focus on others and their presumed lacking.
    Having said that, I really appreciated this piece and the intellectual and spiritual honesty.

    • Oh, and Yentl, I hope you don’t mind me asking you this: your name is very traditional Yiddish- did you change it after teshuva and how did your parents react? (Not asking for original name…)
      I started using my Hebrew name Yehudit but didn’t insist on family using it. Actually strangely enough my father has called me “yiddes” and “yiddesl” since a little girl so he started using that again.

  14. The aha moment!! there is no coward here!! no!! its a hard enough road to try as best as one can to live the truth with its ups and downs its very hard as a BT to constantly face the endless barrage of indignation from your own “not yet observant ” loved ones. I have been insituations like this and believe me many if not all of them envy our life style and all for different reasons. Well written. I can feel the pain and a certain sense of bereavement.

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