Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Outer Limits

A few weeks ago, we participated in the Shabbos Project. Originally meant as a Shabbat to encourage your non-observant Jewish acquaintances to give Shabbos a try, it seems to have taken a life of its own and now turned into a communal Shabbos celebration of "We are here. We are keeping it. Yay us!" Ok, I will admit that there is good coming out from the sense of not doing it alone, but it leaves me wondering what is lacking.

Our shul held a communal lunch where members were encouraged to share their "Shabbos at the outer limits" stories. I had one come to mind and was prepared to share it. However, I have waited for a clarification that explained that stories are to be heard by the Rosh Kollel and he will give feedback on how appropriately one acted, given the circumstances.

The stories came pouring in: wine brought over on Shabbos, electronic appliances malfunctioning, fridge lights turning on, naughty babies unplugging essential components threatening to cause major damage, menorah fire... Each participant shared and Rosh Kollel nicely explained what was at stake and how it could have been solved halachically.

I found myself feeling glad that I did not go first, and then unable to share in this format because my story seemed a world away from the concerns being voiced. I also felt that my story was not a halachic shaila, but in some other category.

I am fifteen. I have been to the States for two years, attending a Jewish high school, learning about Judaism and observance. Now, finally, as originally promised, I am given a ticket to go back to Moldova and visit my parents whom I have not seen in those two years. I am excited because I have been very homesick. But I am also very nervous: in these two years I have decided to become observant. My parents can be simply described as atheists. Now, I am going back to post-Soviet Union country in the middle of the nineties. The globalization had not reached that far (yet), so there is no kosher packaged food, no paper goods. There is no Google, internet is in its infancy. And I am going back, determined to keep Shabbat and kashrut among my family that expects me to come back and be the same person that I was when I left two years ago. I am supposed to eat my grandma's cooking. I am supposed to milk those precious two months for every opportunity to be with my parents and do what they do, Shabbos and all its prohibitions getting in the way.

I fought a lot with my parents about shabbos, on kashrut, on beliefs, on observance, on being brainwashed, on tears that this is not what they signed up for. I kashered whatever silverware they had that was all metal. I cleaned all glass/pyrex containers and plates that they had. ( I felt terribly guilty for not toveling those dishes). I became a vegetarian because there was no kosher meat, short of going to the Chabad rabbi with your own live chicken and then plucking it yourself. Besides, it was easier, kashrut-wise, for everything to be dairy and parve. I brought four cans of tuna from the States and those cans were my way to honor Shabbat. The local rabbi told us that the baguette bread could be eaten, so I ate lots of bread, vegetables, pasta, milk and dairy.

I had a list of candle-lighting times, so I knew when to light the candles. I made havdalah based on when I saw three stars. Instead of the elevator, I used the back entrance to the apartment buidling with the stairs. It reeked of urine and worse and was pitch-black for the two flights of stairs.

And I stayed away from the always-booming TV that drew me in. I used the bathroom in the dark because someone always forgot to leave the light on, or turned it off not to waste electricity.

I made kiddush and hamotzi. I spent time with my long-suffering family that was far from the enjoyable shabbat seudah that comes to one's mind. We did not discuss Torah unless I was called upon to defend it, with my total of two years' of learning.

The truth is, nobody would have known whether I kept Shabbat and kashrut when I went back home or not. I sort of wonder whether the assumption was that I WILL NOT keep it and we will all be quiet about it, don't ask, don't tell sort of thing. But I knew that G-d will know, and I wanted to be pure before G-d.

Ironically, that same summer, I had a meeting with a senior rabbi who was in charge of the program that brought Russian Jews to study in America and Israel. I showed disobedience by refusing to be a pawn and to go to a new city that he picked for me to go. I wanted to stay in the same school and with the same community that gave me the fortitude to keep Shabbat by myself halfway across the world at the age of fifteen. He was not pleased, and he was going to punish me by withdrawing the funding to continue going to the same school. I wonder how he will be judged after 120 for abandoning a Shabbat-observant girl in Moldova to fend for herself... I wonder if he also thought that I was not keeping Shabbos.

Looking back, I don't know how I did it. I would not eat nowadays by the level of kashrut that I kept at that point. I don't think I knew enough to keep Shabbat 100%. But given the circumstances, I know that I gave it my best shot.

How could I bring this extreme situation to the judgment of Rosh Kollel? How could I share it publicly when the biggest emergency meant simply finding a non-Jew to turn something on or off, and aah, breathe in the spirit of Shabbat, make a good story about it?

I sometimes wonder why my outer limits always end up so far outside of everyone else's.


  1. Not sure this is so far away from everyone else. Most baalei teshuva who become frum in their parents' house have to go through this sort of thing, a close friend of mine did this for 2 years, with the only exception being that he was in the States, so kashrus was slightly easier. Shabbat was not...

    What is more interesting, and what that friend of mine keeps asking himself over the years is, what could he possibly have done not to alienate his parents as much as he did in the process. I think that is the real issue which very few people in this generation want to address when they teach young college students.

    I firmly believe that learning halachos with baalei teshuva, especially living in their parents' house, should start from kibbud av ve'eim and veahavta leroecha kamocha. Perhaps that would make us more sensitive to the pain we are inflicting on others in the process...

    1. I don't know if you fully appreciate how different your situation is from most baalei teshuva. Most of us were eager to bring our parents closer to the truth, show them the beauty of what we have learned, share our new-found understanding in hopes that they, too, will follow it. Most baalei teshuva were unsuccessful in this because the time is not on our side. I was very respectful, but I got flack for setting up boundaries and refusing to do what I have been always expected to do. I was very eager to go home that summer, especially since my mother indicated in passing conversation that were she to live in the States, she would also keep kosher. The reality on the ground proved so different: why am I keeping this craziness, don't I know that G-d does not exist because where was He when the Nazis shot your greatgrandmother?! (insert tears) How am I supposed to counter tthat?

      Enjoy having parents whose kashrut you can trust, who respect you and your beliefs and get respect back.