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Becoming frum

by: Alexa Witt - Last updated: 2005-04-29

Alexa Witt

Alexa Witt

American Jewish society is experiencing a growing trend of Jews rediscovering their roots through traditional Judaism.  Organizations designed to attract such people, like Aish HaTorah and Chabad, are flourishing. 

Personally, as someone who grew up non-observant and has now adopted a Torah lifestyle, I find that people are always fascinated to know the particulars of why and how I made this most retro of alternative lifestyle choices.       

Secular Jews peer at me closely – not too closely, in case what I have is catching.  I think I know what they’re thinking, because I used to think the same thing when I would meet a person like me: she actually chose to become religious?  Nutso…!  To give up your faculties of judgment, to let “the rabbis” decide everything for you?   Why in the world would you choose a lifestyle of seemingly endless rules and restrictions?  

Jews who’ve been raised religious also peer closely, as if looking for what must be a little bit off about me.  To have gone against my whole upbringing, to have given up all the , and rock n’ roll they secretly fantasize about?  To switch over to “their side”? 

Whether secular or religious, Jews want to know: how did a former mall-going, street-talking teenager become a long-skirt-wearing, God-blessing, religious lady? 

I’m coming to out say that the men in black hats did not kidnap and brainwash me, despite the evidence – the hair covering, the Shabbat and kosher observance, the small children leaving snot decorations on my skirt. 

So, why would I choose to live this way voluntarily? 

Before I ever delved into any theological issues – any of the stuff a person would have to believe in order to take on even the tiniest change in lifestyle – first I was having a growing suspicion that something was not quite right for women in mainstream ure. 

People are often surprised when I say that I actually find the Torah lifestyle more liberating for me, as a woman, than the anything-goes choices offered by mainstream society.  How is that possible? 

For instance, by the time I was twenty-six, I was feeling burned out from all the relationship-surfing many of us do in our twenties.  I wanted to find the right person and start “real life” already.  Fortunately for me, by that time I was already committed to being observant, so I was able to start dating from a pool of guys who I knew from the outset were also interested in getting married – guys who were Torah-minded, like me.  I was very fortunate because it only took me a few months till I met the right person.  We were married within a year.

Contrast that to what I call my Alternate-Universe Nightmare.  Now, in reality, I’m 31, married four-and-a-half years with two children.  But I have these recurrent dreams  from which I literally wake up in a panic, have to check to see that I’m wearing a wedding ring, and remind myself that I actually did stand under the chuppah with the man sleeping in my bed. 

In the dream, I am also 31 but never became Torah observant.  Danny and I have been dating and living together for four-and-a-half years, but Danny’s still not ready to commit.  Even though I’m secretly dying to tie the knot, I’m trying to act cool about it, and not put any pressure on him lest I scare him off.   

Then, in the dream, I ask Danny -- for the fiftieth time, but as sweetly as possible -- would he please put his dirty socks in the hamper instead of leaving them on the floor for me to pick up every day?  Then a frightening, faraway look crosses Danny’s face, a look that says, “I’m outta here.”

He turns to me and says he’s had enough.  Danny wants to break up.

My heart sinks to the bottom of my being.  Not only am I losing the person I love, not only does he no longer love me and prefers to be without me, but – WHAT AM I GOING TO DO NOW?  I wasted all these years dating him, waiting for him to marry me, now I’m already 31 and I have to start all over from scratch!?   Scoping out guys at parties, surfing Jdate on the sly…ugh, how depressing.  Who’s going to want a party pooper like me?

I wake up with a gasp.  I touch my wedding ring.  I look at Danny.  I recall the chuppah.  I am not making this up – I really have this dream every so often.  Registering the reality of my life, the happiness and contentment, I sigh, smile and go back to sleep feeling better – for myself.  

As for my secular friends, in their thirties with years of no-guarantee dating or living together ahead of them, time ticking away, and if they’re lucky, a long engagement before they can even consider starting to have children, I feel very anxious.  I wish the system were different for them somehow.

It’s like that episode of Seinfeld.  Elaine is standing on a crowded subway next to an older woman, who makes a sneering comment toward the men sitting behind them – how men used to be gentlemen and give up their seats for women.  Elaine remarks that because of women’s lib we’ve gained so much in terms of the big things, but that “we’ve also lost some of the little things.”  Elaine reveals that she’s on her way to attend a wedding.  With a panicked expression, she complains she hasn’t found the right guy yet, and despairs whether it’s even still possible these days. 

Watching that episode, I began to wonder whether it's really just "the little things" we’ve started to lose.

Even my mother, a staunch secularist who begins phone calls asking hopefully, “So, you still religious?” admits she feels relieved that I’m married by now, and happily.  Even Ma appreciates that it’s the Torah lifestyle I took on – which she otherwise can't relate to, or fathom why I chose -- that led directly to my being married and happy.  Which is, after all, what most mothers want for their daughters.

On the other hand, Ma argues, is that a reason to become observant, so you can get and keep a man?   And who says it’s so smart to marry a guy after knowing him for less than a year?

All topics for another discussion.  For now, I’ll end by saying that when I began to question whether our over-sexed society was really so great for women, when I started opening my mind to “alternative lifestyles,” the security and happiness I saw many young, Torah-minded couples enjoying made a game-show “ding!” in my mind that said: maybe it’s a hint that Torah is right-on about other things, too.