As Told to ESTHER GROSSMAN
In the spirit of Chanukah, we present the heroic struggle of a young girl who fought to free herself from the shackles of her secular lifestyle as she sought the light of Torah and mitzvos. It is one story among myriads of the triumph of purity over impurity just as the Chashmonaim merited over 2,000 years ago.
When people find out I’m a baalas teshuvah, they’re usually quick to ask me about my “story.” I can’t blame them for being curious, but sometimes I wish they’d have more tact and realize that not all stories are easy to tell. Some can be quite painful, bringing up memories that are best left behind. Though I’m completely happy with my decision to live a committed Torah lifestyle focused on mitzvos and a relationship with Hashem, the way I got here was tough, and I’m not always ready to talk about it.
Truthfully, I am introverted and quiet by nature, and I resent confrontation. This is why it always amazes me that I was able to reject the lifestyle I was raised with and fight my way to becoming frum. It makes me realize Hashem was with me through it all, as it wouldn’t have been possible to do it on my own, without support.
But, after you read my story, perhaps you’ll understand that despite my ultimate triumph it is still quite painful for me, and not always easy to share.
I was born in Eretz Yisrael to Russian parents who had left their homeland with the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union. They hoped to start a new life for themselves in Israel. They weren’t religious, and the Communist suppression made them fearful of all “isms.” Zionism was no different, and they weren’t interested. To them, even though Israel opened the door to much that had been denied to them in Russia, they still felt they weren’t free.
The tough political climate combined with the mandatory army service didn’t accord them the true freedom they sought. Living in Israel is not easy, so without the usual attachment to the land through religion, family, patriotism or Zionistic enthusiasm, there was nothing that pulled them to stay. Israel quickly became a temporary stop on their journey to the place that to them meant ultimate freedom — America.
From my parents’ perspective, America was a utopia. If they were willing to work hard, they could attain the American dream based on their own merits, without fear of persecution.
For some, these freedoms finally bring them to confront their past and find out more about their Jewish heritage. Certainly, this was not the case for my parents. For them, and especially my father, America was a new beginning. It was a time to blend in with the people and culture and not draw any attention for being “different.”
This meant religion was definitely not something we practiced or cared about. We knew we were Jewish, but it wasn’t anything we wanted to advertise.
How did I become interested in religion, coming from where I did? One of the main reasons I attribute to my becoming frum was my persistence in uncovering “the truth.” Living in an American society and attending public school, one quickly encounters religion and the various non-Jewish holidays. As a bona-fide “truth seeker,” I became obsessed with understanding other religions.
My father was perfectly fine, as it was culturally acceptable to learn about other religions for the sake of knowledge, but practicing religion was something else. He figured it would lead me to the same conclusion he had reached: They were all wrong. Yet once I started learning about religion, I began thinking which one was correct. I couldn’t come to my father’s conclusion and dismiss them all. They couldn’t all be true, but how could they all be wrong? How could millions of people be sucked into believing a lie?
These thoughts started developing in junior high, when I was close to bas mitzvah age. Even though we were trying to blend into society, we lived in an area that was heavily populated with unaffiliated Jewish Russian immigrants. For some reason, turning bar and bas mitzvah in those circles is still considered a milestone. There is no commitment to Torah and mitzvos. Instead a party celebrating the transition into adulthood does the job.
Around that time a Chabad house opened in our neighborhood, geared toward the many unaffiliated Russian Jews. When my mother learned that the Chabad house was offering free bas mitzvah classes, she was quick to convince my father to sign me up.
This was a big move on my mother’s part, as my father was not only totally opposed to religion, but mocked it regularly. My mother wasn’t a believer, but she never shared my father’s views of religion. To her, being Jewish was an accepted reality, in the same way that someone knows she has two eyes and two ears.
No matter what my father felt, my mother knew Judaism was not something anyone could throw away, as history has proven time and time again. Though she never tried to voice her reservations to my father, she felt they might as well give their children a taste of what being Jewish was about, so they would understand why they would always be different.
My mother didn’t intend for anything grandiose to come out of these classes — just some background information and a good feeling about where I came from. Yet this connection with the Chabad House was life-changing for me, much to my parents’ dismay.
At the bas mitzvah lessons, I finally found someone to answer all my questions. It was a dream come true. I began learning things that I’d never learned before; there was no question too big to ask and there were always answers. It was a wonderful time, and I’ll always be grateful to this Chabad family for all they taught me.
Things came to a halt the first Shabbos following my bas mitzvah party. I was taught that upon reaching bas mitzvah I was obligated to keep the mitzvos. Because I really yearned to keep Shabbos, and I innocently asked my parents for permission to light candles on Friday night.
What to me seemed harmless was the catalyst of a major firestorm between my parents and me, especially my father, that continues to this day. My father looked at me with a cold expression and said, “Candle lighting on a Friday night is not something we do in this house. Don’t ever ask me again about this or anything related to religion.”
The implication in his words and tone were menacing, as he dared me to disobey. My timid nature didn’t allow me to respond, but I knew from that day that my father and I would never agree on this subject.
The next day my father visited this Chabad Rabbi and gave him a few choice words about brainwashing his daughter. The Rabbi was unable to change my father’s perspective on anything, but after that meeting my father realized how far I had “fallen.” Things between us went downhill fairly quickly. I wanted to keep kosher, Shabbos, and other mitzvos. No matter what I said or how I tried to explain things to my parents, they refused to listen. They just kept marking me as brainwashed.
My father forbade me from having anything to do with religion. This was very painful. I was young and not very knowledgeable, but I realized that Yiddishkeit was authentic and true and something I wanted to pursue. I started keeping mitzvos to the best of my ability, but felt guilty at the same time for not doing more. For example, on Shabbos I tried not to do melachah, but if my parents wanted to go somewhere and I couldn’t avoid getting out of it, I’d join them. The entire time I knew what I was doing was wrong, but there was nothing I could do.
Sometimes, when my parents saw my hesitation to do something, they’d call me out on it. “Ronit*,” they’d chastise me, “you really need to get these destructive ideas from your head. Saturday is a regular day. What that Rabbi told you is absolute nonsense.” They’d first try to persuade me by speaking calmly, but when they weren’t getting anywhere, they’d become more irrational and uncivil.
During my last year in high school, I joined a class on Judaism run by an Orthodox organization. It was as though Hashem was telling me He hadn’t forgotten and wanted to help me out. I forged my parents’ signature, as I knew there was no way they’d ever agree for me to take it. I learned a lot and was even connected with other frum girls and social events.
Something changed inside me that year, and I realized that I was completely committed to Yiddishkeit. I may not have known much, but I knew this was the direction I wanted to go in.
The next four years were a nightmare. My parents fought me every step of the way and ensured that many plans didn’t work out. For example, seminary for me was out of the question even when a full scholarship was offered. My parents were resolute, and I wasn’t prepared to be on my own. Yet, even though I had a roof over my head, I had no emotional support. Shabbos became my time to escape, when different people in the community opened their homes to me. That is how I got a taste of real Yiddishkeit.
Today, I am happily married with a family living a complete frum lifestyle. Many people who know me would never suspect I wasn’t born frum nor would they believe my past experiences. In many respects I’ve put my past behind me, yet it still hurts. I do believe it was all worth it and I’m happy with my choices, but I still feel deeply pained that my parents broke off ties with me, with their son-in-law, and beautiful grandchildren. I daven that my parents should merit to see the beauty in my choice, and in the beautiful children I’ve been zoche to raise.
Hashem above can make anything happen, right?
* Name has been changed to protect privacy