One of the cool parts of being a
rich and famous blogger personality mostly unknown Orthodox girl who started a blog is that people contact me to promote their stuff on my blog. Some of it is absolutely not a fit for this blog (can you say Bible Revisionism? are people actually READING the blog before they send me stuff?) but some is just completely fun. Like when I get sent free books to read and review. Especially when they’re relevant, fresh, funny…and totally in synch with the blog.
Example: Let My RV Go, a new novel by Nicole Nathan.
The premise of the novel is two BT families, who, while trying to escape the cold Canadian weather as well as the pressures of organized Orthodox society, take two RVs down south to handle Passover their own way. Alo
ng their journey they examine different attitudes toward fitting in, standing out, dealing with what they actually believe, and rejection of their secular pasts. Rereading that, it sounds really heavy, but actually,
the light and funny tone makes the messages so much more palatable.
But what really stands out in this cute and interesting book is the honesty. Most books written for Orthodox audiences, which this is, judging by the publishing house chosen and language and references used, excise all mentions of pop culture and women in bikinis and being okay with not fitting in and wistful reminiscences of previous secular pasts – for good reason. If religious kids are going to read these things, we want them to encounter good examples and not be given ambivalent messages about religious life. But here it totally works, and it’s brave. And I like it.
At one point in the book, Pauline, the narrator, who just can’t seem to “fit in,” and is always trying to contain her curly red hair under some sort of head covering, sits in the laundry room of an RV park with her counterpart and foil, Julie. She observes:
Looking over at Julie, I wonder if she and I will ever be close friends. Julie is devoutly mouthing words written by King David some 2,800 years ago and I just can’t take it. How can she be so devout and focused all the time? How did she switch over to being religious so easily, so completely, without ever looking back? She never talks about her past, but I’ve heard stories from Mike. He once told us she used to be a dancer who leaped and twirled across North America and Europe performing raw emotion… and now, the only form of expression I can see are her lips mouthing the powerful, timeless words of King David.
I wonder if she misses her dancing days, her travels, her freedom. All these years, I’ve been afraid to ask because she may realize that I’m sinecure about my own beliefs….
This is a journey Pauline takes during the book, and at the end, says, “I’m pleased with myself for being so upfront about our incongruence. I’ve always been aware that I don’t fit into the traditional frum box, yet now I’m actually being open about it and I don’t feel embarrassed.”
The Berkowitzes and the Shapiros, the two families on this little RV getaway, represent the two ways BTs handle organized, contemporary frum culture. Way one: fit in at all costs, wear the garb, do as the frummies do, and you’ll be okay. Way two: be yourself, be the best Jew you know how to be, fit in enough that you’re kids aren’t dying, but don’t check your personality at the door. What’s cool about this book is that it doesn’t make the mistake of having these two families be stereotypes. They are real people. They and spouses are not always in the same place. They are miffed by the “religious” folks questioning their kosher status, but the book doesn’t make those religious folks bad guys. Julie, the “fit in” girl, hasn’t changed her name to Chaya Gitty. See?
Here’s why the author wrote the book, from her website:
…I am ba’alat teshuva, becoming observant some fifteen years ago. Turning my life inside out and my kitchen upside down was not easy. It was deeply satisfying and meaningful, but it was often hard work. As I entered the religious world, I became aware that Observant Jews are cautious of the secular world, while secular Jews often misunderstand the Orthodox. We all bring our own perceptions and misconceptions. This results in the creation of two thickly lined boxes containing us and them. Becoming religious, I also became aware of the enormous rift between the two worlds. What does a ba’al teshuvah do? Should he simply break out of his box by forgetting his past and then try to mold himself the new box? Or, should he carve his own space outside of the box? …In the novel, I wanted to explore this rift in a way that readers on both sides could see each other in an honest and light-hearted way. And hopefully, they would be able to understand each other better.
My only critique is they have four little kids who seem remarkably easy to handle… it almost made me wanna RV myself one day.
If you are a BT, what has been your struggle with fitting in/maintaining yourself?
And if you’re a prospective one, has the prospect seemed daunting?
Personally, I'm not capable of denying who I am to fit in. I don't understand people who can. I don't understand how you can choose to believe or think something just because it's more pleasant that way. But yes, it would make life easier if I could.
I basically am selective about who I reveal my true self to. Often people assume they know what I think, who I vote for, etc. They don't. It's just not worth shocking them. But there are enough people around who can accept differences and don't expect everyone to toe some line.
Do you do that for religious issues only, or is that your personality in general?
I assume you mean the second paragraph. It's my personality in general. I would do the same with politics, for instance, unless I thought it was essential to disagree, and then it would be very hard for me.
Can you imagine cooking for pessach on an RV? Sigh… the books really does sound good. Thx for introducing it. Chana
I'm not technically a BT, but I feel like I can relate somewhat to the fitting in issue. I also have many BT friends at both ends of this spectrum. It's always fascinated me. Anyway, this book sounds great and I put it in my amazon cart so I can order it for Pesach! Thanks!
1. I am not "BT". I was born and rasised Orthodox and as an adult consider myself Orthodox by choice
2. I have had the privilege of meeting and getting to know many "BT" Jews and they are heroes. Their initial choice and their lifelong commitment to God and Torah is courageous and inspiring.
3. Now can we talk about labels like BT and Orthodox? Just have a look at this site http://www.beyondbt.com (thanks to Chaya of allvictories.com) and tell me honestly, the issues there are about being BT?! It's a great site and has many important discussions (also humor – this is my FAVE http://www.beyondbt.com/2008/08/01/ffb-communal-leader-makes-it-clear-to-bts-we-dont-like-you/) which are relevant to almost all of us! Because the Torah teaches us that we all should do teshuva all the time. That getting beyond my Self and working to discover and understand the Will of God, in general and particularly for Me, is what I am here for. To learn, to serve, to develop willingness and other good middot, to make my truest desire be the desire to be worthy of what God has given me, made me.
Maybe some people just do what they were raised to do all the time, but I think many (most?) have to make choices. If we watched TV growing up does that mean we automatically let our kids watch? Would that be limited to internet reruns of what we watched, because let's say we turned out OK after all, or do we let them watch current stuff? What about the kind of music we listen to? Do we have different standards if the kids are around? The list could go on a long, long, time. These are not exclusively BT questions by any means and I think we are doing ourselves, the Jewish People, more of disservice than a favor by continually labelling ourselves.
I'm not saying different communities don't have issues or questions which are more urgent to them and it makes sense to me that people of similar background and experience feel safest sharing with each other. I'm only suggesting that we try to look more often and what we have in common, and help each other, than focussing on what sets us apart from each other. We are all in this together.
EA, you make a great point and there is definitely a place for that. That said, there are most definitely cultural differences and sometimes it's really helpful to talk about that. I've toyed with the idea (maybe one day I'll actually do it) of hosting a local symposium to do just that.
When my husband and I were becoming frum, the news was not met with pleasure by some of our closest non-frum Jewish friends. One in particular took it upon herself to come to our apartment and tell us what a huge mistake we were making. I remember her saying, “You’ll never truly be accepted.” At the time, I thought, “That’s not true.” Over a decade later, my response would be, “Nu, and?”
I’m sure the book was good, but I think it’s telling that the dichotomy is between the “fitting in” BT and the “not so much fitting in” BT. The adjective changes, but the noun doesn’t, not matter how much fitting in you try to do. That leads to the further dichotomy between the “accepting the degree to which you do/don’t fit in” non-FFB and the “uncomfortable with the degree to which you do/don’t fit in” non-FFB, which would be a whole different book.
I think for me the critical question is whether a person’s fitting in attempts come from a place in which doing so is part of being a BT, coming closer to HaShem and growing in Yiddishkeit, or whether they come from a place of fear of non-conformity and the repercussions non-conformity can have in the frum world. Because at the end of the day, you still are a BT and that will impact certain things about your life and how certain people will treat you. So if your attempts at fitting in are all about avoiding that, it’s kind of a fool’s errand.
I also find it totally implausible that someone who was a “fitting in” BT would do so something wildly unfitting in as taking an RV vacation, especially at Pesach. But maybe the book makes it work.
Yes, this: "the critical question is whether a person’s fitting in attempts come from a place in which doing so is part of being a BT, coming closer to HaShem and growing in Yiddishkeit, or whether they come from a place of fear of non-conformity and the repercussions non-conformity can have in the frum world."
Incidentally, sometimes people ask me if I'm BT or tell me I seem like a BT – this gives me incredible joy. What it means to me is that I somehow seem like a refreshing individualist with broad interests and a non-judgmental demeanor. Maybe I'm judging FFBs too harshly 🙂 but I do love when people say that to me.
"FFB" makes sense because it means reproducing how you grew up. With "BTs" I don't get how you change not just your beliefs but also your retroactive view of your whole life–eating, dating, children, friendships, life choices. Does it mean denying the good you had in all your non-O experiences, does it mean you judge your past self as "dissolute", or "immoral", or "bad" in some way? It would seem to me to require a lot of self-criticism to become BT, or a very negative attitude toward oneself. I do not mean to criticize BTs with this, it is just what comes into my imagination not knowing any BTs.
You don't have to judge your past self negatively. It's not your fault you grew up in certain conditions. You aren't even supposed to judge your parents negatively. After all, they raised you to be the person you are today, not just the person you were in the past. I personally don't think I was dissolute, immoral, or bad. Sure, I did some bad things (and I'm not giving details here), but those were mainly things I knew were wrong at the time anyway. I don't think the BTs I know have negative attitudes toward themselves. Sure, we may regret certain choices we made, but doesn't everyone? I certainly don't feel guilty about having eaten non-kosher food, for instance.
I had a similar question as SBW, so thank you DG for the explanation. I'm wondering not about the bad things (after all, as you say, you knew at the time they were bad, and one doesn't need to become BT to know right from wrong), but about the good things that aren't permitted to O folks.
For instance, how do BTs deal with pleasant memories of events that wouldn't be possible anymore? I'm not necessarily thinking about intimate relations, but say – I'm just imagining here – a memory of a trip to the beach with a group of friends (in bikinis), or visiting beautiful churches, or reading this great book that wouldn't be well received in O circles… Do you still manage to rejoice in those memories? If so, is there a tinge of regret that those things wouldn't be possible anymore? Or a bit of happiness that you did get to do them before going BT? Or is there a sense of disconnect, like those things happened to someone else, because life is just so different now? Or a bit of embarrassment to think how much one enjoyed that afternoon in bikini at the beach?
W, the sorts of memories you're describing don't sound particularly problematic to me. For instance, was the trip to the beach fun because you were showing off your bikini (or what it revealed) to men or because of the sun, sand, sea, and friends? You can still go to the beach with your (female) friends, and in Israel there are even beaches open to men and women at different times. I personally still read secular books, and I have friends who do the same. Nothing trashy, but then I don't like trash. Beautiful churches aren't a big attraction to me; I guess it's a personality thing.
Is there a tinge of regret? Sometimes. Traveling, for instance, is much easier and probably more fun when you don't keep kosher. But how much of your life do you spend in restaurants? And if I didn't keep kosher, my current friends, who mean a lot to me, wouldn't eat in my house. So how significant are restaurants really in practical terms?
I'm not embarrassed by memories of beach trips. Why should I be? I just wouldn't want to show the pictures to some people.
What if you actually were trying to show off your body (in your memories)? Would you be embarrassed about it or mad at yourself? And do you feel sad at the way you were brought up? Like W I am trying to understand how you feel the continuity of yourself in this big life choice. Are you the same you, or a different you, and how do you feel about the 'other you'?
Thank you for this explanation DG, although my examples were in no way exhaustive, just things that came to my mind. If you were a guy (but since your big reveal we now know you aren't 🙂 ) I could have asked you about listening to albums sung by women. I'm sure there are other things.
When you write about your "current friends", I understand they are Orthodox. Did you manage to keep friends from your pre-BT life? Is that even possible? (I know that it can be in theory, but do you know of examples where this has succeeded in real life?)
BTW, my question isn't meant to be aggressive – since I changed countries, most of my high-school or university friendships dissolved. Not by design, but just because my life is here, and we've slowly drifted apart. However, I've kept most of my childhood friends, and I've often wondered how this happened. Probably I've known them so long that they feel more like family then like friends. Anyway, here's where my question comes from.
SBW, your first question is a hard one to answer because it doesn't really apply to me. Yes, I would be embarrassed, but I would have been embarrassed before I was religious, too. I'm the same me.
W, I realize these were just examples, but I had to give examples as well so I used yours. I live far from where I used to and have fallen out of touch with old friends, but not for religious reasons. Also, I recently got back in touch with a few people.
Ruchi, I'd like to suggest that you interview a BT for this blog. I find it so interesting, but I don't want to abuse DG's patience, whereas I'd have so many more questions…
Wasn't the last interviewee a BT, the guy?
Oops, no he isn't BT, he was a convert from Christianity. Guess I could have checked that before replying.
I've considered this. I'll tell you my hesitation. "BT stories" are even more ubiquitous than convert stories. And I've wondered if it's unfair to tell BT stories here without including the reverse – someone that has left Orthodoxy. And I don't know if I want to dip my toe there. So… yeah. Still considering. Input welcome.
I was also wondering how the BTs talk about their previous life. Do they become a source of information about the outside world?
Would a FFB ask a BT about something on the assumption that the BT has better knowledge of some goishe/culture/customs phenomenon that the FFB came across and can't figure out? Or would that be impolite, because if would draw attention to the fact that the BT had lead a life that wasn't in line with Orthodox standards?
And what about their children? I'm obviously asking in general, but do BTs hide their past life from their children? Do they shelter them more (or less) from the outside world, because they know what is out there? I'm wondering if a child of a BT would revolt more easily ("you forbid me to do something you yourself were doing at my age!")?
In some circles, where FFBs have limited secular education, people rely on BTs as doctors, etc. These professionals can be highly respected. So in that sense, yes, they're a source of information/knowledge. I suppose there are situations where it would be considered impolite, but only in the sense that highly personal questions are often impolite (e.g., asking about intimate relations in the non-Orthodox world). It doesn't make me uncomfortable at all to let people know I'm a BT, although I might keep it to myself if I think it would be awkward. I think the most insular FFBs don't usually have much curiosity about the outside world and would only want the information if they need it. But other FFBs (like Ruchi, for instance) aren't insular at all, so they have no reason not to ask.
The BTs I know don't hide the fact from their children. I don't know about rebellion (that's a statistical question), but if the parents are happy with their decision to become religious, the children are likely to be as well. Bear in mind that these kids' friends are also religious, so unless they find other friends, they don't have that peer pressure. It wouldn't surprise me, though, if kids who are already rebelling used that as an argument.
let's say you not religious and you are married, but before you were married you had a boyfriend/girlfriend. It was fun while it lasted but it didn't last. Now you are married to a different person. So how do you feel about that past relationship? Maybe you have good memories, at the same time it's maybe a little bit cringy or awkward. You certainly wouldn't want to go back to those times at this point in your life. for me as a BT many of my past life experiences are sort of like that. The memories are positive, a little cringy at times (depending on what the memory is of) but the now me wouldn't want to go back there. I am happily "married".
I found becoming frum was a very gradual process of increasing sensitivity. As you grow, your sensitivity to certain things (like kashrus, shabbos, modesty) increases and so you become increasingly uncomfortable with certain situations until you get to that point where you are ready to commit and at that point it is more of a relief to be freed from the discomfort rather than feeling like you are losing or giving up on something.
SomethingSweet, the analogy to being married and thinking about past relationships is actually an absolutely fantastic explanation, thank you!
Agree with W.
whoa! some of these comments seem quite naive from across the ocean. Ruchi herself actually lives in what's considered in highly insular orthodox circles as "out of town" – i.e. outside the greater NY metropolitan area. And living "in town" can be quite challenging for a "BT" and yes – also for their children – especially when you're considering schools and shiduchim, or even if your wardrobe isn't standard fare for "frummies" [think black, calf-length A-line skirts with jackets].
I've certainly come across some rude questions from others about how it was "out there" as well as wistful memories of treif food.
all these and more is part of why I live in what I experience as a wonderfully accepting community – Tzfat/Safed, where "anything goes" – witness this: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10103932279552119
rena, that video was beyond hilarious – but otherwise I'm not really clear on what you're trying to say.
well, Amy does touch on "fear of non-conformity and the repercussions non-conformity can have in the frum world" without specifying so I would just like to add that unfortunately there are many insular communities that look askance at "BT's" and won't accept their children into the "better" schools or marry into their families. This can be quite hurtful [unless you're strong and brave enough to feel – well, if that's their attitude, who says they're good teachers/spouses for my child?
whereas DG mentions "they're a source of information/knowledge. I suppose there are situations where it would be considered impolite, but only in the sense that highly personal questions are often impolite". and I would like to add that not all "FFB's" may be insensitive.
and that's why I posted that video – you may notice that almost nobody gives them even a 2nd look!