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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Joy Aaron Shaah Tovah 2010

Joy Aaron

Names and details were changed in this interview to protect the privacy of the people involved.

I met Joy one Shabbos when she joined our small Shabbos afternoon learning circle. I found myself attracted to her sharp, yet subtle, sense of humor and creative way of viewing the world. When she heard that I was a writer, she sent me the first draft of a novel that she is working on, and will hopefully publish someday. I was both impressed and humbled by her talent.

Joy, can you tell us about your life?  

Joy: I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, the third of four siblings. The Jewish community there was tiny. My Sunday school class was the largest one in the school -- and we were all of ten kids! Although my family is Conservative, we were much more religious than any of the other people I knew. For example, I stayed at home for both days of Rosh Hashanah, while every other Jewish kid in the town stayed home for just one day. Friday night we always had a Shabbos seudah, and whenever we sat down to eat, we'd make the bracha, "hamotzi lechem…" even if there was no bread on the table! On Pesach, believe it or not, we would say, "Hamotzi matzah min ha'aretz!" We thought that the word "lechem" was a misprint in the Hagaddah!

Although we far from being Observant, my parents succeeded in instilling us with real Orthodox, values, despite our living in a goyish world. We were very aware that we were Jewish, and were taught that Jews are intrinsically different from non-Jews. Although we didn't keep kosher, we never ate meat and milk together nor would we touch pork. My friends, however, were typical American teenagers who did not share these values. I remember one time when I went out to eat Pizza with the crowd, my friends tried to stuff the Pepperoni topping (which is made out of pork) down my throat. They couldn't understand why I was so adamant about not eating it.  The truth is that I had always been obstinate when it came to Yiddishkeit.  When I was six years old I refused to eat the pork served for lunch in the school cafeteria and was punished for it by having to stay inside for recess.  

Of the one thousand five hundred students in my high school, only five of us were Jewish. Outwardly, everyone was liberal and accepting of us. But every once in a while I caught a glimpse of how they really felt. One time, for example, I was sitting on the school bus when a car pulled up alongside our bus. Not realizing that I was there, someone yelled out, "Look at that Jewish pig sitting in the car!" Suddenly everyone started whispering wile glancing my way. "Shhh…" I could hear them say, while surreptitiously pointing at me. "Look who's on the bus." Believe it or not, one time someone actually asked me if I had horns hidden beneath my hair!

When I was fifteen I started teaching in our synagogue's afternoon Hebrew school. It was basically a matter of the blind leading the blind! In the summer, I went to Camp Ramah, the Conservative camp. But I didn't like it. I felt that the other campers were Jappy, that their whole life was nothing but clothes and prestige. In my small town I never felt a need to wear the "in" clothes. But although I didn't click socially, I really loved the Jewish aspects of camp. I even learned how to put on Tefillin!

So as you can see, although I was far from Observant I was very, very Jewish. I was very proud of my heritage and culture.

After graduating high school I went away for college, to the University of Ann Arbor. Before registration my mother told me that as far as she's concerned I can take whatever courses I want, except philosophy. She explained that since I didn't know very much about my own religion, I could not properly evaluate the ideas that I would be presented to me. Being a normal college-age student, of course I registered for the philosophy course. By the end of that semester I considered myself to be an agnostic. In other words I basically put G-d on the shelf and declared that since His existence made no difference to me, I would forget about Him.  Looking back, I can say that my becoming an agnostic was a reaction to the tremendous hypocrisy that I saw in the Conservative movement. I had to completely empty myself of all that sheker before I could open myself up to the emes of Torah.

Eventually, however, I came to the conclusion that I really do believe in G-d. I came to this realization while riding on the back of a motorcycle, holding on for dear life as we sped down the freeway. Scared out of my wits, I screamed "Shema Yisrael." My emuna was something deep within me, which only bubbled to the surface at times like this.

Debbie: I was just twelve years old when my father, upset and angry about something that was going on his life, made a sharp turn onto a turnoff as we were driving eighty miles per hour on the freeway. The car went into a spin and we barely missed crashing straight into the concrete barrier. I was petrified, positive that this would be my final moments. Like Joy, I found myself yelling, "Shma Yisrael…" Although I was not yet living as an Orthodox Jew, I definitely wanted to die as one.

Joy: After that realization, I continued traveling in two almost opposite directions. On one hand I crossed a real red line in my value system and even experimented with marijuana (I was so straight that before trying it out, I asked a pediatrician if smoking marijuana could affect my future children). On the other hand I decided to stop eating treif. I was proud of my ethnic background and wanted to do something to reaffirm my Judaism. It was as if I saying, "Okay, I'm doing all sorts of things I never did before, but I won't completely destroy my boundaries. I'll still place limitations on myself."

Although there was a larger Jewish presence at the University than in the small town high school I had attended, we were still a small minority. Among the hundred and fifty kids in my dorm, there were only four Jewish students, and we stuck together. Every night between nine to ten we got together for the express purpose of --- yes, I know this will sound incredulous --- gossiping! It's fun to talk about other people and analyze why they do certain things, and when we finished, we always felt superior! Years later, when I joined a shmiras halashon group and undertook to refrain from saying anything that even resembled lashon horah for one hour a day, I felt that I was doing a tikkun for the year that I set aside an hour a day for the express purpose of engaging in gossip! 

When I was twenty I came to Israel to attend Hebrew University's junior year abroad program. There, for the first time, I was exposed to real Orthodoxy. Aish Hatorah and Neve had a wonderful Bais Medrash program (which the university later closed because it was too successful) and there were advertisements all over the place for top-notch shiurim and kiruv seminars. For that first time in my life I heard that the world is essentially good and that evil is just an absence of that Goodness. I had grown up thinking that good and evil are two separate powers (chas v'shalom); that evil is completely detached from the Almighty, the goyishe concept that the Satan is a separate power, opposing goodness, rather than Hashem's messenger to test us. Along with this understanding of Hashem's eternal goodness, I came to the realization that the Torah is true. That acknowledgement of the truth of Torah brought in its wake a sense of responsibility to fulfill its precepts.

In the beginning, although I might intellectually understand the need to keep a particular mitzvah, I wouldn't actually start doing it until I was really bothered by the fact tat I wasn't keeping it. For example, although I intellectually understood why shorts are considered immodest, it took me a while to integrate that insight on an emotional level. It was only after I was embarrassed to wear shorts that I changed to pants and eventually, of course, to skirts. I ultimately came to the realization that I could never fathom Hashem's reasons and began keeping those mitzvos that were beyond my ability to comprehend. I

Someone at my Ulpan class introduced me to Jerusalem's Carlebach chevrah. I remember going to the house of one of the chevrah and being impressed that although they were very, very poor, they were incredibly happy to have a guest with whom to share their pot of soup! Motzaei Shabbos I would join the chevrah for havdalah. Afterwards we would have a kumsitz; it was a mellow, beautiful atmosphere, almost magical. Although I felt very connected to Reb Shlomo's music, I was turned off by certain aspects that were not exactly in tune with the halacha. I was, and still am, very straight, and those tings didn't sit right with me.

Meanwhile I had left the Hebrew University to attend a very modern Orthodox seminary.  Eventually I left that seminary and transferred to Neve Yerushalayim.  

Debbie: When I first came to Israel, a friend of mine took me to visit of a young American woman with a houseful of children who lived in the middle of Meah Shearim. The family was extremely poor. They literally had nothing, and it was obvious that it was a daily struggle just to put food on the table. But within moments of graciously welcoming us into her home the baalas habayis insisted that we wash and sit down at her rickety kitchen table to eat boiling hot vegetable soup with a slice of homemade whole wheat bread. It was obvious that she considered it a privilege to feed us, that we were doing her a favor by allowing her to host us. Despite the sparse furnishings and mold on the ceiling, there was a true feeling of royalty.  It was haknassas orchim at its best.

Joy: It was in Neve that I became much more religious. After studying there for half a year I returned to America to learn in Rabbi Tauber's seminary, Netzach Yisrael (which no longer exists). From there I continued on to Brooklyn College where I got my bachelor's in psychology.

One really astonishing incident took place there. All students were required to take a course in the historical development of music. After all, as college graduates we were expected to be well rounded and cultured, whatever that means. But one time when the teacher played a certain piece of music I found myself completely incapable of listening to it! The emotion was so overwhelming that I actually placed my fingers in my ears. Later on, when I told one of the frum students about this strange incident, she almost fell off her chair in amazement! She explained that all the religious students know not to come to that particular lesson since that's when the teacher plays music that was stolen from the Bais Hamikdash, which we are forbidden to listen to. Although I can't guarantee the authenticity of her statement, I can vouch for the fact that I was totally incapable of hearing that music.

Debbie: How did you parents take all this?

Joy: They were extremely supportive. When I was in Neve and informed my parents that I was returning to the United States to finish my college degree, they actually told me to remain in Israel since I would never have another chance to learn about my heritage! When I returned to America and was studying at Netzach Yisrael Seminary, my parents came to Monsey to visit me and rented a room in the home of a religious family. They wanted to see for themselves what I was getting myself into. Although they would have preferred for me to be Modern Orthodox rather than Chareidi, they were extremely supportive of my decision to be religious.

After graduating college I returned to Israel to continue my studies at Neve while doing a psychology internship at a mental hospital. Afterwards I shared an apartment with some friends and worked with autistic children.

By now, of course, I was into the parsha, as the saying goes. I had been frum for close to four years and had gone out with at least seventy boys. But mostdid not even make it into the ballpark. I found it very depressing to be set up with boys who were so different from what I was looking for.

I was introduced to my husband through a friend of a friend. My husband is from a modern Orthodox background and had come to Israel to learn in a small baalei teshuva yeshiva.  My husband is very straight and emesdik. I sensed that he would be a full partner in bringing up my potential children. It wasn't long before we were engaged.

After our wedding we moved to Kiryat Sefer. Although I'm not from a religious home, my husband's family accepted me with open arms. I was really bowled over by their warmth and generosity in integrating me into their close-knit family, despite our differences in background.

I have a tendency to be just a shade different from the norm, but Kiryat Sefer is a very, very straight community. Although living there caused me to lose some of my spontaneity, it was a small price to pay for all that I gained from the surroundings.

To become frum, a person needs to change his entire lifestyle and way of looking at the world, which means that by nature he must, to some extent, be a non-conformist; someone who goes against the flow. Yet to fit into the frum world one must conform and become part of the crowd. Sadly enough many baalei teshuva use the same energy that they once needed to revolt against their non-religious lifestyle to fight frum society, and as a result their children end up suffering. But conforming is a very small sacrifice to pay to be part of such a wonderful community!

Debbie: This is a real problem, and we see the results hanging out on the streets of Jerusalem. Kids need to feel that they belong, that they're part of something bigger and better than themselves. If we're constantly bashing Torah society or giving a silent message that we're better than those around us, our children will look to different pastures. Yes, there are plenty of flaws in our community, but they are flaws in a diamond.

Joy: After learning in kollel for a few years, my husband found a position in a yeshiva. Several years ago we moved to Jerusalem, which is where I met all the wonderful women of the Ramot English-speaking community!

Baruch Hashem we have a large family. It's hard for me to believe that our oldest, a girl, is eighteen, which means that soon we'll be in the parshah! Had I not become religious, I would have had just two children at the most. I have so, so much to be grateful for.

Debbie: Joy, where do you hope to see yourself in another ten years?

Joy: Well, first of all I'd like to be thirty pounds thinner (Wouldn't we all? Ds). Joking aside, I'd like to find a career in which I can use my gift of creativity to benefit the world. Of course by then I hope that I'll have married off some of my children and be a bubby. It was much easier to answer that question when I was fifteen, but now that I'm busy taking care of both small children and teenagers, it's hard for me to think so far in advance.

Debbie: What are some of the challenges for a baalas teshuva raising frum children?

Joy:  First of all since my husband is frum from birth, he's able to give our children a sense of family tradition. But there definitely is a gap between me and my children, partly because I'm a baalas teshuva and they're not, and partly because I'm American while they're Israeli.

Sometimes my children are terribly embarrassed by their mother's ignorance of all the fine nuances unique to the Israeli chareidi culture. One time, for example, I – horror of horrors! – sat on the stairs to tie my shoe, instead of putting my foot up and bending over to tie it.

On a humorous note, I've learned to speak the language, and I don't mean Hebrew. One example is that the nurse in the Well Baby Clinic was continually asking me questions such as "Why aren't you feeding your baby strawberries yet? She's already three months old" or "Why don't you send him (at all of nine months!) to daycare?" I used to try to answer her, but at the same time I always felt like a naughty five year old. Finally, I just looked her in the eye and answered, "Because…" She never questioned me again!

Debbie: When my oldest (now thirty-five) was just two weeks old, the nurse in the Well Baby Clinic patiently explained to me that I must give him "real" food such as (homemade) strained chicken and vegetables and (I kid you not) strained raw tomatoes supplemented with occasional nursing. I listened carefully to everything she said, wrote down all the instructions and threw it all in the trash. At my next visit, she asked me if the baby was enjoying all this delicious homemade food and I responded that he loved it (after all, isn't mother's milk homemade?). After weighing and measuring him, she showed him to all the other mothers as an example of a healthy baby who – at age three and a half weeks – thrives on chicken and vegetable soup, and strained tomato juice. 

Joy: I've had to suppress different aspects of myself – for example, I used to love creative dance and music – in order to relate to my children on a level that they can connect with. Just like the children of the American immigrants tried to blend into the surrounding culture, my children don't want to stand out. They want to be like everyone else. For that reason the environment -- the neighborhood we live in, the schools they attend – molds my children to a much greater extent than it with other children. Therefore my husband and I took great pains to make sure that our children we accepted to the types of school that teach them to conform to standards that we are still striving for. 

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