This guy in shul was told my story, and so he asked me for chizuk, for strengthening. He was Orthodox from birth but he struggled with some typical guy stuff. He knew I had chosen Torah. He wanted to know why.
He needed some good reasons to not chase shiksas. Right now, they were the most exciting thing in life.
His pattern was to spend his evenings in bars chasing Asian girls.
And so I told him some stories from my life. And at the end of each one, I said, “and may we be zocher (merit) to not do as I did.”
I don’t think he was very inspired by me.
I like to make fun of the sermon format. I grew up a preacher’s kid. I heard thousands of sermons. The sermon as we have it today is usually a 20 minute homily finishing with some exhortation that we improve ourselves. It comes from the Protestants in the 16th Century and was copied by the Catholics and then the Reform Jews and now the Orthodox Jews use it.
The traditional rabbinic talk is taking two texts that seem irreconcilable and reconciling them. It’s not usually particularly inspiring.
So let me tell you about all the cool things I did before I became religious.
My step-mother has this adorable pet name for me — “User!”
I’ve always been impressed by the selflessness of Lubavitchers. Despite years of davening in Chabad shuls, I haven’t quite acquired this trait.
I had this girlfriend shortly after I converted to Judaism in 1993. A few weeks into our relationship, she gave me a book called, The Givers and the Takers.
She must’ve thought I gave too much.
Now that I’m an Orthodox Jew, of course, I’m a generous person. Always thinking of others.
About 20 years ago, a woman came to stay with me at my family’s home. At the end of the weekend, I asked her if I was like my preacher daddy. She said, “He’s not as pompous.”
I’ve been doing a lot of 12-step work over the past 15 months for various emotional addictions I’ve got — love addiction, codependency, over-eating. Those are just some of my more polite addictions.
I blogged out the first three steps but the fourth step got too painful to go public on. The fourth step requires you to “make a complete and fearless moral inventory.” It says to the addict that he has essentially used everyone and everything in his life to meet his addictive emotional needs and it wants you to come to terms.
I read that and winced. Have I exploited everyone in my life?
Now that I’m a convert to Orthodox Judaism, all that need to use people just goes out the window, right?
When I was about five years old, my dad came outside and found me flinging manure at other kids and screaming, “I hate you, I hate you.”
I’ve been writing for a living since 1997. Of course I’ve never used it to throw manure on people and to scream, “I hate you, I hate you.” I’ve got Torah to guide me now. I’m completely changed, right?
Pretty much everyone I’ve known well who’s become an Orthodox Jew is doing it to fix themselves, to fill the hole in their soul. Once you do the mitzvas, you get fixed, right? You feel full? Once you keep Shabbos, you’re content?
The whole year I was at UCLA, 1988-1989, I was hobbled by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and spent most of my time in bed. I had a girlfriend who was not all that I wanted and she had the idea that when I got well, I’d move on to somebody better. Somebody taller and smarter and whiter and more accomplished.
It was during this year at UCLA that I knowingly met Jews for the first time. Until this point, I’d lived in the country and never met Jews.
I’d read all of Chaim Potok’s Jewish novels as a teenager but they didn’t make me want to convert to Judaism.
Now I was at UCLA. My life had fallen apart because of illness. I spent most of my day lying in bed. And I listened to a ton of talk radio. One Sunday, I heard Dennis Prager for the first time.
All of my life, I’d been searching for substitute father figures. With his deep voice and sturdy ethics, Dennis was the ultimate father figure for me. I read his books on Judaism and became convinced I needed to follow the Truth.
Judaism has often been called by its critics a religion for the weak. Well, I was certainly weak. I was desperate for meaning. Judaism gave me a framework for finding meaning in tiny deeds, in tiny brachas (blessings), in small mitzvos. Judaism was the most this-life focused of the world religions. It had this step-by-step detailed system for making a better world, for morally educating people and civilizing them.
So was Judaism just a religion for me when I was sick? And when I got well, I’d drop it to the curb? Like I’d get a hotter spiritual girlfriend? Go Buddhist or Bahai?
On my first birthday, my Christian mother got very sick. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next three years, she withered away and died.
A few years ago, I got my hands on the book that my mother wrote. It’s called Fireside Stories. It’s a children’s book. I read through it carefully looking for messages for my life. I’d always been disappointed that she didn’t leave behind a letter for me to read upon turning 18 or something.
So I read through the book and got the message that she wanted me to be a good Christian.
I wonder if she were alive today, would we get along? What would we talk about? Many of the people I grew up with don’t feel comfortable with me today because I’ve rejected what is most precious to them. I’ve lost many of my friends from childhood.
That’s why rabbis always tell potential converts that their life will be easier if they just go back to the religion they were raised in.
My dad had his hands full with his evangelism and teaching and looking after his sick wife, and so the three kids were farmed out to other people. Some of them were great. Some of them were bad. None of them lasted beyond a few months. In the flux, I never learned how to connect normally. It’s more than 40 years later. I still don’t connect normally.
I had a therapist who said to me, “You’re convinced that every breast will run dry and so you take all you can get right now.”
I find that going to shul every day is a little bit of re-parenting.
I’m 46 years old and I keep playing out my family dynamics in the wider world. I keep relating to people through the prism of the way I learned to relate to my earliest parental figures.
Shul dynamics remind me of psycho-analysis. I’ve never had psycho-analysis, but I have had psycho-dynamic psycho-therapy, which is the form of therapy most like psycho-analysis. Through connecting with your therapist, you are reparented. You learn a healthy way of relating to a parental figure and that can transform the way you relate to others.
If you go to shul every day, you tend to form close bonds with people and the intimate way you learn to relate to your shul family can change the way you relate to the wider world.
People become precious when you see them every day and when you perform holy rituals with them and engage together in the study of sacred text.
You will likely get close to anyone you like and you see every day, but when you’re bound together by an ancient tradition that adds transcendent meaning to life, then you’re transported to a different dimension. You have the potential of a concrete experience of holiness every day, of sensing your life touching the divine through your interactions with your fellows at prayer and study, and this tends to educate the hardest of hearts such as mine into seeing the divine image in persons all around you. People are no longer trivial and you see every day things as possessing sanctity.
My journey to Judaism has been one inevitable unfolding of higher and higher forms of holiness. Except for a few setbacks.
I was booted from the Rabbinical Council of California conversion program for “deceit and deception,” says administrator Rabbi Avrohom Union said. “Don’t take anything he says at face value.”
You’ve been warned!
The first time I stepped into an Orthodox synagogue, I was promptly kicked out. It was 1993 in Sacramento. I attended with friends a conversion class. When I walked in, the rabbi said, “I don’t know you. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
And that was the last time I was ever asked to leave an Orthodox synagogue. Aside from five other occasions.
When I was finishing off my conversion, I was standing naked in the mikveh. The Av Beit Din (head of the rabbinic court) gave me one last chance to drop out. “Do you realize that Ahmadinejad hates you as much as he hates Israel once you convert?”
I said, “I don’t think he’ll hate me as much as Israel. His primary hatred is the Jewish state. I’m not sure he wants every Jew dead. He wants the Jewish state dead.”
We went back and forth. I accepted that anti-Semites like Ahmadinejad would harbor ill will for me once I converted, and might even want me dead.
Then I dipped under the water and said the requisite brachas and I was Jewish, baruch hashem.
When I came home from my initial conversion in 1993, I told my dad that I had become Jewish. He looked up from his book and said, “Well, they’re certainly not like the Seventh-Day Adventists, out there proselytizing.”
After five years of bed-ridden Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I was convinced that there were answers out in the wider world for my illness but that I probably wouldn’t find them while living with my parents in isolated Northern California.
So I started placing singles ads in Jewish publications around North America. This was 1993. I met a woman in Orlando, Florida, who took me to her psychiatrist. He prescribed nardil.
A few months ago, I finally Googled nardil and found this on Wikipedia: “Phenelzine is used primarily in the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). Patients with depressive symptomology characterized as “atypical”, “nonendogenous”, and/or “neurotic”, have been reported to respond particularly well to phenelzine. The medication has also been found to be useful in patients who do not respond favorably to first and second-line treatments for depression, or are said to be “treatment-resistant.” In addition to being a recognized treatment for major depressive disorder, phenelzine has been found in studies to be effective in treating dysthymia, bipolar depression (BD), panic disorder (PD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), bulimia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
So you’ve got a crazy person talking to you.
One of the things I love about Orthodox Judaism is that you know who you are. Things are set out for you. You do this and this and this, and that’s just upon waking. It gives you guidelines for life, guidelines that have proved themselves to work over hundreds of years. By any criteria you want to choose, by any statistical measurement you select, from educational achievement to monetary success to quality family life and to generosity with one another, Jews who live Judaism live better lives than those living by alternative systems. So even if you’re meshuga, you’re still ahead of the game.
Think about it. What statistical measurements would you choose to test the results of a particular system of living?
I remember covering a San Francisco 49er football game at Candlestick Park in the fall of 1985. I was 19 years old. The 49ers suffered a crushing last-second loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Niners second crushing loss of that early season.
As I ran off the field with the players, this Saint yelled out, “Some kind of genius!”
The 49er coach Bill Walsh had a reputation for genius. He’d won two Super Bowls after inheriting a 2-14 team devoid of top draft picks.
So at the news conference after the game, I nervously raised my hand, related what the Saint player had said and asked if the pressure was getting to the San Francisco team.
Bill Walsh said, “I’d be happy to match our record over the past few years against anybody’s.”
That’s the way I feel about Judaism. Jews who practice Judaism tend not to suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse and domestic violence and the like. They tend to be successful and influential in the wider world while sticking to their ancient traditions. The Amish and other groups also have old traditions, but Judaism is the longest ongoing culture in the world, and unlike the Amish or the Adventists, Jews influence this world.
I conclude by quoting Duran Duran:
But I won’t cry for yesterday
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
A friend says I remind him of the Elton John song Rocket Man:
And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone