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My hat -- How I got religion

Photo: Chaya Weiner

When asked, "Where does God exist?" the Kotzker Rebbe famously replied, "Wherever you let Him in." For me, that letting in started with a bag of hats. Or maybe it was the banana-walnut cake. Whatever it was, I am here to report that my closets are now a mess.

Looking back eight years, it is funny how blind I was to what was coming at me. I was in my early fifties with a freshly emptied nest and fully employed when I got religion. Or when it came and got me.
Not that I had ever been completely secular. After my kids turned old enough to notice, I began lighting Shabbat candles well after sundown in the winter, but I lit them. Many Saturday mornings would find me, my ex-husband, Jeff, and our three children at temple. After services, we would drive home and eat sandwiches while catching up on the week's newspapers. In good weather, we walked the dog. One of my favorite Saturday afternoon traditions was purging one or another closet, pulling out old clothes and dumping them in bags destined for the thrift shop. And with two sets of dishes and Empire chickens in the freezer, we kept a kosher kitchen. Or so we thought.

I was not prepared for my older daughter, Rebecca, returning to the United States from Israel with her new husband, Rafi, and gently informing us they could not eat off our dishes.
Turns out our kitchen was, at best, Casual Kosher since we served hekhsher-free cheese (lacking the rabbinic mark attesting to their rabbinically-supervised preparation) and those adorable Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers.
For a year, during their visits, we double wrapped the kids' food in foil before placing it in the oven. We also dedicated a shelf in the pantry to their dairy and meat dishes and flatware. The system worked until the night I baked a banana-walnut cake, which they could only gaze at longingly.
Enough, I said to myself. Something has to give. And that something, it became clear, was going to be us. Especially since right about then, Leah, daughter No. 2, called from Israel: At the kibbutz where she was learning Hebrew for a semester, she had gotten a taste of Shabbat, twenty-five hours with no cars or computers, but plenty of song, food, friendship, holiness, and joy. The whole thing felt right, she told us. It was not long before she, too, began turning off her cell phone on Friday afternoons and traded her jeans for long flowing skirts.

Meanwhile, something began growing in my own awareness. There were Saturday afternoons when, after organizing the closet du jour, I would wander over to the local Orthodox shul and take part in a learning group with the rabbi. And even when the subject was the halakhic guidelines for inspecting one's mezuzah scrolls, boredom would give way to curiosity about the reasoning the ancient rabbis applied to their rulings. When the talk veered to the presence of God in our lives, I was spellbound and hungry for more.
Previously, I had happily subscribed to the Big Bang theology: God visits Earth to drop off the raw materials for life and a dose of free will, then winds the evolutionary clock, and steps back to watch what happens. We are left on our own, thrashing about with only our brains and dumb luck to keep us afloat.
Suddenly, it was like one of those Magic Eye prints, the ones so popular in the 1990s, coming into focus. Only, instead of a picture of a lion lurking in a waterfall, I was slowly beginning to see God's immense footprint stamped all over my life. My problems? Painful-but-necessary life lessons. And my good fortune? Largely undeserved blessings handed out by a generous Creator.
And, though never a hat person (my face is too skinny and my ears stick out), I began squirreling away hats from Target and a local Hadassah thrift shop. Soon I had headgear in every imaginable color and fabric in a bag in my closet.

Then one fateful Shabbat morning, I left the house and found myself heading for the local Orthodox congregation. At Kiddush, a commuting buddy remarked that he had been seeing me there pretty often.
"My daughters prefer it," I said.
"So, Deborah," he asked, flashing a grin, "where are your daughters?"
"They're not here," I squeaked.
"I think you prefer it," he said.
That is when I began to pull the hats out of the bag, mustering the nerve to wear one to work. A colleague asked if this was a fashion statement or a religious one; I heard myself say it was the latter. That was the first time I had given voice to what was happening. It was real.
Next up: the kitchen, crying out for a major overhaul. I boiled the silverware in a pot and bought new glasses and dishes. Around the same time, I learned about the flimsy expanse of string encircling much of our town called an eruv, which somehow allows us to carry stuff on Shabbos, and push the grandbaby's stroller, too.

Strange to be sure, but mostly I was overwhelmed by how much there was to learn, from the details of the kitchen overhaul to hair covering to the eruv's silent embrace. There was a whole world of wisdom - Gemara and Psalms, Tanya, mussar and hasidus - unknown to me just months before. Resolving to dip a toe into this vast ocean, I signed up for a women's Torah class only to discover that, despite the kindness of the teacher and my fellow students, 1) No one longed to be my study partner since my Hebrew skills were sadly lacking, and 2) I am a hopeless ignoramus.
Indeed, middle-aged baalei teshuva (returnees to the faith) have to face it: All our secular knowledge means squat in this world. This puts the ego through some pretty wicked spasms.
However, one aspect of my metamorphosis was shockingly easy. Like most liberal Jewish women, I had been deeply offended by the idea of a mehitza (partition in a synagogue), seeing the physical separation of the sexes during services as tantamount to second-class citizenship. So I was unprepared for the spiritual high of praying with other women, the delight in the freedom I found, whether privately talking to God or sharing a powerful line in the week's Torah portion with a friend.
I have also learned that after the sudden gift of seeing the lion in the waterfall, it takes self-discipline to fill in the mane and the tail. You need to be serious about learning, davening with an open heart, and willing to adopt new mitzvot.

Waking up to God also changed the way I see others. You know those baseball players who, at the end of a winning game, step up to the microphone to thank their mom and their Maker. Once, I would have rolled my eyes at them. Now, I see them demonstrating true humility at a time when lesser men would gorge their egos.
There are concerns, of course: Do I have adequate remaining gray matter to master the Hebrew that would deepen my learning and my prayer?
But I have grown into my new skin, and I am grateful to be on this journey at a time that is right for me. That means honoring my life path enough to invite my old self to the table. As the one woman in yoga class doing downward-facing dog in a skirt and hat, I am able to weave the wisdom of Bob Dylan ("So, let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late") and Alfred E. Neuman ("What, Me Worry?") into my Torah learning.
"The day is short, the work is vast, the workers are lazy ... and the Master is impatient" (Pirke Avot 2:11). Yes, we middle-aged baalei teshuva (Jews who turn to embrace Orthodox Judaism) do not have the luxury of coasting. But God beckons to us with infinite compassion. He invites us to draw close through Torah, mitzvot, and our far-from-perfect prayers, dangling the tantalizing prize of standing as His witness and partner during this lifetime.
It is something so compelling, so sweet, that no amount of clean closets could ever tempt me to go back.

Originally published in Hadassah Magazine, September 2013. 



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