The Boy in the Orthodox Bubble: Missing Out on a ‘Typical’ Childhood
Growing up religious, I missed out on a lot that other kids enjoyed. But looking back, I wouldn’t change it.
I really did wish that I was allowed to socialize with girls, but even if I could I would have had no idea how to. If a girl my age crossed my path, my heart would begin to beat out of my chest and I would look down, embarrassed. I once harbored a ludicrous fantasy of taking a girl I had a huge crush on to Six Flags, holding her hand when a roller coaster dropped, and spending the day with her, free of stigma or tension. It never got past the daydream stage.
I was missing out on a lot. But it wasn’t until I was 14 that, for the first time, I really felt like I was missing something. After my eighth-grade graduation, all five of my fellow male graduates came over to my house for a swim party. While everyone else was splashing about in the deep end, I was sitting by myself crouched over with my hand on my head, sullen, on the steps: As soon as I entered the pool, I had heard the gleeful screams of boys and girls together at a co-ed pool party, coming from my neighbors’ yard. I did not immediately realize why, but their merriment aroused a sense of melancholy within me that I had never felt before. It took a few minutes of contemplation, but I soon become cognizant that, for the first time, I was truly jealous of those living outside my bubble.
I woke up the next morning, just as depressed as when I had gone to sleep, and went to morning prayers. I tried to pray away my demons, but hard as I tried, I could not shake the feeling that I was missing out. I was set to go to yeshiva for the upcoming school year, and I suddenly felt like I was going from the eighth circle of hell to the ninth. Things were not going to get any more fun or interesting, there was not going to be any major shakeup in my life, brightening things up. I felt like I was doomed to stay in my bubble forever, while things that could have provided me with enjoyment, no matter how superficial, were going to be filtered out.
This realization haunted me over the summer and throughout the beginning of yeshiva. I suggested to my parents that I would like to pursue other options for high school, maybe a slightly liberal yeshiva boarding school, or stay with family and go to an actual yeshiva high school. They shot down all of my proposals. I was still steadfast in my adherence to Judaism, but it was hard to fully appreciate it when it felt like it was a barrier keeping me in, rather than keeping the bad stuff out.
My relationship with Judaism at this time was very precarious. The thought of leaving it all was unfathomable, but my yearning to see what life was like on the outside reached an all-time high. I wanted to maintain my observance but still have a taste of the forbidden fruit of secular culture. I eventually convinced my parents to let me switch to a non-Jewish school in the middle of ninth grade. There I had my first taste of bona fide secular culture: co-ed interaction, drug talk, Pizza Hut for lunch (from which I abstained). It was much more terrifying than I had ever imagined, though, and I left after one semester. I wondered if I would have been able to embrace it more if I had grown up in a less religious fashion.
My discontentment continued to grow until I went to that Conservative bar mitzvah; after that I realized that the way I grew up was not all that bad. Because much as I’d missed out on things that the kids at this bar mitzvah took for granted, I finally understood that they, too, had missed out on things that I had enjoyed growing up Orthodox.
I got to go to a Shabbat morning youth group, where memorizing mitzvahs earned the participants prizes. For school we had the option to attend special Sunday morning learning sessions where we studied Talmud to earn our spot on a field trip to Brooklyn. To raise money for the trip, we filmed a class Purimspiel, which I had the opportunity to star in. There was no mistaking the joy that would overtake my adolescent heart when my eyes locked on those of a pretty girl whom I had a thing for during kiddush at shul: We knew staring was all we could do, but the forbidden love was no less tantalizing.
When I was a kid, I thought that every aspect of my upbringing that I was not happy with was the end-all and be-all. I was a myopic child and did not realize that the things I pined for really were all not that great; it was all just a case of looking over the fence and seeing what seemed like greener grass. I now watch any movie I wish to, but I have found that they have a tough time keeping my attention; I prefer reading. Hanging out with girls turned out to be nice, but the joy of merely hanging out with them wore off a while ago.
I still struggle daily with what it means to be a Jew, and I don’t know what my future as a Jewish adult will look like. But now, when I look back at my childhood, there is no longer a sense of resentment or desolation. I can see my younger self waving at me from inside the bubble, happy with how I turned out, and a lot better off then he realized.
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