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My Son, the Orthodox Jew

Being the mom of a ‘baal teshuvah’ was hard—until it wasn’t

Judith Colp Rubin
April 05, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

About seven years ago, two Orthodox Jewish men carted off the contents of my kitchen. I watched as they took boxes filled with items that for them were tainted, but for me carried precious family memories: the dinner plates my recently deceased husband had lugged back from a store in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna; the ceramic cake pan purchased in a small Alsatian village that I used to bake my children’s birthday cakes; the delicate hand-painted tea mugs for which I’d bargained after we toured the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Within a few hours, the men brought the items, now damp and smelling of chlorine, back from the mikvah. I bristled when I heard that one of the irreplaceable Roman plates had broken. The flatware looked tarnished. I washed the rest and put it away in my newly configured kosher kitchen, which I needed a roadmap to navigate. Now I’d be doing all the cooking on a tightrope, in service of a belief I didn’t even hold. Then my youngest child affixed his blue eyes upon mine.

“I really appreciate this, Mom,” Daniel said.

I had done it for him. At age 14, Daniel had become a religious Jew, or baal teshuvah, a phrase that in the beginning stuck in my throat. In the early days, when he was a teenager, it was easier to focus on the small changes. He was keeping kosher, and the prospect of his refusing to eat my meatloaf or mushroom tart was painful. But making my kitchen kosher felt important during a time when I needed to keep my family together. Taking a stand for the right to cook how I wanted didn’t seem a battle worth fighting. So I did it all: the cleansing of my cabinets and refrigerators of any item not marked kosher, the purchase of a Shabbat hot plate, the cessation of cooking Friday at sundown, the running of my dishwasher on empty between the meat and milk cycles.

The rest was harder. I agreed, after great trepidation, to let Daniel leave his secular junior high school in Tel Aviv and study in a West Bank boarding school, where he would get a high school diploma but most of the curriculum was religious. I bit my lip when, after graduation, he deferred his army service and spent year after year after year—still counting—studying in a yeshiva. Hardest of all, I accepted the fact that my son would likely not grow into a secular, skeptical adult with a profession, like me. He would live in a different culture, and he would hold beliefs with which I vehemently disagreed.

I let him do all this without great opposition because I believe that children, if their eyes are open, have the right to do what makes them happiest. The unexpected part of his religious journey was that it also turned into a journey of my own, from an anti-religious secular Jew to a secular Jew with religious empathy.

I was 7 years old when I asked my mother what religion we were, because I honestly didn’t know.

“We’re Jewish,” she said, not looking up from the book she was reading.

Several generations of my family had torched their religious identity. My father was named after his still-living father, as I would have been as well, had I been a boy. My father was not circumcised, given a bar mitzvah, or buried. We celebrated only two holidays when I was growing up in New York City: Thanksgiving and Christmas, the latter a family tradition started by my grandfather, who had never gotten over being rejected by a Columbia fraternity because of his religion. We bought a large tree that I loved decorating with tinsel, ornaments, and even an angel on top.

I lobbied for stockings and peppermint sticks, which I hung on our faux fireplace, longing to make our Christmas as festive as those in the television specials I devoured. One year, I got my mother to buy a kit for a gingerbread house, an ambitious project that I alone undertook. But the “cement” of confectioner’s sugar and water never seemed to hold the gingerbread cookies together, and it became another holiday house that didn’t materialize into the one of my dreams. Over Sunday breakfasts of bacon and bagels, my family often derided religious Jews for being sexist, primitive, and ignorant, especially in contrast to my Ivy League-educated relatives. The only time I stepped into a synagogue was to attend a classmate’s bar mitzvah service, after which I vowed never to return.

But one Sunday, feeling especially lonely and bored, I decided to attend a Catholic Mass. The sign for St. Ignatius Loyola, across the street from where we lived on the Upper East side, welcomed all to its services. That felt like more of an invitation than I’d received anywhere else, and it seemed possible that I might find the community and sense of meaning there that had eluded me. I was bored by most of the service, but envied the congregants, mostly families, who all seemed to know one another. I left just as Communion began and returned home to an empty apartment, feeling as unmoored as before. Whatever I was searching for, I had not found it.

Nor was I inclined to look for it in Judaism. Until my early 20s, I stayed far away from everything smacking of my ancestral religion. Then, depressed and unsure about my future, I decided I wanted to travel abroad. I had no special interest in Israel, but volunteering for a few months on a kibbutz was a cheap way to experience another culture. One Friday morning I was at the Kotel when I was invited to a Shabbat dinner with a religious American family living in the Old City. There, over roast chicken and kugel, I had my first experience of religious Jews—and they were eager to bring me into their community, a prospect I considered akin to joining a cult. I declined.

Later, my newfound, albeit scant, knowledge of Israel helped me land a reporting job at a Jewish newspaper in Washington, D.C., where I was assigned articles about the local Jewish community. One day, the staff was invited out with the publisher to lunch at Mel Krupin’s, a popular local restaurant. Everyone else ordered vegetarian, but I opted for shrimp salad. After the meal was finished and the publisher had left, the entire staff looked at me incredulously.

“How could you order the shrimp?” asked the newspaper’s editor.

“Was it too expensive?” I asked.

“No, it’s treyf!”

I didn’t know what the word meant.

It was through that job that I met my husband, Barry. He had also grown up in an assimilated family and had experienced the same alienation and loneliness that had marked my youth. His specialization in Middle East history, which led to a successful career as a writer and analyst specializing in the region, dovetailed with an interest in taking on some Jewish practices, such as joining a havurah to attend services. The first year we were dating was the first time I attended synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, fasted on Yom Kippur, or attended a Passover Seder. I felt more Jewish then, but I was still resistant to undertaking most religious practices. The Yom Kippur fast was tortuous, and I quickly abandoned it. And I wanted to continue eating my shrimp and bacon.

Soon after we married in 1992, we made aliyah, fulfilling Barry’s lifelong dream. I had made aliyah strictly to make my husband happy, and I struggled to find my place in Israel. When it came to religious issues, I found a model in the secular Zionists. Like most residents of my Tel Aviv neighborhood, I was furious at the ultra-Orthodox for a litany of sins, including skipping out on the army, in which my son would one day have to serve, and seeking to deprive me of the opportunity to buy toilet paper or eat in a restaurant on Shabbat. Barry was still more religious than I was, but he was sympathetic to some of these views. For example, he insisted our newborn daughter have a naming ceremony and, later, read from the Torah when she became a bat mitzvah.

Our lives were changed in 2011, when Barry was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. I worried constantly about the illness’s impact on our two children, but especially on Daniel. He was a shy boy who had struggled to make friends and had been bullied. But was very close to his dad. He didn’t have anyone except his two parents on whom to lean, and he was losing one of them.

As his father got sicker, Daniel began wearing a kippah, eschewing some of his favorite foods because they weren’t kosher, and reciting prayers at night. I thought this newfound religious fervor was linked to his upcoming bar mitzvah. It would soon go the way of the fencing lessons he had abandoned at age 10 and the soccer obsession that had petered out at age 12. I had my first indication that something more serious was happening when Daniel gave up his beloved computer on Shabbat. I had heard the horror stories about secular children becoming religious and was worried. But I had a lot more to worry me in those days, and I was grateful that my son was getting up each morning to go to school. His inner core and close relationship with me seemed intact. He didn’t seem to be running away from something so much as running toward meaning, purpose, and community. Religion gave him all this. There were times I even envied his religious devotion.

During the shiva, after another sleepless night, I went into the kitchen soon after dawn for a glass of water and stumbled upon a sight that took my breath away. Bathed in the early morning light, my son stood flanked by 15 other teenagers and a rabbi reciting the morning prayers. The willingness of these men to come to our apartment to engage in this time-honored ritual with my fatherless son gave me goosebumps. It quieted the churning that was running nonstop through my veins and keeping me up nights, worrying that my children were one step closer to becoming orphans. I returned to my bedroom to get some much-needed sleep.

Since then, I have been pleasantly surprised by the changes his religiosity has brought to my own life. Since I now had to properly celebrate Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, I began for the first time ever inviting lots of guests into my home. I also appreciated the religious emphasis on respect for parents, disdain for gossip and lack of materialism. And I’ve been touched by the kindness Daniel’s teachers and parents of his friends have shown me. I’ve been complimented innumerable times for doing “what would not necessarily be expected,” a phrase which has certainly defined much of my life. I’ve also been called, to my amusement, a “woman of valor.” The mother of one of his schoolmates told me that when her son requested she buy food that was Glatt kosher—a stricter standard of kashrutshe initially refused, because it was more expensive. But when she heard that I bought Glatt kosher for my son, she changed her mind.

“I felt if someone like you could do that, then I had no excuse not to do the same,” she told me.

Daniel is 21 and studies full time in a so-called hardal yeshiva in Jerusalem. (“Hardal” refers to a portion of the religious Zionist community in Israel that inclines toward Haredi ideology.) He comes home about once a month on a Thursday night and stays through Shabbat. He scrutinizes the contents of the kitchen, dubiously examines the kashrut label on a bottle of sauce, sometimes chucking it, or chides me for accidentally mixing up the milk and meat coffee spoons. He trusts that I do my best to keep the kitchen kosher, while accepting that I don’t keep kosher outside of the house.

He never criticizes me for not attending synagogue, for instead running on Shabbat mornings with my AirPods. All he insists on is an early Shabbat lunch at home—a lovely tradition I can fully embrace—after which we often take a walk down Rothschild Boulevard. We make for a strange pair in a country wracked by religious/secular tensions: me in a sleeveless workout top and yoga pants and him in a knitted kippah, black pants and white button-down shirt.

We share details of our weeks without the distractions of cellphones or friends that lure most young people away from parents. Few topics are off limits. I’m not thrilled by his criticism of non-Orthodox Judaism and the role of women. I suggest that maybe it’s time he leave the yeshiva, and I tell him that I’m worried how he’ll make a living to support the large family he wants. “You’re only worried because my life is something unknown to you,” he always replies. “But you’ll see, it’s all going to work out just fine.”

The response smacks of youthful hubris and idealism. My concerns remain answered. But I’ve come to have a secular faith that while my son will have a life different from mine, it won’t necessarily be an inferior one. We’re all searching. I’ve considered the boredom and loneliness that motivated a young American Jewish girl to attend church services, and then to end up on a kibbutz, and I’ve concluded that my son was not only seeking to fill a need in his own life—he was also filling one in mine.

Judith Colp Rubin is a writer living in Tel Aviv.