Climbing or Slipping?
Once I had made the decision to pursue a PhD, I attended a number of grad-school application workshops during my senior year. I also spoke to advisors in the English department and in the honors program.
At some point, someone advised me to apply for a Marshall Scholarship, which would allow me to do a graduate course in the UK. I was all for it – I had missed out on my chance to do a semester abroad as an undergraduate, and this would be perfect.
Although I hadn’t told my parents when I was considering going to Leeds for a semester abroad, I told them about the Marshall scholarship. This time, I wasn’t just considering it – I was applying, like it or not. So they had to be told. They didn’t like it.
I identified two one-year Master’s programs that would be amazing for me – going away for two years would be too much for my parents.
Both programs were appealing to me for their content and requirements, and they had the added bonus of being near large Jewish communities. Leeds has its own Jewish community, and I had already been in contact with the Chabad rabbi there. And Bangor, Wales, is close to Manchester.
Before settling on these two as my options, I calculated travel time between Bangor and Manchester, emailed the program to find out if it would be possible for me to be on campus only twice a week, and looked into how much it would cost to have a weekend apartment in Manchester and another apartment in Bangor.
I hated it. I hated that I was limiting the academic experience because of some notion that I couldn’t be Jewish without a community.
So I considered what it would be like to live only in Bangor, to go into Manchester for yomim tovim like Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, to buy kosher food in Manchester whenever I was there. I looked into a service that offered deliveries of kosher food from Manchester to neighboring areas.
I was still in the process of figuring out logistics and of writing my application essays when I graduated college.
The Desperate Attempt
That summer, I went to Israel for a month-long program at Neve seminary. I had planned to go with a high school friend, but she got engaged that winter, so I was left going alone.
I was glad that it worked out that way.
I knew that the real reason I was going to Neve was not to reinforce my already-strong Bais Yaakov values. I knew I was going because I had lost all those values, I was disillusioned with Jewish life.
But I also knew that leaving the frum community would be horrifically difficult. It would be so much easier if I could go to the “holy land,” spend a month soaking up the “proper” values again, and come back all happy to be part of the frum community again.
Right from the start of the program, though, I saw I wouldn’t be getting that. The classes all regurgitated the same tired old arguments I’d heard all my life, the ones that the other girls seemed to be lapping up eagerly while I scoffed internally at everything.
I mentioned to my mother, one night on the phone, that the director of the program said we should approach him with any questions or concerns, but I seemed to be falling into my old habits of keeping my mouth shut, keeping a low profile.
“Don’t waste this opportunity,” my mother said. “You told me that you regretted not forming relationships with teachers in seminary – and here he specifically invited you to talk to him. So do it! Talk to him!”
I had never told my mother exactly why I wanted to go to Neve. But she had been telling me for years that I was slipping and that I needed to find something or someone to help me stay on track. She was delighted that I was going to Neve because she thought this trip would accomplish what she wanted.
So for slightly different reasons, she and I agreed that it would be ridiculous to waste this opportunity.
I approached Rabbi Kass, and we spoke more openly than I’d ever spoken with anyone about Judaism. I told him that I wanted to ask questions in class about things that Bais Yaakov girls take for granted but felt uncomfortable, like it would be inappropriate.
“Ah, we write specifically on the website that the Post-Shalhevet program is for Bais Yaakov graduates,” he said. “If you want to get answers for those kinds of questions, there are other programs in Neve, but not Post-Shalhevet…”
“But I am a Bais Yaakov graduate! And it’s not like I don’t know these answers. It’s just, everyone assumes I accept the underlying foundations, and I don’t. The other girls in the program don’t seem to care about the lack of underlying foundations, so they never get explained.”
Eventually, Rabbis Kass allowed me to sit in on some mechina classes – the first-level classes for women who did not grow up religious and were learning about Orthodox Judaism for the first time. Those classes were great, and they gave me answers that satisfied me for a while.
But before I left Rabbi Kass’s office, we talked about a lot of other things.
We talked about why I felt so adrift. I told him about how I listen to non-Jewish music and feel so guilty about it because everyone tells me it’s schmutz.
“Don’t feel guilty – the first thing is – tch” – he shook his head in annoyance at the idea of guilt – “don’t feel guilty. That will get you nowhere. Look, as long as the kinds of songs you listen to aren’t pornographic, it’s fine.”
I was more than a little surprised, at his statement that it’s fine and his use of the word pornographic… “It’s fine? But everyone says it’s assur.”
“Oy, assur. Why do people make things into such extremes? It’s not assur. It’s not the best thing to do, of course – it’s better if you didn’t listen to it, but feeling guilty about it is ridiculous.”
I was relieved to be told not to feel guilty. It worked for a few weeks. After that, though, I didn’t know what to replace that feeling with, especially when it was still “not the best thing to do.” So I went back to feeling guilty.
The biggest thing we talked about was my decision to pursue a PhD and to do a Master’s in the UK.
Rabbi Kass wasn’t against going abroad for a year. He advised me to go to Leeds, though, not to Bangor. That way staying in a Jewish community would be easier, staying strong as a frum person would be easier.
(I didn’t win the Marshall Scholarship and therefore never did the year abroad. But the process of decision-making is a crucial part of how I got to where I am now.)
I voiced one more concern: “I’m not sure I’m even doing the right thing by pursuing a PhD in English literature. It’s such an impractical degree, and there’s a reason almost no frum girls do it, right? It’s so anti-Torah…”
“It doesn’t have to be anti-Torah. As long as you’re not studying anything that’s anti-Torah…”
“Oh, no – I mean, one of my advisors works on convents, but I’m not interested in that.”
He gave me a funny look, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I thought I knew what that look was about – he hadn’t meant that the history of Christianity was anti-Torah. I knew that, but I didn’t want to let on that I was already corrupted.
I was still caught in the ridiculous habit of pretending I was far more “pure” than I actually was.
I did gather enough courage to plainly explain what was bothering me.
“If I’m not supposed to be interested in things that don’t contribute to my development as a Jew, why would Hashem make me so interested in medieval literature? I mean, I know that explanation about Hashem making us work for our reward because he wants to do good for us and a person would resent being showered with good if he didn’t earn it. According to that logic, I’m supposed to resist the drive to study literature, and instead channel my energies toward Torah and mitzvos.
“But the way I see it – that means that he set up the board game, laid out the rules, placed the game pieces on the board, and then said: ‘if you make it to the end without getting stuck in the swamps or lost in the forests along the way (I was obviously thinking of Candyland here…), you’ll get the biggest reward. If you do get stuck in the swamps or lost in the forests, you’ll be punished. And oh, by the way, you have free choice whether to stay on the path or wander off, and you’ll want to go to the swamps and forests, they’re enticing and hard to resist.’
“But I didn’t choose to play this game! If I don’t want to risk the punishment and I’m okay with giving up the reward, I still don’t get the option of choosing not to play the game. He made up rules, put the game pieces down, and then gave them free choice – that seems totally unfair.”
At this point, Rabbi Kass said that he could answer me, but there’s someone who can answer better.
He advised me to contact Aviva Zornberg, who lived in a nearby neighborhood in Yerushalayim. She’s the daughter of Glasgow’s former Chief Rabbi, she has a PhD in literature from Cambridge, she’s written numerous books that combine Torah, literature, and psychology, she taught English literature at Hebrew University, and now she lectures on Torah topics.
She’s modern Orthodox, but Rabbi Kass seemed to have no objection to me getting advice from a modern Orthodox rebetzin.
That alone was enough to convince me to take all of Rabbi Kass’s advice seriously. I had never spoken to a frum rabbi who even entertained the idea that a modern Orthodox person is worth listening to.
I paid for a night’s use of Neve’s computer lab and internet, and I contacted Aviva Zornberg via email and arranged to go to her home in Old Katamon.
A Rebetzin Tells Me I’m Attractive
The bus ride to Old Katamon felt surreal. The other girls in the Post-Shalhevet program were constantly arranging group trips on our day off and our half-day. But I didn’t tell anyone about this trip. No one knew where I was going, and I felt equal parts apprehension and anticipation about what might happen.
Her husband opened the door, invited me in, offered me a glass of water. I perched on the edge of the couch and left the glass of water on the table.
He was wearing shorts. It was Israel during the summer, after all. But I had never seen a rabbi wearing shorts. Then again, I reflected, I don’t know if he’s a rabbi. His wife is a rebetzin, but that doesn’t mean… I was getting confused.
But then the “rebetzin” came in and told me to call her Mrs. Zornberg.
I explained to her my misgivings about studying literature – I really really want to, but I’m not sure it’s what I should be doing.
“Why wouldn’t it be what you should be doing?”
“Well, I mean – it has no clear application to Jewish life. And it’s not like a degree in special education or in speech therapy – the things my father wanted me to do – because those are just jobs. You need training and a degree to get them, but it’s different than literature, because – well, a literature program makes you think, and it makes you think about things that aren’t totally okay according to Torah… Even now, when I was in college, not a PhD program, it was like I was shuttling between two worlds. And my mother keeps saying that I’m staying more and more in the ‘other’ world and leaving the Jewish world behind… I just don’t understand why Hashem would make me so interested in something that’s so wrong!”
“First of all, you need to decide what you think about this, not what your parents think about this,” she said. “Second, who says that they’re two separate worlds? Who says it’s wrong? You’re right – Hashem made you interested in this. Hashem gave you the intellectual abilities and the passion for pursuing this. So you figure out how it connects to Yiddishkeit. Nothing in this world is completely separate from Torah and Judaism.”
I told her then what Rabbi Kass had said – make sure that what I’m studying isn’t against Torah. When Rabbi Kass said this to me, I responded as if I thought he meant Christianity. I thought he really meant queer studies, but I was afraid to even let on that I knew about queer studies.
Mrs. Zornberg waved a hand. “There is nothing you can study that would be against Torah. You just have to find the connection and figure out how it fits into Judaism, that’s all.”
I finally let out the breath I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding, settled back on the couch, and took a sip of water.
“Let me tell you something else you need to keep in mind about graduate study,” Mrs. Zornberg said. “You’ll be in a program of other people who are interested in the same things you are. You’ll be working closely with your colleagues. And you’re an attractive girl – people are bound to notice that, and will want to date you. You might even feel close to them. You have to remember to keep boundaries in place, and not let anything happen.”
That made sense to me at the time. It was also the first time anyone had called me attractive and hadn’t told me to cover up or wear less makeup or put up my hair.
It also severely affected how I interpreted any male colleague’s interest in me for a long while.
We chatted for a bit longer, and then I caught the bus back to Har Nof.
On the ride back, I pulled out my pad of yellow Post-It notes and scribbled down keywords to remind myself of the many twists and turns of the conversation. I kept that yellow Post-It in my wallet for over a year.