“Look, she didn’t go become a drug addict, she didn’t go become a hobo or something.” This from my mother’s best friend, Sharon. No, I didn’t do the first two. I did the third one on the list. I became an Orthodox Jew. What I like most about the list is that the last one, I’m sure, almost always prevents the first two from happening. This, however, was the line that stuck. “At least she’s not a drug addict” is how my family thinks of my Judaism. When I got back from Israel, my father picked me up from Logan Airport in Boston. He approached me with his arms open and said, “Alissa” as though I had been lost to him for some time and was now back. But I knew I wasn’t back. At least not the old me, not the one he had brought up. Back then, my friends and I had naively thought that our parents would not only approve of our new lifestyle but join in and jump on the frum bandwagon. We were shocked at how disappointed and offended they were. What we didn’t tend to think of was what we were doing to them and how we had left them—left them in spirit, ideology and practice. At 22 we looked cross-eyed at our very real parents for being offended. They had brought us up and loved us intensely, and we had come home with a new parent. When they tried to speak out against this new move of ours, we had religion to point at, and who can argue with religion? Who can argue with someone who’s 22 and right? Although I’ve heard that there have been many improvements over the years, when I was in a yeshivah for baalos teshuvah in the late ’80s, no one knew how to prepare us to go back home to our secular families.In all fairness, most of my teachers had no idea what it meant to come from a nonobservant home. When I told one of the rebbetzins that my Aunt Ruthy traditionally served Pillsbury buns at her Seder table, the kind that you keep frozen and bang against the counter when you’re ready to bake them, she stood there staring at me with her head cocked to one side; it seemed to me that she was waiting for something, a break in the story—the missing part that would make it all come together.
Something along the lines of “April fools!” Our teachers were all very concerned that we stay frum. “Don’t let them convince you to eat treif or to desecrate the Shabbos,” they said. I was coached on the halachos of not having to obey a parent who tells you to transgress a tenet of the Torah. These dinim were there for our protection. But protection from whom? From the people who had given birth to us and sat up through the night with us when we were young and sick—the people who loved us the most? Is that who they were talking about? They asked, “Do you have a car? Because you’ll need to get yourself a toaster.” We were ripping our parents’ hearts out, and our teachers were telling us to go to Walmart. I don’t mean to criticize; my teachers were all sincere, wonderful, outstanding people. They just had no clue how to deal with this. They didn’t have the guts or the arrogance to say, “Don’t be so frum when you first go home” because it could have backfired miserably and resulted in fewer generations of Jews. I myself have no idea what I would have said to a new baal teshuvah going home for the first time.For the first several days after I returned, my family observed me cautiously from the sidelines, trying to make heads or tails of my new religiosity.
One morning my mother was watching from the kitchen with some real anxiety to see how far this all went. But my mother’s practical, so she asked. “Can I make you an egg?” I tried to be massively casual answering this very loaded question. “No thanks, Ma. I’m not really hungry.” She didn’t miss a beat. “It’s 11:30 already. You haven’t eaten anything today.” She saw through my lie and got right to the point. “So what can you eat here?” I wanted to tell her the truth and say, “Nothing. There’s nothing that I can eat here.” But the truth was too jarring for both of us so I blabbered on. “Well, maybe some tuna.” So quietly and without fanfare (that’s her style), my mother went to the pantry, got out a can of tuna and began to open it. I sat down at the round Shaker table in our yellow country kitchen and watched. Everything seemed innocent enough, but for the newly religious, everything is suspect. In my newly halachic head, I started to wonder if the taam from my mother’s treif can opener could get into the tuna. Then I saw that she had already taken out the Hellman’s, a family staple, which I knew contained vinegar and was considered a “sharp” food. If she put her spoon into it, the whole effort was worthless, over. I wouldn’t eat her tuna. I couldn’t disappoint Hashem or my teachers, all of whom I had known personally for five months. My mother’s lifetime of service aside, I figured that I had to find a way to inform her that there was an insidious something that leached from her cutlery when she stuck it in mayonnaise.
You see, Ma, the vinegar unleashes a spiritual taint in your contaminated silverware that infects anything it comes into contact with. The spoon sullies the mayo, which in turn tarnishes the tuna, making the whole concoction you have there a sleazy mess. I’ll be pounding my chest from here to doomsday if I eat your loving offering. You can have it, although I wouldn’t advise it unless you want to sit in Gehinnom. What’s that, you ask? That’s purgatory only Jewish-style, so it’s nicer and more thorough. They really do it up good in Gehinnom. Arguing, though, is out of the question for someone like me because I’ve been warned about unreasonable people like you, and the Torah has an answer for you and protection for me. I am now the mother of four beautiful children, and I don’t think that even my mother would alter the path I took, except maybe the opening act, which was rude and raw. Let’s call a spade a spade; the way I became religious, perhaps the way so many of us did, hurt people. Would it have been so terrible to eat my mother’s lousy tuna? I wonder…and I do mean it both ways when I say I wonder. Maybe my neshamah couldn’t handle another bite of the stuff. I wish I had known about the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s comparison of the menorah to becoming religious—the fact that we add the lights one at a time over the holiday instead of rushing to light all eight on the first night, which feels a lot like the way I went about things. I wish I had known a rav at the time, one with age, wisdom and insight, and my question would be, what’s more treif? At 22 I had the answer, all right, but now, some 25 years later, I just don’t know.