The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

So today, scrolling through Facebook, I came across this article on Kveller:

The Lie I told Myself About Good Jewish Mothers

Much of it resonated with me – not because I’m a mother, of course, but because I’m a Jew who is also struggling with what it means to be a “good Jew.”

I’ve probably said before that I’m a perfectionist and that I want to do everything “right.” It’s hard to remember that “doing Jewish” means doing it the way I can do it, the way I am equipped to do it, and the way that I am able to do it – and that may not look like the way everyone else does it.

Before conversion, and even right after conversion, I really thought that I was going to be that Torah-reading, tallit-wearing, Hebrew-studying, reaaaaaally observant Jew who went to shul weekly, attended Torah study every Saturday morning without fail, and made my Judaism the first and most important thing about my life. But the world got in the way, and, well….

Since November, less than three months after my husband and I completed our conversion processes, we have had to be – paradoxically – far less active Jews than we were hoping to be. We haven’t been able to attend a real Friday night shul service in several months, because of his work schedule (he works for an amusement park; November to March is “peak holiday time” and lots of mandatory overtime for him) and the inopportune arrival of several illnesses that kept me and him both flat on our backs and unable to function. Due to a personal conflict at our Torah study group, we stopped going for a while because it made us uncomfortable, and we still haven’t really resolved that, either.

In short, we have not been good members of our community, and although the reasons are valid, guilt’s still a real thing and I’ve been feeling it.

Here’s the thing about feeling guilt for not measuring up to some standard that you or others have set for your behavior: it makes it less likely that you’re going to try to fix it. At least, it makes it less likely that I’m going to try to fix it. Every time I’ve thought about going back to shul, the guilt has come up and hit me with “but then people would ask you where you’ve been and you know that that would really mean ‘why are you only showing up now, you half-asser?'” That’s a deterrent, not an incentive.

We missed Purim entirely, because we were sick; but was that a good enough reason? We haven’t been to Torah study in months because of illness and over-stress; is that a good enough reason? We missed a concert at our shul with a Jewish musician that I love because of stress and exhaustion; is that a good enough reason? And of course there’s also the cost, and right now we’ve had to penny-pinch, so we haven’t had the money to buy tickets to concerts or food for Purim baskets or, well, pretty much anything.

And yet…

All during that time, we still managed to have Shabbat dinner with a friend at least twice a month, and take Shabbat pretty much “off,” even if that meant catching up on missed sleep the majority of the time.

I have still worn my kippah and my Mogen David, and I haven’t backed down when someone says something anti-Semitic.

I have still said the Sh’ma every night, and meant it.

I have still experienced the world as a Jew, even if I’m not especially active at my synagogue right now.

And that has to count for something, doesn’t it?

As the author of the Kveller article said:

Embracing Jewish motherhood (and motherhood in general) isn’t about following every rule and winning the game. It’s about showing up and staying in the game, even when you don’t know which rules apply to you, or what it even means to win.

I’d argue that the same thing applies to Jewish identity. Recently, I have not been able to follow every rule. But I have done what I can to keep my foot in the door, even if it’s been mostly outside of the community of Jews in my area. And once I have recovered from the stress, exhaustion, and overwork, I’ll be getting back in the game in more substantial ways. For starters, we’re going to a Seder on Saturday evening, and hosting one here the following Thursday, and ideally we’ll be going back to shul after Pesach is over.

But I also think Adonai will understand if, just at the moment, I can’t quite do it all.

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6 Comments

Filed under Day-to-Day, Identities, Jewish Practices, Judaism, Wrestling Matches

6 responses to “The Lie I Told Myself About Being a Good Jew

  1. Donna L

    Something I read somewhere that the great Rabbi Heschel said, in regards to being “Jewish enough”. Heschel said, if asked “Do you keep a completely kosher house?”, or go to shul on erev Shabbat and Shabbat mornings, or study Torah or whichever of the mitzvot it might be, your answer should be “Not yet” because it is a journey, not a destination, and sometimes we will be closer to our goals, and sometimes farther away. When I find myself asking, “How much of a Jew can I claim to be if I’m not…” I try to remember that “Not” ends in “yet.”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Beautiful article! You are struggling with the same issues that all of us struggle with in one way or another. However much we do can be seen as “not enough,” “enough,” or “too Jewish” depending on who is passing judgement and how invested they are in finding fault.

    Be kind to yourselves and do what you can. Be kind to others, too. Find a way to reconnect at shul, if not Torah study then something else. It’s OK.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. FreeTrav

    I am hardly one to criticize how anyone meets their obligations to haShem; by just about any measure, my Jewishness is barely more than in name only. I do, however, read your blog, and have since you made me aware of it. I think that the end of your article – from the quote from Kveller on – captures the “Jewish” attitude perfectly, and the comment from Donna L does the same thing in different words: Being Jewish isn’t a state or condition of existence; it is a process that one continually undergoes, but never completes – there is always more to strive for, and one should always try to reach just that little bit beyond what they have already achieved. That doesn’t mean that you won’t backslide; one’s reach may well exceed one’s grasp, and failure to meet a goal doesn’t make you a bad person, or a bad Jew. Nor should it discourage you from examining your (temporary, always remember that) failure, and, if appropriate, postponing trying again for the failed goal until you understand why you failed, and are ready to move beyond that failure.

    You are on a journey, and every goal you reach is a new beginning, not an ending.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on Coffee Shop Rabbi and commented:

    I have been a big fan of “Wrestling with God” for a long time. I discovered it when Adam left a comment on my website. I always check out other bloggers who leave comments and I’ve found some real treasures that way.

    What I love about this blog is the beautiful honesty of it. I always worry about conversion bloggers who abruptly stop writing after they step out of the mikveh. Maybe they got busy with their Jewish lives – or are they feeling bad about failing to be “super Jews”?

    In this post, Adam talks about what it means to live Jewishly despite illness, or busy stretches at work, or family troubles. The only thing I would add is that with practice, some Jewish practices can become more routine, and can actually support us during the tough times. Other things just have to wait until we are more able. German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig would reply “Not yet” when other Jews would quiz him about his performance of mitzvot. The fact that one is not YET doing thus-and-so does not say anything about what might happen tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I got here via coffee shop rabbi’s post, about your post, about the Kveller post. As a fellow recent convert, I hear you! I just started going to shul again (and I love Friday services! They are incredibly relaxing and affirming) after the birth of my baby. Candles sometimes get lit, and other Friday night’s they don’t. But every single night, I sing my kid to sleep with the Sh’ma. I sing Shehechiyanu for his new experiences (including, beautifully, during labor while looking out a sunset-filled window). I read him a kid’s book about mitzvot. And now we go to services. It’s Judaism in real life.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think it’s pretty common to set up ideals for ourselves, where we inevitably fall short and then lapse into the blame/shame game that just enervates and derails us. So instead of “ideal,” we should get “real.” One one side of a ledger, write the idea and the other side, write what is real. What does “real” look like – under the present circumstances? What does “good enough” look like – under the present circumstances? What is an ideal exercise schedule? And what is a real or good enough one? When we can achieve our real goals, we can experience success which is very motivating and can always lead to higher goals – if that is optimal. Thanks for writing and sharing around a really important topic.

    Liked by 2 people

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