Tag Archives: perfectionism

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.

Advertisements

6 Comments

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

The Spirit of the Law and the Value of NOT Doing It All

"Sunrise Los Angeles" by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Sunrise Los Angeles” by Bryan Frank on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Things looked better on Shabbat morning. And fortunately, that continued for the rest of the day into our afternoon at home and our evening with friends. 

Things usually do look better in the morning, did you ever notice that? Something about sleeping on it really does help fix most of the problems of low spoons, lack of energy, and general overwhelm.

Of course, I was trying too hard. I was trying to live by every rule, everywhere, to be a perfect Jew, even as I had admitted that it’s okay not to be perfect. There’s a definite difference between saying it and practicing it, and G-d called me on it on Friday, I think. I was at the end of my rope, frazzled, tired, worn out, overwhelmed, and still thinking I could somehow put together the equivalent of a holiday dinner AND bake challah for the next day’s temple Kiddush service when I was almost completely out of cope and energy. I was convinced that I could still follow all the rules and make things somehow come out perfectly even though I was scraping the bottom of the energy barrel.

Reality. It hits you in the strangest ways. Obviously none of those things happened. I’m just glad that the fallout was a few pieces of dough hitting the coffeemaker and the carpet, and nothing worse than that (like a cut hand due to a knife accident, or a concussion because I slipped and hit my head on a wet floor). 

It occurred to me this morning that one of the things I find so healing about Judaism is that Reform Judaism is not a rule-bound system. I grew up with a strong and frightening sense that if I didn’t follow every rule perfectly, all the time, to the letter, then I was in big trouble. Yesterday’s experience at temple in the morning, where I participated in the mid-service Torah study, and where I was reassured that everyone has had kitchen disasters and not to worry – we’ll love to try your challah next week, showed me it’s the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that we’re trying to get at here. People (and G-d) don’t expect perfection. They expect an honest effort. They don’t expect me to do it all correctly the first time. They expect me to focus on doing my best to do a little bit better next time.

It’s not about perfect adherence to the rules. If that was all it was, any religion would do. 

My life before Judaism didn’t allow a lot of time for contemplation or doing things deliberately. Due to some disabilities I have, for example, getting dressed in the morning can be a very complicated process. If I put on my jeans before I put on my socks, it’s harder to reach my feet, for example, because that restricts motion enough that bending my knees far enough to reach my feet becomes almost impossible. But there have been times when I’ve been rushing because I feel like I’m late (I rarely am) and then I have to undress and start all over again, usually berating myself for not paying attention well enough. Eating deliberately? What’s that? I have still caught myself being halfway through the meal before I realized I haven’t really tasted it (and that I haven’t said the brachot yet), and then kicked myself for it. I wasn’t raised with the habits of deliberation or contemplation. I was raised with the habits of rushing, doing it quickly, getting it done, and getting on to the next thing. While going to church was calming, it was only one hour a week. That’s not enough to get used to being calm and quiet (and for me it was always upset in the middle by the angry sermons I had to sit through). 

But with Judaism (at least as I’m practice it), it’s not about rushing out of bed and running around like a headless chicken trying to get six things done before breakfast so that things are always perfect. It’s about staying in bed when I wake long enough to remember to say the Modeh Ani before I get out of bed. It’s about taking the time to remember to say the brachot over my morning coffee. It’s about remembering to slow down and take time so that those become things I remember before I need to do them, not after. It’s about taking an entire 24-hour period every week to NOT rush, to NOT hurry, and to let that peacefulness carry over into the rest of the week. It’s the complete opposite of what I was raised with – reflection, rather than rushing.

The rushing seemed to me to be required. If you aren’t running around “looking busy,” you’re lazy, aren’t you? But then I wonder how many people would call a Buddhist monk “lazy” for his meditation practices. I know a few Westerners who probably would, but that’s not the point here. The Type-A personality should not be setting the standard for what reasonable effort looks like – they’re at one end of a very long spectrum. It is possible to be unrushed and not be automatically lazy. It is possible to take time to think and contemplate and not be lazy. 

And it is all right to take a day where rest, contemplation, consideration and thought take precedence over running around trying to do everything all at once. It is all right to live by the spirit of the rules as much as, if not more than, their letter. A blogger I follow on Facebook calls this “living hands-free” – to stop worrying so much about what everyone will think and start focusing on the moment, the process, rather than the goal. 

This is still very hard for me to grasp. We live in a culture that values speed and efficiency and the goal over reflection and deliberation and the process. But living a hands-free kind of life – which for me, more and more, means a Jewish life – demands adherence to the spirit of the rules over the letter of the rules, more often than not. It’s also about bringing that sense of reflection and consideration into the rest of the week, not just leaving it on Shabbat. I had had an entire week of no reflection or consideration, of feeling rushed, of trying to do too much at once, and I paid for it on Friday evening when things finally fell apart because I couldn’t keep all those balls in the air and the plates all spinning at the same time. 

This week, I will forgive myself for dropping the ball. This week, I will not punish myself for taking time to reflect and consider. This week, I will work on reducing my need to live up to every rule and stress myself out by rushing through every process. This week I will make room for contemplation. 

And next week will take care of itself. It always does – have you ever noticed that? 

2 Comments

Filed under Day-to-Day

Shocheradam And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Erev Shabbat

Ever have one of those Shabbats that goes so fantastically wrong that you can’t imagine it ever going right again? Read on.


 

Sad

“Sad,” by Kristina Alexanderson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

I really should know better than to write about perfection.

After I put up my post that I made just before the Friday Feature, it feels like everything just went south for me this Shabbat, or at least on erev Shabbat. I had to go to a job HR intake thing that I did not feel prepared for, for starters, having got the command, er, invitation to come in at 10 on Friday morning the previous night. I do not do well with “Surprise! Come here RIGHT NOW!” kinds of e-mails at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. It had been quite a rough week, all things considered. So, resigned to losing my entire usual erev Shabbat morning routine, I went in. The HR person was not a nice person. I felt very conspicuous in my kippah, which made me feel defensive. Probably not the best thing.

I wasn’t in the best of shape when I got out of that meeting. First there was the exhaustion that happens after I have to meet someone new under circumstances I don’t control. Then there were student emails to answer and other work to do that I normally do in the mornings, which was now pushed to the afternoon. Then there was the nap that took away most of the later afternoon. Then there was the realization that someone I’d added on Facebook was a person I had had a very bad interaction with under an IRC handle 12 years ago, and being shook up over that as I defriended them. And the issues the HR person continued to send to me in e-mail all afternoon, some of which are fires I can do nothing about until Monday. And we didn’t really have lunch as such; we just had a late breakfast, so I had a lovely low-blood-sugar episode that I didn’t realize was low blood sugar until I was far beyond the point of no return, and ended up babbling and incoherent, as well as weepy and unable to cope. The phrase that I, and most of my friends, use for this situation is “out of spoon error.” Go read this link for more on that. (Basically, when I’m that low on cope, I become a babbling idiot and I can’t even find my own feet without help.)

Long story short, we didn’t even make it to the grocery, so I started Shabbat (such as it was) without any grape juice or challah, no new flowers on the table, and a sink still full of dirty dishes (morning stuff that didn’t get done thanks to the HR intake intervention blah blah). I resigned myself to a dinner of reheated random leftovers, with no candles, kiddush, or ha-motzi. Basically, my life became a whole big world of no, after the sun went down.

And then, thinking that at least I’d make a loaf of my grain-free challah and bring it with me to Saturday morning service’s Kiddush as I had promised to last Shabbat, I managed to instead make the stand mixer lurch across the counter, flinging hardened batter everywhere and wasting ingredients that don’t exactly come cheap.

Suffice to say that it was a really bad way to go into Shabbat.

Fortunately, after sleeping on it, things seemed some better. We did go to services on Saturday morning and it was refreshing, and my stories of the demon-possessed stand mixer after services were over made people laugh (although I promised that next time I would absolutely have grain-free challah for them for morning Kiddush). Singing the service is getting easier already; I’ve been picking up the melodies. The Torah teaching session that seems to be a standard part of the services was enlightening and made me feel like I belonged, since I could contribute to it intelligently. My partner looked, well, very Jewish in the green handmade kippah I loaned him. And just being among fellow Jews was a hugely calming thing.

Last week, when praying the Birkhot Haschachar, I sang Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam with everyone else. Where our congregation then sings the rest of each prayer in English, however, I fell silent at the line “Thank you for making me a Jew.” This week, I sang it out with everyone else, with tears stinging my eyes. It was a much-needed reminder: I may still be a ways off from my entry into the mikveh and full membership in the Tribe, but my soul is a Jewish soul. And like I said on Friday afternoon, I do not have to be perfect to be a Jew. I just have to keep trying to do a little bit better each time.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, she’asani Yisra-eil.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized