Sunday, August 25, 2013

I Drank the Kool-Aid (and I'm Not Ashamed of It)

I was recently at a shabbos meal when a teenage girl, raised in the Orthodox community, asked me "Who made you frum?"

I was pretty taken aback at the question. I didn't know how to respond at first. What did she mean, who made me frum? I made myself frum, thank you very much. Do I look like a product of brainwashing? After I stuttered for an answer, she rephrased the question in a less derogatory way.

Later, I thought about this interaction and my defensive response. Why did I feel this question was so derogatory? Why was I ashamed about the fact that a well-intentioned Jewish organization helped me become closer to my heritage?

It probably had a lot to do with the attitudes circulating around me.

Attitudes like:

"My Judaism is more real because I didn't come to it through some sort of contrived outreach program."

On the flip side, those who do become connected through a Chabad house or outreach center often struggle with others' appraisal of their observance. "Beware of the the Kool-Aid! Stop being naive. Don't let them control you." As a result, these baal teshuvas might later choose to disassociate with that community, organization, or individuals involved as a way to assert their independence. They maintain an observant lifestyle, but intentionally distance themselves from their starting line to prove they aren't simply a product of others' efforts.

I can certainly see this quality in myself. If I'm being painfully honest, there is something very self-satisfying about parading my independent thinking to those who offered me support in the beginning of my journey, showing them I've risen above their Kool-Aid.

What is "Kool-Aid," anyway? I was always a bit unclear about the intended meaning of this term. People refer to this metaphor and laugh cynically about it, their sarcasm laced with resentment toward their outreach communities.

Kool-Aid is not G-d or Torah or living an observant lifestyle, assuming these are all rooted in Truth. What I think is that when people accuse you of drinking the Kool-Aid, they're accusing you of buying into others' justifications for becoming frum. What people have labeled Kool-Aid can be defined as the body of reasoning that people employ to demonstrate the value of observance. Some of this reasoning is valid, some is misinformed. In many cases, criticism stems from others' interpretations of why you became frum- not the mere fact that you did so. If it appears that you are simply absorbing others' messages like a porous sponge without really thinking about anything, that's when people start accusing you of being brainwashed. They refuse to respect your choices when you can't substantiate them with conclusions you've drawn on your own.

I admit it. I drank the Kool-Aid. I marveled at all the new perspectives I was ingesting, gaping with wonder like a starry-eyed child. I initially found no reason to disagree with anything I heard. But the thing about Kool-Aid is that it didn't really quench my thirst. Yeah, it's marked "beverage," but it's mostly preservatives and food coloring. So it just bubbled inside me, compelling me to make some very pivotal choices but never becoming fully absorbed into my system.

At a certain point, my opinions and feelings began to stealthily creep out from under the woodwork. Suddenly, they wanted a say in everything I was doing! They didn't want to take a back seat to the foreign influence temporarily inhabiting me. So they rose up and protested the slimy red substance that had conquered their terrain, upon which an explosive chemical reaction occurred. The result was a new flavor of Kool-Aid: One that I had created through my own flesh, blood, heart and mind. But it couldn't have developed without first ingesting something from the outside.

Kool-Aid doesn't kill. It's simply meant to be an instigator. It's when you misuse it that the problems begin. If you don't integrate everything you've learned into YOUR mind, and you delude yourself into thinking that Kool-Aid is water, that's when you start being unhealthy.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that G-d guided you in a certain direction because He knew that's what you'd be responsive to. He orchestrated your contact with Jewish Outreach, or Chabad, or whatever channel "made you frum." Don't be ashamed of your journey. Don't disown the experiences G-d gave you. Remember that it's all hashgacha pratis- even the part where you "drank the Kool-Aid." It's not like some alien force came out of nowhere and force-fed you some perversion of Truth. Sure, Torah is sometimes distorted when people try to present it in a way that will be meaningful to you. But G-d led you toward those distortions too, because He trusted you could turn them into something real.


  1. The term "drank the Koolaid" usually refers to people that become religious through some sort of outreach program (Chabad, Aish, etc.) but forget that at some point they need to start thinking for themselves.

    Growing up in Crown Heights I meet people like that all the time.

    The only issue with drinking the Koolaid is when you start thinking its water!

    Never stop questioning! It's what Judaism is all about!

  2. To clarify, Zalman, "Naaseh kodem l'nishma": Judaism is about starting with faith and submission (bittul) and then questioning--or, better put, asking--in order to understand fully; it is not about doubting, G-d forbid.