Monday, August 17, 2015

Leaving Chicago

I decided to move to Crown Heights a month and a half ago. 

After a lifetime of relishing in the small-town familiarity of the midwest, I felt it was time to make a change. A number of circumstances aligned in such a way that a window of opportunity swung open unexpectedly. I felt like God was practically shoving me out the door, mobilizing me with a firm resolve that quickly rendered itself immune to any attempt at negotiation. Within a matter of weeks, I managed to reduce my three years in Chicago to three suitcases bulging with bare essentials. 

I had many reasons for leaving Chicago- and my choice surprised no one. Most would agree that I didn't fit in there. The combination of my age, marital status, and spiritual outlook made me feel like an anomaly in that particular community. People frequently asked why I lived in Chicago when my peers were all in Crown Heights.

But as I sifted the non-essentials from my most important belongings, I felt the wholeness of knowing that I was carrying much more than the items on my packing list. Everything I couldn't transport in my bags, I carried inside me. The skeleton that remained of my material life was counterbalanced by a feeling of abundance, for I recognized the rich spiritual life flourishing inside of me per the nurturing hands of the Chicago community. Despite sometimes feeling like the odd one out, I can't deny how deeply I was touched by the numerous genuine, devoted community members.

I felt it was important to establish closure by expressing my immense appreciation to these special individuals in my life, so I made several arrangements to meet friends and mentors to say goodbye. But in these meetings, I couldn't hear their words and I floundered for my own. The fullness I felt overwhelmed me. I couldn't let anything in, and if I let anything out it would all tumble away. I was like a swollen suitcase, overpacked with bittersweet memories and fresh thoughts of the future that rippled with anticipation.

I tried to soften the potentially awkward silences with appreciative smiles. I repeatedly escorted my guests to the door too soon, as though I were fearful that every second spent together was another second that would later be missed. I curled away from each final moment, keeping it at arms length, banishing it to the periphery of my experience.

Maybe the reason Chasidim never say goodbye is because they can't. They can't help but shrink backwards and swallow their words at the prospect of goodbye, lost in deep admiration for their fellow Jew. A community of Chasidim has the potential to make an imprint on the core of a person, speaking to a place beyond the level of articulation. Maybe words would cheapen those parting moments, and my silence unwittingly honored the transcendent nature of those relationships.

I came to Crown Heights in search of something. I hope to reap the benefits of my new community, to find a comfortable social and spiritual home. But as I journeyed away from all that was familiar, I also became aware of my own potential to be a giver by virtue of the vast gift I had already received: A sense of wholeness and conviction cultivated by a community of passionate, truth seeking Jews. 

I realized that as much as there is to be gained here, there is even more to give. Now it's my turn to release those lessons of kindness and truth so they may flow into another crevice of the world and fill up someone else.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Day We Went off the Deep End

“Are you sure we’re doing this right?”

My friend Arielle glanced at me skeptically. We were laying on the dock overlooking lake Mendota, its splintery edge pressing into our stomachs. I was holding a frying pan. Today was the day we were to toivel our dishes, and we had decided to do it in the lake.

I shrugged, squinting into the afternoon sun. I had no idea what we were doing. I just knew I wanted a kosher kitchen, and from what I had learned, immersing new dishes in a body of fresh water was a required step in that process.

From across the shore, the inebriated chants of a fraternity party rang through the Sunday stillness. Arielle and I watched as one fellow guzzled the contents of a red plastic cup before bounding toward the water, where he cannon-balled into a pocket of lake that couldn’t have been more than a foot deep. He emerged wincing in pain, meanwhile earning the wild applause of his fraternity brothers.

“They’re crazy.” Arielle rolled her eyes. I chuckled in agreement, then shifted my attention to the large basket of dining ware at my side. “Let’s get to work.”

I surveyed the situation, assessing the distance between the dock and the surface of the water. Frying pan in hand, I inched my torso past the edge of the dock and stretched toward the water. To my dismay, the pan’s buoyant nature fought my attempts to submerge it under the surface, resulting in a five-minute splashing battle between me and the frying pan before I sourly admitted defeat.

I hoisted myself back onto the dock. I slid off my water-speckled glasses and clumsily tried to dry them with my shirt sleeve, which was also soaking wet. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“Agreed. But not as hard as explaining to my family how I spent my Sunday afternoon," Arielle chimed.

Arielle was right. What we were doing made no sense. The spiritual purity of our dishes would be achieved at the expense of cleanliness, and we would need to wash and sanitize everything before using it. Moreover, we were college students. We were supposed to be exploiting our newfound freedom! We should have been at the fraternity party two buildings down, venturing into the lake for sheer drunken entertainment- not because we were involved in some cryptic ancient ritual.

When I first began growing in my Jewish observance, the shifts in my outlook and lifestyle were largely propelled by a desire to make sense out of my life. I wanted to understand the truth about existence in order to find myself, to achieve the ultimate level of contentment and self-awareness.

But more often than not, my motivation worked against me. Judaism wasn't always comfortable and I didn't always understand. I often felt constricted and weighed down by my desire to understand, and I became frustrated when Judaism wasn't as fulfilling as I thought it should be.

This moment could have devolved into one of frustration. But as I sat there despondently, sighing over the ridiculous heap of kitchenware, something clicked. I realized the only way we were going to be able to accomplish our mission was if we stopped being so self-aware and started being more God-aware. This wasn't about fulfilling our needs, this was about fulfilling His. And God's desires are beyond logic, so the only way we could succeed at our task was to first surrender our own emotional attachment to the rational mind.

We needed to be willing to do something crazy.

That's what college is for anyway, right?

So Arielle threw off her sneakers and trekked into lake Mendota. Rather than tiptoeing around the mitzvah, we dove into it with full force. I cheered Arielle on from the dock, assisting her by trading out the completed dishes for those in need of toiveling.

She looked pretty crazy out there, standing waist deep in the lake while fully clothed, steeping our brand new utensils in smelly green water. But it was a good kind of crazy. A kind that made me smile inwardly, that inspired me to commit to a cause bigger than myself. She was embodying the kind of crazy the world needs, that will run to do good no matter the cost, that can wriggle free from nature's grasp and be whatever God needs you to be.

A few minutes later, Arielle waded back to shore, beaming. "I think that's the last of it!" she announced proudly. Satisfied, I retrieved the basket of freshly immersed dishes and accompanied her back toward our apartment building.

An unfamiliar calm set in as our mission came to a close. I felt like I had washed away a part of myself with those dishes. That heavy part of me, bound down by self-concern and a stubborn devotion to my own comfort, had started to thin away. Strangely, as we trudged back to the apartment, weighed down by soaking wet skirts and the heat of the Sunday sun, I felt a little lighter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Name is Ettel and I Have a Double Identity

They told us to write down our names.

They gave us those Hello! My name is _______ stickers. You know, the name tags you slap onto your freshly pressed blouse as you smile clumsily at strangers in an unfamiliar room. Those stickers mean it’s the beginning of something, an encounter with a bright empty space waiting to be etched with experiences.

Today is the first day of graduate school. They want me to introduce myself and tell my story, to provide a colorful explanation of why I chose to be here when I could have been anywhere else in the universe. I care about making a good impression. But my story is still under construction and there’s no distinct theme, and sometimes I feel like I’m a character in a never-ending prologue with no Chapter 1 in sight.

A dozen other twenty-somethings are seated on either side of me in a semi-circle. They’re all fidgety and tentative, nervously shuffling through their welcome packets and staring alternately at the floor and the doorway.

Maybe the facilitator knows that everyone’s stomach is in their throat and their palms are sopping wet, so he’s trying to do us a kindness by simply letting us jot down our names and become acquainted with each other. A very non-threatening first assignment as graduate students. After all, everyone knows that a name is a given. A reflex. The safest possible starting point. But I have this habit of complicating everything, my name not excluded.

What is my name?

My fingers clenched around my pencil, I braced myself for the impending confrontation with the Hello sticker. Self-conscious that the rest of the room would observe my hesitation, I pretended to be intrigued by the course list in my welcome packet.

For everyone else, the instruction to write down our names brought a moment of relief. A meaningless space sandwiched between the important things on the agenda. Their calm only made me more flustered. My thoughts darted wildly in every direction and I was positive the entire room could hear my heart thumping frantically against my ribcage.

But somehow my inner voice expanded to fill that tiny space. It demanded that I decide right then and there who I wanted to be.

HELLO! My name is Ettel.

There it was. My scribbled identity, born of impulse or intuition or maybe something more.

The name felt awkward as its syllables escaped my lips, jerkily and one at a time. They all looked uncertain saying it back to me.

Your name’s not on the list, the facilitator said. I explained that I have two names. It’s kind of confusing…it’s a little complicated, I stammered.

Who I am is complicated.

I’m one of many in this semi-circle. I’m a student breathing in the freshness of a new start; shrinking in moments of self-doubt; wondering what is to come. Will this place unearth all my inadequacies and challenge all my truths? Will it strengthen me or will I stagnate here? There’s the part of me that’s scared of what this new beginning will bring.

But then there’s the part of me that knows my existence is stabilized by more than the sturdiness of this chair, the comfort of this space, the security of this educational path. My identity is connected to something beyond all of this. It’s something that doesn’t care about first impressions or A pluses or being “successful.” That part of me knows that everything is as it is meant to be and the story will start and end where it’s supposed to.

That's what Ettel represents. Every time others address me, that name will remind me that who I am is not so simple. I have layers and dimensions and unrevealed depths that spiral from an infinite source. The name channels my spiritual self and engages it in my daily interactions with the mundane world. By uttering "Ettel", the very people I fear will challenge my identity will be the ones to offer the most poignant reminder of it.

"Ettel." Repeated the facilitator gingerly. "Welcome to the program."

I feigned indifference as my peers studied me. My alternative name, my long sleeves in August, my bagged lunch in place of the free breakfast buffet. I could tell that I was, in some ways, a mystery to them. But I'm okay with that, because I don't entirely understand myself yet either.

What I do know is that my name is Ettel, and I think that's a pretty solid beginning.