Several years after taking the plunge into the observant lifestyle, including years of full-time study, I had an experience that capsulated for me this week’s issue: the conformity/non-conformity paradox.
I was interviewing for a job in a “modern orthodox yeshiva” teaching fifth graders.
“Well,” the elderly Rabbi interviewing me asked, “I think we have enough information to make a final decision. Do you have anything else you want to add about yourself?”
Another rabbi, the acting principal of the school, half this rabbi’s age, had excused himself from the interview midway through. That and other signs suggested to me that I wasn’t going to get the job if I let it stop there — which was surprising. I thought I was qualified. However, I hadn’t clicked with either of these men. But I wanted the job and decided to take a risk.
“Yes, there is one other thing,” I blurted. “I was captain of my varsity baseball team.”
The rabbi’s eyes bulged. “High School?”
His eyes bulged twice as large. Quickly, he yelled to the other room, “Rabbi G! Come back in here. Quick!”
The acting principal opened the door to the adjoining room and peeked in.
“Our friend, here,” the elderly rabbi said with a sense of pride, “forgot to tell us. He was captain of his college baseball team.”
The younger rabbi moved fully into the room and closed the door behind him. “Really? What college?”
“No. But we played a lot of Division One teams.”
“What position did you play?” the elderly rabbi asked.
“What was your batting average?” the other rabbi asked.
“.393 my freshman year…” And so on until they knew all my vital statistics. Baseball statistics, that is.
As it turned out, what my yeshiva learning and personal demeanor was not able to accomplish, my batting average did. I was given the chance to deliver a model class for their students (the next step in a teaching job interview). And, believe me, I made sure to pepper my lesson with baseball metaphors.
In all fairness, these rabbis knew their students well and after my first mention of Dave Winfield (yes, this was in the 1980’s; ancient history) I pretty much had the class in the palm of my hand.
I had come into the interview in “conformity” mode. I didn’t want them to know I was a baal teshuva (I certainly didn’t want to emphasize it). I wanted to appear FFB as much as possible.
But the interview taught me arguably the oldest lesson in the book: to thy own self be true. Specifically, I learned that I could be myself in the frum world, not just who I thought the frum world wanted me to be. Even more so, it taught me that not only could I be myself and succeed, but, indeed, I had to be myself.
In truth, I had learned the lesson before that experience, but had apparently forgotten it. And, even more truthfully, I’ve forgotten the lesson since then. The struggle between conformity and non-conformity often still rages within me, even if only in more subtle ways.
Seems strange at this late date. But that’s who I am. And, I guess, that’s the point I wanted to convey.