Growing up, I was always the nerdy kid. I was the one who did not fit in with the crowd, who did not care about being popular, who wore crazy clothing, who wrote poetry instead of paying attention in school, and who went through a rainbow of hair colors.
I first became enamored with Judaism when I joined my high school youth group. Despite my weirdness, I was accepted for who I was, and I did not have to change myself to have friends.
I first encountered frumkeit when I got to UPenn. The Orthodox students I encountered were warm and welcoming. Their love of Judaism sparked my interest, and I wanted more than anything to be like them.
As I started taking on more and more mitzvot, I thought that it was not enough just to be observant. In order to truly be frum, I had to have the” frum personality.” I ignored all the parts of me that I did not consider Jewish, and plunged into Jewish life, making huge Shabbat meals for everyone, going around the dorm building giving away fresh baked cookies or deli-roll, attending 5 shiurim a week (plus learning with a few chevrutot). Every activity I did was Jewish.
I think everyone goes through this stage, where they cut off all ties to their past persona and try to reinvent themselves as their new frum self. Unfortunately for me, this led to an identity crisis. I still did not feel like I truly was one of those Orthodox girls that I looked up to, and yet, I had definitely transformed into someone completely different than my own self.
It took me a trip outside to a park for me to consciously realize what I had done. Up until this point, I had not realized that there was this whole part of me that I had pushed deep down inside.
It takes a lot of thought to go back through your memories, your old essence of self, to pull out the remnants that can be saved, that can be incorporated into your new frum self. But I would argue it is something that we all need to do at some point. No one can completely re-create themselves.
For me this required dedicating more time to reading fantasy novels for fun, to taking walks in nature, and to relaxing in front of the television every so often. But even this was not enough. I felt that in some way I needed to reclaim part of my old unique self in order to be able to better merge that self and my Jewish self instead of having them as two different personalities. Something I had wanted to do since freshman year, but had told myself it was not something that conformed to Orthodox norms.
That something was getting my nose pierced. I had talked to my rabbi, who gave me the psak that there was nothing halachically wrong with this, (though he thought I was a bit crazy). I did not want to make an outward statement of rebellion, of rejecting the religion I had tried so hard to be a part of. But I wanted a reminder to myself that deep down inside I was still Rachel.
It was a very cathartic experience for me. And for all that I worried that people might shun me for not conforming, most people either did not notice it (since I got something small and discreet) or if they did, thought it was cool. Even the yeshivish community in Providence that I visit whenever I am living at my parents’ house did not really notice or think less of me.
So I would say that the moral of the story is that if there is something you want to do that does not conflict with halacha, but is not part of your community’s norms, go for it. People are more accepting than you would expect, and they might even respect you more for not being afraid to be who you are.