Not Passing, and Proud of it

“Where do you study?” asked the shaddchun.
“Yeshivas Ohr Yaakov,” I answered, “and before that I learned at Ohr Somayach.”
“And before that?” she asked.
“University of California,” I said.
“And before that?” she persisted.

Before that? “Uh, high school.”
“Yes,” she said patiently. “Which high school?”
Was she kidding? “Harvard School, in North Hollywood, California.”
“Is that a Jewish school?”
This was too much. “Actually, it’s Episcopalian.”

Her head snapped up, her eyes bugged out, and she gasped, “Are you a ger?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “No, just an assimilated Jew who’s done tshuva.” My answer didn’t seem to register at all.
“Well, no one needs to know about that,” she said, violently scratching out the damning information she had written on her note pad.
She suggested one shidduch, a girl with whom I had so little in common that we ended our only date by mutual consent after 20 minutes.

Nearly a decade later, I sat with a Torah U’Mesorah representative for my first interview entering the world of chinuch. I felt as if I were back on a shidduch date.
“So how’s your Hebrew?” the rabbi asked.
“Conversationally, not so great, but in learning I hold my own.”
He nodded, then said, “I’ve found that most ba’alei tshuva sound like they’re speaking Chinese when they try to speak Hebrew.”
“Well, I’m gabbai of my shul, and I daven for the Yomim Noroyim.”
He nodded again, then said, “So your Hebrew’s not so good.” It was a statement this time, not a question.

I’m mildly amused now by the anxiety I once felt over my inability to pass. But there are two sides to every story. Upon interviewing for my second teaching job, the principal confided that, “your resume was spellbinding; it read like an adventure novel.” I suppose most American FFBs can’t claim attendance at the University of California, the University of London, the University of Edinburgh, and travel across four continents. I got the job.

And more surprises awaited. Teaching in a school with less than a third frum kids, my fellow rebbes found themselves frequently faced with students claiming, “you don’t know what it’s like for us — you never experienced the secular world so you can’t understand what we’re going through.”

I couldn’t help teasing my colleagues: “You FFBs, nebuch, just can’t relate to these kids.”

Inevitably, everything comes full circle. A couple of years after moving to St. Louis, I published an essay in the local Jewish paper describing my childhood experience with a Chanukah menorah on one side of the room and an Xmas tree beside the fireplace on the other. The next morning one of the other rebbes pulled me aside and whispered urgently, “You have to speak to your students.”
“About what?” I asked, mystified.
“About your essay,” he replied.
“What does it have to do with my students?”
“They’re shocked. They didn’t know you’re a ba’al tshuva!”

11 comments on “Not Passing, and Proud of it

  1. I can’t vouch for others, but we always get a kick of stating our secular high school educational background on our kids applications for schools , camps and sems. I guess that is a small bio in and of itself.

  2. Dear Rav Osher,

    It’s wonderful to find you engaged in the back and forth on this blog.

    I fear that my anecdotes have been somewhat misinterpreted. I truly believe that the small-mindedness of those individuals I’ve described does not represent the majority of FFBs. We must all resist the inclination to stereotype and focus on the shortcomings of others as a means of avoiding the real avodas HaShem of working on ourselves.

    As you so memorably taught me, whether BTs or FFBs we all tend to become FWEs — Frum Without Effort, coasting along in our Yiddishkeit looking for excuses not to push ourselves to the next level and the next level and the next.

    My point really was to poke fun at my own insecurity when I worried about how others in the frum world would stereotype me. My secular background and colorful baal tshuva stories have enabled me to connect with people in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. I found a wonderful shidduch 18 years ago with a wonderful baalas tshuva, and our children — who, IY”H will be comfortable whether marrying either BTs or FFBs — seem more balanced and secure in their own Yiddishkeit, bli ayin hara, than many of their peers who are children of FFB families.

    And of course you’re not a werido. An iconoclast, yes, which is why you’ve turned out so many successful talmidim (among whom I hope I can count myself).

  3. Rabbi O.E. Reich-
    Tried clicking on your name but could not connect to your blog/website. What’s the correct URL?

    Story that I once heard; The Brisk Yeshivas in Jerusalem traditionally do not offer their students room and board. About 30 years ago Ohr Somayach sensed an opportunity and offered FFB Yeshiva Bochurim a bed in their dorm and meals in exchange for learning with/mentoring their students during night seder. One fellow enjoyed his learning/ teaching at OS so much he started doing it full time (3 s’dorim). Before Rosh Hashanah he went to the Gerrer Rebbe the “Lev Simcha” for a brocha. The Rebbe asked him “Where do you learn?” the bochur, feeling slightly uneasy and not wanting to lie said, “In Ohr Somayach, but” he quickly added “I’m not a Ba’al T’shuva”. The Rebbe responded “Oh no? What are you waiting for? What, then, are you? A tsaddik m’eekro (one who never sinned)?”

    For an interesting anecdote about your Rebbe’s parents see the archives for comment #28 on the post Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow January 2nd, 2006 – by Aryeh Leib Ecker

  4. to Reb Yoinoson
    Indeed,it is both sad and hilarious that the attitudes you depict are so prevalent, so rigid and unyielding and so well fuelled with pseudo-righteousness.
    But let’s not forget that this isn’t the whole picture. As you know, I’m connected to the Amshinover Rebbe shlita who takes people as they are, totally non-judgementally.(As an indication : he did not endorse the frum world’s negative attitude to Reb Shlomo Karlebach, and many erstwhile followers of the latter are now connected to and receive guidance from the Rebbe.)When I go to him and see what true honest yiddishkeit is, everything takes on a different perspective and I feel that all my FFB well established Torah standing in the frum world is just a travesty; when will I become a baal tshuva and really fulfil my purpose in the world ?! We FFBs all need to become baalei tshuva, albeit in different areas than those that you have had to deal with. And of course real tshuva involves more than all you have been through ; a brief look at the beginning of the Shaarei Tshuva of Rabbeinu Yonah gives you an idea of what is needed to really correct ones past.

    So when it comes down to the real thing, the differences between us aren’t that great and we have to work together; Baalei Tshuva need to benefit from the experience of FFBs and FFBs have to respect and feel challenged by the zeal and tremendous sacrifices in life accomplished by Baalei Tshuva. We all have an enormous lot of baggage to deal with, and it’s all relative. I know I’m in the minority with this attitude but I believe that there are a good number of FFBs with yichus like myself who likewise abhorr the caste system and who say, would be ready to do a shidduch with baalei tshuva if they felt the individual specialness of the boy or girl overrides the lack of yichus.

    Or maybe no. Maybe I’m just a wierdo, an untypical idealist, an iconoclast whom no-one takes seriously. Maybe. But still it’s good, isn’t it, that you have one person on the other side of the wall who’s on your side !
    Hoping for more emes in the world
    Yours
    Rabbi Reich

  5. Im an FFB the son of a BT.
    Stick it out you Holy Ones H-shem is with you.
    The nation is dependant on you amd your Birrurim.

  6. Sid:

    The kids were a pushover. Ba’al tshuva stories are often fascinating, especially when they involve international travel, searching for truth, and visible hashgocha pratis (Divine Providence). Now I tell each class that when we finish a book of Tanach they get to hear my life story. That really gets them motivated.

    Rishona:

    Please don’t generalize from my shaddchan story to the rest of the frum world. There’s small-mindedness in every corner of every community. I know plenty of converts who are fully integrated and accepted in their communities, who find shidduchim for themselves and their children. And there are plenty of FFBs who suffer from all the problems that they believe are specific to geirim and ba’alei tshuva. This blog exists for us to offer one another encouragement, but we can do so without resorting to the kind of stereotyping that so frustrates us.

  7. I have a similar problem, Rabbi Goldson. My feelings on having attended Ohr Somyach. You can bet I don’t bring that one up on a date!Initials only on this one. ;)

  8. Oy vey; great post, but I just can’t get past the shadchan part! I’m working towards conversion (not there yet; I’ve lived in the Orthodox community for a year and a half at this point) and the whold shiddichum scene seems like it needs some serious revamping or something. At this point, if I ever convert (B’ezras Hashem), I guess I will be passed the point of being shocked. But my goodness, where did this idea that gerim possess some sort of genetic disease or something? Truly unfortunate.

  9. Thanks. That was a helpful reminder to try to distinguish between our self-assessment of our achievements and the assessments that others (FFB’s) deem worthy. Sometimes I think we need a counterforce of sorts; some kind of pat on the back for keeping up the BT struggle against the tide.

Comments are closed.