Telling My Story

Mazal Tov to early Beyond BT contributor Shoshana on her recent wedding to Mordechai Goldberg. In honor of this wonderful simcha we’re reposting this piece from December 5, 2006.

When people meet me, and find out a bit of my background – being from Alabama, not growing up in an Orthodox home – they often ask me to tell “my story.” I used to have no problem with this, but lately, the request for my story has started to bother me.

I don’t hide my background; I don’t pretend to be “FFB” (though I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I could “pass” easily). I’m very upfront with my background and the fact that my family is not observant. So why does it bother me to be asked about my story?

I think it’s because I’ve moved beyond my story. I’ve been shomer shabbos for almost nine years now, the majority of my independent life. My “story” occurred a long time ago. I just don’t feel like those events define who I am anymore, nor even my frumkeit.

Many people who become observant go off to a certain seminary or yeshiva and come to define themselves within the hashkafa of that particular place. I didn’t do that – I worked it out for myself, through many permutations until I made it my own. I imagine that it will still change somewhat throughout my life, but I don’t define myself by the organization that mikareved me, so I’m always a little uncomfortable telling people how I got “into” Orthodoxy.

But beyond having people try to define me by the specific organization that I don’t align myself with (which I don’t blame anyone for, it’s human nature to want to put people in boxes in order to understand them better), I guess I want to move on with my life, to just be a normal Jew who observes or doesn’t observe particular facets of Judaism. It’s not about blending – believe me, it’s difficult to blend when you are from Alabama, living in the NY area – but it’s about wanting people to look at me for WHO I am NOW, rather than where I came from.

Yes, our current lives are certainly affected by our upbringing and our experiences throughout life, but because the events that sparked my interest in becoming more observant happened so long ago, I’m not that person anymore. I’ve moved beyond it, just like I’ve moved beyond the person I was in junior high school.

So now when people ask me my story, I kinda cringe and give them as few details as possible. Not because I’m embarrassed about it or my past, because I’m not. But because I just have trouble remembering who that person was.

39 comments on “Telling My Story

  1. “For a long time, I advocated that BTs should be reticent in this area. OTOH, I can see a lot of value in BTS of similar orientations writing oral histories of their roots, what and who motivated them and their current hashkafic orientations. It is not just fascinating sociology and anthropology, it is very inspiring reading”

    True enough, Steve, but I only have one Real Self, and, like a fine scotch, if I hand it out to everybody, there won’t be as much left for me and my close friends.

    Seriously, having heard many people’s close personal story so many times that it becomes boring, I worry not only about making my story boring to others, but especially to myself.

    As the old British comedy team of Swann & Flanders said of (lehavdil) unprintable words, “If people use them all the time, what will they have left for special occasions?”

  2. For a long time, I advocated that BTs should be reticent in this area. OTOH, I can see a lot of value in BTS of similar orientations writing oral histories of their roots, what and who motivated them and their current hashkafic orientations. It is not just fascinating sociology and anthropology, it is very inspiring reading.

  3. As a newer balas teshuva ( the past 4 years), hearing the stories of others who did this before me was and still is a source of inspiration. You never know when your at a shabbos table with someone who is still undecided about their course in life. Your story might help them to see its not so scary to move towards a religious life. There are lots of questions to ask that are not so blunt. The best one that I got recently was “What point in your process did you grow the most?”

  4. Years ago I was eating at a close friend’s house. A third couple was less well known to us. My hostess (and dear friend), an FFB who has moved rightward from her MO California upbringing, asked the wife how she became frum.

    “I really don’t remember,” the woman said in her charming foreign accent.

    By chance it turned out she came from a city with a small Jewish community where I happened to know a family. When I mentioned this, she showed no interest in continuing the conversation.

    From that exchange I got the feeling that there was something she didn’t want to discuss. As time went on, both I and our hostess became close friends with this woman. I became convinced that she was a gioret, mostly from the circumspect conversation we had at that first lunch.

    When her father passed away in Europe she shared her secret with me, and yes, she was a gioret. She didn’t want anyone to know because she feared discrimination against her children.

    This story, which really took place over the good part of a decade, taught me not to ask baalai tshuva to share their stories. If someone wants to share, they will share. Otherwise, please don’t inquire.

  5. “My sharing rarely served to bond us and bring us closer or engender greater understanding.”

    I hope I’m not a rarity, but that’s exactly what BTs and gerim sharing their story do to me, plus engendering ever greater respect for them and inspiration to attain their level of mesiras nefesh. Which is why I frequent BBT :)

  6. What about sharing “war stories” with other BT’s? That might be useful, depending on the situation and people.

  7. B”H I stopped telling my story about 10 years ago.(I have been frum 34 years).

    Like other responders to this piece I found the best way for me to stop the inevitable inquiries is to turn-the-tables on would-be inquisitors and ask them a lot of personal questions.

    They either love the attention and enjoy speaking about themselves, or they get the point and the conversation will meander in a different direction.

    Here’s why telling my story was not a healthy way for me to interact with FFB society writ large: I felt used.

    FFB society is one in which there are very few socially condoned diversions/entertainment options. In addition to much desired diversion, encouraging a BT to tell his/her story provides a “feel good” bonus that serves to reinforce an FFB’s own sense of superiority & good fortune in having been born an FFB.

    Encouraging me to tell my story was a callously voyeuristic experience for many FFB’s. My sharing rarely served to bond us and bring us closer or engender greater understanding (my motivations for disclosing). Many simply got their kicks from me and moved on. I was invisible now with no secrets to conceal.

  8. ” I love speaking about my former life, how insane it was, how random it was, how out of control it could have become if not for discovering Hashem & Torah”–Jeff Neckonoff

    I hear you, Jeff, but in my case, the fact that I’m a convert and my still-beloved biological family are non-Jews, tends to silence me. I am, however, the only one of my siblings who has never attempted suicide nor been hospitalized in a mental institution, and I was always the “extreme” one.

    Shoshana–thanks for a clear expression of what so many of us feel.

    I think I was always a stranger to the cult of mass self-revelation and “over-sharing” of personal experiences. In my family, baring your soul, your psychotropic meds, or your intimate life was considered about as gauche as walking up to a stranger and starting to cut her hair.

    And about this, I don’t think they were so wrong.

  9. A variation on the same theme – I’m a giores. At this point, I’ve been a frum Jew for more years than I was a goy (over 20 years), but that doesn’t seem to deter those who catch wind of this fact from feeling like my life story should be part of the public domain. I relate so well to the comment “I just have trouble remembering who that person was”. I hardly REMEMBER who that person was and any recollections of what motivated me to become the person I am today I fear would be tainted with a revisionist recollection so many years after the fact. So while I am not ashamed of where I came from, it is not a topic for discussion outside of my immediate family.

  10. As an Orthodox convert, I am so with you on this. I’ll talk about my past with people I know and trust, but strangers? If it were to come out at a Shabbos lunch where we’re both guests or something, and they started grilling me, I would probably laugh lightheartedly and say, “oh, it’s such a looong story…” “I don’t want to monopolize our whole afternoon!” “well, I’m happy where I am now, and that’s more important.” “yes, sometimes it’s hard, but you can’t give up.” “what about you? where did you grow up?” I am VERY good at deflecting questions, LOL…

  11. I was moved and impressed by this piece. I was also impressed with the volume of intelligent responses. I’m not sure what to add except to tell you that I think I get and agree with what you’re saying. Blessings.

  12. As for feeling that one has moved on and no longer being interested in telling one’s story, I am reminded of Rebbetzin Jungreis. She takes every opportunity to speak of her past, about her early childhood in Europe and Bergen Belsen, her parents, her illustrious forbears, and her dear husband who passed away years ago.

    Perhaps some grow tired of hearing of her relate this, though apparently she never tires of telling it. She draws strength from her past.

    (granted, she is not a BT but I think the point is the same, some feel they have moved on while others feel constantly connected with their past)

  13. comment #21 Steve Brizel: As for not reminding a BT of his past, I think the Torah sources are referring to someone who cast off religious observance and then came back to it. After all, up until very recently, the majority of the Jewish people kept the basics of Shabbos and kashrus.
    This new phenemonon of “tinokim sh’nishbu” (“captive children), of people growing up without an authentic Jewish education, is another story. That G-d placed a person in an environment without Torah and mitzvos is not their fault and they have no reason to be ashamed of that, which is why numerous BT’s write and speak of their past and how they became religious.
    Yes, it’s an inspiration both to those who have always been religious and to those who are not yet religious.

  14. Great post Shoshana.

    In my case, I grew up in a very traditional household. Shabbat, Yomin Tovim, Kashrut, and more were not particularily foreign ideas. And, my parents were stricter about media than plenty of Orthodox families. My husband, who went to day school and Yeshiva through High School, has to inform me about pop culture because I usually have no clue (!).

    I don’t get asked for a story too often, but sometimes when I am asked I feel like the asker is simply fishing for juicy information, of which there is very little, (or private information I won’t share anyways). . . .

    When I do share information, the receiver seems disappointed. I was never a drugged out, punked out, kid from a broken and disfunctional home. While I have a broad set of life experiences and acquantiances that might entertain the person asking, I basically am a lot more like them than they expected. And, that just isn’t too exciting.

  15. It’s funny, but in the past few days the topic you have written about has come up a few times under different circumstances in my life.

    I agree that people who ask have different reasons for doing so as well as we all seem to have different reactions to revealing. I also agree that after much time, some things become so distant, that we can sort of forget. But yet, as shopping this time of year always reminds me, those jingles playing on department store intercoms, always remind me of the holiday season complete with all the shows I adored as a kid, “Frosty, Rudolph, Miracle, just to name a few that bring back fond childhood memories. My kids don’t know who any of those characters are, or any of the jingles, thankfully, but that is just a small example of experiences I have gone through that don’t seem to go away completely, at least until reminded of them.

    I was talking the other day with someone who is newer to being frum and openly discusses the issues, topics and some other things like having ADHD, and I was faced with the decision of revealing that we share those things in common or not. She had no idea, I suppose. This is not the first time this has occurred, and we have to try and judge each circumstance independently I suppose. For me, the choice is usually based on a greater good, like whether something positive can come from this for the other person, or whoever else is present, and at what cost. Sometimes I go with the flow, other times I redirect conversations and think about it, you can always revisit the issue another time. I feel that confidence in ourselves and where we have come plays a big part in our comfort level about this as well.

  16. SB

    Please give me your email. I don’t want to respond on the blog. If you don’t want it on the blog can I send you something through the administrators?

  17. Shoshana,

    I misread the fact that it’s not that you’re not at a good comfort level with your past, but that you forgot your past.

  18. FWIW, there is a fascinating Aggadic passage in Pesachim 119a which states that HaShem takes BTs under the Kanfei HaSchina. Rashbam undertands that passage to mean that the teshuvah of a BT is accepted in secrecy ( “bseser”) because teshuvah is a process that seemingly operates the strict letter of the law and is a Chesed given to us from HaShem. While many, including myself, have spoken and written about our past influences as a means of influencing others, there is a definite view within Chazal and Rishonim that one should not remind a BT of his or her past. Whether that encompasses a BT discussing his or her own past is an interesting question. Has anyone seen or heard any views of Gdolim on this issue, aside from the well trodden issue of shidduchim?

  19. Shoshana,

    I would not feel uncomfortable sharing stories with FFB’s and BT’s…I used to not want to tell people in Shul my experiences…but then, as I met more BT’s and other FFB’s, my anxiety went away….you have to want to share, and fell comfortable doing it. I’m sure,over time, you will be! Lots of nachas, and good luck to you!

  20. Two questions:

    1) “Many people who become observant go off to a certain seminary or yeshiva…”

    How do people get time for this? I have a wife and two little kids who will soon need their own schooling. I’m the major (only at this point) breadwinner for the family. I take an occasional class at the local Chabad center, do some distance learning courses through Shemayisrael.com, and read a LOT of books on different aspects of Judaism to learn more and more, but those are things I can do at night, during lunch breaks, or other times I can squeeze in some learning. (helps to get me weaned off the TV too) But I can’t imagine being able to take an extended unpaid leave to go to a Yehiva. Or does this refer to younger folks (around college age) who still have that thing known as “free time” and not quite as much responsibility on their shoulders yet? (I would say “the good old days, but one look at a picture of my wife and kids dispells that notion!)

    2) OOT communities e.g. Baltimore already have a well developed interpenetration between FFBs and BTs.

    What is OOT? Since I’ll be moving to the B’more area in a few years, I’m curious. (I checked an acronym dictionary, but none seemed to fit)

  21. I agree with David Linn. I was going to say something pretty similar. While there ARE people who are just plain nosy, I think some of them are asking for a person’s “story” because they are curious how a non-religious person would willingly take on the “restrictive” lifestyle of Orthodoxy when their secular lifestyle was so “easy”. Some people just don’t have the sensitivity to ask in a less nosy fashion.

    Shoshana, this was terrific. I always chide people who define themselves by one certain aspect of their life; we are all products of our many experiences. You can’t let yourself be defined by ONE thing that you went through, whether good or bad.

  22. To elaborate on #12, there’s clearly a difference between prying and interest. As my children have grown old enough to understand that Mommy didn’t grow up the same way as they are, I’ve come to see the positive effects that has on them. They are very tolerant of others. Imagine how moved I was when my daughter asked me to read her seminary essay, and I read (paraphrasing here) “that when my mom tells me that certain things aren’t appropriate, I believe her because she knows from personal experience”. She’s now taking a course from Aishet, and her older brother also aspires to do kiruv. It’s not at all as though we set out to raise kiruv workers, but it just seems to be developing in that mode.

  23. Just as each and everyone of those being asked/pestered with questions is an individual, some who take offense, others who take pride, so too are those inquiring. Some are interested in knowing more about you as a fellow Jew, others are looking for inspiration, others may know a potential shidduch and others, as JT pointed out, are just plain, over the top nosy. IMHO, it’s important to realize that there may be more than one reason for inquiring.

  24. For many FFBs who are not in the Kiruv Field/Outreach professionals there main exposure to BTs has been through films like Inspired or Ushpizin and/or live BT speakers on the lecture circuit who’s “stump speech” in essence consists of telling their life stories in great detail. This is especially true of FFBs living in New York who can still live comparatively cloistered lives. (OOT communities e.g. Baltimore already have a well developed interpenetration between FFBs and BTs).

    IOW the prying, sometimes inappropriate question may stem from the very limited social contact. The cumulative effect of these films and lectures is to create the impression that ALL BT’s are very anxious to share their stories. I don’t think that nosiness and prying are endemic to Frum society in general. Interacting with “fellow” FFBs boundaries of propriety and discretion are better established.

    Exactly, I think I’m tired of being “a BT” and ready to just be me, whatever that is.
    The Masthead of the blog says it all: BEYOND Teshuva. Time to transcend the stultifying labels.

    Maybe its time I get really graphic with my comebacks as my looks of sheer disbelief do not seem to register

    JT- assuming the questions, as many of the defenders here have opined, are well intentioned, I think that a better idea than graphic comebacks might be to play a little role reversal and begin your own interrogation of THEM.

    As meforshim point out in the historic standoff between Yosef (Tzadik) and Yehuda (Ba’al T’shuva) the relationship, in terms of mutual admiration, help and inspiration, is supposed to be a two way street.

  25. While I empathize with your feelings, I experience the exact opposite.
    When I’ve been in different shuls, and the Rabbis may have mentioned that we’re not to speak about our lives before we were BT, or to remind someone about their life before they were BT, I feel like screaming out “WHY NOT?”.

    I love speaking about my former life, how insane it was, how random it was, how out of control it could have become if not for discovering Hashem & Torah.

    I speak about it constantly in order to give strength to others in somewhat similar situations, to make those not-yet-BT contemplate why someone who was so much like them decided to change his entire life.

    Maybe it’s differences in personality, but I will never stop telling people why & how I became a BT, no matter what certain well-meaning Rabbis say.

    I strongly believe in taking the secular & profane and making it/them Holy. How can one do so if one keeps their past a secret?

    I’m proud of my decision and even the crazy path that led me here.

    Jeff

  26. Shoshana,

    Does it bother you when people ask your other story — “How did a nice girl from Alabama end up in a place like this?” That’s not who you are today. Not that you are embarassed of Alabama, it’s just that you’ve moved on since then.

  27. Despite the fact that I initially viewed discussing one’s past and background on a blog as potentially creating issues that may require halachic resolution, I decided to discuss these very issues both at the Shabbaton and on this blog. I can see that there is a strong rationale to refrain from doing so but OTOH, one can argue that hakaras hatov is also required to those who helped you along the way and who you regard as major spiritual influences, etc.

  28. Shoshana, in your case its looking for inspiration, in my case its pure and unadulterated curious nosiness, or a chance to become a kiruv hero or merry matchmaker. Within the past 3 days, I’ve come across four patronizing/way too curious non-stop w/ the questions /religious strangers, all in different locations . My general appearance or speech dont suggest any fascinating saw the light or looking for the light stories.If anything I switched lighthouses.Dont get me wrong, I looove connecting with fascinating strangers and listening and stuff. But sometimes I find that with the religious strangers its the kiruv / matchmaking instincts or the issue discussed in the rabbi’s sermon of the week ….. that kick in and compel them to keep asking personal questions, forgetting that complete strangers may or may not be in the habit of answering an endless stream of perfectly personal inquiries.

  29. Jaded –
    I don’t think people are necessarily being nosy, I think they are honestly interested to hear how someone could manage to find Orthodox Judaism in Alabama. I admit to having the same curiosity about others on occasion. I haven’t really had the experience of intrusive/inappropriate questions like the ones you are talking about very often.

    Another Shoshana –
    Exactly, I think I’m tired of being “a BT” and ready to just be me, whatever that is.

    Bob –
    Thanks for the essays, and the link to Rabbi Brody’s posts – that’s amazing!

    Ruby –
    Again, it’s not that I’m embarrassed of my past and I don’t think badly of anyone who asks. I guess I would just rather people get to know who I am, and that’s not the most major part of it these days. I think the questions can be asked in an appropriate way, but I just don’t think they need to be the first thing to be focused on, I think it should just come out more naturally.

    Charnie –
    We each took our own path, and I guess it’s part of who we are. It is something to be proud of, and it’s nothing that I hide.

    Albany Jew –
    I think there can be mutual inspiration. We should all learn from each other.

  30. I think some people ask because they are looking for something themselves and wish to be inspired by you. I have had FFB people tell me they are jealous in a way because (even after a number of years) things are still new and exciting for us. Others, unfortunately want to know so they can determine the exact incident that caused us to “go crazy”. By searching within ourselves we can inspire them also by doing our best to convey the beauty and meaningfulness of what we have done.

  31. Shoshana, over the course of time, the probing will probably minimize somewhat, even though I guess there will always be a curiousity about being Jewish in Alabama (and you’re not the only BT I know from there). My path is similiar to yours in that it was also sort of carved out by my own experiences, even though, as I’ve mentioned before, in hindsight I’m sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to link up with a place such as Neve.
    Ironically, this website has sort of gotten me “out of the closet”, so to speak, and I’m probably more open now about being a BT then I had been for many years. Actually, I’m quite proud of it! After all, we all know what the alternative would have been, so B”H, let’s be grateful that we are BTs, even if that factor doesn’t effect our every moment. It would appear to me that this is the chief purpose of beyondbt – to provide support for those of us who’ve already pretty much acclimated/assimilated into the “frum velt”.

  32. Shoshana,

    There is an FFB facination with what inspires a person to change their whole life and become observant. We never faced that challenge. We sometimes wonder if we would’ve stepped up to it as you have. When I ask the question (and now I will be thinking twice before I do) it is coming from a place of reverence and respect (not nosiness, JT).

  33. Shoshana, I can relate to what you are saying. I too have been observant for a while now (almost 7 years), and I still get asked to tell my story, as if it was just yesterday. I also didn’t spend a lot of time in seminary, but am frequently asked where I went to school or learned. While I am not trying to “pass” for FFB, being BT is not really the focus of my life now, being a frum wife and mother is. Sometimes I feel like that gets lost when people just see me as BT.

  34. I think the crux of the issue is that there is way too much platonic patronizing /curious oriented nosiness and unsolicited sympathetic gestures/ basic all around prying goin on within religious communities under the “caring is sharing and questioning” pretense.I’m not sure why you would feel obligated to expound on your complete life history and what inspired you to become religious to everyone that starts questioning you .
    I never understood why complete strangers especially religious ones feel perfectly at home asking the nosy/ prying questions

    If they are asking for my perspective/how I do stuff /advice/opinions on stuff ok , thats perfectly understandable since I do know almost everything …..
    But Its not like the nosy /religious perfect strangers I come across are looking for fresh ideas/ advice or colorful perspectives on stuff. The religious/ complete strangers I come across often,after sharing way too much unsolicited personal information about themselves and their kids, feel perfectly comfortable asking me personal / prying questions like my full name/background/ exact age /hometown/ schools attended / where I work , oh and exactly what kind of guy I intend on marrying. Maybe its time I get really graphic with my comebacks as my looks of sheer disbelief do not seem to register as : maybe these prying questions are not appropiate for complete strangers on the street, even if we are waiting for the same train or bus or shopping in the same supermarket.

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