Monday, August 29, 2011

How I went OTD and left the Jewish community for good: Part 5

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 6

My way out of the Jewish community I grew up in, and away from my parents,was full financial independence, which I got on September 1st 2004, the day I moved away to the city my graduate school was located in. Graduate school, and the stipend that came with it, was my ticket to freedom.

Living on my own and not getting any money help from anyone was definitely not easy at first. $15,000 a year (minus taxes) is not a ton to live on, even though technically it is above the poverty line. At first I lived in a small studio apartment in a big building in a terrible neighborhood near my school that cost $500 a month, the cheapest apartment I could find. My first day there I looked across the room to the kitchenette and said to myself "did I drop something in the kitchen?" Nope, turned out to be a cockroach the size of my hand, come to welcome me to the building.

My neighbors in the shitty apartment building I lived in turned out to be some of the more interesting people I have met- the painter (not the art kind, the walls kind) who had been kicked out of the navy for dealing cocaine and who once told me a long rambling story about how he had been sexually abused by church elders as a kid, the older African American dude who lived next door and played the drums for a jazz band (and was REALLY good), but who would occasionally blast Britney Spears (once I found a joint in the hallway outside his apartment). On the other side of me lived a nice older Mexican lady who was always carrying buckets of roses around, which I think she sold from the side of the road somewhere. Across the hall at first there was a law student, but later he moved out and this white dude who was a parolee who had just gotten out of jail for selling drugs moved in. The couple who lived on top of me fought constantly (which I could of course hear through the thin walls/ceiling), and once I had to call the cops on them when I heard lots of loud crashing noises and yelling and what sounded like people getting hit, at 3am.

Didn't really feel safe going out at night. Constant roach and mice infestations that were never taken care of no matter how many times I called the landlord. Once there was a fire alarm and everyone came out with cats in carriers, so I finally figured out I could get a cat even though it was technically against the rules, which took care of the constant parade of mice running from under the stove to behind my futon couch somewhere. My cat (that one, I have 3 now) is an excellent roach killer too- I found a whole bunch of half eaten roaches when I was moving out.

My first semester in grad school sucked, as major transitions often do. I didn't know a single person when I got there, it took me a while to make some new friends, adjusting to the insane work load and expectations of grad school was hard, as was going from being the top of my class as an undergrad to being an average grad student. Going from a very diverse public college to an elite private ivy league university gave me culture shock all over again.

I was living in a shitty apartment in the middle of a terrible area where hearing gun shots was not terribly unusual. I had no car, no air conditioning- the bars on the windows made it impossible to get a window AC unit, so I used to spend the hotter days working in my grad school office and late afternoons hanging out at a local coffee/cigarette shop shooting the shit with local people. That last part was actually pretty awesome.

In graduate school I participated in the local jewish community at first, but it was not orthodox (or at least the one I participated in was not orthodox). I tried meeting jewish-but-not-religious people to date on Jdate and at these events (grad student/young professional jewish networky things), and had several short relationships with men I met there and on jdate.

None of these mini-relationships lasted very long, and a few ended pretty badly (although in retrospect, hilariously). One somewhat-promising relationship ended when the man in question brought over a bottle of wine for dinner about 6 weeks after we started dating, and then drank most of it. He got very drunk and confessed that he owed his credit card company over $5,000 and that creditors were harassing him all the time for the money. And why did he owe them this much money? Because when he was in Italy two years before for a study abroad program, he had gone on a 3 week cocaine binge, and paid for it all with credit card cash advances. After confessing this he dropped a bottle on the kitchnette floor, stepped on a piece of glass, and got blood all over the carpet of my shitty apartment. After helping him clean up his foot I let him drunkenly moan about how "I'm dying, don't leave me, I'm dying" on my couch all night and ended the relationship in the morning.

Another relationship ended because the guy refused to be exclusive- he claimed he really wanted to get married (he was 29, I think his goal was to get married by 30) so he couldn't settle down with one person and stop dating other people until he was SURE he was going to marry them. Seems like a horrible strategy to me (and he's still not married at 35 now). I dated him about a week more after he declared this (which he declared about 5 weeks into dating him), but when he started hitting on one of my grad school friends in front of me, I ended that too.

I went on several spectacularly bad first dates, all with jewish men. One told me a story of how he had posted naked pictures of his ex gf to the internet, in which she was tied up to a chair with a broken leg (WTF???? NOT first date material!). One man called and planned a second date and never showed up for it (Um, why not just NOT plan a second date?). One man started serenading me with (really bad) "opera" in front of my school building. One guy started shouting at me in a bar about how women shouldn't pay for drinks, because I offered to buy him a second drink (he had paid for the first round). I turned down second dates with two men because of their jobs- one programmed missiles to kill people (not in the military, he worked for a place that had a defense contract, directly programming the missiles), and the other wrote papers for college students for a living (i.e. a professional cheater). Not every date/mini relationship was horrible, some were ok, but the ones that weren't horrible all ended with us being friends for various reasons (and I did make quite a few friends this way too).

I stopped going to my parents house on shabbas or for yuntif (holidays) entirely the day I moved to grad school. Once I was no longer forced to go to my parents house for shabbas every weekend, my remaining observance dropped off rapidly. At first I celebrated holidays with the local jewish young adult professional/grad student scene- sometimes at hillel, sometimes at chabad, sometimes at other places around town. I went to conservative services for the high holidays for a few years. I also celebrated quite a few holidays with a classmate's reform family. Even though I met some great friends through this crowd, including a later roommate, I felt less and less of a connection to Judaism and the Jewish community as the years passed. I started eating more and more non-kosher foods.

I can't pinpoint an exact moment, but around this time I realized I had stopped believing in god entirely, for reasons discussed in yesterday's post. As I came to see religious rituals as man-made rather than anything god wanted anyone to do, following those rituals because less and less compelling to me. Eventually as my beliefs about religion coalesced, it came to a point where I felt like a complete phony going to these young Jewish professional network things, since everyone there was really into the religion (or at least it seemed to me) and assumed I was too. But I wasn't. I enjoyed hanging out with people my age, and the opportunity to network, but not the services or the rituals or talking about religious ideas. I didn't feel like I fit in with them, even in a highly diverse crowd of young jews my own age. I just wasn't INTO it the way they were. I wasn't a believer. And the meat market nature of these young jewish events and the extent to which some event organizers (especially Chabad) would push us to get drunk and hook up with other jews so we could mate and make more jewish babies...well that also got to me. And I started to look upon these events with dread.

I was having a kind of existentialist crises I guess. At one point about a year after I got to grad school I started having panic attacks before going to jewish events. Then I started having them before EVERY jewish event or service like clockwork, about an hour before I was supposed to leave the house. I started going to a therapist because of these panic attacks, and went through a year of talk therapy.

In therapy I decided that after some really pretty bad dating experiences with several men met through Jdate and this young jewish professional network over my first year and a half of grad school, along with going through almost weekly panic attacks before jewish events, I needed a radical change in my life. About a year and a half into grad school I started a year long "happiness project" in which I decided to take a year off from internet dating and cut way back on the young adult jewish events (just about my only social activity at the time, which I was going to almost weekly my first year of grad school) to explore what it is that makes me happy. After being in a relationship for 4 years in college and then jumping from bad dates to a mini relationship to more bad dates and more bad mini relationships, I needed to take the time to myself to not think about dating and to figure out who I was, what I liked, and what I wanted in life. And after spending my whole life in the jewish community, I wanted to explore other social communities.

During that year I grew dreadlocks, took classes at a local arts collective on yoga, figure drawing, watercolor, and tai chi (in addition to finishing up my masters in grad school and teaching my first class), joined a gym and went all the time, took up biking again, quit smoking (which I started in late high school), went to about 30 shows and 5 music festivals and became a regular part of the local hippie music scene, and wrote a LOT in my other blog.

My year of dreadlocks

About half way through the year I stopped going to all organized jewish events and services, and started limited myself to smaller gatherings at people's houses, like the shabbas night potluck my reform friend hosted every month or so. The panic attacks stopped immediately when I stopped going to big Jewish events, and I haven't had one since. I concluded that Jewish community events, especially those that revolved around services and religious discussions, were making me miserable, and the only reason I was still going was out of a misguided attempt to find some kind of a Jewish community I fit into and that I actually got something out of. And that my primary motivation for doing that was because I felt obligated to my parents to try to find some kind of Judaism I'd be happy with, rather than getting any personal enjoyment or benefit out of it. I realized that after 5+ years of searching I still was getting little out of any of the jewish services or community events I had gone to, other then a bunch of panic attacks and miserable/boring experiences. I did find many friends there, but I had learned to make friends outside of the jewish world too. So I stopped going entirely.

The other thing I decided after much thought and writing was to stop limiting myself to dating only Jews, but that I didn't want to date someone who was part of another religion. I went out on a date with my first non-Jewish guy around September. The date was about the same as every date I had been on with a Jewish guy, except less Jewish geography. But I didn't find that guy particularly interesting, so I turned down a second date with him.

Somewhere in there I told my parents I wasn't religious a few more times, until it eventually started to stick, but I don't think they fully accepted that it wasn't still a "teenage rebellion phase" until I met B (and maybe not even after that). After my year long happiness project in 2006/break from internet dating, and being bored over winter break when a lot of my friends in grad school were off visiting their own families, I joined okcupid right around new years 2007 and limited the people who could see me to jews, atheists and agnostics. About a week later I got an email from a young man named B. After several hours-long instant messenger conversations, we met in person a week later. Like most internet dates I scheduled it for a couple of hours before I had to be somewhere else, so our entire first date was about 45 minutes long, in which we just talked the whole time. Later that night I went to my next plans- one of those shabbas potluck dinners. That entire night I kept thinking...hmmm....that guy I went out with today was pretty neat actually...hmmmm.

To be continued...


  1. Great story! It took a lot of courage to break off ties to the Jewish community. I am still trying to work out where I fit in Jewishly. Can't wait to read the next part.

  2. I hope it ends with some sort fierce alien gun battle

  3. you know how it ends HH, you've been reading this blog since the beginning, and I started it like 6 months after this blog post ends.

  4. true....but I still hope you can squeeze some aliens in there.

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  6. Why are pictures on your blog always stretched horizontally? Or at least that's how they appear in Chrome and on my cellphone.

  7. I'm with HH - how about some aliens! Call one God, the other Flying Spaghetti Monster, throw in Han Solo & some Wookies, and let's get an epic battle on :-)

  8. >Why are pictures on your blog always stretched horizontally? Or at least that's how they appear in Chrome and on my cellphone.

    Appears on Safari as well. It's always been like that.

  9. hrm, I'm not sure, maybe it's because of the html I use? (I use height="85%" width="85%" cause otherwise my pictures are always too big). It always looks fine on firefox...I think if you double click it you should be able to see the full picture?

  10. or rather right click it and hit "view image" or whatever the safari equivalent is

  11. That's OK, I already have a mental image of your zucchini flowers being elongated - that makes them unique. Why mess with that?

  12. It seems to me that the Orthodox indoctrination you received from your parents and your school actually facilitated your almost total rejection of your Jewish heritage. And the Orthodox accuse us Conservative and Reform heretics of causing a "spiritual genocide" of the Jewish people!

    The brainwashing, even when you were rebelling from it, made it hard for you to understand how we non-Orthos can be enthusiastic in our affiliation while not believing in much of the classical Jewish theology. Or, more to the point, the brainwashing made it hard for you to be like us. It's almost as if Orthodoxy is more worried about their kids becoming observant in a non-Orthodox denomination than they are in their kids going OTD altogether.

    So why do we non-Orthodox continue to go to shul and have seders, Shabbos dinners, etc. even though we don't believe the theology? I guess we were brainwashed differently. It's more a tribal solidarity thing. I love doing Shabbat because my grandfather (and even further back) did it, thus I'm participating in a long chain of (evolving) ritual practice, not making up some feel-good BS. The religion does have some good moral and ethical values (though I do admit you have to pick and choose a but, because some values are outdated, but the picking and choosing can be justified by citation of traditional sources.) The Bible may be a fairy tale and mythic history, but it does teach some good lessons if you take it on its own terms.

    It's a shame you couldn't find a way to accept your Jewish identity, though I can understand why you fled from a difficult situation.

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  14. Conservative - I agree 100%. See my comment from yesterday here, where I wrote something similar

  15. Let's all embrace our ethnicity like it matters. I'm Aryan, anyone else? Anyone? Bueller?

  16. Bret do you know what ethnicity means? Ethnically you are probably italian, not aryan. :) Aryan is a race not an ethnicity.

  17. "And the meat market nature of these young jewish events and the extent to which some event organizers (especially Chabad) would push us to get drunk and hook up with other jews so we could mate and make more jewish babies...well that also got to me."

    Ouch. That's bad. I would never go to that sort of party ever. Eeeeewwww, frankly.


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