Monica Rozenfeld moves to Brooklyn with two roommates — a Catholic and an observant Jew — and they each seek understanding of what it means to be religious.
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I know I’ve been quiet for a while, but maybe it’s because there’s just too much to say. For the past couple of months I’ve been…conflicted. So many thoughts running through my head, so many questions, yet not finding the right words to express myself.
The holiday of Purim came and went in a whirl with a vodka-filled and -emptied flask by my side. I will admit, something felt off, but it was a fun time nonetheless. Just the right amount of debauchery, and while my friend was spinning me around during wild dancing, I kind of felt like I was in a circus scene in a movie. Everything was a blur around me.
On to Passover – the holiday where we Jews rid our homes of physical chametz that includes bread, pasta, and anything not Kosher for Passover, and during the rigorous cleaning process it is hoped that we will work to rid ourselves of spiritual chametz – ego, arrogance, the tendency towards gossip – basically anything that “raises us up” in a negative way. If you look at chametz vs. matzah, you have bread that was given the chance to rise. During Passover we eat matzah – unleavened bread. We aspire to be like matzah, so to speak: humble.
This was the first time when I really kept Passover, in the sense that I was able to clean my kitchen fully and make a real effort to remove my physical chametz. But in the midst of all the shopping and cleaning and covering my counter tops with foil (I’ll explain later) it was difficult to focus on cleaning the spiritual chametz. I feel that with each passing year since I starting becoming observant the practice of Judaism becomes easier while the understanding becomes harder. I know how to read Hebrew, how to pray, where to bow at the right times but I don’t know why. So it was during my Passover preparation that my frustrations began to come out and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
I was purchasing new kitchen items to be used during Passover, cleaning to make sure that I could vacuum up as many crumbs of bread as I could, and covering our refrigerator shelves, my cupboard shelves, and counter tops with aluminum foil to cover up any possible speck of chametz as we’re not even supposed to see chametz during Passover, yet once I took a look at my kitchen that looked like a robot, I was so frustrated with these seemingly ridiculous rules. I didn’t want to lash out at Judaism; I didn’t want to be angry with Orthodoxy, but I began to realize that 9 years ago when I was first so excited by the calm of Shabbat, and so determined to learn Hebrew, I got caught up in the “how-tos” that no one sat me down to learn why.
This all became really scary to me. That 9 years later I find myself questioning my reasons, feeling like an ex-Yeshiva student who is disenchanted with the institution of Orthodoxy while my friends in the community I live in are only a few years in and see the magic of G-d everywhere. I used to see that magic. I saw sparks of glory and wonder in just about everything.
Sometimes when I’m in synagogue on Saturday mornings saying the standing prayer that is the amidah, or the shmoneh esrei, I can feel so connected that I literally feel like I am standing in from of the Kotel – the Western Wall – in the Old City of Jerusalem. I know that I have the ability to take myself there and to really feel it, but it is so much harder now.
They say that a small mitzvah done by a person returning to Judaism means more than that of a righteous and holy person because that small mitzvah was so much harder and took so much effort for the returnee. For someone who knows how to play the game – knows the right way to do things, knows the prayers, knows the laws – it can be so much harder to find something new to take on to elevate their spirituality and observance. I suppose I’m struggling to find something that is so impactful like when I was just beginning my journey.
After coming home from a kosher for Passover party, a few shots of potato vodka warming my belly, I emailed a rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) from the neighborhood. I needed to talk to her. I felt so desperate with my struggle that I felt like if I didn’t do something in that moment – tell her about my struggle – that it would eat away at me. We still have to find a time in our crazy schedules to meet, but it’s comforting to know that she didn’t scold me and she didn’t chide me. She reassured me that these rules – the ones around Passover in particular – are hard, but it’s okay to question, and she’ll help me through it.
I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’m taking the right steps. My weekly study partner and I have begun to tackle the topic of prayer. I’m learning where the idea of prayer came from and how our current prayer books have taken shape over the years. I feel a bit better now that I’ve learned the origins. I not only know how to pray, but I’m starting to learn why.