Baal Teshuvas And The “Happy Ending” Myth

Often, when people talk about the effect movies and television have on us as a nation, they’re usually talking about violence or sexuality, something extreme.

Ironically, there’s a much more insidiously dangerous idea that has been spread by our mass media than those seemingly obvious ones.  The idea of a happy ending.

If you’ve ever seen a Disney movie, you know what I’m talking about. Cinderella meets her prince, they get hitched, and bam, they live happily ever after. Simba kills his uncle, marries his lady-friend, has a kid, and bam, no more trauma from watching his father get murdered in front of his eyes.

That’s just how it goes in those movies, and we’ve come to expect it. Most of us see these themes as relatively harmless. Why shouldn’t kids feel like the world will all work out one day, right?

But the truth is most of us hold onto this belief as we get older. We really believe that if we just get that one thing: that spouse, that money, that promotion, that deal, our problems will be solved.

Ironically, you could say that the biggest cause of divorce today isn’t a breakdown in morals, but a belief that marriage is the beginning of a happy ending. The moment when we can all coast and just soak in the love of our spouse and all that business.

The truth, of course, is that life isn’t like that. Anyone that knows anything about galut, about the fact that this world isn’t a perfect world, but a world that needs to be perfected, knows that happy endings are a myth. An ending is simply a new beginning, and often is the sign of a new struggle.

One of the places where this myth is most prevalent is within the baal teshuva community. Many baal teshuvas start off their process believing they have found the key to their life’s happy ending. They believe that after they’ve signed on the dotted line, gone to Israel and studied, and gotten married, that life will fall into place, and that Hashem will start raining blessings down on them.

I think most of us BT’s go through some sort of dissilusionment process. It’s just a part of the game, if you grew up secular. Because the high of entering religious Judaism can be so enticing, so beautiful, that even if we intellectually understand that if anything, life will become more difficult (after all, we’re taking on a lifestyle completely contradictory to our past life, we’re entering a society we know nothing about, we’re connecting to a truth we’ve only just begun to explore!), we can’t help but expect some part of our life to get better, to get to the point where we can coast and just drive off into the sunset in a feeling of joy. Hey, being a stoic intellectual doesn’t erase those years of Disney movies.

dina_goldstein-fallen-princesses_yatzer_5

And that disillusionment is a good thing, a natural thing, something we all need to deal with at some point: to understand that the religious world isn’t perfect, that becoming religious isn’t easy, and that the only way to live a life of joy is to change the world into the vision we have for it.

The danger comes when we don’t understand the myth we’re trying to live out, when we become confused as to why the religious community doesn’t reach our lofty expectations, or when we get confused as to why we’re no longer getting stoned off our praying. It’s all about the expectations, at the end of the day.

And so, for those who aren’t ready for the drop, aren’t prepared for these realizations, they can often bounce back to a desire to return to secularism. They wonder why they ever tried this process in the first place. What were they getting out of it?

Choosing a religious lifestyle will only lead to a richer lifestyle if we embrace it in the way we’re meant to. Not by expecting a happy ending, but by creating a happy ending. Not by leaving the community that has let us down, but by working tirelessly to make that community into what it was meant to be.

Because there’s only one real happy ending. And that will only come when we’ve embraced our own power to create it.

  • DocB

    BTs, not BT’s.

    BTs=plural of BT

    BT’s=”BT is” or denotes ownership by the BT

  • Rebecca Klempner

    I love the bottom photo. It’s the perfect compliment for what you had to say today.

    • I thought the same thing. It’s perfect!

    • Rachel Kann

      The brilliant, visionary, Jewish, female photographer who created the Snow White photo is Dina Goldstein. She is exquisite. Check her work out at http://dinagoldstein.com Thanks!

  • Esther Cohen

    Wow. What a refreshingly honest piece. This speaks to an experience that has been shared by so many of my friends, both those who remained part of the community and those who didn’t… Wherever the journey ends, this can be an incredibly painful bump in the road, and I have to thank you for acknowledging it so eloquently.
    Many times, the disillusionment is most acutely felt after an ugly incident. I have heard so many horrible stories, from controlling husbands to the time my friend’s Christian father died and even his mashpia didn’t see the need for him to grieve… Egh, I still shudder each time I think of that…
    Tension is inevitable when new blood challenges the old guard, but we all have room to evolve, and to lose sight of that is pure hubris and inevitably self-destructive. Thank you for being here and for caring so deeply.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Esther. It’s awesome to see your recent comments on my pieces, and really appreciate the thought you put into your responses to my pieces.

      And yes, I think when we work together and don’t abandon our beliefs, but rather strengthen them, we can make the world we originally wanted when we became religious. It’s all about having a creative mindset.

  • Great post, and great message. We do make our own happy endings, even if the material we have to work with isn’t “happy” by secular (or even “frum”) standards.

    Something I find particularly unpleasant (or disillusioning, if you will) is the way many of us, BT and FFB alike, complain regularly and, dare I say, uselessly, about the problems and woes of frum society. I’m not saying we should ignore the very real problems or brush things under the rug, but that before we start going on about it, take a moment to think whether or not we’re just filling space with repetitive complaints, or doing something concrete. Instead of lamenting the shidduch crisis, talk about the singles you know, maybe even send an email or make a phone call. Even just giving divrei chizzuk or saying a tefillah for someone who you know is going through a hard time.

    • Rivki, I always am a huge fan of your comments, and this one is probably my favorite. I totally agree, and I think it’s kind of something that’s a cultural Jewish thing, for whatever reason. We complain, and sometimes it’s effective because it gets us thinking. But more often than not, I think it is a distraction. A way to allow our problems to not be in our control.

      • Whoa, I just noticed this response. Thank you! And I agree that most of the time complaints are a distraction. Totally.

    • Agreed. Thanks for this important piece, and for linking mine up. Keep the positive and constructive messages coming!

  • Eternal bliss will happen, but not until Gan Eden (which exists now after we pass on) and Yemos
    HaMoshiach/Techiyas HaMeisim. Until then happiness means that despite all the
    difficulties and challenges of life, and knowing that it is our purpose to face
    them—see here—we
    experience happiness and fulfillment, and this can only come through observing Torah
    and Mitzvos. See my post on this topic here.

  • Candy Welner

    Beautiful article, so well written and something I’ve experienced personally over and over again.

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  • Firstly, people need to be realistic. Becoming a baal teshuva is hard. You have ups and downs. Sometimes things are enjoyable like learning interesting things and having a nice yom tov. And sometimes it’s challenging. There are many Torah paths that one could look into though and see what is good for them. The main thing is do it STEP BY STEP

  • Great point. Many times we might be discouraged because of different negative things happening. We might wonder if all this work is worth it. But we shouldn’t do it Only when we feel good and people make us happy. Just like we don’t stop our feeding body, we shouldn’t stop feeding our soul. What’s good is to find a good friend or mentor that is support both emotionally and spiritually

  • Rachel Kann

    Hi Elad, I just wanted to take a moment to give credit to the brilliant, visionary, Jewish, female photographer who created the Snow White photo. She is exquisite. Her name is Dina Goldstein. http://dinagoldstein.com Thanks! This is a great piece of writing that will bring comfort to many.