Warning to the secular crowd: this one might be a bit confusing unless you’re aware of the different types of people I’m referring to.
I’ve seen the baal teshuvas quietly mumbling their complaints.
One here, he says, look at these off the derech folks. They’re writing all these memoirs. Writing articles for the New York Times. Getting the word out about their experiences.
It’s not fair, the baal teshuva mutters. It’s not fair that their story is being told and that everyone is listening.
Yes, I’ve seen the baalei teshuva complaining.
Not just them, of course. Plenty of orthodox folks have gotten upset about it. They feel like the stories have been taken out of context, that they’re painted to make all orthodox Jews look bad, that the world is only interested in affirming its own beliefs.
They might be right.
But the truth is that the off the derech, the people who have gone through the pain and trauma of leaving their community, have a right to tell their story. And as a writer, I could argue they even have the obligation.
Our stories matter. Our stories are the way we can take the trials and tribulations of our lives and give them meaning. Share that meaning. Bring out something real from all the confusion that life throws our way.
That’s what it means to write a memoir, or write for the New York Times.
I’m sure there are some people who have an axe to grind. But, at the end of the day, what’s being done is a sharing of stories. A sharing of experiences. For someone going through so much change, it’s not surprising they would want to share it with the world. To feel less alone. To feel sympathy. To feel understood.
And then the baal teshuva mutters some more. He mutters, “Fine, let them tell their stories. But what about us? Why aren’t we in the New York Times? Why are we only on Chabad.org and Aish.com? Why isn’t anyone listening to us?”
Ah, my baal teshuva friend, now we are on to a real question.
Because I know what that muttering baal teshuva is thinking when he has those thoughts. He’s thinking, “The world has it out for us! They don’t care what the Jews think, what people that left the secular world think. They just want to hear reaffirmations of the disdain they have for the orthodox world.”
I understand why the baal teshuva may feel that way. I’ve had my own outbursts of anger against the press. Against a world that sometimes seem bent on misappropriating our lives.
But I have to disagree with the baal teshuva’s assertions. I have to disagree that there is some conspiracy going on to only bring out the anti-orthodox of the world.
I’ll tell you two simple reasons that the off the derech voices are being heard and that the baal teshuva voices aren’t:
1. The off the derech are telling their stories.
2. The baalei teshuva are not.
There are many reasons that this is so. The off the derech are going from a community of tznius, of modesty, to a world of tell-alls, of revealing personal triumphs and tribulations. They have reduced their restrictions.
And, of course, they want their story to be heard, to be understood. For their own reasons, whether for activism or for simple, human reasons.
And the baalei teshuva, they’ve gone the opposite direction. To them, their life shouldn’t be defined by the world they left behind. They did things that might even be “inappropriate” to share with the world.
Mitzvas like honoring parents might scare them from revealing some of their past.
There are so many reasons, and I’m sure that for every baal teshuva the answers are unique.
But the end result is the same. The baal teshuvas are not telling their stories.
I believe with all my heart that the fact that off the derech memoirs, articles, etc have become successful is because G-d wants to wake us baal teshuvas up. He wants to point out how easily we could also get our stories out. He wants to point out how important it is to publicize our adventures, our ups and downs.
Because stories, as I said, are the fabric of the universe. And our stories matter. They are important. People want and need to connect with our stories.
And perhaps, in a different world, you could hide your story, go about being a holy Jew and life would be peachy and dandy.
But this is not that world. This is a world on the edge of Moshiach and there need to strong voices that bridge the gap between the world of Galut and Geula.
The Rebbe once said that although it used to be a virtuous thing for us to hide the fact that we have given charity, we should now publicize it. Because it will cause the world to give more charity as well.
Making things public isn’t always a bad thing. If it spreads holiness. If it makes the world a more refined place. Even if that means taking risks, doing things that don’t seem normal.
Baal teshuvas need to tell their stories. They need to get them out there. Into the New York Times. Into memoirs. Blog posts. Movies. Television. Whatever. Out there.
A few months ago, I gave up on a memoir I was working on. A memoir about how I became religious. I just felt too overwhelmed with work and my other writing.
But I’m making a decision right now, a hachlata, that I will begin writing it again starting Sunday of next week.
Who will join me? Who will help me? Who will tell their stories?
Who will bring Geula?