My Desperate Road To Normalcy

From high school to college to my time studying in Israel, I only wore t-shirts and jeans.

My jeans would be nondescript, not too fancy or outlandish.  My t-shirts wouldn’t have brands on them, and would either have some sort of pattern or be blank.

Since I’ve gotten married, I still wear jeans, slightly nicer, but with the same goal: not standing out.  I moved from t-shirts to button-down long-sleeve shirts.  Until very recently, almost all of them were blue with some white in them.

There were moments in between where I had tried branching out from these styles.  Once in high school, I desperately tried to start wearing “cool” clothes.  I went to GAP and bought this grey sweatshirt that had these vertical lines embedded into it.  The sleeves were longer than normal, and the neck went up a bit high.  I got the sort of dirty orange t-shirts that were popular in my 90s upper-middle-class town as well.

I hated it.

I hated it because it forced me to notice myself, for others to notice me, to feel like I was trying to be something.  I felt like I wasn’t me, like I was someone else.

I preferred to be no one instead of someone else.  I preferred to walk the halls at school unseen and unjudged by my appearance, so people would be forced to get to know me if they wanted to understand me.

In other words, I wanted to blend in.  Not exactly to be invisible, but to be neutrally visible, seen as existing but not judged for my existence.

There was only one moment in my life where I felt like I loved my clothes.  Where I wanted to be judged and looked at based on what I wore.  It was a brief blip in my life.  But it’s a moment I tend to look back on every now and then.  A reminder of a life I’ve largely shrugged off.

Those days in high school and college, when I hated to be judged for being different, back when I hardly wanted to acknowledge I had different skin color than the people around me, I also was denying something else about myself: my artist’s soul.

Although I was obsessed with books, and would get lost in them, sometimes imagining myself literally being able to enter them and hang out with the mice and moles of Redwall, I had no idea that I was drawn to writing.

Although I would take acting classes like my life depended on it, feeling my soul and my emotions finally able to live out and express themselves in ways I could only imagine in every other part of my life, I tended to assume this would be a “skill” I could use one day as a lawyer.  I looked at the actual actors in my classes, the people that wanted to do this with their lives, and I was horrified at how they lived, with their openness and their standing out from the crowd.

An artist, some part of me inherently understood, was weird.  I was not weird.  I was not weird.  Sure, I didn’t enjoy things like sports or… any of the things the people around me enjoyed.  Sure, I hung out with some of the weirdest kids at my school, but we were all trying to be normal.  To embrace weirdness?  Never.

So, obviously, my clothes had to fit into that paradigm of  hidden normality.

Even in college, as it started to hit me that I was, perhaps, quite weird (when I started to realize that the super-liberal weirdo stoners who parked themselves outside the honors dorm cafe at midnight to chat about philosophy were far more interesting than the normal friends I had first gravitated towards), I tried not to dress weirdly, tried to have it all, hanging out at midnight with the weirdos while going to class during the day and pretending I was normal.

Moving in with those friends the next year, moving out the next year because it was too crazy, becoming a pot dealer, getting arrested, having a near death experience, going to a mental hospital, found out I was bipolar, living with a bunch of religious Christians, realizing I wanted to be a writer, none of these things stopped me from wanting the world to simply accept me.  If anything, it’s possible I saw a certain danger in living the weird lifestyle.  After all, it was only after I embraced my weirdo friends in college that things started going haywire.

Throughout it all, I wore the same t-shirt and jeans.  Becoming religious never changed any of that, and getting married only got me to slightly upgrade my attire.  And all of this was a reflection of the way I was hoping the world would relate to me: Yes, I’m weird.  But perhaps you could just love me, perhaps you could just accept me if I try as hard to fit into what you want as possible.

The blip in all that, the interruption, happened for one year.  It happened the year after I lived with the Christians.  I had finally quit pot, and life was, surprisingly, incredibly normal.  I was quietly working on my writing, improving my life with a therapist, and visiting a Jewish center called “Chabad” that served my college every Friday night.

And somehow this resulted in me getting weirder and weirder.  I grew out my hair, eventually turning it into dreadlocks (I was obsessed with the Rastafarian religion and had been dreaming of doing this for years).  I started a blog for other creative friends of mine and I to share our art with each other.

And… and… I started dressing dangerously.  So dangerously.  I got a red button down shirt that was as wild as I could possibly imagine.  I remember thinking I was nuts for buying it, but “What the hell?” somehow entered my mind and I went for it.  I got a big blue hemp hat from a headshop to hold my dreads.  I bought some ironic t-shirts that were popular at the time.  I never gave up my jeans, of course, because jeans are awesome.

That year, and for about half the following year I studied in Israel, I was an open weirdo.  I was out of the closet, embracing everything bizarre about myself.

Looking back, I’m kind of blown away with how truly centered and calm I was during that time.  It was one of the happiest periods of my life.  Every now and then, a moment comes to me.  I was walking down the street in my neighborhood in Tempe, Arizona, to Chabad.  And I thought to myself, “My gosh. I’m happy.  I’m content.”

I hadn’t felt that, truly felt it in my bones, perhaps since high school.

I felt that happiness even more in yeshiva, where I was surrounded by other people who were turning their lives inside out to find a deep truth they had been looking for their whole lives.  We were all weird, even if we didn’t seem it, and we knew it.

In other words, in other words, the happiest time in my life was when I openly lived the life of a weirdo.  I was openly different, openly stood out, openly as crazy as I knew I was on the inside.

And it was not shortly after I tried to start be “normal” again in yeshiva, thinking that this is the direction I was meant to go in as I started “being serious” about myself, that my happiness took a nosedive.

I had cut off my dreadlocks at the advice of another former-hippie-but-currently-religious-Jew, who had told me at a Shabbat meal: “I won’t tell you what to do.  But just ask yourself, ‘Do I want to be judged based on how I look or how I act?’”

Those words had struck a nerve in me, and I think they spoke to that part of me that had always worn t-shirts and jeans.  It perhaps meant something different to him, a man who had sat in silent meditation in Central Park and started a cult.  Maybe he was a weirdo who had to reign himself in (whereas I was a weirdo who had to let himself out).

Either way, a few days later, I cut my dreadlocks.  My rabbis at yeshiva refused to join in, and my rosh yeshiva tried very hard to convince me not to.

A few months later, I experienced a crisis of faith, wondering what I agreed with and what I didn’t.  I started smoking pot again.  I felt lost and confused.

When I moved back to Chicago that summer, I left my red shirt in Israel.

 

A year later, I was sitting with my wife in Israel.  We were spending the summer studying in Israel, flying high and feeling connected.  We had both felt down on Chicago, felt like it was sucking the life out of us, and our time studying in yeshiva in Israel was like life being breathed right back into us.  We were both weirdos, looking to find our place in the world.

We were sitting in front of the Western Wall, both of us flying high from just being around this monument, being close to our people, tapping into our Jewish souls.

“I think I want to wear a black hat one day,” I said absentmindedly.

“What?! Why?” she asked, alarmed.

“I don’t know… It speaks to me.  Like, if I’m so in love with Chabad, why wouldn’t I?”

“You can be in love with Chabad without wearing a black hat,” she said, visibly agitated and upset.

I didn’t understand.  What had I said wrong?  Didn’t it make sense to dress like the people I identified with, represent the ideology that had caused me to change my life?

We agreed to let it go, and for a few years afterwards, I didn’t wear a black hat.  I stuck with that new button-down look.

Then we moved to Crown Heights, the home and spiritual center of Chabad, and I started going to a synagogue where everyone wore black hats.

I stood out.  I was different.  Every Shabbat, I would come in wearing my colored shirt and the guys around me were wearing white shirts, black jackets, black hats, and suddenly, once a week I was different again.  Unintentionally, by choosing this life but refusing to get too sucked into it, I had made myself stand out again.  Every Shabbat, I was a weirdo.

Finally, a few years in, I caved.  I told myself it was because I wanted to be more serious… the exact same logic I gave myself when I cut my dreads.

And just like when I cut my dreads, my mood fell.  My feeling that I was a spiritual collapsed.  I lost myself.

And although I have normally attributed that depression and confusion and feeling of loss to a change in belief, I think perhaps that what really sparked it was the change in clothes.  Because it wasn’t really about the clothes.  It was about me telling myself, as I had told myself in high school, as I had told myself in college, as I told myself in yeshiva, as I told myself now: being different is bad.  Fitting in, having people accept you, is good.  In Crown Heights and yeshiva, I used the word “serious.”  In college and high school, I used the word “normal.”  It was all the same: standing out made my life worse, and falling in line made my life better.

A t-shirt was no different than a white shirt, a black hat, and a black jacket.  Wherever I was, that was where I was meant to be, and where I was meant to fit in.

In theory, this made sense.  It was the logic of the rabbi in Jerusalem: in theory, I wanted people to look at me and judge me based off of who I was inside instead of outside.

In practice, I was doing the opposite: I wanted them to judge me based on the outside.  I wanted them to see me as normal.  I wanted to be normal.  I wanted to fit in.  I wanted people to like me.  I wanted people to accept me.  I wanted everyone to accept me.

The irony was that every time they did, I was miserable.

It was this last change in clothes, the one away from the black hat and black jacket and white shirt that caused me to finally realize this, to finally escape the loop.

It was some voice, some voice that had been bullied at some age, that was whispering this to me, this lie that to be accepted is to be happy.

But there was another voice.  My voice, not my pain’s voice, saying, “You’ll never fit in.  And, my gosh, how beautiful that is.”

A year after I stopped wearing my black hat and white shirt and black jacket, I started going to another synagogue.  I was back to wearing my button-downs on Shabbat and the rest of the week.  But the voice was growing, growing, growing.  Going from a whisper to a yell.

A few months after I started going to that new shul, they told me that an eruv, a sort of Jewish-law loophole that allows Jews to carry things (and, crucially, use strollers) on Shabbat, would be built in Crown Heights.  They weren’t Chabad, so they weren’t as beholden to the intense controversy that the idea of an eruv generated amongst the Chassidim in Crown Heights.

But no one expected the insanity that resulted to hit as hard as it did.  It was a storm, throwing anyone close into it and throwing them around.

Because I had still kept my connection to Chabad, and because so many people were still used to thinking of me in that way, I got caught up in it pretty badly.  By standing up for it loudly, vocally, and without regret, I angered my friends, I angered some leaders of the community, and I angered the people who had been reading my work for years.

And with each angry interaction, my fear, the fear that I would always be different, that no one would accept me, that they would reject me, was coming true.  My worst fear, the one that I had been avoiding my whole life, was coming to settle into my world like a visitor I could not kick out.  I couldn’t dress a way that would make it all better, that would cause people to see me as just one of them.  There was no essay that would change their minds.  There was no peaceful solution.

I was an outsider.

And every day that passed, the more that it sank into my bones as I walked with my wife and our stroller on Shabbat and got dirty looks from the Chabadniks we passed, the better I felt.  My mood improved.  My sense of identity strengthened.  My mission felt clearer.

I was an outsider. And it was great.

And for the first time in my life since I sat in a room while my friend backcombed my hair and we rubbed it full of beeswax so I could have dreads, I started to openly, consciously embrace this identity.

I was an outsider.  And accepting I was felt even better than simply being forced into it.

There would be moments that would push me further into embracing it.  The Orthodox world’s acceptance of Trump, and my vocal resistance to him.  Comments, messages, phone calls from people who felt thankful that I was embracing this new role.  But ultimately, it was about how I suddenly realized I was simply living the life that was meant for me to be lived.

My whole life, my whole freaking life, up to that moment was about camouflage.  About hoping that no matter how much I internally understood how different I was, the world would accept me.  I sacrificed a lot for that hope.  I sacrificed dreams, I sacrificed happiness, I sacrificed hair and clothes and my heart and mind.

This is what it means to try to be accepted by all.  It’s the outward facing form of perfectionism, the need to control the results of our actions.  And just like perfectionism, it causes us to stop taking risks, to hide the beauty of who we are, to transform ourselves into the people we always were and are meant to be.

Ironically, in our attempt to control the outcome of our lives, we become controlled by the forces outside of us.

 

A few weeks ago, I went online to do some clothes shopping.  I looked into casual button-down shirts, my usual fare. I spent a long time figuring out the different styles I wanted, being careful to pick a variety that I found interesting and exciting.

When they arrived, something struck me.  My gosh, only one of them was blue, and it was dark blue, it was magnificently darker than any other blue shirt I had owned.  And the others were black, white, and red… a sort of charcoal one with two pockets in the front, how crazy is that… a red and white flannel… a gray “herringbone” shirt, one that reminded me of shirts my professors would wear that I was always jealous of.

What had happened, I wondered?  I didn’t do this consciously, I didn’t try to get a completely different set of shirts than I had bought in over 6 years.  It just… happened.

I started thinking back, thinking about why I had worn blue shirts in the first place.  How they had given me a sense of normalcy.  How they were an anchor I was attached to.  How I had done the same thing with white shirts, black hats, black jackets, on Shabbat.  How I had done it in college with t-shirts and jeans.  In high school with t-shirts and jeans.  In middle school with t-shirts and jeans.  The moment in between when I wore dreads and had that amazing red shirt that I left in yeshiva.

And I thought, “My clothes have reflected my journey.  And now my journey is about me finally living an identity that doesn’t depend on the world.  On embracing my inner dreadlocks.”

And I thought, “My gosh, that would be great fun to write about.”

  • “This is what it means to try to be accepted by all. It’s the outward facing form of perfectionism, the need to control the results of our actions. And just like perfectionism, it causes us to stop taking risks, to hide the beauty of who we are, to transform ourselves into the people we always were and are meant to be.”

    I am relating to this 1000000000000%

  • Carly R

    I really like this piece. It speaks to me and there is a universality that extends past our (somewhat similar) life experiences, which is admirable.

  • Carly R

    Also, I miss my dreads and I often wonder whether the fact that I feel I cannot have them says something about society or about me.

  • Jeremy McCandlish

    ” Unintentionally, by choosing this life but refusing to get too sucked into it, I had made myself stand out again. Every Shabbat, I was a weirdo.”

    I know you’re talking here about your dress, but for me this is the concept of shabbat generally…”the seal of the ring”

    I read somewhere that one scientifically tested way to weaken bad memories is to just actively choose to think about something else, even just a couple times in a clinical setting…it seems to me that this is the effect of shabbat’s prohibitions…I don’t get too sucked into writing/sorting/picking out/whatever, even during the week.

  • Great.

  • La Suarez

    Some people are joiners, some people aren’t, and some people so aren’t but the cruelty of living in any society that over values conformity makes us wish so badly that we were. I am of the last group, and I think you might be too. And the cool thing about it is that no matter how hard we try, we will never actually be joiners. As my dear, old, funky, writer friend Michael said after I colored my pink hair brown in an attempt to look more like the librarian I was, “honey, ain’t no body buyin what you’ve got to sell. So you might as well start sellin somethin that’s a little more you, and a little less them.” And so we get to be just as knowledgeable, just as sincere, just as penetrating in our contemplation, and fierce in our desire to absorb information, but we will always stand out because that is how we were made.

    Also, you posted this on my birthday. Thank you! What an exceptional read for a special day.

  • SDK

    A friend ran for political office in a fairly conservative part of the country and won. She really loved this new part of her life. It was incredibly important to her. She felt she was finally making a difference, finally doing something she really loved. The only problem was that she was afraid to dress like her usual self. She felt she had to dress more feminine and this provoked a serious crisis. We had a long talk about it and for the first half of the conversation, I felt like my friend was having “first world problems”. Who cares? Dress up, dress down, dress feminine, dress masculine. We have to put on clothes in the morning. It’s external to you. It doesn’t need to affect you so deeply. Eventually, I finally realized that in reality our external appearance and the self we present to the world is tied to our sense of well being, our sense of self, our happiness, our ability to see and be seen. The difference is that for some people, whatever they are expected to wear aligns more closely with their true self and for others, this is not the case. I think all communities, including the secular world, police appearance to some degree but the level of attention to the minutiae of dress in the frum community is intense and IMHO, misplaced. There should be more room for simple, human difference and personal expression. There should be less judgment about what someone’s dress indicates about their observance, middot and beliefs. It’s easy to change your hat. In the end, these are all “garments” for our souls and we should work harder to connect at the soul level and not to be distracted by things like shirt color.

  • Marvin

    Dear Elad Nehorai,

    thank you very much for this article! Two reasons:
    1) You describe my own struggle with myself and what society might perceive as okay and not okay.
    2) I realised that I can connect with you (and anybody else) on the level of our shared humanity, that what lies beneath any social and cultural affiliation. I can’t connect with you on the level of being a Jew, since I am not a Jew. But that I can connect with you on the human level, gives me hope, that as soon as all humans have realised the same as I did and become able to connect on the human level, that peace will be possible. I want to be so bold and suggest, that “the place” is actually very near, inside of each human being, and that we all can meet in that place, share our love and achieve oneness of the human family.

  • PicoDellaMirandola

    The word “normal” means two very different things and this confuses people. One is “statistically average” — the normal American teenage male is 5 foot 10 — the other is natural and good — a normal cow likes to eat grass. There is no point in aspiring to be statistically normal at all.

  • shellipsm

    Thanks for sharing this…