I Don’t Want Your Culture! I Want G-d!

There’s this story about the Alter Rebbe, the first rebbe of Chabad.

In a state of passion he yelled out, “I don’t want your Garden of Eden! I don’t want your Next World!  All I want is you!

I don’t know if it’s possible to realize how big of a statement that is, especially coming from a holy man.  He was saying, basically, that even the biggest reward of a good life… he didn’t want it.  Even the whole reason the world was created, he didn’t want it.  He just wanted a total and a true connection with G-d, with Hashem.

And so he cried out, cried and cried.  Begging for that connection.  Willing to give it all up just for that.

I’ve been thinking about that story a lot recently.

I have this thing, this issue within me.  It’s this problem.

When I was secular, I always felt “out” of the world.  Not part of the culture.  I felt like I had this idea of what truth was and no one else understood it, and so I could never communicate with anyone on a true level.  Whether I was being a hippie, or a hipster, or a popular kid, or a poker-playing trash-talker… I never felt like any of those identities was really who I was.  I was putting on a costume.

And then… I found Judaism.

I remember being in that Chabad house in Arizona State University.  I remember when my rabbi would start to talk about how G-d was both in the world and out of it.  And I thought, “Wow, that’s like… the way I think.  Except I use the word Tao.”

And then he would talk about infinite, and time, and death and life… and every word he said, it was like he reached in my head and grabbed all my thoughts.  It was like I was no longer alone.  It was like there was suddenly this world of people who thought the way I thought.

And for the first time in my life, I got along with everyone.  I was close with the people who were going to the same Chabad house.  More than I ever was with the hippies.  Or the poker players.  I belonged.

I remember as the process of becoming religious moved forward, that I wondered if I had finally found a community of people who thought like me.  Who would allow me to be me, because they were just like me.

And, at first, it seemed like that was the case.  Mayanot, my yeshiva, encouraged the same growth.  The people around me, my friends, were so similar to my friends in Arizona.  They were explorers.  Outsiders who had made their own world in this tiny part of Jerusalem.

It was fun, it was real.  But part of me knew it wouldn’t last.  It couldn’t.  There was no way everyone was like this.

I was right, of course.  The moment I left Mayanot I knew I had left that world of explorers.  Whatever community I lived in after that, I immediately felt like an outsider.  I felt like I didn’t belong again.  Although our beliefs matched, on a day to day level I just didn’t “fit”.

And that feeling has continued until today.  I am alone.  My wife and I are the outsiders looking into the cultures we are supposedly a part of.  Just like when I was growing up.  Just like always.

I wondered for a while if that meant there was something wrong with me.  If I was being a bad Jew for not embracing the culture around me with all my heart, trying to fit in perfectly.

And then I started Pop Chassid.  And I released my thoughts to the world.  Thoughts that were all from the point of view of a person who cared deeply about his beliefs, but who wanted to come from his own perspective.

And slowly, people responded.  People began to comment.  To follow.  To engage.

And over and over, the ones who were the most passionate, the ones who cared the most about what I wrote… they were like my friends in ASU.  My friends at Mayanot.  They were the explorers, the people who felt like me.  Who didn’t belong but belonged all at the same time.

And we connected through this blog, and we got to know each other.  And many of us are friends now.

Some are religious.  Plenty aren’t.  Most are Jewish, but there are plenty of others.  From Christians to Muslims to everything else.

We all have one thing in common: we are the explorers.

And this has changed everything for me.  When I saw that, when I saw there were others like me and my wife… when I saw that there wasn’t something wrong with me for never fitting in.  When I realized that the only reason I felt like I fit in at ASU Chabad and at Mayanot was because those were places where you had to be an explorer to even arrive at… it all crystallized.

And that’s why I’ve been thinking about that story of the Alter Rebbe.  Because I’ve realized that not feeling like I fit into a culture doesn’t mean I’m any more or less religious.  At the end of the day, it’s all about wanting to connect with G-d and helping others do the same.

And the funny thing is that as the more I’ve embraced this outsider role, the more I’ve felt comfortable, ironically, being a part of this frum culture.  Because the culture exists, but it is not nearly as important as the core of Judaism and living that core.

I’ve also realized something even more important: I used to beat myself up for not fitting in.  For not fitting my square hole into that round peg.  And so I tried different things to help myself fit in more.

But, in retrospect, I’ve realized the more I tried to do that, the less religious I became.  I would pray less, pray less hard, study less Torah, write less, work less.  I was so distracted trying to fit in that I was forgetting the Alter Rebbe’s cry: It’s all about G-d!  It’s all about G-d!

And I see so many others, so many people in the world, explorers or otherwise, that forget that.  For whom the culture has become more important than the connection.  And so they perfectly take on everything.  And they seem so frum.  But whenever they criticize someone for not doing the “right thing”, they say, “A frum person doesn’t do that!” rather than “That’s hurting your relationship with G-d, with the Truth of the world.  Don’t you want to have a good relationship?”

Because they either don’t realize that there is such people as Explorers in the world.  Or, worse, to them the culture is everything.  They want the Next World, not This G-d.

At the end of the day, the Jewish culture is a beautiful one.  So is the frum one.  And it’s necessary, of course, it’s what keeps us glued together, with a common connection.  But it is not the point.  It is simply a tool to help us reach deeper within ourselves and into others.

  • Sarah Bella Lipovenko

    truly epic article! Can and IS so very relevant with Jews who grew up within the ‘frum’ world…..

  • Thank you for sharing this.

    I also feel like I don’t fit in. At school I only had a few friends. When I was doing my BA I would divide my social time between the Jewish Society and the Doctor Who Society. At the Jewish Society I felt I didn’t fit in because I was a geek and at the Doctor Who Society I felt I didn’t fit in because I was Jewish. And then my mental health issues started and I felt that ruled me out of EVERYTHING.

    Eight years down the line and I still feel like I don’t fit in. I still feel too geeky and too
    mentally ill, I still worry that my hashkafah is too eclectic, too modern, too Hasidic (and, inevitably, the Hasidut that fascinates me most is Kotzk, one that hasn’t actually been a proper movement for 150 years). Sometimes I wonder how people can spend their
    time talking about trivial things when there are so many profound and meaningful things in the world. Sometimes in shul, when people are talking, I want to yell out, “Talk to each other later! You can talk to G-d now!”

    But I am slowly starting to realize that it doesn’t matter. People will like me or they won’t like me, but it shouldn’t make a difference to my self-esteem (the Kotzker speaks about this quite a bit). I am slowly realizing that I didn’t fit in because I was pushing people away because of my low self-esteem, because I was so sure I was going to be rejected I wanted to get my rejection in first. Not because I was too geeky. Not because I was too frum.

    And, yes, there are people out there who take G-d and Yiddishkeit seriously. And maybe some dress like me and read the books I read and watch the TV I watch and maybe some of them don’t. That doesn’t matter. I just need to get the self-confidence to reach out to them.

    So, thank you, Elad, for sharing this, because this is really what I needed to hear: that I’m not alone, that I should be myself and reach out to G-d and in doing so I’ll find others like me.

    • Thank YOU, Daniel for always giving such thoughtful, deep responses to my posts. I don’t always have the time to respond to them, but please believe I always read and love them.

      As for your point, I’m so glad you’re realizing there isn’t anything wrong with you. I also think it would be wise to take it a step further: that there is something GREAT about you. It makes you different, maybe, but that makes sense doesn’t it? Different isn’t bad, it’s just different. And you can take advantage of that difference when you accept it. When you love it. You can be who you’re meant to be.

      And when you accept it, you don’t just need to find those that are similar to you. You can also be happy wherever you are. Because your relationship with yourself is where your happiness begins, no matter your location or the people around you.

      Rock on, brotha explorer.

  • Ellen

    You hit it home once again.

    Lately, I’ve been finding that the hardest part is feeling like people expect you to fit in one box when you want to explore them all. God is too big for a box.

  • Tova Ross

    Beautiful, Elad.

    • Thanks Tova 🙂 Glad to see you ’round these parts.

      • Tova Ross

        I’m always lurking (non-creepily, that is).

  • Quiet self

    Your writing is so human, so deeply resonant, even though I do not recognize some of the terms you use particular to your community. You have stepped into shoes vacated by Potok and walked through the internet. For this I am appreciative and by this I am inspired.

    • Thank you! I’m trying my best to make terms and information about my culture as easy to understand in this blog as possible. If you ever have any confusion, please tell me so I can make sure to make it clearer in the future.

  • Julian

    I find this post so true in so many different ways. I find that this is true not only in my own newley formed family with my in-laws who just don’t understand and in everyday life (not just religion). I only have a few close friends and that is the way that I like it, Now. When I was younger it was so hard for me to understand why people didn’t want to be my friend. I now know that it was because I was the square peg trying to fit into that proverbeal round hole. Class mates couldn’t handle the fact that I was going to tell them what I thought and I didn’t really care if they liked it or not. I am known with my friends of eing brutally honest; I cherish that title.
    I wish that more young people would just be true to them selves and what they want instead of forcing themselves to fit in somewhere with people that do not really care about them. I hope that more of us can take the time to find the right group for ourselves and stop worrying so much about which group we are in and just be happy with who we are.

  • nissimbenmoshe

    Wow that just summarized my life

  • Mysti Haze Henderson

    I needed these words today. I needed to hear that it’s okay to be the square peg…

    I’m trying to find my place and the depression has become more than I can comprehend. I stepped back from FB recently so I can deal with these emotions, to understand what it is that I want in my life as a Jew, a wife and mother, a woman with a career. How do I reconcile my relationship with G-d combined with all that is my life? Recently I feel like I am trying so desperately to hold my head above water and all I can do is cry out to G-d to keep me breathing and He is, but each day is proving to be a struggle. I am working towards a goal, that’s all I can do. But realizing that it’s okay to be a square peg really helps, that’s for certain and I will always be grateful to you for making it so very clear. B’H! There’s a light… 🙂

    • Katrina Bascom

      I’ve deleted my FB account, because of the way my ‘friends’ were making me feel with their social memes and their political outbursts that were really (unknowingly) very diminishing to a mother of three in my position. Sometimes I feel like I can’t survive another day, but somehow, I do. I hold onto the hope that someday, things will get better, and I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) not to tear myself down. I wish I knew how cross- culturally appropriate or inappropriate this is, but a quote that has helped me a lot in the last few weeks is this:

      “…The adversary knows, because we are more powerful than him, that he has to turn us against ourselves in order to bring us down, or to bring us to his side….” -Bruce Fordham
      It was on a Mormon radio broadcast I listened to a week or two ago.

      I hope you don’t mind my sharing. It comes from the sincere heart of someone who might have tasted a small part of what you are experiencing.

  • Joe Goldman

    There are a handful of people in the Frum communities who need to read the last part of the article. These people get caught up in the silly little nuances that have no meaning instead of the core of Judaism, or the connection / relationship as you phrase it. It ranges from some leaders or teachers in the community down to the simple folk. Judaism is beautiful when the fundamentals are focused on, especially the main foundation of Judaism: (baseless) Love and respect of another Jew. Stop looking at how someone’s black hat looks like or if he is wearing one at all. Stop focusing on the white shirts and if someone has the really frum pronunciation of the lingo. We need to educate our kids and ourselves to focus on the fundamentals of Jewish faith, and the Jewish laws that are most important (biblical first, then the oral laws, then the customs). We grow as a community and as a people when we have positive commonalities and strengths, not when there is a click or negative vibes and condescending attitudes.

  • Akiva Landsman

    I once had a conversation with a dear friend of mine about Ishbitz philosophy. He said that the vast majority, if not the entirety, of religious Jews wouldn’t kill an Amalekite baby, even though it’s a commandment. People value their own moral compass incredibly highly and most everyone will follow this compass instead of their religion at times. The point being that many people who act like religion is their end-all-be-all are just acting that way. They’re first and foremost people and people crave honesty and love.

    I totally relate to feeling like an outsider in the religious community and I am no stranger to that frustration. I have shared so many experiences that you described. But I’ve come to believe that the person who values frumkite over honest expression rarely exists. People may come off like this and even propagate this world view, but I think it’s coming from expectations of homogeneity instead of deep-help belief. Typical people in Jewish communities don’t care to distinguish themselves from random strangers, they end up doing it because they’ve never experienced real diversity. I think the solution to this issue is to encourage our religious communities to experience diversity of thought and culture. We want to hold onto our traditions and our cannon of scripture and philosophy because they are so dear to us, but we have room in our hearts and minds for more.

  • Natanel Junger

    Chazak article! Maybe we should stop dropping the “F” word? #vhavein

  • Katrina Bascom

    Excellent! Thank you!

    • Why did you delete your other comment? I really liked it 🙂

      • Katrina Bascom

        If it is the comment I think you are referring to, I didn’t delete it! It’s just down a little further — it was a reply to ‘Guest.’ 🙂 And, thank you. ‘Til next time!

  • BensTallitShop

    This line really hit the nail on the head: “My wife and I are the outsiders looking into the cultures we are supposedly a part of.” I have a feeling this realization hits a lot of baalei tshuva after a decade or so. Then the question is how they confront it: Drive the thought out of their consciousness and try to become frummer? Or start tweaking their Yiddishkeit to serve the Creator with their true selves? The danger lies in forgetting that fitting in well with frum culture is not an absolute necessity.

  • Maria Bywater

    Thanks for putting this into words. Well said.

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  • Holly Howell

    Thank you for this. I’ve been traveling and learning more about Judaism and orthodoxy has really resonated with me. But it’s scary. I long to belong somewhere and while I was on Snorkel and Study I felt I had belonged. But coming back it is hard to feel that way. Knowing that there are people out there who long to connect with Hashem and spread that love and connection with others is what I needed to hear. So thank you.

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  • Anna Labunskiy Beregova

    Wow this is so incredibly true and beautyfuly said! thank you for these words of wisdom! The vision of Moschiachs days is coming true when what you write will be living reality! Gd bless You!

  • Tzvi

    loved it

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