Casting the Perfect Baal Teshuva

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Just spent way more time than I realized on the phone with some folks at National Geographic, who are planning a documentary on the baal teshuva lifestyle — that is, people who weren’t born Orthodox who somehow or another wind up that way.

“Yeah,” I said with a nervous giggle that I wasn’t sure where it came from, “I’m a baal teshuva.” And right away, it felt like I was admitting something, like I’d come out of the closet with a deviancy that was way too obscure for anybody in the room to know what I was talking about, but which was nonetheless embarrassing the hell out of me to say aloud.

And I wasn’t even 100% sure why. Admitting that you didn’t grow up Orthodox should be as easy as admitting you didn’t grow up Buddhist (for a white person, anyway) — it’s not like anyone expects a fresh-faced kid who can’t pronounce Hebrew right and just barely knows how to keep a kosher kitchen to be undetectably Orthodox.

But when you’re first starting to be a religious Jew, the last thing you want is to stick out. You want to blend in. You’re half research-study subject and half undercover anthropologist, experimenting in a life that you may or may not choose to immerse yourself in.

So I told her my story. I told her how I became Orthodox on my own, outside of a community (in San Francisco, with a bunch of middle-aged gay men teaching me to be Orthodox and a bunch of female-to-male transsexuals teaching me how to act like a guy). I told her about wanting to do Orthodoxy my own way, and then marrying into a family who’d been Hasidim ever since Hasidism started. I told her about how you start thinking in two different languages, one in your job and with your old friends and another with your new friends and the new places you hang out with, how you spend all your time inside a synagogue with random men who you’d never hang out with on your own, and how even your wife doesn’t totally understand the life you used to lead.

I realized about two minutes in that I was basically just narrating my memoir (the seasonally-apt Yom Kippur a Go-Go — read it now! Let it inspire your thoughts of repentance! Or just get a kick out of me explaining Shabbos to my stripper girlfriend!). But I kept talking anyway.

And then, about half an hour later, the National Geographic person (who was being very kind and patient with me) told me that, uh, they were looking for recent baalei teshuva. That is, people who were just starting to become religious, and had just moved into religious neighborhoods.

“But I’ll tell my producer about you,” she promised.

And then she asked if I could find a baal teshuva (or a few) who might be interested in being profiled.

I reiterated her biggest problem — that recent baalei teshuva don’t want to be stigmatized as baalei teshuva. Not to mention the whole film-crew-following-you-around-as-you-try-to-learn-about-your-new-life thing. But hey, if they cast Jersey Shore, that shouldn’t be a problem. Also, for most people I know, Orthodoxy isn’t really a gradual process — people wade in the pool a little, and the next thing you know, they’re either living in Bnei Brak with a pile of Shabbos stones or they’re straight back to being hippies or investment bankers or reggae singers or whatever they were doing before they started being frum.

So there you have it. Are you a recent baal teshuva? Do you know anyone who is? Give me a shout, and I’ll hook you guys up.

Posted on September 15, 2010

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2 thoughts on “Casting the Perfect Baal Teshuva

  1. Larry Lennhoff

    You call Yom Kippur A Go Go a memoir, but my library has it cataloged under fiction. Shall I tell them they are mistaken, or is it a fictional work based on your life?

  2. Matthue Roth Post author

    I think that’s the publishers’ fault. Not that I blame them — in Borders I’m in fiction; in Barnes & Noble that particular book is in biography. Now, no one in their right mind’s going to look for a book by me next to all the books about ex-presidents and ’50s movie stars, so I’d vote fiction…except that it really happened. Well, most of it. (And people’s names have been changed and condensed and the timeline altered so there aren’t six months of chapters called “writing in my room” and all that.)

    But thanks for knowing where my books are! I’m honored.

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