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

Posted on September 15, 2010

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