I decided to be Orthodox in the middle of college. I was on scholarship to a very big school, and I was feeling very small. One of my best friends had just gotten raped and then sort of ignored by most of our circle of friends, and ran away to Europe. I’d thought I was going to New York for college, then realized that going to New York for college actually cost money, and so I was back in Washington D.C. on scholarship and with noplace to live.
I surfed around on people’s couches. Some of them were good friends, but more often than not, they were randoms — people I’d met once or twice at a concert or a club meeting, the ones who noticed I was looking even shabbier than I usually did. I tried never to stay more than a day or two. I didn’t want to impose, but more, I didn’t really want these people — these vague people who faded in and out of my life — to notice I was changing.
And it wasn’t like I was choosing to change. It was a side-effect of being around different people every day. No one expected me to say “the Matthue thing,” whatever sort of thing I always said, or to behave a certain way. I was getting born again every day. If I wanted to skip breakfast, how would they know I had a rigorous routine of a bowl of Cheerios with soy milk every day since 9th grade? Boom. Today, I am no longer a breakfast eater.
But I had all this time. I’d been hanging out with my friend constantly and now she was gone. I’d been searching for a place and now I was promised one; I just had to wait three weeks for the old tenant to move out. It was maddening. I didn’t know what to do with all this time. Study more? No; it was college. Why would I do that? Write a book? I’d just written a book. It took time, but not the time I had free — that was for late nights and early mornings. In my life now, where I used to call my friend constantly or hang out in the privacy of my room, there was just an empty silence.
On Friday I was crashing with the guitarist from my band. He was going to a concert in Alexandria; he left me the keys on the bureau and headed out. Faced with a rare weekend night with no plans, I asked myself the question that, in college, surrounded by a million other people, you never actually ask: What do I WANT to do?
I went on a walk. I didn’t carry anything — not my phone, not my wallet (which was falling apart anyway), not even an ID, just in case I got lost and drowned or the Washington Monument fell on me or something. I was a notorious worrier. I actually thought about these things constantly. But not tonight. I didn’t want to worry about anything.
I ended up at synagogue. I’d always known where it was; it was in the middle of Georgetown. I’d just never gone inside. But a hundred other people walking in at the same time, I could do it without anyone noticing. I prayed in the back of the room, alone and with my prayerbook in front of my face. A hundred other people prayed under their breaths; it was a huge noise composed of whispers. In that noise, I could say anything I wanted.
That’s when I decided to start coming back every day.
They say, when you want to become an observant Jew, you should do it with baby steps. Stop watching TV for one Shabbat. Give up the Internet a few Shabbats later. I didn’t work that way. I dove in. I had all this time, remember. What was I going to do with it? Something productive. And it ended up being something productive in a way that wasn’t going to be like publishing a story or playing a concert. Praying is like giving up your time and your energy and your creativity. But it’s like giving it up for a reason; saying that I don’t just need to impress the people around me. Believing that that’s not all that matters.
I talk a lot; you could say I’ve made a career out of it. But this talking alone — talking where nobody else can hear you but G*d — is, in my very small way, saying that not everything I do has to have a specific reason, for work or for my friends or for my writing. Sometimes, you’re just giving it up for G*d. Are my prayers going anywhere? It almost doesn’t matter.
I became Orthodox overnight. But becoming religious — that’s taking a lifetime.
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Pronounced: eh-LULE, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish month usually coinciding with August-September.