Sometime in mid-Av, 5777 or July of 2017, I found myself walking and sweating profusely in the streets of Tiberias (Northern Israel) and I sat down to write the following journal entry:
“One thing I notice right away about Israel that’s different from being in the streets in America is all of the pushing, shoving, creaming, people don’t speak in a hushed tone here the way they do in the States. They’re fully expressed, and they want things done NOW.
But I can’t seem to be mad at them.
Its not like back at home when in the street I’m constantly watching my back and feeling like people seem so self involved and thinking, I gotta write something in response to the lack of caring happening around me. Here, people seem like they care too much- involved and in your face about the smallest things, i.e. giving you directions when you seem lost. Here, everyone is in one family. One large, perspiring, impatient, annoyed, annoying, flirty, happy, silly, family.
And I just can’t stay upset.
This older man came up to me on my last day in Tzvat and said, ‘I noticed your smile the last two weeks. Its such a big smile and at first I asked myself, Why she smiling so big? And then I realized, that it’s my problem. This is how everyone should be smiling. Thank you for reminding us all to smile.’ Just when I thought I may have only made an impact on the girls I’m teaching here, I was lucky enough to have G-d nudge me to let me know I made a dent in this tiny little Kabbalistic town for the time I was here.
It meant so much to me for him to say that.
Sometime in mid-Ellul, 5777 or September 2017, I wrote another journal entry from my home in Los Angeles.
The other night I got a call from a friend who said, “I don’t agree with you teaching Judaism to people who are more religious than you. I think the women you stand in front of need someone they can look up to, be inspired by.”
I felt shocked, judged, and hurt. Unfortunately, sometimes when I feel all of those three things at once I have a tendency to retreat before I answer and so I quickly hung up the phone. I cried, took deep breaths, and prayed about it. “What did that call mean for me G-d? Are you trying to tell me to stop teaching or taking a break from teaching? Are there certain groups I should not stand in front of? Did I have the right to stand in front of them in the first place? I felt like a fool. Have I figured out once again that I don’t really have a specific group to belong to within my religious life? It sometimes feels so hard for me to fit in. I’m an artist who believes in G-d and talks about it. I work in both Hollywood and the Jewish Education world and I feel like I’m constantly having to walk on egg shells trying so hard not to offend anyone with the way that I dress, express myself artistically, and share. Its not easy but I don’t want to change the work I choose to do, nor do I want to join another religion.
I spoke with a friend who said, “If the person who said this to you can’t see how you inspire others, maybe you should just not speak to her anymore. You shouldn’t have to prove how amazing you are to anyone.”
I felt supported but then melancholy. I took a deep breath. I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of not speaking with this woman again. I felt like there was more to discuss. What made her call me to tell me this in this way? Did I hear her correctly? Maybe I was so concerned with my own feelings that I actually heard her wrong. What did she know about me and my ability to inspire others? How was she judging me and my level of observance? And who then in her assessment is considered inspiring enough to speak in front of women and someone to look up to?
I asked her if we could have a conversation face to face, heart to heart.
Thank G-d she was open to dialogue about this and the first thing she said to me when we met up was, “You know, I should’ve shared what I did with you in person anyway.”
Already felt like it was a great idea to be going to the source.
I started out by saying, “I think our biggest problem as a Jewish people and really throughout the whole world today is making inner peace, peace between friends, families, small groups. I really think that if every two people were able to respect and appreciate each other, it would reverberate and there would be no world wars. How we treat each other on the community level has effects on world peace.”
She didn’t seem so moved by my words, yet.
I said, “I didn’t come here seeking your approval to speak for others. Please G-d, I could still find ways to speak, and places to shine my light. However, you gave me great pause and its a great thing to re-evaluate where I’m speaking and why. It is the month of Ellul after all, and a time when G-d sends us messages for how to utilize our time during the rest of the new year ahead. I want to use my time in the best possible ways. I came here today to speak about what you chose to say and how you told me last night. I came here tonight to share how hurt I was and to find out more about your motivations for why you said what you did.”
I went on to remind her about how I once was a very lost Jewish soul. It was through an organization called Isralight that I found my fascination with G-d and Judaism and I still am so grateful for finding that initial retreat and continuing to stay in touch with the Rabbis of that organization and calling it my home base. However, there was a time after that when I got involved with a particular Rabbi who told me to take actions that were very damaging for me emotionally. I was so anxious at that time trying to make sense of all of the changes I had made and felt like a big failure. I felt like I didn’t fit in at all and maybe it would be best if I just left it all completely and started over again.
A compassionate sigh of, “I had no idea that happened to you,” rose from her belly.
I told her that I am so glad that I stuck it out and decided to stick with my path of Judaism and believing in G-d. I just needed to shift from listening to this one Rabbi who clearly didn’t know what he was doing at the time. I told her that I learned not to judge Judaism by the Jews who practice it as we are all in process and no one is perfect. I shared that it was because I was able to recover from that very difficult time in my life that I felt somewhat equipped to help others with their struggles with G-d and Jewish identity. I learned not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I always encourage people to stay connected with Judaism and praying to G-d without throwing it all away even when we feel like we don’t fit in completely. I told her that I learned how to make a space for myself and all of my discomfort and still open my mouth to pray. I told her how important it is to embrace wherever we are at knowing that there is always room to grow.
She finally answered with such a warm smile, “Well I guess then we’re not all that different.”
I think she just needed to hear that my overall goals were the same as hers. The idea that we always leave room for growth and not staying comfy in the “this is where I’ll always be religiously” was what she wanted to hear. I can completely understand that. If we’re not moving on a path-even if its backwards or sideways, we’re not really growing.
“I’m so sorry that I said it that way,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“I so appreciate you saying that,” I told her.
There were two main reasons we got together that night. Firstly, to discuss how we really aren’t all that different. Even though on the outside she may look very religious and I may look more “modern” as a lot of people call me. I told her, “once you go down that rabbit hole of judging someone’s Jewish practice by what they present to the outside world, it will never stop.” What about where a person is holding internally?
As an educator, I try to make a big space for people to find themselves sitting with what may make them feel uninspired and thus a place to begin again from with their prayer and their Jewish practice. I’d never tell someone to stop growing religiously. I’d never tell someone to not continue on their path.
The thing that I’ve always noticed about the Rabbis I look up to the most is that they are always looking to accept and respect where a person is at right now. They don’t claim to be more righteous than another just because they observe more Jewish law and they don’t try to make others feel bad about where they’re at just because they’re not as observant. I feel like the judgements we all make today is what is hurting us more than anything. There are so many people who refuse to be friends with someone because of the political party of which they are affiliated, or which religious sect a person belongs. Where is the growth in that? Is any one person more right than another? I’m not talking about hate groups who want to kill an other based on their beliefs/gender/sexual orientation. But sharing differences in opinion is what can be the basis for great learning.
No one has a right to judge another person. However, we can try to inspire others to grow from the place that we are at! I hope that when someone hears that I take time each morning to speak to the Creator, even when I still struggle with the expectations I’ve had for that Creator, and even when I’ve struggled in the past with my Jewish practice, then they can hopefully be inspired to continue to pray and practice as well.
When it was over I felt so heard and understood. We cried together and gave each other hugs and blessings. I felt like the world grew a little smaller and that there was something big that was healed. Even though it was a simple interaction between two people, we nipped it in the bud.
When someone hurts your feelings don’t go to other people talking about how hurt you were and how wrong they were. Don’t put it on Facebook statuses. Go right to the source. Talk from your heart. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once said, “Words that come from one heart go into another’s”. Don’t condescend the other person or lead with anger. Open up your heart and share your feelings. Make a space for them. If the tables were turned and you had said something hurtful to them, how would you want them to approach you?
Here’s a short video I made partially inspired by the story above:
Barbara Heller is a writer, actress, singer, educator, and voice over artist living in the Pico Robertson ‘chood. She often finds herself doing voice match for big celebrities in Hollywood movies, or writing one of her films, or new media projects in coffee shops. She loves Shabbat in the ‘chood, and enjoys baking and meditating. Check out more of her creativity at: www.BarbHeller.com and https://www.facebook.com/Barb-Heller-Writer-Producer. SixDegreesOfKosherBacon is delighted to have Barbara as a guest blogger this week.