Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Power of Connection

Well, friends, there's good news and bad news.  Bad news:  I have only five days left in Israel.  Good news:  I have five whole days left in Israel!  I keep see-sawing back and forth between being sad and depressed about leaving, and being determined to enjoy all the time I have left here.  Let me tell you, it's emotionally exhausting.

What will I miss most?  The people, and the connectedness.  How are those different?  Well, there are many individual people in Israel whom I love--friends and teachers who each occupy their own little section of my heart.  Additionally, aside from the people themselves, there is a larger sense of connection that I feel when I'm here, a sense of being part of a Jewish community, which is something that I don't often experience back at home.

My sense of belonging to a greater community in Israel is mostly thanks to the summer program at the Pardes Institute, which this year brought an exceptionally dynamic group of Jewish adults together to learn.  I took two phenomenal classes:  one on aggada, and one on the writings of Rav Soloveitchik.  It was in this second class that I began to learn about the teachings of one of modern Judaism's great philosophers, and I was particularly impacted by the way he explained loneliness and connection.

Rav Soloveitchik writes:

"Quite often a man finds himself in a crowd among strangers.  He feels lonely.  No one knows him, no one cares for him, no one is concerned with him.  It is again an existential experience.  He begins to doubt his ontological worth.  This leads to alienation from the crowd surrounding him.  Suddenly someone taps him on the shoulder and says: 'Aren't you Mr. So-and-So?  I have heard so much about you.'  In a fraction of a second his awareness changes.  An alien being turns into a fellow member of an existential community (the crowd).  What brought about the change?  The recognition by somebody, the word!"  (from an essay delivered at the 78th annual meeting of the Conference of Jewish Communal Service)

Alone in a crowd among strangers...I feel like this often, which I don't think is all that unusual, but it's still an uncomfortable feeling.  The beautiful thing about being in Israel, however, is that someone nearly always breaks through the loneliness and establishes connection.  At Pardes, it happened when I walked in on the first day and was immediately overwhelmed by the huge number people milling about.  As I looked around, I made eye contact with a staff member whom I knew from previous summers, and she came over with a warm, "Hel-lo!" and a hug.  Connection established!  Secure in the knowledge that I had been recognized, I felt brave enough to track down other familiar faces and even start conversations with some new people.  A few days later, a woman with whom I'd exchanged about two words since the start of the program approached me and asked if I'd be her hevruta because she'd really been wanting to learn with me.  Really? I thought.  Why?! We did learn together, and I never found out why she'd wanted to, but it didn't matter--she had recognized me, we connected, and I wasn't just one anonymous person out of a hundred anymore; I was Somebody who mattered.

For me, being part of a larger community is one of the best parts about being in Israel.  But, supreme introvert that I am, sometimes community gets to be a bit much and I need to scale it back.  That's where friends come in.  At home, I have a handful of acquaintances who are good for surface-level interactions, but only one really great friend.  This is due in large part to the fact that during college and graduate school--prime friendship-making years--I was devoted nearly exclusively to my eating disorder and didn't have time, energy, or brain space to make friends.  In recovery, my life has opened up considerably, but I still find making friends challenging due to some underlying issues (lack of confidence, social anxiety, etc) with which I'm still wrestling.  In Israel, though, I get the chance to try things differently (I am on vacation, after all), and I have been rewarded with several precious friendships born out of genuine connection.  I'm not sure exactly why it's easier in Israel...maybe it's because the relationships are facilitated by our shared love for Judaism; maybe it's because I'm braver here...but whatever the reason, the results speak for themselves.  On this trip I was able to reconnect with all of my friends from previous years, but I also got lucky and made some new ones.  We had long conversations (often on long walks) in which we talked about our journeys both in Judaism and in life in general.  We aired our insecurities and found validation when the other person inevitably said, "Me, too!" Inside these connections, I felt seen in a way I rarely do, and it was an incredible feeling.

Rav Soloveitchik explains it this way:

"Friendship--not as a surface-relation but as an existential in-depth-relation between two individuals--is realizable only within the framework of the covenantal community, where in-depth personalities relate themselves to each other ontologically...In the majestic community, in which surface personalities meet and commitment never exceeds the bounds on the utilitarian, we may find collegiality, neighborliness, civility, or courtesy--but not friendship, which is the exclusive experience awarded by G-d to covenantal man, who is thus redeemed from his agonizing solitude."  (Lonely Man of Faith)

So.  As I prepare to leave this place that I love, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the people with whom I've felt those existential, in-depth connections.  Thank you to Pardes for creating an environment and community in which such friendships can be born.  Thank you to my true friends, old and new, for reaffirming for me the beauty of genuine friendship and showing me that I am capable--and worthy--of developing those connections.  I will take the strength you've given me back home and try to use it to form some friendships there...because really, relationships are what make life in recovery worth living.  And, b"H, may we meet again next year in Israel!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Walls Come Down

"In order to understand, I destroyed myself."
-Fernando Pessoa

I recently came across this quote and was struck by how clearly it connects to the space of Jewish time we're currently occupying:  the Nine Days of mourning, which will culminate with Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.  There are many tragedies in Jewish history that have fallen on Tisha B'Av, but the two primary ones are the destructions of both the First and Second Temples.  We can imagine what once was the most sacred structure in our tradition, crumbling to the ground in a pile of debris.  And yet, as I look out at Jerusalem today, I am struck by the magnificence of what has been rebuilt and the ways in which Judaism is still vibrantly, unquestioningly alive.  

What happens when the walls come down?  That's the question that Alan Lew tackles in his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.  As he explains, at the moment of complete destruction, you can no longer deny the problems that have weakened the foundation.  And he's not speaking only of buildings--this is about us.  On an individual level, Tisha B'Av is when all the protective walls of denial that we've so carefully constructed in our lives come tumbling down, and we are left to face the hard truth of what remains.  He writes:

"On Tisha B'Av it is as if this emptiness has broken loose from its bounds and swallowed everything up.  The Temple burns...This image touches us deeply because we are always under siege, and we are held there by our attempts to hold off the emptiness we intuit at the center of our lives."

Once the walls we've built to ward off emptiness collapse, what are we to do?  One option would be to wallow in the rubble.  Another option, suggests Lew, is to examine honestly what remains when the walls come down, and figure out where to go from there.  There is something strangely liberating about complete collapse, because it allows us two valuable opportunities:  1) to acknowledge that we are in crisis; 2) to rebuild.

I remember very clearly what it felt like to be under siege.  It was being in college and spending all my time either studying or exercising, not socializing; it was slaving over rituals involving tiny amounts of food; it was studying abroad in Spain and calling my parents every day, crying and frightened.  On one such phone call, my mother remarked, "Maybe it's a good thing you're so miserable, because you'll finally do something about it."  She was right; the siege was unsustainable...but I wasn't yet ready to change. 

And then, in the fall of my senior year, the walls came down and I collapsed.  It was messy and ugly and scary, but it was also a gift, because it allowed me to admit that I needed help.  The edifice I'd so carefully constructed to conceal the anguish I felt lay in ruins at my feet.  There was no more room to hide and deny.  As Lew explains:

"We spend a great deal of time and energy propping up our identity, an identity we realize at bottom is really a construct.  So it is that we are always living at some distance from ourselves.  We live in a fearful state of siege, trying to prop up an identity that keeps crumbling, that we secretly intuit to be empty.  Then Tisha B'Av comes and the walls begin to crumble, and then the entire city collapses.  But something persists--something fundamentally nameless and empty, something that remains when all else has fallen away."

Recovery, for me, has been a process of examining that part of me that survived collapse, mining it for strength, and building a new life around its cultivation.  It's a process that started on the day I left college to enter residential treatment, and it continues to this day.  And the result of all that hard work of rebuilding is a life that is richer and more fulfilling than the one I had before.  The fundamentals of who I am haven't changed...but the way I interact with others, with myself, and with G-d definitely has.  I know myself better now than I ever would have if I had not had to endure the destruction of my walls.  

We will all find ourselves at times in our lives when the houses that we've constructed for ourselves crumble to the ground.  When this happens, the key is to view the destruction as an opportunity to clear out the debris and fully examine what remains at our core.

"Tisha B'Av has a hot tip for us:  Take the suffering.  Take the loss.  Turn toward it.  Embrace it.  Let the walls come down...And Tisha B'Av has a few questions for us as well.  Where are we?  What transition point are we standing at?  What is causing sharp feeling in us, disturbing us, knocking us a little off balance?  Where is our suffering?  What is making us feel bad?  What is making us feel at all?  How long will we keep the walls up?  How long will we furiously defend against what we know deep down to be the truth of our lives?"

As we make our way through this time of national mourning, I hope we can each look inward, as well, to see what Tisha B'Av means for us on an individual level.  Remember: you can survive the falling of the walls.  It won't break you--it will hurt, but in the end it will make you stronger.  My hope is that we can each allow for a little destruction, so that we get to experience the possibility and freedom that come along with rebuilding.  


Sunday, July 12, 2015

When Things Get Real

I often think of Israel as my "happy place."  At home during the winter, as I dig out my car from under multiple feet of snow, I fantasize about the perfect summer weather in Jerusalem (80s and sunny every day!).  When I am feeling lonely and disconnected from community, I think fondly of all the warm relationships I have with my friends and teachers in Israel.  When it's Shabbat at home but doesn't look like Shabbat because everyone around me is driving and going in and out of stores, I long for the true peace and quiet of a Jerusalem Shabbat.  When I talk to other people about my time in Israel, I always look so happy that they inevitably ask, "Do you ever think about moving there?"  At which point, I sigh and explain why it's not in the cards right now; people appreciate the logistical and practical issues but usually give me a look that says, "But you'd be so happy there!"

It's true that Israel is a special place to which I feel deeply connected, and in which I experience a happiness that I don't often get in other places.  However, my "sunshine and roses" outlook on Israel is heavily influenced by the fact that I've never been here for longer than six weeks at a stretch, and I'm always here on vacation.  In other words, my time in Israel is not "real life."  No wonder it's so great!

I am now in the middle of my fifth summer in Israel (4th consecutive), and a few days ago I got smacked in the face by an unexpected visitor--reality--and it came dressed in its usual guises: depression and anxiety.  While these emotions are not unusual in my "real life" back at home, I have rarely (never?) experienced them for any significant length of time in Israel.  But there they were, undeniably.  For a couple of days I moved through my life as if I was viewing the world through a curtain of gray gauze.  I was desperately hungry for connection, yet I felt I couldn't connect to anyone.  Empty time made me an anxious mess; I felt a compulsive need to fill every minute with any sort of activity, if only it would distract me from feeling lonely and sad...and yet, there were times when all I had the energy to do was lie on my bed and stare at the wall.

If I had been at home, I would have known that all I needed to do was wait it out, and the dark mood would pass.  But since I was in ISRAEL, all of these tough emotions were accompanied by "judging":  You're not supposed to feel this way in Israel!  You're ruining your time here by being unhappy!  You can't be happy anywhere!  Did these thoughts help?  I'll let you guess.

In the middle of my low mood, though, I made a realization:  The reason I had access to all these feelings was because Israel was no longer a novelty; rather, it had become more like "real life" and less like some kind of utopia.  I understood that the more time I spend in one place, the less realistic it becomes to expect that all of that time is going to be happy time.  That isn't because I'm incapable of being happy; it's because when I'm real, my emotions--all of them, not just the "good" ones--make themselves known.  In a way, these rough past few days have been a sort of compliment to the State of Israel:  "Congratulations, you are now Real Life."

And, in the spirit of being my full, authentic, emotional self in this second home of mine, I used some tried-and-true coping skills to pull myself through:  I cried; I took a nap; I opened up to a couple of great one-to-one conversations; I watched the birds; I sat and read in the sunshine...and, wouldn't you know it, the dark mood passed, just like it eventually always does in Real Life.

This experience has reminded me that no place is the "perfect" place, and that the more time I spend in Israel, the less likely it is that it will all be happy time--but that's not bad, it's just authentic.  Recovery works the same way: it's not all positivity all the time, and there are unhappy and difficult times even when we're genuinely doing well, because that's how life goes.  In the end, I suppose it's a good thing that I finally experienced unhappiness in made the place more real to me, and confirmed that even though it's not Utopia, I love it anyway with my whole heart.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Countering the Inner Critic

I'm Israel!  I arrived last week and have enjoyed a beautiful reunion with many of the people and places I love in and around Jerusalem and, more specifically, the beit midrash at the Pardes Institute.  Today was the first day of classes, and this afternoon I finally got to dive into a fascinating class on aggada, or Talmudic stories.  It was an amazing two-and-a-half hours in which I began to explore Talmud from a new angle and also learned a bit about myself in the process.

There we sat in the beit midrash, my havrutot and I, poring over a piece of aggada.  It was a very engaging text and we got really into it, tossing around ideas as we explored.  Through our discussion, I came up with a way of understanding the text in which I felt pretty confident; not only did it seem to make sense, but it was actually kind of clever.  I felt great--here I was, not two hours into being back in the beit midrash, and already I was cracking the aggadic code.

When we went back into the classroom to discuss the text with our instructor, I was eager to participate (unusual for introverted me, but I felt that good about my theory).  As the discussion went on, though, it became apparent that the way I had read the story was actually completely incorrect.  Very slowly, I inched my hand back down and hoped that the instructor hadn't noticed I had raised it and wouldn't call on me.  A thought raced through my mind:  Whew!  It's a good thing you didn't actually SAY anything!

But then, I noticed other thoughts that followed:

You don't know what you're doing.

You're not smart.

If you don't say anything, at least you'll never look stupid for saying the wrong thing.

I'm not proud of those thoughts, but I am proud that I immediately recognized them for what they were--my critical voice--and my response to them was different than it would have been in the past.  In the past, I would have vowed never to open my mouth in that class again.  I also would have spent the rest of the afternoon berating myself for being "bad" at learning Jewish texts.  Instead, I noticed the thoughts and feelings I was having and managed to come up with some rebuttals for each of the self-critical thoughts:

You don't know what you're doing.  Well, in some ways that is technically correct.  I don't really know what I'm doing.  I didn't grow up studying this material and do have relatively little background in Jewish texts--only what I've cobbled together over the past three summers at Pardes.  I'm not supposed to understand this perfectly yet.  Everyone starts as a beginner, and that's just what I am--a beginner.

You're not smart.  Actually, I am smart.  I earned great grades in school; I have a college diploma and a Master's degree; I'm successful at a cognitively demanding profession.  I'm just not educated in this particular field.  No, I'm not an expert in Talmud or Tanakh.  But I do have a great brain that's full of knowledge about other subjects.

If you don't say anything, at least you'll never look stupid for saying the wrong thing.  This was the hardest thought to combat, because on some level I do believe it.  But I then I remembered what Hillel says in Pirke Avot:  "A bashful person cannot learn." That's something I definitely believe as a teacher, but haven't always believed as a student.  But it's true...if I don't take any risks, I might not experience public failure, but I also won't grow at all.  I have to be willing to ask questions, be wrong, and "look stupid" in order to really learn...and I do want to learn.

Then, of course, there's this gem from one of my favorite go-to websites when I'm feeling down,

And the thing is, I am enjoying it.  I loved that class and can't wait until it meets again, and I'm excited for all the other classes that I'll experience this summer.  I feed off the energy of a buzzing beit midrash and love diving into material that is new and challenging.  And being a beginner is okay.  Not knowing is okay, and being wrong is also okay.  Being scared and bashful and ashamed--that's what's not okay.  So I am going to try hard not to be those things this summer.  I'm going to go ahead and learn, most likely making some missteps along the way, but I'm going to enjoy it and know that this summer I'll have grown in more ways than one.