Orthodox Perfection

I think the world is a hideous place. I think it’s full of horrendous people who do unspeakable things to each other and I think that overall, humanity is monstrous.

That is not a sentiment that I would have dared to share when I was still a part of the Orthodox, Jewish community. Although religious Jews attempt to place the highest value on being a God-fearing Jew in belief and action, there is a strong requirement of conformity that is pervasive in all aspects of life.

From nail polish color to hair length to political beliefs to musical preferences, there are certain options that are acceptable, and certain options that aren’t, for either arbitrary or logical reasons.

I’ve always chafed at this. I’m an excellent conformist, but conformity slowly eats away at my spirit and makes me feel dead inside. Still, growing up in the religious community, conformity seemed like my only option.

Personally, conformity wasn’t just about how I dressed or where I ate or what media I consumed. As a teenager, it was about hiding my eating disorder and giving vague answers about where I’d been during two inpatient hospitalizations and countless therapy appointments. As an adult, it was about getting married at 23 despite feeling nothing that resembled love for the man that stood under the chuppah with me. And later, it was about hiding the fact that I was unhappily married, and surprising everyone when I announced that I was getting divorced.

I became so good at playing the part of a high functioning human that I became incapable of being anything other than high functioning. I started eleventh grade the day after I was discharged from a six week hospitalization, during which I’d gained about twenty pounds and was still underweight. I danced at my wedding of 800+ guests and not a single person knew that I was filled with dread. I came into work the day after I left my ex-husband, and I worked up until the day before I flew to Utah to be hospitalized for the eating disorder that I thought I’d shaken.

I was a broken person when I boarded that plane and flew across the country. Yet up until that point in my life, people had consistently told me how much I seemed to have it together. I was skinny and smart, so the logical conclusion was that my life had to be great. I was college educated, married, well dressed, and socialized frequently. If I tried to tell people that my life wasn’t a bed of roses, I either failed to convey the severity of my struggles due to my default of projecting positivity or they minimized the severity because I looked good on the outside.

I desperately wanted to be real about my life and my struggles. In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted to be a revolutionary. I wanted to transform the way the religious community supported those with mental illness, particularly eating disorders. I was passionate and full of fire, knowing that my personal experience and clinical expertise would be an invaluable asset to the community. Yet I couldn’t even tell my own story without people trying to silence me.

First they wanted me to wait until I was married. Then they wanted me to wait until all of my siblings were married. While I was waiting, I wrote my autobiography, and sent it to a few Orthodox publishers under a pseudonym. They loved it, but knew the community wasn’t ready for something so radical. One publisher told me that my portrayal of self-harm was too accurate, and her publishing team feared that it would inspire other teenagers to try it. As if they weren’t already.

As I made my way through my twenties, through my marriage, divorce, and two more stints in an eating disorder rehab, I began to shed the reign of conformity that had bound me since birth. I began to open up about things like depression and anorexia and deep, inner pain. I began to make my own choices about how to live, what to wear, and what hair color to rock. I attempted a Modern Orthodox lifestyle for a while, but found that many of the things that didn’t work for me in an Orthodox world existed in the Modern Orthodox world as well. And a few years ago, I made my choice.

I rejected conformity. I rejected the rigid lifestyle in which I’d been raised. I rejected the skirts and the long sleeves and the endless rules and regulations that did and didn’t have Talmudic sources. I rejected the shame associated with being OTD (formerly religious) and the judgement associated with being different. I rejected the requirement of functionality and perfection. I rejected many political, racial, ethical, and sociological perspectives that I’d developed by osmosis, and rejected the assertion that liberal Jews are self-hating, emotional snowflakes. And I found more happiness that I could have ever imagined.

I still believe the world is a hideous place. I still believe that people are horrible and there are some real monsters out there, but I also believe that the world can sometime be violently beautiful and painfully heart-warming. I don’t have a religious belief system, but I believe firmly in the powers of connection, friendship, and relationships. I believe in random and carefully planned acts of kindness. I believe in hugs and kisses and sex. I believe in lifting each other up and taking down our walls and showing the world our true, flawed selves.

Through honestly and vulnerability I hope to maintain the happiness that I have found in this horrible place we call earth.

About the Author
Shoshana is an author and social worker living in South Jersey. She works primarily with teenagers and has mostly worked in urban environments. In her spare time, she can be found rock climbing and drinking iced coffee, occasionally at the same time.
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