I was back in Aish Hatorah.
I guess like positivity childhood memories that resurfaced after I’d dealt with parental trauma, my subconscious felt I was ready to find some good beneath the wreckage.
The building was even bigger and more magnificent – and more rambly. I wandered through towering mazes of limestone and glass. This was the Old City, we don’t organize things into grids and straight angles here. Every curve is unique.
And feelings came back. Of being at home, surrounded by like-minded people who spoke English and were idealstic and knew about the world. Of knowing exactly what the right thing to do was at any given time. Of the satisfaction that comes from putting in a full days of work – except that a full days work was arduous yet simple: how many times had I read this chapter, this page?
My default mode is to look back and remember how meaningless all that effort was, how useless it was to my future. Suddenly a different perspective was there. It was meaningful then. It felt good then. I was at home then. They live in paralel universes, my two selves; and as long as they don’t come in contact with each other, they can coexist.
The Old City, too. Damn, that place fucked me up. But, what a cool place to grow up! Twisty, turny roads. Millions of tourists a year. Who else gets to explore thousand year old church caverns during school recess?
There are people who I still cannot look in the eye, even in my minds eye. Noah Weinberg, Yitzchak Berkowitz, Yirmeyahu Zilberman. Partially because of what I’ve said about them – I don’t think I’d be able to say the same in person. They remain, in my mind, larger than life, the result of knowing them during my formative years, in positions of power, having been pedestalized by the world around me.
Their flaws are more apparent than ever, humans with at least as many flaws and quirks, who somehow ended up in charge of other people. But I also remember their smile. They all had brilliant smiles, when they chose to use them. Why, for fucks sake, was that so infrequently? They sometimes giveth, but they mostly taketh away, reverting back to that façade of intensity, “have you done God’s work today?”.
But the leaping feeling in my heart when they smiled – goddamn, I had pleased the king, and my heart soared. It was the perfect ratio to keep all daddy issued, validation seeking humans in their orbit, addicted to the fleeting smile the rare nod of approval, not knowing when they’d get the next fix.
Aish was built from the ground up to suck people in to its agenda, to bend them to a very specific will and way of life. But I can finally see how, from their perspective, they were doing the best possible thing. And I am also able to transfer more responsibility off the institution and back on to the individuals who got sucked into it. Goddamit, you really thought as a 20 year old who studied some philosophy, you’d be able to come rescue your brother from what you believed was an actual cult by debating professional rabbis?
There were people who came through Aish and moved on. Most did, in fact. The few who got caught in its grate had something else happening inside – gaping childhood wounds, massively under-developed parts, which they sought to fill and compensate for with the help of An Idea. It gave them permission to be the workaholics they always wanted to be, to crush their pesky emotions beneath the iron fist of intellect.
Because here’s one thing that Judaism, and religion in general, really sucks at – helping you actually become a better person. The externally imposed rules hide your own boundaries from your self, and you get almost no tools to handle what you do find. Judaism’s mussar movement is like doing surgery with a screwdriver. In the dark.
In my dream, I was as tired as I was during most of the classes I attended in real life back then. But there was also a feeling of grandeur, and of belonging. I stood up in the room and apologized. “I am sorry for things I said,” I said. There was the unsettled feeling when two parties have fought and are made up, the shaky ground that comes right afterwards. They called me up to the Torah. I read it myself, like I used to, Parshas Ha’azinu. I still got it.
It’s been six years almost to the day since I left religion. The amount of tears shed and pain processed has been truly unbelievable. Thank god for MDMA. I am grateful to finally be moving on. The wise people of Facebook knew this all along. “Get over your shit, stop being so angry, move on!” they suggested.
You see that bucket of tears? That’s mine.
It needed to be filled before I could follow your nuanced instructions.
It’s full now, are you happy?
Because I am.