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Ten Months in a Madhouse

On the 23 of August I hopped on a plane in search of self, and study of “the enigmatic seminary girl amid her natural habitat.” Did I assume I had enough courage to undergo the tribulation my mission called for? Could I don features of religiosity like Chanel’s little black jacket; in such sangfroid  that I could  circumvent Rabbi’s and live among  Frummies without  authorities discovering I was only an aspiring Frenchwoman  with a boisterous brown mane, just observing to “take notes”?

Having Obama in mind I answered “yes, oui, כן (ken)!” I supposed I could. I had some faith in my acting skills and thought sacrosanctity could be assumed long enough to complete my task. Could I pass ten months in a West Bank Jewish nunnery? I said I could and I would—and I think I did.

After opening the unexpected email of admittance, I rushed to practice the part in which I was to make my debut the following day. What a difficult task, I thought, to appear before a crowd and convince them that I was a Dosi. I was already unaccepted to one institution because of an uncovered photo of myself with scantily clad arms—I was not about to invite déjà vu. I began to think my task a hopeless one, but it had to be done. So I flew to the mirror and examined my face.

“I am afraid of that wily smile of yours,” quipped my Orthodox friend. “I will smile no more,” I said imprisoning a grin in order to embark on my delicate and, as I found out, ensnaring mission. I was bent on looking at my condition through unsympathetic glasses. It’s just as well to take a last “fond look,” I mused, for who could tell how the strain of playing pious , and being shut up with a crowd of Semgirls eating peanut butter and the Bible, might turn my own brain, and I would never get it back. But not once did I think of eschewing my mission. On the following sweltering August day, I French braided my hair in two, threw on my longest black skirt, my mother’s high collared linen blouse and navy J.Crew cardigan. Far more covered then any of my peers taking group flight, I looked like a gentle little school girl who should have been accompanied by a succoring adult.

Beish Yachov chic

Beish Yachov chic at the airport

I had little confidence in my capacity to deceive the religious experts, and I think my prudent friend had less. Nonetheless, from the moment I entered the settlement, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of piety. I purported and prodded as I do in ordinary life.

Calmly, outwardly at least, I went out to my cockeyed business.

As a fashion habitué, my initial observations were topical at best: I noticed how all Semgirls sported snug Hard Tail skirts with fitted chambrays. How the Anglo Jewess toted her iPhone in a kaleidoscopic LeSportsac cross- body and come Friday, how that small purse morphed before my eyes into a LeSportsac tote available in an even grander salad of prints. I analyzed what each sartorial decision indicated vis-à-vis group dynamics, conformity and economic status of the modern orthodox nymphet. It was only a matter of time before the curious anthropological case, turned into an addlepated excavation of my Dasein.

Semgirl on the prowl; a common activity for the species. Notice how the girls have identified their pray, and are about to attack the young male, under the pretext of “asking for directions”.

Semgirl on the prowl; a common activity for the species. Notice how the girls have identified their prey, and are about to attack the young male under the trite pretext of “asking for directions”.

Which one of these is not like the other? Notice how all are sporting the same American Appeal scrunched skirt and slight variations of a slouchy t-shirt and tennis shoes. Oh, and the answer is none—they are all the same.

Which one of these is not like the other? Notice how all are sporting the same American Appeal scrunched skirt paired with slight variations of a slouchy t-shirt, cross-body bag, and tennis shoes. Oh, and the answer is none—they are all the same.

I imagined myself as a sort of Nellie Bly. In 1887, Ms. Bly revolutionized journalism and most importantly treatment of the mentally ill, spending10 days at Bellevue Hospital while posing as a mental patient for a madhouse exposé. Sociologists, anthologists, psychologists, and all other “ists” call this method participant observation: data collection, where the researcher actually slips into the subjects shoes, taking on the studied role. While I am not calling seminary an asylum, the parallels subsist for your own musing pleasure.

All I had to compare to the Orthodox Jewish world were books. The Beit Midrash appeared to be the gateway to the Yeshiva world. The practices, the uniform, the thoughts were alien— I figured I could at least learn my way into this cerebral circus.

In Gush Etzion , darkness lands precociously. It dangles in the morning air like the sword of Damocles; then in the midafternoon a pewter blue vesper descends, and the Jerusalem stone houses and aluminum caravans bare a somber expression. Yet high atop a steep Judean hill, across from the passing shepherd with his flock, and contiguous to Beit Fa Jay jayFajjar, an elevated pentagonal roof accompanied by a great triangular window emanate hoards of light, shattering the fat darkness of moonless, starless nights. Through the first few weeks at Migdal Oz, a gossamer menace of assumptions, ignorance, and Lilliputians, startled me, drying my hands, grating my apprehensions, making me eat saccharine, budget halva disintegrating with human touch (the only kind  Migdal Oz provides) too often. I would pace to and fro; my palms gulped by the long sleeves of shirt a friend had lent me too fit in.

In my first night-learning period’s, which  leading up to Yom Kippur were all about atonement, I wanted to escape  and tread towards Efrat through the twilight in order to touch the twinkling Jerusalem lights, but each time I tried , I became entwined in some wild, vociferous Talmudic dispute drawing me back, as if with corroded chains, into my seat.

“Ben Azai answered ‘What can I do? My soul desires Torah! Others can make babies’ (Yevamos 63b).” Sing-sang Shira, my Chavruta.

“Who does this Azai guy think he is? Is that a valid pretext for pussyfooting the Cultural Mandate?  Following creation, God tells man to be fruitful and multiply— except for those who fall in love with texts?!” I roared at my Chavruta, struggling to match my tone and gesticulations to the notorious Talmudic melody.

Our Oz-like, green roofed seminary’s stream of glowing windows must have added our share of mortal mystery for the passing spectator in the dimming mountains. I was her too, watching the light and speculating. Was I walking up the wrong yellow road from the closest settlement of Efrat? Should I search for bricks? Was The Great and Powerful Oz really inside? Was that a flying monkey I spotted in the corpulent night?  Would I pull aside a curtain, revealing the Wizard to be an old illusionist who would only prove that the brainless Scarecrow, heartless Tinman and spiritless Lion, each had what he wanted all along; that all I needed was a pair of scintillating red stilettos to take me home? Entranced and disenchanted by a surfeit of information, I had one foot in, one foot out; at once I stood inside and outside the wonderful Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz.

Drawing her chair closer to my perspiring body, Shira released a torrent of warm breath justifying Ben Azai’s deviant conduct.

The following mornings, evenings, and afternoons in the Beis, I quaffed a Talmudic sugya, and one more, and one more, and one more, and one more, and just one more, until I became loudly intoxicated with knowledge, struggling to maintain my balance with an indifferent Gemarah glued to my hand. I was addicted. Talmud satisfied all my needs. She challenged me with legal battles, aphorisms, literature, philosophy, bible, questionable biology, math equations, sex advice, table manners, philological challenges, Persian history, and fashion tips. Nonetheless,  I was simultaneously  terrified by the truth she was left behind on each daf.

Sitting alone in a strange territory, far from my wardrobe, house, family and everyone I knew, a sensation waylaying, finally attacked. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for— but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d overlooked or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, pleasure and repulsion. But not too much pain, because I felt alive. That was the moment I fell in love with the Gmarah’s pages, and I felt the Gmarah fall in love with me.

But acting the part of a Dosi was one thing; becoming one was my biggest fear. I snubbed the thought of morphing into just another religious girl when I had no one at home encouraging me to trim my negatively free wings. At all costs, the investigator undergoing participant observation must circumvent ‘going native’: becoming a full-time group participant ruins the entire experiment. Thus, I had lots of fun comparing myself to the Tannaic scholar who’s “tongue was never tired of singing Greek songs” (Jerusalem TalmudMegillah 9), the sage who infamously thought his student R’Meir Torah while illicitly riding a horse on Shabbat (Hagigah 15b), the “Other one”—otherwise known as Elisha ben Avuya.

What they wore

What they wore

What we wore

What we wore

I had successfully dissected every theological statement, verse, concept, and precept into something psychological, tangible, human, not to mention, deprecatingly rational. Probing to such an extreme, I sucked the numinous, the whole Godliness out of religion. According to my philosophy, I could easily break down what the Talmud meant stating that God cried, that when one enjoys without blessing, he steals from “the assembly of Israel”, and that on Shabbat you cannot separate the unwanted bits in your salad from the wanted bits. I was left in Migdal Oz singing the Tinman’s “If I only had a soul, dudu dudu dudu.”

Maimonides teaches that we learn in order to know what God isn’t, in order to love God: “In proportion to one’s knowledge is his love of God.” I could finally speak the language of the Talmudic man, but so what? Drowning in pilpul, I forgot learning’s raison d’être— love.

Of course it took the other gender’s touch to wake me from my surreptitious slumber. “My god” was not “his God” and that could cause a problem when building a life together, because “we don’t live on Islands.” I was still barred from the Orthodox coterie. I knocked, pushed, pulled, and clouted those overbearing doors but no one would let me in.

That’s when like an uninvited guest, decision time had arrived. I could no longer play the part of the jaundiced spectator; the trial was over. I could leave the madhouse, or join the patients. A double life would leave me unhappy, confused and entangled in a plethora of possibilities. But thankfully Judaism is a religion rooted in action; salvation through faith alone is like saying “salvation through pork alone” to a Williamsburg Hasid. Members in the same synagogue may be reading the same prayer, bowing at the same time, and wrapping the same phylacteries, but what goes on in each person’s head is his own business. Belief is dubiously even a precept.

So I dived headfirst into the theological furnace, hoping to make it out alive—notwithstanding with a few valiant scars. The plan was that by acting like a religious woman, I would become a religious woman.

Weeks earlier a phalanx of students amassed in Sacher Park. Two commanders arrive on stage. Beats explode; debris blankets the ground beneath me; smoke shields the sky; shots scream from every direction. Instead of ducking for cover, the young polluted bodies convulse, bounce, pulsate, roll, grasp, and clasp. Enflaming, propulsive grunts and truculent synthetic rhythms put prospective doctors, lawyers and engineers at the mercy of the Infected Mushrooms. Music permeates the cracks between strangers, and I can almost feel the melody’s moisture in my ear, like a whisper from my neighbor’s lips. Whispers erase the masses leaving only my ear and his mouths condensation. Before my eyes, the whispers transformed the public affair into a private ear-to-ear.

My strongest sparks of human connection this year have been in moments like that concert, or sitting around with my Dosi peers on Friday nights singing after dinner. I found holiness in the absence of words, in the intellectual abyss, in the serene sea of song. In fact, the singsong tune accompanying Torah learning is sine qua non for the fullest study experience. In Judaism, the musical pronunciations associated with the cantillation marks used for ritual Torah reading are called Taamim— taste or reasons. The tune to which each words is sung reveals more than the limited word itself, they let you consume the idea, savoring each succulent note. If God created the world in ten sayings (Pir’kei Avot 5:1), then accordingly, the moments beyond words should allow us to surpass this world, letting man sneak a peek at the transcendental essence like a shaky Skype tryst between long-distance lovers.

The Negev hills are alive with the sound of Torah

The Negev hills are alive with the sound of Torah

At Migdal Oz I learned not to learn.  My obsession with knowing propelled me into a vortex of unbridled intellect. Flooded with cases in which the less erudite are appointed to higher positions than the experts, the Talmud proves that unlike my presumption, knowledge does not conquer all (Brachot 4,Rosh Hashaana 25,Horiot 14,Ktubot 103).In Brachot, the prophet Eili concedes to a legal point made by his student Samuel, but forewarns that one who renders a halachic decision in the presence of his teacher warrants death (5:35). If one can keep his intellect and ethics as tight a Hardtail skirt on a Semgirl— he will succeed. However, if the intellect overpasses ethical boundaries, damage will indubitably ensue.

Who am I to think I can acquire it all like a cheap Forever21 knock-off? The wisest King of Kings himself confessed that “all this I tested with wisdom; I said, ‘I will become wise,’ but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes, 7).  Befuddled by this statement, many commentators purport that Solomon alludes to the paradoxical Red Heifer. How could the same substance purify the defiled while defiling the pure? If a golden cow defiled the nation at Sinai, how can a red one bring atonement? As a gilded man made construction, the Golden Calf represents a conviction of total comprehension, making the Red heifer the perfect tikkun (fix) as she is bewilderment incarnate.

Knowledge is a Red Heifer, a double edged sword. Its power can be used for defilement or purification. Taken to an extreme, and sans proper intentions my intellectual pursuits turned into a pernicious game.   Consuming every little morsel of information, gluttony overcame me, igniting an insatiable appetite bound to burst. It took a destructive romantic quake to save me, but now the reconstruction is up to me.

I came to Israel in costume, on a mission, and under the assumption that I would leave in a few months to spend the other half of my year studying French, piano, math, and “smart people stuff” in Paris or at my local community college. At the moment, I’m writing to you under a spoon chandelier (wondering if it comes in spork) from a cramped hipper-than-thou Jerusalem café, deciding if I should spend the next year here in the holy land. I came to prepare for college life and sharpen my mind through Talmud study, but all I gained was an ice coffee obsession, a nose ring, cheap second- hand treasures,  ugly-pretty Naots, war time nightmares, love stories I fear to repeat, newfangled values, and an oversize purse full of questions. Hope my closet back at home has space.

Israeyes

Israeyes

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