I adore children’s books. I admit, they are the only works of literature I have time to read these days. But Eric Carl’s poetry, the political sagacity of Todd Parr and the simple beauty of Margaret Wise Brown are probably all my sleep deprived brain can handle for now. One of my favourites, sent to me by my cousin Tammy in Chicago, is Leo Lionni’s ‘A colour of his own’. This story tells the moving tale of a young chameleon who struggles because he never fits in as he doesn’t have a ‘colour of his own’. As the plot thickens, he commits to stay in one place forever so that he will remain one single colour and thus have his own hue. But as life unfolds, his environment changes around him and so his colour changes too. Eventually he makes friends with another chameleon who offers him deep empathy and (spoiler alert), the chameleon friend says, ‘we will always change colour, that’s our very nature. But let’s go around together, that way, even as we change colour, we will never be alone. Now you guessed it, I identify with this little chameleon, because I too have often wanted to just fit in and feel like I belong. But growing up in the orthodox Jewish community this hasn’t always been easy….
These issues of belonging have come up a lot recently in some blogs on modern orthodoxy. Talia Lavin wrote an article about the trials and challenges of leaving her modern orthodox world and educator Dov Lerea wrote the most beautiful response to her article, speaking about how orthodoxy needs to create a much wider tent where all people seeking meaning can find their Judaism affirmed and welcomed. As I read Lerea’s article out loud to my husband I started crying. I said to him I wish I had had a teacher like Dov Lerea in my twenties.
I grew up ensconced in the strong, traditional and pretty conservative community of Jewish South Africa. In my early twenties, while studying in Israel I had a kind of awakening. I came back to South Africa all eager to start a little revolution in my B’nei Akiva community, starting with women’s tefilah (prayer) groups and Torah readings. I enthusiastically wrote about my vision to one of my Rabbis in Johannesburg and appealed to him for halachic advice and moral support. I hand wrote the letter and faxed it to him which gives you an idea of how much has changed in twenty years! When the Rabbi received the letter he called me in for a meeting. His final line to me was award winning: ‘Adina, your wish to create women’s Torah readings in this community is not going to fly. This community will never accept it. You know what you should do? Gather some women and go and sing songs to the elderly at the old aged home. That way…you will STILL marry the Chief Rabbi’s son.’ I was like, ‘Rabbi, was there some misunderstanding? I wasn’t asking for a husband, I was asking for a hearing.’
Another Rebbetzin whom I engaged on the topic responded to me, ‘Adina, what do women want?’ I was flummoxed. I mean…Freud had struggled with this very question till his dying day. I wasn’t sure that I had that much more to offer. But I stammered, ‘I don’t know, I think they want meaning?’ She kind of clicked her tongue and said in an exasperated tone, ‘They want to get married and have a baby. No one is going to marry a freak who wants to read from the Torah’. I know. It’s kind of laughable twenty years later. But at the time, it was comments and reactions like these that made me realise I did not quite fit into the ‘tent’ as it was defined. I was that chameleon. The rejection from my community plus my own difficult questions led me on a long road. There was a time when I thought I might throw all of Judaism away. I dabbled in a lot of things. Some too lengthy for this blog post. Some too private. I stopped being strictly observant, I ate all kinds of things, did lots of yoga, went to Buddhist temples, discovered dance, went to yeshivot, studied bible at university, and some things that are still too private :). I felt anger, sadness and deep loss. Eventually though, I found my way back to my tradition, but in a way that feels aligned with my inner self, if not always with my orthodox community’s practices.
These vignettes give me pause for reflection this week. So much has changed and so little has changed. This past week, I had the honour and privilege to facilitate two b’not mitzvah ceremonies in Johannesburg. These beautiful young women both read the Torah and gave thoughtful, engaging divrei Torah on their portions. They read from a beautiful Torah which is made accessible to women in our community by private families. But they read at private ceremonies, under the radar. No orthodox shul in South Africa will dare house their ceremony and if not for two privately owned Torahs, it would be impossible to obtain a Torah for these young girls in the orthodox community. The truth is, twenty years later and it’s still a bit freakish for girls to read Torah in Jewish South Africa. And yet, at grassroots, things are changing.
The tent of the orthodox establishment here is still very narrow. But unlike Lavin’s story, I don’t feel I have left Judaism or even, in some ways, my orthodox heritage. Rather, my challenge has been to create my own tent, a kind of inner and outer Jewish life where I can feel a love, and a deep aliveness for my Jewish life and learning. I have encountered many many people, who are looking for a place that is large enough for their questions, complaints, politics, longings and yearnings. It turns out there are many Jewish chameleons out there. But I think I cried when I read Lerea’s article because in my early twenties, if I had found one voice in our community, one leader or teacher or Rabbi who had had the courage and the insight to recognise my own quest and longing for depth and meaning and not to write me off as a ‘naughty Jewish girl’, I may not have rejected my own Jewish self for quite so long.
I love Lerea’s challenge to educators, Rabbis and communities to enlarge the tent. But for me personally, I wasn’t going to wait for the tent to enlarge. Because I knew that there were sparks of beauty, truth and holiness, I eventually had to fill my own tent with Torah. And there I have found that I am not alone. And there are many others creating their own spaces and places to house their Judaism. There are Jewish chameleons everywhere.