Bathing in the yellow-green glow of sunlight through leaves, Chani guards Eden in an embrace as they read together on this lazy afternoon, glancing over at me every once in so often to smile. Having awoken at two PM this afternoon, I myself feel held within the fog of my mind as if today is just last night's echo, and I hear these passing moments without really listening. About a month ago, my friend Adam told me, "if you think things can't possibly get any stranger, just go to sleep and wake up tomorrow." Each morning, I've acknowledged and welcomed that truth without the slightest anticipation; it is just simply so. It's now late-July, and my heart and head have reached a calm among the crashes and ebbs of these summer waves. The translucent walls of this microcosmic world of which I've been part- this bubble of alternating idealism and cynicism- are becoming clearer now, allowing me to gaze at the life awaiting me outside. And, still safe within the approaching final five weeks of this program, I have begun slowly peeling back the layers between my seemingly separate lives, realizing my retreat was really just to a place deep inside of myself.
I had made a conscious decision to become fully immersed in this small Berkshires society though managed to forget how utterly different my life would become. My friends Emma and Allison joked that I "would last two weeks with [these] hippies," and to a great extent, they were right- it took me two weeks to begin to change. The honeymoon phase ground to a painful halt and I found myself cringing far too often, blaming my own suffocating discomfort on the qualities of others. I reasoned they were far more religious than I was, nauseatingly politically-correct, or more insecure and hyper-sensitive, and thus projected their own personal issues onto the rest of us to establish a space in which they felt invulnerable. Sadly, in most cases, their need to do so stemmed less from their perception of one's offensive remarks, actions, or opinions, but from their own pressing need to be heard and understood. The phrase "you should be aware that" or "I'd invite you to think about" came up so often that it became comical, and I began to have a dull pain in my head from rolling my eyes so much. Wasn't there anything a person could do or say that wouldn't provoke a pained response from someone else? And- even more frightening- why did it seem that I was at the center of so much ensuing drama?
It was the first shabbat following the silent retreat, and since my chore partner Noah was a lot more invested in services than I was, I allowed him to stay, assuring him I'd be happy to handle the responsibility without him. I soon found myself alone in the utter darkness of the pasture, alarming the goats and hens with a borrowed headlight in my unsuccessful aim to lock them all up for bedtime. Luckily, someone on their way to the kfar (a tenting area nearby) gave me a hand with the struggling animals and I was finally on my way home- late for dinner. As I pedaled within the black tunnel of kaleidoscopic, brief illuminations of fireflies, I inhaled the mingling perfumes of seven young women all headed the same way: the Russian kitchen and housekeeping staff. They were dressed to the nines in short skirts and fitted tops, and wore make-up on their smiling eyes and pouty lips. "Zak," they screamed happily when I rode up. "Walk with us!"
As usual, my living room was packed with people seated on couches and chairs or huddled together on the floor, all enthralled in conversation or song. Although I had been starving earlier, looking at food grown cold only made me want to drink. I had grown increasingly sick of kosher wine, so I happily retrieved some beers from our basement refrigerator and shared a "yobnim" cheers with my new friends, away from the davining masses in the other room. Abby and Aitan sat at the kitchen table yet- for the most part- we were alone together, enjoying secular company amidst a raging shabbat celebration. We moved our conversation outside to the driveway, and eventually- arm in arm with Yulia and Gala- I drunkenly accompanied them all up the same dark road towards their house.
In writing, this may read as a typical Friday night; in reality, it prompted a number of community meetings. Two days later, a number of women both in my group and Neshama (the other fellowship program here) voiced such deep concerns as "they were dressed like sluts," and "it became a frat party with them around." Oh, I'm sorry... You had never bothered to befriend, let alone speak to any of them before, ignorantly assuming they didn't speak English, but because these girls weren't wearing fucking daishikis and yarmulkes ready to bench with you means they were acting inappropriately? Or, is the problem that you view them as outsiders because they aren't Jewish, and you let that compound the fact that they stole attention from you? Regardless, we set "shabbat intentions" to define an environment that would offend the least amount of people: only those who wished to observe and appreciate the festivities would be accepted, and any energy associated with a divergent purpose- whatever it was- was no longer OK.
I thought this would be the end of it, but it was only the beginning. I had my individual check-in with the head of my program two days later in the gazebo after a relaxing swim in the pool. Finishing a brief session about how my expectations were or weren't met and what kind of changes I would like to make, the focus awkwardly shifted to my intimate relationship with "the Russian staff." He looked me deep in the eyes and said, "I am not interested in your business, but I want to make sure you aren't continuing any of your old patterns and are getting the most you can from the program." Frankly, I was dumbfounded. I rightfully refused to volunteer any information and just asked to what in particular he was referring.
"Well, it's just that some of the women mentioned an uncomfortable atmosphere on shabbat," he replied.
"Yeah, we already went over that together as a group, but thank you."
With that, I again incorrectly presumed we had nipped it in the bud. The next day during our lunch break, the three other men in my fellowship and I were taken out of the dining hall for a private conference with only (!) the male staff. The program leader began, "I just want to say it's a pleasure to have all the men together, and to put forward the intention that we'll support one another in awareness of sexual language we use around our female colleagues."
"Well, some of the women have expressed discomfort with some of the recent sentiment among the men."
"Sorry," someone asked. "Was there something in specific?"
Straining his face to grimace, he continued, "well, there was something said in regards to 'nailing the Russian girls.'”
"Jesus," I began. "The only time I've heard anyone say the word 'nail' was when Naomi used it as a joke. If people are uneasy about something, especially if they eavesdrop and take something out of context, why don't they just ask us about it?"
"Well, I just want everyone to be aware of the power dynamic here. Because they are women, they may not feel empowered to confront you about it."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I think you may be referring to girls... We're all adults here, and if a grown woman has a problem with a manner of speech or her misinterpretation of it, she should be mature enough to deal with it herself."
I was livid, but almost more embarrassed for the hypocritically politically-correct authority. Here were men in their mid-to-late thirties trying to sustain open communication among everyone- going so far as to utilize parenthetical "wo"s in words to erase gender distinction [i.e., calling the center "Isabella Freed(wo)man"]- yet here they were pontificating like privileged youth in a fucking liberal arts school about power dynamics between men and women? Sure, go ahead. Say we're all equal, then have a separate discussion for *just* the men to address the issue. Now I am really convinced of the balance here.
And suddenly, all the Russian women were upset. They hardly said hello, and were seen crying in the kitchen after passionately arguing amongst themselves. When I inquired what the problem was, they just half-smiled to say "it's okay"; clearly, it was not. From another member of the kitchen staff, I learned their boss insensitively gave them erroneous information, saying they were no longer allowed at our house and were not to associate with us due to their behavior over the weekend. To further rub in the lie that we were "angry" with them, they were to have a meeting the next day to examine these concerns and formulate some guidelines for the future.
I spoke to their boss, to another Russian staff member who could possibly communicate the absurdity of the situation to all of them, to the coordinator of my program, and then to the executive director of the center. I merely attempted to explain that they had done nothing wrong. These girls are all university students who came here for a unique summer experience: to work in America, make some money, improve their English, and hopefully be part of an accepting community. They did not come here to celebrate shabbat with fanatical Jews or necessarily have any kind of religious experience for that matter, and whatever personal choices they made along the way (as the executive director said, "I can't control people having sex") should be their own business, right? Well, in a bizarre twist, their little powwow the following day addressed nothing of the sort. The executive director retreated, swept everything under the rug, and simply advised them to wear helmets while on their bikes and not to swim without a lifeguard on duty. And, to illuminate them about their unintentional starring role in the whole soap opera scandal? "Everything's fine."
Though there was some more talk about it after this (I was asked to have another individual talk with a more "sympathetic" staff member, and some of the Neshama women again brought up their feelings during one of their program check-ins), it sort of faded into a realm of stilted looks and whispers. Life continued as, well, something approaching normal. It was only the fourth week by then but, to be perfectly honest, I was really bothered by the religiosity of everyone around me, and it pushed me to seek out solitude and alternatively more secular companionship. I withdrew little by little, wore my headphones around a lot more, and had less of a desire to participate in some of the scheduled activities, preferring to work alone in the field or on landscaping where I didn't have to talk to anyone. Where I had initially valued the change of social scenery and tried to brush off any instances where things felt too cheesy or hippie for me, I was now convinced I was part of a cult- complete with touchy-feely group therapy bullshit conveniently sequestered away from any sense of the real world. I was allowed no space to breathe, and found it brutally paradoxical that I was asked to bring my "whole and entire self" when it was that alone which helped to create such a discordance.
Having come alone for the summer, I feel blessed to have made friends here with whom I can connect honestly and fully, and having one-on-one, candid conversations helps to illustrate the obvious: I am not alone in this feeling. Everyone has their own varying degrees of problems living in an intentional community, especially one attempting to assimilate members whose backgrounds diverge so significantly. For me- a politically-incorrect, non-observant New Yorker nearing thirty who barely identifies as a Jew- let's just say it's quite a challenge being stuck in the country with people whose rabbi fathers raised them Orthodox on communes in Israel or, for different reasons, vegans so vigilant they post facts about energy waste involved with meat production on our refrigerator, or recent Ivy League graduates who are moved to cry aloud about the genocide in Darfur. Funnily enough, its all grown to be endearing; however, I think the trajectory of one friendship in particular helped me begin to develop true compassion, and though it ultimately soured, it is the one for which I am most grateful.
Prior to our program's commencement, I felt I knew her somehow, and we naturally entered the sort of relationship that seems fated in some way. It's never something you understand as it happens; more likely, we as humans aren't capable of comprehending that sort of metaphysical recognition- that is, if we are ever lucky enough to experience it at all. Hindsight lends coherence to everything I suppose, yet such reasoning can also become a little dangerous and self-serving, even if we try not to concede to the solipsist in each of us. For the sake of reading this next story, it doesn't matter what you believe, because it's altogether possible that things just happen with no tangible connection to anything else and we're all just spiraling in chaos, drawing our own conclusions and inventing a compelling narrative of progress. Yet, on second thought, what you believe probably has everything to do with this story, because belief was the burning core of our problem.
One day our group had a class about the significance of making brachot (blessings). Towards its end, she raised her hand.
"At first, I was really excited to be talking about brachot, but now I feel this sense of, I don't know, impending doom, you know? Like, we've just gotten so far away from the path. I mean, when the meshiach (messiah) comes, it can't happen if we are in the wrong place. Oy!"
She sighed insincerely- at least, that's the only way I was able to look at it- and I felt utterly repulsed. I wanted to respond right then, but bit my tongue knowing I would probably say the wrong thing... So, I waited a few minutes and said it anyway.
"While I think it's a good thing to elevate an action with a blessing, at least to express gratitude, it's important to remember not to put too much energy or fear into a metaphor."
If I ever write a book on what not to say to religious Jews, that will be the quote following the title page. Some people asked what I meant, and I continued.
"Religion is all metaphor. It's just one way of giving meaning to any of this- through stories, laws, traditions, whatever- and establishing a black and white version of right and wrong."
"In your opinion," she quickly spouted.
"No, that's what religions are."
"In your opinion," she repeated.
"Sure." I exhaled some of the tension building in my chest. "In my opinion."
The negative energy in the room was palpable. As people began putting on their shoes and heading towards their next obligation, Eden, Noah and I spoke about it further, and I tried explaining myself. That's when she approached me.
"You should be careful about how you voice your opinion, because some people can find it offensive," she began.
"You're right." And she was- completely. "But what you said just doesn't sit well with me. You're talking about this 'path' and the coming of the messiah, and you're taking all of this as some kind of impending doom? That's not just belief, it's fanaticism."
"That is Judaism," she coldly retorted. "You are calling me a fanatic?"
"I don't know, really. It doesn't matter what version of God you subscribe to. Even if you don't believe in any sort of power or connectivity among us, taking it to that extent- blindly reacting to fear of a story written thousands of years ago- is fanaticism. It's no different than a Christian waiting for non-believers to die when our planet explodes in a fiery ball, or a Muslim shouting 'Allahu Akbar' and blowing himself up."
Her face turned red as she lost her breath. "You are comparing me to those people?"
She looked at me as if I had grown horns, and interrupted even before I had finished inhaling to explain. "That's how you see me? I'm not having this conversation right now. This conversation is over." She stormed out swollen with tears, and apparently began sobbing. I didn't see it, though.
"Yeah, just walk away. That's really mature." My heart was racing.
Five minutes later, we passed each other on the road. Her face was streaked with tears, and she rubbed the last of them away from the misty, bloodshot eyes she made sure didn't meet mine.
It's true: I've always tended to hate organized religion, seeing it as more of a prescription for how to experience your life instead of an open course towards a true understanding of, well, anything really. Fanaticism of all kinds is flat-out wrong, and has been a main root of misunderstanding, gross disrespect and hatred, wars between nations, and unthinkable genocide. Within my own extended family, I've seen how such a staunch regard of religion has torn relationships apart and, sadly, my predominantly negative experiences with it have made me almost completely shun my heritage. That is really part of the reason I wanted to be part of a Jewish community for the first time this summer- instead of ignoring that side of me, why not see what it's actually all about? No, I didn't think I would come here and magically want to become a rabbi, but I did see this summer as potentially having an affect in my so-far non-existent religious life. It has, but only through finding that what I've come to believe on my own resonates strongly with Judaism. And while that's beautiful, I don't necessarily feel motivated to start going to shul (temple).
The problem is this: while it has been fortuitous to glean my own truth from various spiritual vantage points and personal experiences, doing so has only strengthened my opinion that a more encompassing perspective of spirituality is a healthy starting point for examining any certain religion. If from childhood your parents (as most do) offer a distinct prism through which to understand life, when you start seeing other colors that don't fall within that spectrum, you are in for some serious trouble. I saw the documentary "Jesus Camp" earlier this year, and shuddered at brainwashed children speaking in tongues and ecstatically praying to a life-sized, cardboard effigy of George W. Bush. No, eight year old children should not be engaging in glossolalia, nor should they be weeping at a local abortion clinic, begging their savior to purge the souls of women who chose to have control over their own body. The point is, fanaticism within any religion often breeds bigotry and a very specific kind of ignorance which comes from mistaking an opinion as the big (and only) picture.
So, she and I didn't speak for a week. I refused to apologize because she didn't have the decency to let me explain my side, choosing instead to be controlled by her anger and flee the conversation. There was truthfully much more to my decision not to make amends with her, but since I learned a lesson- appropriately through her- I am intentionally being vague and eliminating some details entirely. At risk of sounding like an asshole, in short, let's just say I had no desire to continue the friendship for reasons other than her religious upbringing.
True to form, the personal became public, and I soon learned that she requested to have a staff-mediated session to discuss how I had offended her. Oh joy. The head of my program took me aside after dinner one night and said that a visiting rabbi and he were going to sit us down and listen to our personal business. "It's going to be a great opportunity for me," he said. For you? This has nothing to do with you, I thought. What sort of a cruel joke is this? I don't need to divulge the reasons this person grates on my nerves in front of you and a fucking rabbi, OK? This is our business- not a community issue.
The day came for our intervention session. During breakfast that morning, she looked into my eyes for the first time that week and said she no longer wanted to have it.
"I don't either," I said laughing.
"But I just got off the phone with [the program head] and he said 'it's not an option.'"
"Getting into our personal business shouldn't have been an option in the first place!"
I groggily ate eggs from our hens and some sauteed zucchini we had grown, and washed it down with cold, raw goat milk. I needed a nap. I lay in bed, and she came in my room to talk. An hour later, we looked at each other in amazement: what I had told people in confidence was twisted around and relayed back to her, and we realized that- for an entire week- people had lied to our faces. How can such a small community simultaneously have such an appetite for shit-talking gossip and drama, then have the audacity to pride itself on openness and sharing? I wanted to vomit.
She and I had gotten lost so many times on these roads in Falls Village, and here we were, driving together for one last time to the center, feeling more disoriented than ever. The sun was hot and shining, and the movie of our lives was flickering in the speckled gravel road ahead. In utter disbelief, we parked in the lot, waved limp hellos at passersby, and swung open the screen door to the yurt. There was a circle of four pillows on the floor, two of which were occupied by the rabbi and our program head. They smiled hello and we reluctantly sat facing each other, stifling embarrassed giggles. Then we were asked to meditate and "become present," and I think that was the first time a suggestion to meditate made me want to run out of a room.
When we finished the sitting, I began to verbalize what I had been holding inside for way too long.
"I really appreciate that the both of you took time out of your schedules for this, and that you feel it's going to be a positive experience for you, but frankly, this is absolutely none of your business. For the last hour, she and I went over our personal differences and came to a good place; knowing that this intervention is not optional is really disconcerting. This is not the real world- this is a bizarre cult full of hypocrisy and people who love to hear themselves talk, then process every fucking miniscule detail. Half of the people here seriously need therapy, and I don't feel right opening up my personal history with another community member so that *you* can benefit from it. Everyone is in everyone's business as it is, and it's pathetic. And here I was wrongfully assuming that I could trust others in my group. I asked advice from them in confidence so that I could better approach some kind of resolution with her, but they wound up going behind my back and putting their own spin on what I said to make the situation even worse! People just can't get enough of other people's drama here. Get your own fucking life! But no, there's always some camera rolling- some hidden eye- and it's capturing all of the hand-holding and the idealism and the pseudo-spirituality. This little community is really just a bad movie about hippies who are in need of some major help."
Yes, I said all of that out loud.
The rabbi cooly unraveled her words. "So, what I heard you say is that you feel betrayed by the community. What do you need from us to feel comfortable?"
Quite honestly, after my initial rant, the meeting took us to a point I don't think we would've gotten to on our own, and I can't understand why. Since it was such a forced reconciliation, conceivably it surpassed our bitterly low expectations just to prove us wrong. Or maybe it succeeded because it took place in this weird kingdom of make-believe- "Jewtopia" as Eden lovingly refers to it. I think both are true. In an intentional community, everything is magnified to an impossible extent, and being yourself- remaining honest while trying to be understanding- is incredibly tough. No, it's not the real world; instead, it's like a laboratory for it, helping you grasp how the energy you put out affects everyone whether you want it to or not. And while it's not your obligation to conform, you are given a stronger lens to determine how you could if you so chose.
Seeing her cry that morning with huge, heaving sobs as she explained how her religious life has alternately been a blessing and a burden, I no longer recognized her as the person I had judged and berated, but as a person I really didn't know or understand. The truth is, I will never be able to fathom the world of Orthodoxy, Kashrut, Halachic law, Hebrew day school, religious texts covering every shelf in one's house, long skirts, separation of women and men in temple, expectations of marriage and motherhood before real adulthood, and true ethical polarity (no gray area and no reasonable explanation why). None of that was her choice, nor could I have prevented being raised the way I was as her total opposite. And then I too started to cry- not from guilt or sadness, but from a love I couldn't comprehend... An overpowering sense of compassion.
A week later, for reasons unrelated to our argument, she left the program. It's as if she came specifically to teach me a lesson, and left when she saw it start to sink in. Of course, that's solipsism talking again, but isn't it comforting to think the universe exists specifically for you? Then, instead of judging everything and reacting negatively to something outside of yourself, you can turn inwards and ask exactly why it bothers you in the first place. More often than not, you'd be surprised by the answer. All of these obstacles hold lessons, and instead of circumvention, crashing headfirst seems to be the only way to uncover them. If they manifest as others' opinions, beliefs, styles of speech, personality quirks, or whatever differentiates you as people, then it's all the better for your own self-education; in that way, the universe indeed exists just for you. So take a deep breath, smile or cry, and offer thanks from the bottom of your heart to the characters who help write the story of your life.