A group of Chabad Rabbis were holding a Shabbat meal at a tastefully set outdoor space. My emotions were mixed, I knew a lot of the people there, but I knew them as a religious god believer. Now it felt different, but I attended because, from a human standpoint, I believe I deserve to be whole and have interaction with my past connections and not be a citizen of no land.
At seven pm on a summer evening, the sun rays still shined strong, highlighting through the thick weight of the hot air and bringing out the natural beauty of the colors in the space and humans around me. However, in my tzniusy dress which is classy, but just about breaks every rule, short sleeves, above the knee and open neckline almost purposely, those same rays make me feel translucent and exposed.
I knew, that while I used to be a member of their community, I would have considered someone dressed like me trashy. I wonder if that’s in their mind as they see me.
Slut, slut, slut, the voice in my head said.
“Come light Shabbos candles,” said one of the Rabbi’s wives, drawing me in with her outgoing, bubbly demeanor.
“I’m good,” I replied with a firm gaze, “and I don’t remember the last time I did that,” I added as she persisted.
“You will remember that the last time was special, here at this gathering.” She kept negotiating.
“I grew up on Shlichus too, please don’t play this on me,” I put things in place.
“What will happen if you light?” She tried to put it in perspective.
“It’ll make you happy, that’s it,” I answered.
“And, Is that not a good reason to light?” She said with the enthusiastic tone of a seasoned Chabad missionary trooper reaching triumph.
“At the cost of my happiness?” I asked, thinking of the many painful memories that are almost unreachable that just the thought of igniting that flame evokes. I wondered resentfully if her Chabad programming would define that as successful awakening of my Jewish soul.
“Sometimes, we do things for others,” She said going into lecturing mode.
Is this marriage counseling? I would light the fucking candle, but I definitely don’t want to blur my sensor into doing things for others when I don’t want to. What’s to stop me then from going too far and ending up giving blow jobs without wanting? And, as the Philosophy of Brené Brown and Oprah says, “You can not live a brave life without disappointing some people.”
“Sometimes, but not today,” I affirmed.
Perhaps one day that candle might come to mean a superficial and straightforward symbol of culture, an ushering of peace and light as her leader, and supposed sender, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn marketed it as. His perceived legacy of warmth, I experienced as hurt.
“When then, next week you’ll come to my house and light?” She cut her loses.
And I knew she didn’t see me.
Was she now trying to show me the beauty of Shabbos at her home? Why couldn’t we just connect as humans?
She and I go way back. When I was sixteen and had just come to the Chabad high school, she was a twenty-year-old girl working as extracurricular learning director, and I had asked her to be my religious guidance mentor. A term referred in Hebrew as Mashpia.
Ironically, what compelled me to choose her as my role model at the time, was that I saw that her true friends were not very religious. In my experience growing up as the Rabbi’s daughter, I had felt unable to have authentic relationships with anyone around, due to the pedestal and responsibility of representing the perfection of frumkeit, religious lifestyle.
I had to be the proof in the pudding, communicate with my so-called “friends.,” from behind a glass showcase. The radiant happiness of the family members would be the main alluring component of the Shlichus mission.
I wondered, did she feel like she had to lose her natural humanity when stepping onto the glass podium of being a Shlucha? Was she so lost in the cause of getting someone to do a Jewish commandment that it clouded her vision? Her ears? Would she ever show authenticity and vulnerability to me or share her struggles? Do I, in turn, need to prove my happy life to avoid judgment for my lost belief in the godliness of rabbinical law?
And most sad was the thought that perhaps, I should have done the act just not to hurt her good will. Because life is not easy for anyone, and I wondered what was in her mind on that day. Did her daughter disrespect her stripping her of all confidence? Did she struggle to get it all together before the event? Her house clean, food cooked, her children, husband and herself dressed well? And now the added judgment of her husband for not Mekareving me, bringing me closer to Judaism in the proper way done with ex-Lubavitchers, previous members of the movement.
But was her illusion of that pedestal too high for me to genuinely see her at all also?