Thursday, May 16, 2013

What It's Like To Grow Up In Modern Orthodox Hell

This community is perfect. The wealth, the glamour, the righteousness. Families are flawless. Each member of the community has their fellow Jew’s best interest at heart. I mean, this is East Memphis. This is where Orthodox Jews rule the streets. This is paradise for a modern Orthodox Jew living in America. This should be my utopia, right?


This community is a facade. This community is an aristocracy. This community is riddled with judgemental, self absorbed jackasses who feel the need to analyze what everyone else is doing before correcting their own flaws. No family in Memphis is perfect. There are conflicts everywhere. It’s just that whatever problems there are, people are damn good at concealing the details. Sure, some do look out for their fellow Jews. Unfortunately, though, the overwhelming majority live each moment trying to attain some higher status than their fellow Jews, even if it means throwing your friends in the dirt without a second thought. I mean, this is East Memphis. This is where Orthodox Jews walk the streets with their heads held unjustly high. To some, this may be paradise, but to others this is Hell. A hot, judgemental, infested Hell. This is not my utopia. This is a place that has forever jeopardized my faith in Orthodox Judaism.

Where does a family full of personality, full of outspoken children fit into a facade like this? Where does a family marred by drug addictions fit into a facade like this? Where does a family that tells it like it is fit into a facade like this? An imperfect family. A family that is confident enough to admit that it has problems. A family that says what it thinks, despite the possible repercussions.

I’ve learned that it doesn’t.

When I was a child, my parents raised me as religious. Despite popular belief, we actually did have a Kosher kitchen. We were Shomer Shabbat. When it came to religion, we adhered to everything that a typical Modern Orthodox household adhered to.

Now, my father is the greatest man I know. He understood that, as I got older, I would need a chance to decide for myself regarding whether or not to remain religious.

I think that it’s important to publicize the factors that went into my decision. I think that others need to know why I’m so far away from Judaism. I think that it’s important to reveal the reasons, more specifically, the reason why moving out of “the community” was the best thing that has ever happened to me.

When I would walk into Shul as a kid, I would get these looks. All eyes were tracking me, the little Goldstein boy.

“There’s that boy with the screwed up family.”

“What is he doing here? He’s not even religious.”

“Oh, those Goldsteins are such bad kids. They always get my children into trouble.”

“Did you know that his mom is a convert?”

Nobody knew me. Nobody knew my family. Nobody knew anything about my situation. But it seemed as if everyone felt at liberty to throw in their two-cents worth. I’ve since stopped attending Shul. Why should I go back? Nobody will be standing at the front door to welcome me. It’s still the same. My mere presence seems to excite people. I sometimes have to make sure I didn’t forget to wear pants out of the house, because why else would everyone be staring? When I show up, whether I’m looking to reconnect with Judaism or if it’s a social thing, people are so curious.

As I grow older, I struggle more and more with my decision. Just as I near jumping back into the whole religious thing, I get an ever-so-telling stare that gazes me right back to the other side. The dark side. It’s clear that I’m not welcome in the Orthodox sphere.

It’s the judgements. It’s the never ending judgements. It’s people delusionally thinking that they’re better than others. It’s broken people projecting their own problems onto others. Why would I want to be part of a community like that? One in which parents call each other on a nightly basis to catch up on the hottest gossip; to pass the latest judgements. This community is so congested with condescending pricks who, for some inexplicable reason, have gigantic heads. People seem to have so much to say, but they wouldn’t dare say it to your face.

I think that’s why so many people chastise my family. We’re straight shooters. We won’t step behind your back to say what we want to say. We’ll get right in your goddamn face to say it. This attitude, what I see as the right attitude, has created a stigma associated with my family.

In Seventh Grade, my friends and I thought it would be funny to create a fake Facebook for a schoolmate of ours. Our intention was to ridicule this kid. We were ruthless. Well, we were seventh graders. One profile picture of a mentally retarded Superman later and we all ended up in the Dean’s office.


Fine, I can deal with that. We deserved it. We did something unforgivable. I regret it to this day.

But what happened after the story broke in the community was appalling.

You see, all I did was create the initial profile. I didn’t choose the profile picture. I didn’t change the sexual orientation to "Homosexual." I merely created the initial profile and let my friends take the reigns from there.

But suddenly, I was the instigator. Suddenly, I was the villain. Suddenly, my dad hadn’t raised me right. Suddenly, I was troubled because my mom was a drug addict. Suddenly, I was prohibited from my best friend’s house. Nobody knew the details about what had happened, but they felt the details were redundant either way. It was obviously the Goldstein boy.

I was 12. 

I was a 12 year old who was chastised by an entire community that didn’t know anything. I was being vilified by adults who were far from in a position to judge. I was criminalized by verbally abusive parents, by cheaters, and by convicted criminals themselves. All because I was a Goldstein. All because we watched South Park on Wednesday nights. All because our curfew was a little bit later. Because our father was a reasonable man who understood teenagehood. Because we weren’t afraid of confrontation.

I guess that rubbed people the wrong way. Our constant confrontations must have been too real for the community to handle. So they slowly wrote us off. They slowly took measures to ensure that our blasphemous influence wouldn’t reach their children. They made sure that they limited our friendships as children.

There are obviously other strictly religion based factors that have gone into my decision to become non-religious, but this reason, the whole judgement issue, is most definitely the most prominent factor. The community judging me for coming from an atypical family was something I never did, and never will take lightly (ironically enough, my dad just walked out of his room at 1:35am, flicked me off, and went straight back to bed - you have to love the man). People wonder why I’m so far gone, but the answer is so clear that it’s baffling that they even ask.

It’s you. It’s those Orthodox Jews that did their very best to ruin my childhood, but failed immensely.

You’re the reason I’m no longer a part of the community. You’re the reason I initially wanted to branch out and meet other Jews of different denominations. You’re the reason I’ve lost faith in Orthodoxy. You’re the reason I missed out on innumerable friendships as a child. You’re the reason I spent chunks of my life embarassed about where I come from.

But now’s my time to shove a big old middle finger down your throat. As I grow older, as I blossom into someone I’ve always envisioned myself as being, I can confidently look you in your seemingly fixated eyes and just smile. Because half of you are miserable. Half of you are searching for an identity while I already have one. Half of you secretly envy the family I’ve been blessed to have. Half of you are doing whatever you can to fit into this aforementioned facade.

To those of you who know exactly what I’m talking about, read this very closely:

Never let this community mold you. Never let the judgements, the petty accusations, the complaints limit your potential. Never let a 50 year old who has done nothing with his life judge what you are doing with yours. Be proud of who you are and where you come from, unless of course where you come from is somewhere that desperately attempts to fit into this facade. If that’s the case, create your own home, your own system of fundamental ideals. This community has tried so hard to make my childhood even more complicated than it already was, and it has failed.

This community has failed.

This utopia is Hell.

These people are embodiments of the pitfalls of Orthodox Judaism.

To those who are indeed different than them: We will rise up. We will be heard. We will be us. And we will come back here one day and just smile. We’ll welcome the never-ending stares. We’ll scoff at the judgements. We’ll know that this community is sick and twisted, and we rose above that. We had the courage, the strength to become who we always wanted to be.

Note: I’m not irrational. I know not everybody in my community is like this. This wasn't directed at every last member of my city's Orthodox Jewish community.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Not Your Typical Mother's Day

I don't remember much from my childhood. And that's probably for good reason. But there is one memory that has stuck with me. That memory was the beginning of it all. That memory is the one that reminds me day in and day out that family is the single most important thing in my life.

It was around two in the morning. I was laying in my bed, alone. I was still awake, as I often was that late when I was a child. My mother wasn't home yet. Just as I'm about to fall asleep, my dad walks into my room.

I acted asleep. My dad always got mad at me when I would stay up late, so I grew accustomed to fake stillness and forced, steady breathing. I heard my dad step around for a minute, and then there was no more noise. I just barely opened my right eye and look over at the other bed in my room. My dad was sleeping in it.

Ten minutes later, Seth walked in. Stepping around, ruffling, and then silence. I looked over and saw him in bed with my dad.

Ten minutes later, Avi walked in. Stepping around, ruffling, and then silence. I looked over and didn't see him. Then I looked down. He had constructed a makeshift bed on my floor.

At that point, I stopped caring about what my dad would think about me being awake. I got up and crawled into bed with he and Seth.

There we were. Seth, my father, and I in one tiny bed. Avi on the ground. At that point it was obviously no secret that we were all awake, so we sat there and talked for a little bit. I remember snuggling with my dad. I loved snuggling with him when I was a little kid. I still do.

There we were. In a broken home. Distractions were all around. Tensions were high. But we had each other. We always had each other. We will always have each other.

Family is indubitably the single most important thing in my life. I would take a bullet for anyone of my siblings, because I know they would do the same for me. The reason this memory has stuck with me for so long, the reason it sticks out among the other hazy memories from my childhood is because that night was the night that I knew I would always be secure. That was the night that I discovered that anything I do, any direction I take my life will be supported by an unbreakable foundation.

Mother's Day is weird for me. Most who know me know my situation. I don't have a relationship with my mother. But the thing is, that doesn't mean that I was lacking anything in my childhood.

So many people have taken it upon themselves to look after me. My brothers and sisters have always been there for me. My dad is the greatest man I know. Aunt Shelby was with me every step of the way, serving as an amazing makeshift mother.

But there was one person who I made sure to wish a very special happy Mother's Day to today. I'm not discounting all that the others have done for me, but what my sister, Shifra, has done for me cannot be sufficiently expressed in words. Shifra was my mother, soccer-mom, cook, chauffeur, and emotional backbone. And it seems as though nothing has changed. Whenever I have to say something, but don't feel comfortable saying it to anybody else, I Whatsapp my sister.

Growing up, I had always wanted to be like my big sister. She was so cool. She was popular. She was hip. She had great taste in music. She was everything I wanted to be. I remember peeking under the bottom of her door, trying desperately to see what her and her friends would do on Friday nights. It was always such a mystery, and, her being a big sister, never let me crack that mystery. In Elementary School, she took me to school every morning. It became somewhat of a game to see whether or not she would be generous enough to take me all the way to the front of the school, or if she would drop me off in the back field and make me walk. Looking back, what I find funny about those early morning rides is that she would only take me to the front of the school if it was pouring rain, then she would act like she did me the biggest favor ever. That's just Shifra. She's one of the funniest, wittiest, most easy going people I know. She walks into a room and lights it up.

Mother's Day is a unique day for me. It's strange to think that it makes me feel appreciative of all of those caretakers in my life other than my actual mother. But unique is certainly not a bad thing. This day reminds me that I have the greatest family in the world.

So, I would like to wish a very happy Mother's Day to my big sister, my role model, and one of my best friends.

I love you, Shifra. I can't wait to be with you this summer! Happy (unconventional) Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Where Do We Go When the Lights Go Out?

Last year, when I moved into my new house, I somehow ended up with a small table that used to belong to my brother, Sam. On the bottom right corner of the table, a sticker with the quote "Where do we go when the lights go out?" sticks to the worn plastic. At first, I thought it was just a cool quote, likely about a Phish song, considering that's my brother's favorite band. But now - now it speaks to me. Now that once simple, catchy quote is something that rips me apart.

With every passing month, reality inches closer. My best friends are moving away. Seth, my final brother in the States, is moving to Israel to join my other six siblings. All of the people I have grown up with, made memories with, laughed with, cried with, done immeasurably stupid things with, partied with, they're all leaving me back in this life as they venture into their new ones.

It would take me a 2,000 page novel to explain the amazing moments I've shared with all of the people who are so close to leaving me. Maybe one day I'll get a chance to sit down and recount all that's happened to me and my friends throughout the years, but for now I must settle for constantly replaying all of the highlights of my teenage years in my head.

I don't know, I guess I'm just broken up about all of this. And what's worse is that with every passing Saturday night, as we near our last one together, we are spending them apart. I just can't imagine what it's going to be like next year when I can't call Eli or Asher anymore.

I've been telling myself that their departure would be a good thing. I've tried to convince myself that their leaving would give me a chance to strengthen my independence. I keep telling myself that I won't have a tough time without them.

But that's all a load of crap. It's going to be miserable when they all leave.

But what I'm starting to realize is that sitting around, pouting, waiting for departure day to come does no good. It's inevitable. People move on and life changes. It's one of the hardest things to come to grips with, but I suppose I really have no choice. The only thing I can do now is try to fill the gigantic voids that will be left once next school year rolls around. I'm fortunate that I have amazing friends my age to lean on when my best friends do leave me. But I don't think it will ever be the same. I can't imagine that I will have, somewhere down the road, people in my life that will mean as much to me as my best friends do now.

The big four - all headed their separate ways. Gidon - headed his separate way. All of the others - headed their separate ways. And me? I'm stuck here. I'm left to rebuild.

I guess I don't really have the right to complain about anything, but it feels nice to reminisce sometimes. It gives me a chance to reflect on how truly special my friendships have been. I mean, I've met some of the best people on earth these last 17 years. I've made memories that dementia won't even be able to pry out of my hippocampus. I've done crazy things that I know I'll tell my kids not to do one day.

There's not much I can do at this point. All there's left to do is cherish the remaining moments we have together. I'm going to take advantage of every opportunity I get from here on out to make even more memories, to do even more stupid things, to have even more fun with the ones I love.

I would take a bullet for these people, because I know they would do the same for me.

So to all of those friends who are leaving next year, I want you all to know that I love you and will miss you more than you can possibly imagine. I'm making it my mission to keep in touch with those who have changed my life - it's the least I can do. And all of the memories I've made, they will be with me until the day I die.

The lights are almost out.

Where do I go?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Historic Announcement

Note: I wrote this piece for my school's newsletter, but the fact that it seems to be endorsing homosexuality led to its censorship. While I do understand the reasoning behind the censorship, though I may not agree with it, I think it's a decently interesting read.

A year of breakthroughs for the LGBT community just got even greater.

“I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.” These words, written by current NBA center Jason Collins, are part of a first-person coming-out piece featured in this week’s edition of Sports Illustrated Magazine. The article gives a firsthand account of Collins’ struggles with his sexual identity, as well as his reasoning for courageously becoming the first, openly gay male active athlete in a major American sport.

American sports are dominated by the alpha-male - the jock. That being said, Collins’ decision to come out is nothing short of praiseworthy. Collins has struggled his entire life to mask his true self with a typical alpha-male facade. From locker room to locker room, he was forced to protect his secret to avoid discomfort within the game, and ridicule outside of the game. But now that the LGBT community is stronger and more successful than it’s ever been, now that gay marriage is already legal in several states in America, and now that gays are widely accepted in pop culture, business, and just about every other aspect of American life, Collins, a true trailblazer, knew it was the right time to reveal his safeguarded secret.

As expected, Collins’ announcement has been met with both acceptance and praise, as well as fear and skepticism. Various celebrities, be it athletes or media stars, have publicly endorsed Collins’ decision to, as he put it, “start the conversation” regarding out professional athletes. Others met Collins’ announcement with a sense of apprehension, a sense of skepticism. Some who are fearful do not think that having an out teammate in a locker room will bode well for team chemistry. Those who don’t agree do so purely on the grounds of homosexuality being an abomination according to the Bible. Now that the trail has been blazed, now that the “conversation” has been started, we can’t help but wonder if more will follow suit, and if those who do will still have a place in professional sports once they are out.

The fact that there are other active athletes in professional sports that are closeted homosexuals is undeniable. Up until now, it was understandable for those athletes to live a life of secrecy. The door wasn’t open for them to come out, so they had all of the reasons to be afraid. However, now that Collins has come out, now that just one athlete has put himself on full display for who he truly is, I believe that many will follow suit. If this were to occur, those who currently feel uncomfortable with the thought of having a homosexual teammate will have to adapt their beliefs and become comfortable with it for the sake of maintaining basic team chemistry. As for the question of if out athletes will have a place in professional sports, it’s my belief that Collins’ coming out will inspire others to do the same, thus resulting in the security of homosexual athletes’ position in professional sports.

Consider this: If various football superstars came out as homosexual, would they lose their job? Absolutely not. If one of the top players in the NBA came out as homosexual, would people have a problem with his sexual orientation to the point that they’d lose their reverence for his abilities? Surely not. The point is, as more and more will continue to come out, homosexuality in professional sports will become increasingly more accepted. Jason Collins has opened the floodgates; now we’re all just waiting to see who washes through.

Whatever may come of this historic coming out cannot underscore how immeasurably important Collins’ decision was. Jason Collins has opened the door for a movement within professional sports. Collins opened himself up to the possibility of criticism and rejection, but stands tall (7 feet, to be exact) doing so, because he knows that the impact he is leaving on professional sports is one that will change homosexuality in American sports forever.

Jason Collins is a true pioneer. He is an American hero and a role model for millions to look up to. In one courageous decision, Collins has gone from an underappreciated NBA journeyman, to a trailblazer in every sense of the word.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Be Yourself, Man

I pride myself on having the ability to distinguish between those I consider to be "real" and those I consider to be "fake." I've had this ability for as long as I can remember. Up until this year, this ability has been consistent and has made it easy to determine who was worthy of my friendship and who was not.

But this year, I was thrown a curveball.

I have this one friend (not a Memphian, so don't play the guessing game with me) whose personality is so inconsistent that it actually makes me want to rip my hair out. This friend and I will go through a two-week stretch in which I genuinely believe we are developing a strong friendship, but, in what seems to be a split second, s/he reverts back to the same toolish behavior that I so passionately despise. What's frustrating about this friendship is that I can't decide if I should wait it out and see if their true personality will come out to stay, or if I should just throw in the towel and let them make a fool of themselves every time they open their mouth. 

This one friendship is a personal conflict, not one I want to bore you with. What I really wanted to talk about, which has been appropriately introduced by the characterization of this friend, is how depressing it is that some people spend their entire school day and beyond acting like someone they're not. This case of my friend is the furthest thing from unordinary. 

Often times I will walk into school and look around at the people I'm surrounded by. Just taking a look is enough to induce fascination. I look to my right and I see one peer sitting in the corner of the room, trying desperately to adjust his sense of humor so that it will fit another peer's standards of "funny." I look to my left and I see another peer wearing pants tight enough that it causes me physical pain, trying so hard to wear what society labels as being "in." 

Just the other day, I met up with a friend who I was once close with at a restaurant. I had always respected them for being unique, for knowing exactly who they were and what they wanted from themselves. 

Notice the past tense. 

I was astonished and saddened to find that they, too, had fallen prey to mainstream practices such as the excessive application of make-up or the ever-so-terrifying artificial tanning. 

Many criticize me for being outspoken and frank (they just call me a dick), and that's very understandable. I'm open to criticism, even if it does upset me. The reason I can deal with someone insulting my character is because I'm confident in the fact that I act in a way that reflects my true character. My true self isn't masked by cover-up or manipulated by mascara. My true self is almost always on display, a fact that is met with the distaste of many, and, hopefully, the respect of many more. 

I don't know what it is that makes people conform so easily. I don't know if it's the human tendency to want to fit in, or the desire to look like the most idolized model in a Victoria's Secret magazine, but I do know that it's a very sad thing. 

It's a sad thing that people can't just be happy with who they are. It's a sad thing that many can't be comfortable with themselves and, instead of trying to conform to fit others' expectations, go out and find similar friends who will accept them for who they truly are. 

I was visiting a college recently when I had this long talk with one of my friends. She told me how much she enjoyed the writing of Stephen Chbosky, who many may know as the author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. While I wish I had the time to read the novel my friend was raving about, I settled for simply watching the movie.

It was life changing. 

For those who haven't seen it, it's a coming of age story about a mentally disturbed young man who finds a group of friends in which he can be his true self, on full display for all to see. This movie has had a profound impact on my life. It's created a calling in me. It's made me want to be somebody who can help show those people who think they must conform to achieve happiness that they are wrong. 

As I said, I pride myself on being able to distinguish between those who are real and those who are fake. Well, it's a blessing and a curse. The reason for it being a blessing is obvious, it helps me choose the right people to share my life with. But the fact that it's a curse is a tad more complicated. 

The fact that I can spot a facade from a mile away creates a perpetual mood of sympathy and disappointment within me. I look around at all these people and I just feel bad for them. I just wish they'd know that if they were to shave their hair off, if they were to, oh, I don't know, start a blog, then they would be doing something that shows true strength of character. The reason I use these two examples is because, in both instances, one is not conforming to typical societal norms (like long hair and concealed thoughts). Instead, they are looking deep within themselves and doing something that makes them happy, regardless of what anybody else thinks. 

I guess that's the main point here. I guess that's the message I'm trying to convey to those of you who are reading this now. 

Stop giving a damn about what others think and just be yourself. If you can become comfortable with who you really are deep down, you will find your group and you will become that social butterfly you've always wanted to be. 

I personally value independent thought more than I do a make-up riddled face that makes one look like a Taiwanese whore. 

Stop caring about what other people think and go out and do you. I know it sounds cliche, and I know it's easier said than done, but don't you think it's at least worth a try? 

And, who knows, if it's human tendency to conform to what's "in," then let's make that "in" thing something positive like a strong sense of character and a determination to be yourself, despite the difficulties or trials that await you.