It’s erev Shabbos, and I linger till the last possible minute. I wait for the sun to actually be dipping into the horizon before I go get the five white candles and place them firmly into my crystal and silver candlesticks. I take the match and strike it, light each one of the five wicks, and wave my arms in a practiced rhythm three times. I cover my eyes with my hands. Alone with myself, I try to say the bracha, but nothing comes out of my mouth. I’m speechless. Instead, I sob. I cry for my children. I cry for my mental health. I cry because I am the only frum person in my whole family. I cry because my father is a goy, and he thinks I’m crazy to be standing here, waving my hands in front of meaningless candles, as the sun sets on a Friday night. I wipe my tears and look at the burning candles…and feel nothing. Where did I come from, and where have I come?
It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, I loved Shabbos, and the candles inspired me. It was like I felt my soul, my pintele yid, swaying with the flames—never still, always alive. I used to live for Shabbos. It was the best day of my week. Full of friends and lively conversations and singing…things that would carry me over in the dreadful week I had ahead of me in my mother’s stifling, dysfunctional house. I remember how my friends and I would wait to say Baruch Hamavdil Bein Kodesh L’chol all the way until someone’s father came home to say havdala, which would often not be until an hour after tzeis hakochavim. We didn’t want to say goodbye, and I always felt sad to go home after Shabbos. Returning to my quiet apartment was like walking into a strange land where I didn’t speak the same language. The loneliness would quickly seep in and stay imbedded in my day-to-day life.
I was the poster child for Russian kiruv. A neshama that was saved!
Teshuva was hard, but it was also easy. Born a fighter, I fought my family every step of the way, from jeans to kashrus, and finally, to Shabbos and a Bais Yaakov education. I was a teenager, and this was my way of rebelling. If only my mother knew what the other parents were going through (i.e., boyfriends, drugs, etc.), she would have been happy that all I was doing was banging my head against a wall while praying into a book written in a weird language.
Things were exciting and dramatic under my mother’s roof. I kept Shabbos! I threw my jeans out! I threw her treif soup into the garbage before she saw—I kept kosher today! When I hung out with the friends who were mekarev me, and I spent time with their families, they treated me as somewhat of a hero. They were so impressed with me and how I went against my family to be a Yid. I was awesome, amazing, and brave. I was the poster child for Russian kiruv. A neshama that was saved! Brought back! Enlightened. The compliments and looks of admiration and adoration were the wind beneath my wings. I had people who I didn’t even know come up to me and tell me that I inspired them. The songs I composed during that time of my life were lifelines to other ba’alei teshuva, as well as anthems for Jewish girls who were raised frum. I have to admit, it was intoxicating to be so loved. It was like being a movie star.
Things came to a slow crash the moment I turned 18. I got a passport, packed my suitcases, and went to Eretz Yisroel to study in a Bais Yaakov seminary, alongside wealthy girls who had supportive, frum parents. I was the only girl who was not born frum. The minute I stepped off the plane, I felt like I had fallen a thousand miles. Although I worked hard to look like everyone else (my wardrobe was very stylish, although a bit cheap-looking), I felt like a part of me was lost. Here I was, free, in Bais Yaakov, in Eretz Yisroel, looking the part, playing the part, blending in so well that none of the teachers noticed. But where was my medal of honor for completing a 180 and turning my life upside down? Here, I couldn’t wear that badge. Here, it went unnoticed. I felt like a fish out of water. I felt like a stranger. Again.
The girls spoke about mundane things. Their clothing, their families, their homes, their old schools. Every night, I would sit on my bed and listen to their conversations and stuff every sad emotion back into my heart, firmly telling myself that I had no right to be upset and that this is what I had wanted. That this was what I was fighting for. To turn 18 and join Klal Yisroel. I told myself over and over that I should be happy and well-adjusted. And over and over, I would turn my head to the wall and fall asleep, crying. In my young mind, I didn’t want to give these feelings of possibly not belonging any value, because, logistically, they did not make any sense. I was with my Jewish sisters, learning Torah in Eretz Yisroel. I had made it to the top of being frum. Not allowing myself to look back and see the carnage I had left behind made the experience extra painful. But I was so stuck on marching forward that I ignored every emotion, and I only cried at night, not even understanding why I was crying.
Then I got married. I had children. The tears I had shed at the kosel had clearly worked. I was blessed. Slowly, though, as the years went by, the mitzvos lost their gleam and inspiration. Raising young children, being a wife, and keeping house were hard enough. Mitzvos took a solid second place on my list of priorities. Of course, I observed every one of them to a T, but each week, month, and year, the shine rubbed off just a little, the spark dimmed just a drop.
Finally, I was left with a candle that turned to ash. Life hardened my heart and closed my soul to growth. This was life after teshuva. How did I end up here? Where were my cheerleaders? Why was I so angry about the Bais Yaakov system, the politics in shul, the absence of yichus, money, and pull that everyone around me seemed to have. I looked around one day and actually wondered if my father was right—maybe becoming frum was not the wisest decision.
I alone carry generations of my relatives who died for being Jewish, who were forced to stop being frum, who lit candles in the closet, in fear of the KGB. I—and I alone—have the responsibility to those who came before me to stay on the derech, to continue the line…Even if, for now, I do it without feeling.
I did a lot of soul-searching after my rav, Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt, passed away.
My spiritual parents had been so adamant that I fit into the frum community that we had forgotten to celebrate and mourn what I had left behind. And when you meet me, I come across as a typical Five Towns girl, and people are surprised when I tell them I am a ba’alas teshuva. I don’t have an accent, and I say the Yiddish words perfectly when I speak to my friends. In retrospect, I wonder if it would have been better for me to live in a community with other ba’alei teshuva. To go to a seminary with girls like me. To have friends who could laugh about celebrating Christmas in the cold Russian nights.
My rav wrote a book before he passed away, called The Underground. It’s about the road we Russians traveled to become frum Jews, and let me tell you—it was some road. To think that I hadn’t heard the word “G-d” until I landed on American soil at 9 years of age is absurd, but to us, it was normal.
I was discussing Russian kiruv with my rebbetzin, and she said, “The Russians that went to live in Israel didn’t blend in as much as the ones who moved to America.” When I heard this, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I will never fit in, no matter what I wear or how I speak. I can make myself blend in and look the same as everyone around me, but underneath I am a young Russian girl, from a G-dless country, missing her family, and crawling on her hands and knees to appear unburdened, spoiled, and happy.
Admitting that I am different, writing about it, and speaking of my past relieves a lot of the pressure of fitting in. I am not like you. I am a hero. I alone carry generations of my relatives who died for being Jewish, who were forced to stop being frum, who lit candles in the closet, in fear of the KGB. I—and I alone—have the responsibility to those who came before me to stay on the derech, to continue the line, even if, for now, it’s only in honor of Rabbi Neustadt’s memory, and in respect and gratitude of everything he did for the Russian Jewish community. Even if, for now, I do it without feeling.
Nobody wants to admit that they are different. Nobody wants to show off how they are not fitting into a community that has a strict path their members have to follow. But I can still walk this sacred path, and I can still be sad, and angry, and confused. My heart can get hard. The candle can burn out.
But I will find a way to light another one. After all, Shabbos comes back every single week.
When a candle is just a candle
When a flame is just a flame
You know in your heart
That things will never be the same
When a siddur’s just a book
And a sheitel’s just a look
And the dress is just the style
You know it has been for awhile
When the mikvah is just water
That runs down your broken bones
That’s when you know it’s time
That your soul has found its home
When wine is just a drink
That you sip on Friday night
And the silver cup is tarnished
And it stops reflecting light
When the prayers are just words
That fall to the floor like stones
And you don’t know who will hear them
You’re left standing on your own
When the Jews become just people
Who will hate and who will lie
And your vision of a nation
Is erased with one big swipe
When a shul is just a building
And its Torah scrolls only hide
And you walk in just for show
Not for what’s written inside
When joy is just a memory
Buried by the years
And a soul that was alive
Is now hidden by the tears
When the path that you have chosen
Becomes littered with debris
And in order to keep going
You must crawl upon your knees
When a rav is just a person
Just as human and as flawed
And you then begin to wonder
Why exactly you were awed
When the mitzvos are a burden
And you begin to feel so caged
And you look out through the windows
Onto a world so new and strange
That’s when you know it’s time
To find a brand new flame
And to touch the ancient stones
And to let your heart just pray
And recall all of the people
Who were good and who were kind
And reach to those who love you
Find the ties with which you bind
And to look at your children
Who after all are still inspired
And to live your life through their eyes
Minds and hearts open wide
You can find another candle
You can light another spark
You can start a new beginning
You can make light in the dark