By Gutman Braun
“Life is what happens while you’re busy doing other things.”
OK, so it might not be profound, but there is some truth to it – and that was the bumper-sticker that greeted me the day that I arrived in the goldeneh Los Angeles to start my new life.
That was twenty years ago; I’ve started new lives a number of times since then – and I suspect that I have a number of new lives to begin in my future. It’s all so fleeting, all so fast. Occasionally I stop to look around, as I will attempt to do now. While I do so, I cannot help but recall the words of the great Robert Frost, z”l:
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep”
My overdeveloped sense of responsibility drives me on mercilessly, and I’ve never did have the chance to find that elusive inner peace. Perhaps work and family responsibilities didn’t really allow for the requisite singularity of purpose to experiment and search properly (which is, without a doubt, both a blessing and curse) – but it wasn’t because I hadn’t wanted to sort it all out; in fact that’s the very thing that I’ve sought as far back as I can remember.
I arrived all those years ago in Southern California, a refugee from Borough Park, full of excitement, hope and dreams. Of course, I was not the first new-arrival in the Southland with such emotions – the problem was that while I desperately hoped for a future saturated with self-understanding, and I consistently hoped beyond hope that I’d find it, the present seldom offered a taste of that promise. As a result, my identity has always been complex, and I’ve continued to endlessly wonder who I really am.
So much has happened in this past couple decades, and along the way I have thought myself to be many different people. I have considered numerous “truths” to be compelling – as I have morphed from mindset to mindset. None of them brought me peace of mind for any length of time– truth and falsehood tend to be relative terms, and relative to me they seem to play musical chairs.
You see, there is a special galus that those like me experience – and those like me are the bnei u’bnos ba’alei-tshuvah. If one is born and raised on the holy streets of Williamsburg, Borough Park, Monsey, Kiryas Joel (why isn’t that spelled with a Y?), New Square (shouldn’t that something like New Skvere or Skwere?), or what-have-you, as a part of one of the many Frumme Kreizin and with the ever-present and palpable Heimishe European refugee culture, there are a number of certainties. Community, culture and ancestry provide you with a sense of conviction, assurance and clarity in your identity, beginning with your formative years. Without a doubt, Heimishe Yidden may maintain a curiosity and maybe even a jealousy of those living outside the enclave, but, vi-nisht-vi, the secular world is fremd – you knew who you were from the day that you first saw your babeh bentchen lecht or came to cheder with your tatteh un zeideh wrapped in a Talis. But for people like me, it’s far more complicated.
You see, we were never so sure altogether. If you think that you received mixed-messages, we received them in spades. I’m not only talking about the friye or goyishe cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles (which shouldn’t be considered as trivial) – I’m talking about far deeper and subtler messages. Confusion becomes a way of life: On the one hand, we share many Heimishe experiences – we participated in same yeshivos, schools, shuls, yomim-tovim, minhagim, halachos, languages, etc – but on the other hand, from the earliest ages, we heard of things that we were told are shtusim or worse. Well, well, tatteh un mameh, if they are shtusim at best, why are you talking about them? Nu, dertzeil takeh vegen yener Paul Newman, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan. Nu, zog shoin, what were the different points of debate between Freud and Jung? When you quote or mention Hemingway or Joyce, Chandler or Stout, Kerouac or Kafka, don’t you think we’ll be curious? If that secular world is so bankrupt, why do you refer to it with such interest and nostalgia? You don’t think younger minds take notice?
I know the answers, of course; but knowing the reasons doesn’t help. I also know that the individual Ba’alei Tshuvah are sincere, and they takeh believe that the world they left was inferior – and they may even be right – but the next generation suffers from a severely uncertain identity as a result. Moreover, we notice that our parents (and therefore, by extension, us) don’t really fit in here. Elteren tayireh, as a friend of mine once said, “You tend to beep when you’re supposed to bop.” We know we’re foreigners – we know that the other kids’ moms and dads aren’t civil-war-buffs. We know that we don’t belong in the secular world, but we also don’t really belong here. We know. Mir zenen cultural yesomim; we don’t really belong anywhere.
Vos tzu tohn? I don’t know. I’ve tried this and I’ve tried that – and numerous variations of both – and I doubt I’ll ever really solve it. In the meantime, “Like sands through an hourglass, so does the world turn;” as I grow older, I come to know less and less. I used to think, at various times, that I had a mehalach – but I stand today completely without a clue. To quote (the alleged novi-shekker) Robert Zimmerman, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” – I think it’s time to start again; maybe this time I’ll get it right?
(Editor’s note: This is a great piece. But if the yiddish is throwing you for a loop, ask in the comments, and I’ll try to translate. Or Gutman can if he wants. Hint, hint.)