Composing A Torah Life

Composing A Torah Life

When I was asked what events brought Judaism into the equation of my life, I began the process of composing my life story, retracing my steps to pull together all the seemingly disjointed threads, for storytelling is fundamental to the search for meaning.

My husband Fred and I met when I was 14, and married eight years later while he was in the Army in Korea. I joined him there and worked as a teacher. We returned to the United States in 1968 and I continued teaching. In 1972, Jennifer was born. The first time I held her in my arms and looked at this very pink little girl, I was in awe of the act of creation. I said, "This is definitely my little girl." I felt a profound kind of love at that time. For the first three years, Jen's feet never touched the ground because I carried her everywhere.

When Jen was 10 years old, she was accepted into the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center, New York. I began taking her and my son Brian to Manhatten three and four times a week. There were late rehearsals and performances of "The Nutcracker" when we would be in the city seven days a week until 11:00 p.m. some evenings. This schedule was so encompassing that our family didn't have time to think about anything else or do anything else. Ballet was our life.

When Jen was 14 years old, she said to me, "You've ruled my life long enough. You've made all my decisions. I don't want to dance anymore."

Now I was forced to come face to face with myself and carve out my identity. I needed to become Susan, not Jennifer's mother. I needed to look within, to reflect and begin a path toward self-development. The student became the teacher, I learned from my daughter that it was time to move on with my life.

A co-teacher of mine used to meditate and talk about spirituality, and I began to engage her in conversation whenever we had a spare moment. I read Eastern philosophy. Over the next years, the yearning for spirituality surfaced, but I felt like a wandering Jew, looking for the missing pieces and not having the vocabulary to express my needs correctly.

An unplanned visit to the gym brought me into contact with a Jewish aquaintance I hadn't seen for some time. The timing was no coincidence, and the small talk between us shifted to spiritual development. I insisted that I was searching for something authentic, something I hadn't found at the Temple where my son was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.

Rachel told me that she knew what I was looking for and we started studying together. With a small group of women, in the non-judgemental environment of a rabbi's home, I absorbed information like a sponge. A tidal wave of new knowledge came to me whenever it was needed in the form of people, classes, books and experiences. The real work began her: the climb, the prayers, the learning, the tears, the dialogue.

I gave up along the way a number of times and was in despair a number of times. Rachel moved to Israel and I thought, "How will I approach the Jewish holidays without a guide?" I didn't know if I was going to be able to keep it up.

What happened next is that people began to call me, especially around Rosh Hashana time when I was feeling very alone and not connected - they would call and wish me well. And it was obviously a message: "Don't give up!"

When Sara Karmelly, who gave talks to Jewish women, eventually spoke to me about Mikvah, I was not interested. It had been a difficult year and I was despondent at the time, this was one more piece of confusion for me. I couldn't sort out all the things coming at me. I liked the way she spoke, but the actual doing was too much out of left field for me and I was not prepared for it.

She said a few things that I couldn't dispel - that you can purify the souls of your children and what a woman can do for her family. It lingered with me for a very long time. I continued to go to her class... she planted the seed and for that I'm very grateful. Because you don't know when the seed is going to germinate, and you can't wait for people to say, 'yes, I want to come to your house."

I'm totally observant in the strict sense, because part of me is very resistant, I really have to process alot of this and find out if I am losing myself in this process and where I fit into it. But I know that in this you are opening yourself to the Divine in a way unlike any other in your life. (For example, if you're not eating the correct food you're out of whack.) Recently, someone from Lubavitch came to Kasher my kitchen. So there's progress, even if not as swift as for other people.

In January, 1993, I went to the Mikvah for the first time. That first experience was so powerful and so mystical that my husband looked at me and said: "There's something about you that's different, you have an aura around you." My husband is not a New Age person and does not talk that way. Other people who have known me, from that day on said, "You're a different person."

I began to look at my husband differently. This mitzvah does create a greater respect for one another and he definitely looked at me differently. Even though I've been married a very long time and my husband has always professed his undying love, there is more of a respect for what marriage is about, and what women are about and I think that that message really should be disseminated - that intimcay in marriage is a very holy thing. It's not taught that way, and so marriage is improvised.

Anthropogist, Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and author of the book, Composing A Life, concludes that life is an improvisational art form. But why should marriage, the most sacred commitment made between two people, be subject to improvisation?

Why spend a lifetime on improvisation when there are guidelines? Why reinvent the wheel? In business and in teaching we are taught to model the very best and most successful people and do what they do.

We've got to take risks, push the limits when we reach for spiritual growth...we have an awesome task. Quoting from The Voice of Sarah by Tamar Frankiel. "...What happens through our Jewish practice is nothing less than a realignment of the world, preparing the world to accept goodness and truth that have never been revealed. Women are spiritual midwives in rebirthing the world. Just how, is a mystery, but this too is revealed to us, piece by piece, as we do the work itself."

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