When I went to Jerusalem to learn in yeshiva, my friends and family were concerned. Some said I was running away from the real world, and that I should find a job like every other college graduate. Others said I was brainwashed, or joining a cult. They were right. I was escaping. But, not from the real world. I was escaping from the fake world. They were also right that I was brainwashed. I was washing – cleaning – my brain, which was layered with gunk from too much TV and high fructose corn syrup.
During the last week of August 2015, I booked a flight, packed two suitcases, and said goodbye. I didn’t make time to argue or explain. Logic, I reasoned, was slippery, and could twist to support the most evil intentions. My clarity came only from stretching past my rational limits, and touching something real and true.
Why did I go to yeshiva? I don’t know. I only know how I went to yeshiva. I know what happened – I know what I thought and felt. The following story is no more than a map of time, a navigational aid. I, the humble cartographer, seek no gain, and claim no credit. I would not suffer at all if this delicate design were forever lost in the sea of cyberspace.
Life Beyond Fiction
In college, I wanted to write the next classic American novel. I looked up to Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemmingway, writers that expressed deep ideas in simple terms, pushed past the boundaries of the English language, and revolutionized the form of fiction. What was the secret to their success? How did they develop artistic genius? I investigated their lives. Maybe their personal triumphs would hint to the source of their success. What I found was a cautionary insight.
Faulkner was a frequent adulterer, Hemmingway was an alcoholic, and dozens of other famous writers were anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. The most successful writers suffered the most. What was going on? Were they great writers because of their dysfunctional personal lives or were their personal lives dysfunctional because they were great writers?
I loved writing. The creative storytelling gene was woven into the fabric of my DNA. Sometimes, after hours of sifting through subconscious sand, an image would flash across the page like a speck of gold flashes in the pan, and, from the void of vagueness, a sentence would burst forth in its perfectly proper place and form.
Writing was my purpose. But, what was the purpose of my writing? What was I willing to sacrifice for my writing? Health? Sanity? Family? Did I aspire to be a great writer or a great father and spouse?
When viewed under the microscope, my passion broke down. I didn’t want to be the best writer. I wanted to be the best me, whatever that was. I wanted to grow in every area, including, but not limited to, writing. Writing was a crude, two-dimensional, picture of my soul. But what was my soul?
Searching for Self
I went to yeshiva because I got rejected from Teach for America, and I got rejected from TFA because, deep down, I didn’t want to join, and TFA knew this. I didn’t want a 9-5 schedule or summer vacations or a sense of purpose. I wanted purpose itself. I wanted freedom.
Who was I? Why was I born? These questions weren’t existential exercises. For two months during my junior year in college, I felt my sanity slipping from my grip. Anxiety crept around every corner, and ambushed my confidence during the dark hours of the night. In the emptiness of despair, only my firm understanding of truth deflected chaos and confusion.
I wanted real freedom. Freedom was NOT the ability to DO what I want. Freedom was the ability to THINK what I want, to CHOOSE what I want. What were my values? Why? Had I contemplated my life priorities or had I just copied John Stewart or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet?
I dug deeper. Did I control my thoughts or did my thoughts control me? Who was calling the shots? My inner circle or my inner voice? My emotion or my intellect?
I didn’t fear social rejection – I didn’t care what others might say. I feared my own future self-rejection – I feared regret and complacency. I feared travelling across the country or world to teach underprivileged kids, and still feeling empty inside. Who was I supposed to be? I hadn’t thought about this for more than 20 hours total throughout my 20 years of life – I hadn’t thought about this for longer than five minutes straight. Thinking about this question for two years would cost me many career opportunities. But, not thinking about this question would cost me much more. Not thinking about this question would cost me my life.
I thought going to yeshiva would be a sacrifice. I would sacrifice my passion for my purpose, my financial freedom for my intellectual freedom – my old self for my new self. In the end, I didn’t sacrifice anything. I still have my passion – I write every day, and educate my friends and readers; I still have financial freedom – I control my money, not the other way around; I still am my old self – all of my past experiences, both positive and negative, are my inspiration to work hard and grow. Sometimes, an alternative path flashes into focus. In that life, I didn’t go to yeshiva. I went back to Ann Arbor to work at Goldfish Swim School, and write short stories. In that life, I let go of my questions, and floated downstream.
Instead, I chose this life. I went to yeshiva in Jerusalem, and now I learn in Baltimore. In this life, I swallowed and digested my questions, and I grew healthy and strong. Two years ago, I booked a flight, packed two suitcases, and said goodbye. Two years ago, I jumped into the overflowing well. How deep will I swim?