The Alchemy of Agony

Author’s note: I know people find this topic very sensitive, so I would like to open with a disclaimer. It is not my intention to compare any two tragedies, only to derive, if possible, some meaning from my and my grandfather’s experiences.

I was raised by Holocaust survivors. I was fed a steady diet of heroic stories of those who died at the hands of the Nazis. The Holocaust was always portrayed as something horrific that had been done to us out of hatred by the Nazis, sanctioned by God for some indeterminate reason, which, much like the process by which nature produces diamonds, beat, burned, and forced the best out of the Jewish people. To this day I still can’t sing ani maamin without crying, as I picture the lines of Jews walking toward their deaths, defiantly singing that haunting yet hopeful song, a song that told both the Nazis and the Jews still left in the camps, that no matter how dark the night, dawn will come. I was raised believing that this was the norm during the Holocaust, and that the Jewish people, even when cast down into the lowest and most hellish of depths, still not only overcame, but rose higher, and became greater than they had been before.

Then I grew up a little. I read Elie Weisel. It hurt me to read the way he described what Jews did to each other during the Holocaust. None of us have a right to judge anyone who lived through that period (certainly not any more than we have a right to judge anyone in whose shoes we haven’t walked), but the depravity to which so many sunk floored me. It hurt me. It shattered my image of pious men with long beards and fiery eyes marching proudly to their deaths, God in their hearts and faith on their lips. I read accounts of Jews who collaborated with Nazis, outed other Jews in hopes of saving themselves. Jews who took advantage, sexually, of other Jews. Jews who participated in the torture and beatings of other Jews. I’m crying as I write this because I’m mourning the innocent part of my soul that died when I learned these things.  My grandfather, in all the stories he told me as I lay on the couch in the dining room after our Friday night meals, never once mentioned any of this.

Or maybe he did. Maybe he did begin to scratch the surface of the darkness surrounding the real story of the Holocaust. Maybe he did begin at the time to temper my starry eyed reverence of people whose strength was indeed legendary, with stories of those who were not as fortunate. He told me about the people who managed to get as far as the fences and instead of trying to escape, flung themselves at the fences, killing themselves rather than suffer another day; about the people who committed suicide immediately following liberation because they couldn’t imagine life after what they had experienced. Perhaps the rosy image I grew up with was a manifestation of a child’s mind, reinforced by the hagiographies recounted through spruced up stories of rebbes and chassidim.

It took years until I could reconcile the two sides I know about the Holocaust. I’m still working on it. But my life thus far has provided me some insight to the power, for good and for evil, of trauma and tragedy.

There’s something transformative about pain, I’ve found. It drives us to our extremes. People like to ask themselves, as I have many times, “What would I do in that situation?” I like to think, as I’m sure most people who consider this question would, that they too would die heroically, giving their lives in defiance of a genocidal oppressor. Others are very clear in their position: They would either be one of those killed immediately, or they would defect to the other side out of sheer self-preservation. The real answer? It’s impossible to know. Tragedy takes a person, spins him around, confuses him, and then exaggerates whatever’s left when the spin cycle stops. It turns your life upside down. What you believed before no longer seems important, and what you knew no longer seems true. You’re left having to rebuild yourself from scratch.

Pain and tragedy breaks, to some extent, everyone it touches; that part is always the same. What subject to change is the aftermath, the part where you rebuild yourself. It is possible to transcend pain, transform it into something beautiful. Eric Weiner, in his book Man Seeks God, describes a man named Pieter, whom he met on his travels. Pieter’s son died a few weeks before he was set to graduate high school. He tried running from his pain, biking from Holland to Turkey, cursing the world, God, the Higher Power, what have you, as he went. As he traveled, the people he met realized his pain and took him in for the night, fed him, gave him shelter. “It was beautiful,” said Pieter. “There is pain. There is beauty. There is help.” Pieter transformed his pain into an art form and became a dervish. Weiner describes what he saw in Pieter as the “Alchemy of agony. Suffering not blunted, but transformed.” Pieter discovered a purpose to his pain, not necessarily an explanation or a reason, but a purpose: a way to transform something terrible into something beautiful.

My grandfather transformed what he experienced in the Holocaust into something beautiful. I saw it in his eyes every time he looked at his grandchildren. The proud defiance, the purpose to his pain, the ultimate good of his suffering. He saw us as not just a replacement for the lives lost in the Holocaust, but as a transcendence of what was done to him, a living testament to the possibility of hope and rebirth in even the darkest places. We have a very large family. I have close to fifty first cousins, many of whom have children of their own. So many children, in fact, that I’ve lost count.

Unfortunately, my little part of the family went to hell pretty early. I don’t have much to do with the rest of them. When I was approximately one year old, my grandfather guessed what would happen to me if I stayed with the family—with my mother—and arranged for my sale to another family. I was to be sold for $1 million to another Jewish family in the area. My mother was in a mental institution at the time, and the transaction was supposed to happen before she got out. It didn’t. She found out and stopped it. For some reason she saw fit to tell me this story as a young child, no doubt she thought it would illustrate her “love” for me. Now that I’m older, though, and can appreciate its significance, there’s something that bothers me about it. Most people wonder about what would have happened to them had they been born into a different family, or in a different era. Generally the question is purely theoretical, but in my case it was almost a reality. I wonder, sometimes, if I could go back and make sure the sale was completed, would I?

It’s a tough question. On the one hand, I may have had an easy life. The family buying me would have undoubtedly have had a lot of money, evidenced by the spare million they were apparently willing to spend on me, odds are they wouldn’t have abused me the way my family did, and I would have led a very simple religious life. On the other hand, perhaps I would not be the person I am today. Then again, perhaps I would be. Perhaps I would still be the writer I am today, with all the same insight and understanding, the same curiosity, the same combination of belief and skepticism with which I try to approach every situation. Perhaps. Then the question becomes, is it worth it? Is everything I’ve suffered worth what it may or may not have made me?

I don’t have a concrete answer yet, but even that’s progress. I’ve gone from wanting to be dead to using what I’ve learned to try and help others currently experiencing what I’ve experienced. I honestly don’t have an answer to whether or not it was worth my life to be the person I am today, but until I have the answer, I still have my pain and what it made me. I’m not sorry for what I am now, even though I may sometimes wish what I am now would never have been necessary.

Yom Hashoah is an interesting day for me because on the one hand I can’t ever imagine myself living through that kind of hell. I can’t see myself surviving it. To build a life afterward is, to me, unfathomable. And yet, it happened for so many. For many it didn’t, but for so many it did. They came here, or moved elsewhere and build homes, businesses, families, fell in love, wrote, sang, cried, laughed—they not only lived but transcended; they became everything the Nazis tried to take from them. Those who didn’t magnify the tragedy. I still have no idea why some people can transcend their experiences and some can’t. I don’t believe it has to do with mental, emotional, or physical constitution. I honestly have no idea what determines who transcends their pain and who doesn’t. I leave that up to God. What Yom Hashoah represents to me is not only a memorial of the people who died, the people who fell, and the people who suffered, but the people who rose, the people who built, the people who transcended. To me it represents hope.


Some Fruits of Solitude

No one has ever made a children’s book about holidays with people off on their own, crying into their pillows, staring at their clocks and counting seconds until the holiday is over. It’s always a smiling family, the children gaily frolicking around the house in their new finery, or joyfully shrieking at the sight of their new presents as their parents look on, smiling. The holidays are meant to be happy, celebrations of past victories or milestones, anniversaries of events that helped shape our present. They are a time when we get together with family and celebrate those milestones.

I’ve been one of those people, however, who has sat alone in his room, crying into a pillow and counting seconds until it’s over. For the past five years, I haven’t had a family. They exist, but not as my family. I’ve always viewed family as a privilege, not a right, and my “family” lost their familial right to me. I come from a pretty large family; I have approximately 50 first cousins, and the numbers grow every day. In fact, it’s growing so fast that I don’t even know them all. I used to, but my family seems fine excluding me. It’s almost like the fact that I felt I needed to leave them was so insignificant to them, that the sheer numbers of other relatives make up for my absence.

It’s not easy to give up your family, and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I didn’t feel I had a choice; my family was literally driving me to suicide. I still live at home, though, which makes my estrangement from my family all that much more painful. They all still come over to see my mother and grandmother. Never me, though. I’m generally in my room when they come, which is down the hall from the dining room where they all congregate and socialize. My room is two steps from the bathroom. It’s so close I can hear the toilet flush after they do their business, but none of them ever come knock on my door. I can hear them laughing and celebrating from my room; even if I cried audibly, I doubt they’d hear me over their merriment.

I should be used to it by now, like a sore knee you sort joint you sort of learn to deal with eventually, but it hurts like new every time. The first time it happened was after my mother told me she wished she’d aborted me. She meant it, too. I ran, crying, from my house, and came back a few hours later to find my mother entertaining relatives. I lost it and yelled what would become the last words I’ve ever spoken to her, and stormed out of the room crying. My relatives stayed. With her. They didn’t even check on me to see what was wrong. I feel that every time I sit in my room and hear them in the living room.

I spend most Shabbosos (sabbaths) alone in my room, sleeping, reading, and counting seconds. Shabbos lasts 25 hours. There are thirty six hundred seconds to an hour. Ninety thousand seconds. Ashrei yoshvei vesecha, 1, 2, 3. Lechu neranena, 1821, 1822, 1823. Hashem echad ush’mo echad, 3612, 3613, 3614 (these are all prayers said on the sabbath). Ninety thousand seconds to havdalah (ceremony marking the end of the sabbath), to my life back. I get suicidal on three day yomim tovim (holidays). Holidays in general make me hate life. Shabbos meant to be happy and restful, and I’ve learned to cope with them, but holidays are meant to be particularly festive, and I don’t have anyone with whom to share in the festivities.

Thank God it’s not always like this. I have, what my friend Chaim Levin likes to call a “logical family” to replace my biological family. They are people I’ve come across who have taken me into their homes and their hearts, and whom I love dearly. One family in particular has me over as often as they can. Honestly, I don’t think they understand the significance of their kindness. They are literal lifesavers. All of my “logical family” are. They keep me alive, sane, and reasonably hopeful, and I love them all dearly for it.

It’s not quite the same, though. People expect their own, their “flesh and blood,” so to speak, to love them unconditionally and always be there for them. I know I have people who love me, but it doesn’t make up for the family I was born into and the way they’ve rejected me. It doesn’t fill that void I feel around holidays, that void in place of the family I should have. I think the only thing that will ever truly make up for it will be the family I build myself. I look forward to it.

People like asking what other people stay up thinking about at night. I stay up imagining my family, my wife, my kids. I stay up imagining what I’ll say to my wife when I walk in from shul (synagogue) on Friday night, which tunes I’ll use for which zemiros (songs traditionally sung on the sabbath). I imagine my kids standing up and reciting mah nishtana (series of questions asked by a child to his parents on Passover), shyly at first, but growing more confident as they go on. I imagine teaching my son how to put on tefillin, dancing with him at his bar mitzvah, watching his back as he walks to the bus for his first day of high school. I imagine sitting in the audience watching my daughter perform at her school plays, crying at her graduation. I think about all the places I’ll go, and the things I’ll do with my family. I fall asleep dreaming about having a wife I can love and share my life with.

For now these dreams are painful, but one day I’ll look back on my suffering now, and I’ll look at the family I built, and the pride, and happiness, and love I’ll feel then will be magnified by all that pain.

That hope is what keeps me going.


My Room

Author’s note: I wrote this two years ago, but never made it public. It’s still relevant, and I was feeling like this again over purim. I’m in middle of working on a post about sadness over the holidays, and I felt I had to finally make this public. I hope no one can identify with this, but if you do, please take some solace in the knowledge that you’re not alone; that other people feel your pain and pray constantly that you never feel it again. 

I live in a room. My room. It is mine. That’s why I live there. I am my room. My room is who I am. At least that’s how it feels when I look around it. I look around it and see a person, an identity, a life compressed into an eleven-by-twelve-foot space. Completely. It’s mine. And it’s private. Authorized personnel only.

The door to my room is badly damaged, as is the doorpost supporting it. I used to try to lock my room with combination padlocks and latches drilled into my door and its doorpost, but those were broken by people trying to get into my room. They damaged my door and the doorposts supporting it. But what exactly is the significance of a door—or rather, more importantly, what does a door characterize?

When attempting to sack a castle or fort, an army will always attempt to penetrate the entrance, be it a gate, or a door, by battering at it until it gives way. I once wondered why the doors to castles and forts opened inward. I mean, if you think about it, that’s a rather serious security flaw. A door that opens outwards is much harder to break through because in order to do so, you must shatter the door itself rather than just forcing it to give way and open. The reason I found was so that troops retreating from battle, or supplies or wounded soldiers, would not have to stop and wait while the doors open to gain entry; rather, they could continue riding or moving forward while the castle welcomes them. My door opens inward.

I live in my room. By that I mean that everything that made and makes me who I am is contained with me within the confines of my room. Confines. Perhaps. Perhaps not. As a child, growing up, I was constantly on display to my family, everything I did, everything I said, thought, or felt, everything I became, on display and available for analysis in the aide of a specific agenda. My preferences in food used by one party or another to curry favour with me in an ongoing battle between my mother and the rest of my family over who could claim their love and authority over me exclusively. My tastes in writing used by the same two parties in a constant struggle over who had exclusive rights over my moral and ideological fabric. The library books I used to take out were used by my grandmother to point out how awful an influence my mother was being, and my grandmother’s attitude was used by my mother to point out how restrictive the life my grandmother promised would be for me.

Eventually I learned, albeit unconsciously, to hide who I was and who I was becoming from anyone who might use it for something other than what it was intended for. I never wanted to celebrate my accomplishments because I would be the only one truly celebrating—everyone else would be looking for a way to use it to their advantage. My interest, and subsequent professional interest, in computers, my ability and accomplishments in graphic design, my talent for writing, the causes I had become passionate about, the people who were becoming a part of my life, the people I loved and cared about, and the people I hated and wanted dead—all of them I kept to myself because I wanted what they all meant to me to be mine exclusively for a change, and for them to remain exactly as I intended them to be in their purest, most uncorrupted forms. I wanted something for myself.

Well, the locks hadn’t worked, and my door kept getting kicked in, so I locked the only portal I had left into my self or identity: my mouth. Sure I talk about myself to my friends and acquaintances, but not with my family. Not with the people I share a house with. There are seven rooms in my house, and one of them is mine and that is the way it is staying. I leave nothing of myself outside of my room, because for the first time in my life, I finally have something that is my own. Hang the possessions, the corporeal and tangible expressions of my identity, personality, and self, what I’m keeping private in my room is what makes me the person I am. The feelings, emotions, beliefs, talents, abilities, flaws, faults, defects, and the knowledge and understanding amassed because of all of it. That is what comprises me and my room, and in fear of clouding the waters of my self I keep it well hidden and locked away.

I hate it.

I hate the solitude.

I hate the fact that I reside in a house but live in a room.

My room is a necessary, but self-imposed prison, one to which I—the prisoner—hold the key. What’s keeping me in here are the people around me who would once again exploit what I am and the identity I’ve created to try and gain exclusivity over me, and I don’t trust anyone enough to give them the opportunity to prove otherwise. I pray one day to live in a home with many rooms, and many people with whom to share those rooms.


There and Back Again

It’s not easy having a relationship with God, especially if you never had a good relationship with your parents. That’s the comparison generally used when explaining the mystery of God’s plan, to a parent making decisions for their child that the child is too young to understand. Of course, children tend to rebel against their parents; it’s all a part of growing up. But they usually come back when they realize that their parents loved them all along and had only their best interests at heart. It’s a lot harder, though, when it’s God you’re dealing with, because parents respond more overtly and clearly than God does. With God, all you have is faith, and your belief that everything He does is ultimately for the best. It’s so easy to lose sight of that.

Life had fallen apart. After months of trying to play peacekeeper between my abusive mother and me, my grandmother broke down and was hospitalized. When she left the hospital, she was severely depressed, nearly catatonic. The only way for me to get money for daily necessities was to sit with her and try to coax some emotion out of her. If I could get her to talk–to feel–then I could connect with her enough to make her understand why I needed money. I was 17 years old, hardly a trained psychologist. It was torture to have to do that every day. She would sit there telling me why she had given up on life, how everything that had happened was her fault, and how she had felt in the moment she had given up.

I would run out afterward, after I had gotten the money I needed, and scream. Just scream. And punch the walls, and curse God and demand to know why–why I was being subjected to my life. All those years in a dysfunctional family, and then the abuse, and then having to get my heart ripped apart every day just to survive. God was torturing me and I hated Him for it. According to the Torah, the penalty for cursing God is death. Personally, I didn’t care; I wanted to die anyway.

I went to shul every day, three times a day, but the words I was saying felt wrong on my lips. I was praying to a God who would never answer, asking for mercy I’d never receive. I choked out shacharis, mincha, and maariv through tears and sobs, and every day it got harder and harder. Eventually I stopped crying. Like a child who is told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, I got over the fact that God wasn’t there and tried to move on with my life. Sure, I went through all the motions, but it was only because that was the life I knew. Until I found something else I could believe, I wasn’t quite ready to abandon my lifestyle.

God was gone, and in His absence was a void. I started looking for something to fill it. First I looked for a way to maintain my beliefs in the absence of God. I had always been taught that what separated the Jewish people from the atheists and idolaters of this world was their morality. No longer believing in God made me feel amoral. I started studying moral philosophy, trying to find a way to maintain a belief in absolute morality while still eschewing the idea of absolute morality requiring a deity, or higher entity. Kant’s moral philosophy, based on the categorical imperative, appealed to me at the time, especially since it acknowledged the practical need for the idea of some higher power to exist in order to maintain any absolute truth, but allowed for no higher being to actually exist. To quote Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” In short, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

So I had morality, which made me feel somewhat better, but I felt something still lacking in that void left by God’s departure. My life became a war between the two sides of me, the part that wanted Judaism and the part that wanted to reject God entirely. Though I had given up on God and religion, I felt sad doing so, as if an important part of me had just been lost. I started debating anyone who would accommodate me. Usually, I would take the side of Judaism against any opposition, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was trying to convince myself as much as my opponents. Instead of feeling vindicated after winning a debate, all I felt was shameful, and frustrated. I read every hashkafa book I could get my hands on, watched every video about atheism I could find, argued about both with whomever would give me their time, and none of it helped fill that void.

The more I searched, the more I kept seeing that there really is only one truth when it comes to belief in God: There is no proof; there is only faith. That’s what emuna p’shuta means to me now. Not blind, unquestioning faith, but the understanding that after you’ve questioned, after you’ve searched high and low for proof, all there really is, is faith. Confronted with this truth I had to decide: Do I, or do I not, believe in God?

It’s not a question you can answer in one day, so I took my time. I sat back and examined my life as it unfolded, trying to honestly determine if I could believe in God or not. It’s always the little things. The money I would make here and there when I needed it most, the opportunities that seemed to arise from nowhere, the people who came into my life when I had no one. Little things, but to me they were signs of some divine intervention. Grudgingly I accepted the existence of God, but that didn’t put Him back in my good graces. I hated Him just as much, but I couldn’t deny His existence. I just couldn’t see any good or purpose in my suffering.

That autumn, I wrote a draft of my memoir. Two weeks, fifty-thousand words. I barely ate or slept. After it was finished, I labored over it for a few days, correcting spelling and grammatical errors, until it was, for a rough draft, perfect. That night, I went to a FedEx store and had it printed and bound. While I knew I was supposed to be feeling elation at having accomplished something so incredible in such a short time, what I actually felt was sadness and emptiness. I nearly jumped in front of a train that night. That book had been my purpose, and there it was, in my hands, printed and bound–finished. My purpose, finished.

On a suggestion from a friend, I started volunteering at a drop-in center for kids at risk. I felt that perhaps others could benefit from my experience. In doing so, I discovered a purpose, a silver lining, almost, to everything that had happened. I still didn’t like the process, or the fact that I had to experience any of it, but God’s purpose started making sense–the good I had been looking for was beginning to make sense. It may seem odd for me to call the fact that I have the benefit of such unfortunate experience a good thing, but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than that first smile breaking across a face stained by too many years of crying. If my experience means that I can be the cause of that smile, then that’s the purpose–that’s the good.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why I was chosen for the life I was given, but I don’t think I need to know that anymore. Not yet, anyway. I will one day, after I’ve lived my life, and I move on to the next world. For now, though, I have my God, I have my purpose, and that’s all I need. Don’t get me wrong, my relationship with God is anything but easy, but it’s the fact that there’s a relationship that I enjoy so much. I feel that, after everything I’ve been through, and after losing and then finding God again, I am much closer to Him than most other people. I feel that closeness every day, and I have no doubt that God loves me. I see His kindness in my life every day. I am a proudly Orthodox Jew, and I love my God.


This Is My God

For the longest time I haven’t been able to bring myself to say the name “Hashem”. It feels wrong to me, like I’m forcing myself to utter the name of a being I know to be something entirely false and contrived by people with whom I would never want to associate. Don’t worry, this article isn’t a renunciation of my religion. No, I believe with all my heart in “Hashem;” I just can’t bring myself to utter that word, or even think it without cringing. When I need to refer to my Creator in conversation, I call Him God. That’s who I feel my bond with: God. Hashem makes me want to run and hide; God makes me feel safe and loved and protected. I feel God, not Hashem, watching over me. God is who I pray to, not Hashem.

Until this morning I couldn’t understand why Hashem is so objectionable to me. I thought about it because it’s bothered me for the longest time; I couldn’t say the name of my God without feeling dirty; I’ve really felt guilty about it. I thought about situations in which I would be inclined to discuss Hashem and, for the most part, they’re all with people who use Hashem to their own advantage. People discussing the “kids at risk” crisis, or the latest “falsely accused rebbi” or hateful discussions about how gay people are the scum of the earth and intend to destroy us one male sexual encounter at a time.

I realized that any time I have ever been spoken to about Hashem, barring a few exceptions, it’s been a discussion I wanted to run away from, with a person I wanted to berate for their ignorance. They were twisting my God into something so horrible that I couldn’t even say His name as it is accepted in my religious circles. Hashem is a disgusting idea to me because the people who claim to worship Him and embrace His law made their idea of Him so reprehensible.  

God, though…God is entirely my own construct. No one refers to God by that name in my community. In fact, most find it a bit uncomfortable when I do, like I’m an outsider trying to sound intelligent about a subject with which I couldn’t possibly be familiar. But God is my understanding of my chosen deity and religion. God is someone who loves me, protects me, and gives me a better way to live my life. God is something I want to be closer to. God is something I can work toward. God is the deity of my bible, the savior of my nation; Hashem just makes me cringe.

Someone once asked me an interesting question: Does someone who has an easy life have an easier time with faith than someone who has a difficult life? As I was trying to come up with an answer, someone listening in on the conversation interjected and said “It’s two sides of the same challenge.” On the one hand, the person who has a hard life is confronted with so much evil and pain that he may lose sight more easily of God, because the God he knew and loved seems so heartbreakingly absent. On the other hand, The person who has an easy life never has to confront the question of God’s existence because, in a sense, he never really needs God for anything. God is incidental in his life, and therefore, he may forget that God even exists and is the Master of Creation.

I had a hard life. Have a hard life. I’m only 21. I’m having a hard life. My mother abused me, physically and emotionally, for years. My grandmother tried to hold things together and keep the peace, but eventually she fell into her own depression. Life went to hell. We had money but no way to access it because my grandmother needed to sign the checks, and she was, effectively, catatonic. I was a high school kid, suffering through my abuse, not sure how I would pay for food or clothes, never feeling safe because my grandmother could no longer protect me from my mother.

At first I cursed Hashem. I cursed Him for the life I had been promised by all my rabbis and teachers, and the life He had given me; I cursed Him for letting my abuser go on unchecked, as she pleased, while my grandmother and I suffered; I cursed Him for the things I had to do in order to live day to day; I cursed Him for not just taking my life and letting it all end. Then I prayed. Every day, with tears in my eyes, I prayed, begged Hashem to help me. I stopped going out very much because I didn’t want people to see me crying.

I begged my family to help. Some of them knew what was going on, but for one reason or another, always had more pity for my mother than for me. My grades plummeted. I started skipping school and staying home, online, where my real friends were. My family told me that I had to go to yeshiva and rebuked me constantly for my “sins”. They seemed to think that if only I would be the perfect yeshiva boy they had envisioned, my life would somehow perfect itself.

All I saw were people who knew, but did nothing—who would only judge me, and focus on my spiritual shortcomings, rather than help end my abuse and help me heal. Hashem wasn’t there for me, and those who worship in His name only used Him to make me feel worthless and guilty. Regardless of what I needed to do to survive, it always seemed contrary to what they believed Hashem wanted. If I skipped school in order to earn money so I could pay for things like food and clothing, things that most teenagers have provided for them, I was sinning. I was expected to conform to everyone else’s norms even though my life was falling to pieces. All this in the name of Hashem. This wasn’t the life I had been promised; this wasn’t the Hashem I had been told about. I stopped believing in that deity.

For a while I had no god. I tried finding proof for the existence of the one I’d abandoned, proof that He had never existed, or proof of some other truth entirely. The more I searched the more I realized I would never find proof: It always came down to faith.

I examined my life and the course it had taken, and I couldn’t deny the hand of some intervening being. Hashem and His worshippers had never helped me, but there were those who did, and situations which somehow managed to work in my favour that I couldn’t explain logically. I had to finally admit that something was intervening, some sort of deity, but which one?

I started learning more about this deity I had once known as Hashem, but now He seemed different, more like a God I could connect to rather than the Hashem from which I felt so removed. I began to understand His law, His will, the way in which he governs our world, His mercy, His judgement, His anger and kindness. I still wasn’t seeing His plan as ultimately good, but at least I could begin to understand the rules—the method to His madness.

This deity I was getting to know needed a name. He was the god of the Judaism that I had accepted, but the feel of Him, and of my understanding of Him, was so radically different from the way I felt and understood Hashem that I couldn’t refer to Him by that name any longer. Hashem to me was synonymous with unfettered, blind, zeal, to the point where it superseded His actual will. I named Him God. I still can’t say Hashem without cringing, but I am an Orthodox Jew and I love God, because he is the God I chose, instead of a god I was forced to accept. His law is the law I embraced, not the laws that had previously been imposed on me. He is, in every sense, my God.