I had graduated high school, and headed off to Cleveland for seminary. I was happy to be going to Yavne, connected to the Telshe yeshiva and known for its text-based and rigorous Judaic learning.
On my first day there, I had already seen how different things would be here in seminary, very unlike high school. There was far more diversity among the students in terms of their levels of religious observance and philosophies, and the faculty had no time for the nonsense of forbidding certain topics of discussion.
Anything and everything was up for debate. The teachers didn’t feel slighted and were in fact delighted when students vehemently disagreed with them. Heated arguments in class were fine, so long as everyone constantly referred back to the text (the text was Tanach and meforshim, but still).
It did wonders to combat the sense of being silenced throughout high school, of knowing that if I expressed my thoughts I would be judged and labeled an apikorus by the hanhala and would be pitied and “cared for” by my friends.
I didn’t start speaking up yet, though. I was a lurker, simply observing, enjoying the lively classes that others contributed to.
A few weeks into the school year, we each were assigned to meet with one of the senior faculty members. A “pegisha,” they called it – literally an “encounter,” or “meeting.” But Yavne was big on using Hebrew terms for everything – our study partners were “chavrusas,” and the room where we met for lectures and combined classes was the “bais medrash.” It’s a hallmark of Yavne that makes it stand out among chareidi girls’ seminaries.
I was assigned to meet with Mrs. Einstadter. She was the teacher who frequently consulted the Schottenstein gemara, asked her husband to verify the translations, copied pages to bring in to class. She had a frenetic energy about her, always excited, always serious and yet so full of bounce and full of joy.
I was nervous to be meeting with her. My seminary interview, with Rabbi Neustadt, had not gone so well. I was okay with my new environment when I was shrinking into the background of classes, but I was nervous about a one-on-one meeting where I would be fully visible and the focus of attention.
I walked over to her house – on the same block as my host family – and she led me into her dining room, settled me down with some water, and we started chatting.
I don’t remember what we talked about. It was a general getting-to-know-you chat.
There’s only thing I remember, because I walked out of the house afterwards mentally berating myself for my response, and I haven’t really ever stopped berating myself since then.
We had somehow gotten around to my love of reading. Mrs. Einstadter asked me what kinds of books I like to read.
I froze, and choked. I hadn’t read much since I left New York in September, but the last thing I had read there was a whole slew of Nora Roberts romances.
I thought back to my interview for Bais Yaakov Seminary in Brooklyn the year before. When the interviewer had asked me about the last book I read, I cast my mind back to my family’s bookshelf and mentioned the first book I could visualize – a thick biography of some rabbi who had just passed away. I had not read it, nor did I have any plans to read it. But I couldn’t tell the interviewer that I was re-reading Harry Potter just then. So I lied. Quite convincingly, too, if I may say so myself.
But I didn’t want to lie to Mrs. Einstadter. Wasn’t that the whole point of coming to a seminary that was so different from my high school? Wasn’t the point a fresh start, a chance to be fully and truly me?
But I couldn’t talk. It was too early in the year, too much at the beginning of my new start. I couldn’t say “Nora Roberts romances” to that kind, patient, rebetzin-like face surrounded by bookshelves of seforim.
After a few moments of awkward silence, Mrs. Einstadter asked, “You read Jewish books?”
I nodded. She asked me what kinds of Jewish books I like, and I mentioned some recent publications which had not been utterly terrible.
The conversation went on after that, but I remember none of it.
I hadn’t lied. But I hadn’t told the truth. And I hated myself for it. Because I knew Mrs. Einstadter would not have judged me for reading Nora Roberts the way my high school teachers and principals would have.
But once I had started crafting my image along the lines of someone who enjoys reading Jewish books, I was stuck.
On the last day of seminary, the night before we all caught our flights out of Cleveland and back home, I cried. It wasn’t that I would miss the people I had become friends with during my year in seminary.
It was that I had come here looking for something different, looking for a connection with a teacher or mentor who could know the real me, and I knew that I was leaving without that connection and without anyone here knowing the parts of me I had gotten so used to just hiding away.