For three years of my City College experience, I worked as a tutor in the college’s writing center. I was still frum then. A few months later, during my “gap year” between college and grad school, I had trouble finding a job. I was thinking ahead to moving out of my parents’ home, and although I didn’t need the money just then, I did need to start saving. So I went back to my job at the writing center.
I hadn’t officially made any decisions about leaving religion yet. In fact, after a summer at Neve seminary, I had come back resolved to make more of an effort to believe and to follow the rules. I even went to Ohr Naava a few times and to Rebetzin Leah Kohn’s speeches a few times.
It didn’t work.
I still felt like I had no idea why I was trying so hard to make this work.
But I still lived in my parents’ home. It was still way too monumental a move to say “I don’t keep shabbos” or “I don’t keep kosher.” So I kept shabbos, and I kept kosher, except that I didn’t – I just said I did, and conveniently didn’t dwell too long or hard on all the little rules I would break.
I would tear toilet paper on shabbos because I hated the shabbos paper, and would still say I kept shabbos. I would buy candy at the drugstore that didn’t have a hechsher, and would still say that I kept kosher. I would get food from Dunkin Donuts stores that had no mashgiach, and would still say that I kept kosher.
My colleagues at the writing center had no idea about this internal struggle. I continued to present myself as a demure, fervently religious Jewish girl. (They tell me now that my demure act never fooled them, which gives me mixed feelings…)
We had staff meetings every month. We would gather in the workshop room, and each month we would focus on another aspect of tutoring, with handouts, presentations, group work, role play, etc. Lunch was provided at these meetings – usually a spread of sandwiches and wraps from the school cafeteria.
Our supervisor always ordered a kosher sandwich for me. It would come in its own little double-sealed box, sitting next to the trays all by its lonesome. I appreciated it, of course. Otherwise I would have had to bring my own lunch, or not eat. (Never mind that the hechsher on the meat of the school’s sandwiches was totally not okay for my family. I gave up on that chumra during my first year in college.)
Now, when I was on the verge of giving up all religious observance (though I’m not sure I knew it at the time), I resented having to get special treatment. I resented not being able to eat with everyone else – even though of course I would eat with them, I just wouldn’t join them in choosing sandwiches and wraps, would just nab my package and sit down to eat.
For one meeting, though, our supervisor forgot to order the kosher sandwich.
When I realized there was no kosher sandwich, I was delighted. I plotted how I was going to casually join my colleagues at the trays and deliberate over the tuna or egg or veggie sandwiches (I would stay away from the non-kosher meat), and I would be normal. I wouldn’t point out the oversight to anybody, and I would blend in. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of something I felt obligated to do but really had no interest in. I would try it out – see what it feels like not to have every step of the way determined by laws I saw no sense in.
And then our supervisor realized he’d forgotten to get a kosher sandwich.
He began apologizing profusely, and I tried to interrupt him, to tell him it’s okay, I can eat some of these sandwiches (no need to explain that’s not technically okay according to my family’s kosher rules, he doesn’t need to know the crazy internal struggle and triumph going on right now) – but he felt so terrible at having forgotten that he rushed right out and ran to the cafeteria to buy me a kosher sandwich.
I didn’t get to eat non-kosher egg sandwiches that day.