by: Esther Bernstein
My first semester in graduate school was almost over.
I had become ever more aware of “shuttling between two worlds,” and I’d begun to mark the exact moment when the D train emerged from the tunnel to cross the bridge between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
I spent time with classmates in the lounge, but I still mostly followed the advice my mother gave me when I started college:
“Make sure your classmates know you’ll be friends with them in school, but not outside of school.”
I heard about the groups that were forming and I watched as clusters of classmates headed out to get drinks after class – as I headed back to my parents’ home in Brooklyn.
During the last few weeks, we were all working on seminar papers. I was invited to join a group of classmates who were putting together a writing workshop. The plan was for each of us to choose one paper we were working on, bring drafts to the workshop, and we would all comment on each others’ drafts.
I was cautiously excited to have been invited to this group.
hadn’t thought I was considered part of the group. I thought I was the typical “nebach neb” – the outcast who doesn’t fit in, who people talk to when she’s around because they feel bad for her.
But they invited me!
So as much as I felt I didn’t fit in, they must have thought differently.
They wanted to meet Friday night.
“Friday night is shabbos,” I said. “Can we meet Friday morning? It’s a short Friday, but I could be here in the morning…”
They kind of glanced at each other.
“Well, mornings are more difficult. If we meet Friday night, we could all meet at a bar… It’s just easier for everyone…”
Not for me.
I was ready to graciously decline their invitation, but they convinced each other that meeting Friday morning would be fine.
I went home Thursday night feeling horrible. Sure, I had been invited to join a group that I wanted to be part of. But I was making things more difficult than necessary.
I started feeling angry. At who or what I wasn’t sure. But I realized that I was not feeling guilty for considering joining a writing group on Friday night. No, I was just feeling angry that I had to make these kinds of decisions. That there were still so many obstacles, that I had found a place I wanted to belong and was being shown that I never would fully belong.
And then it hit me – I was 25 years old. Wasn’t it time I did what I wanted, and stopped making decisions based on what I was used to, based on what other people would think?
I texted my brother:
“I want to just tell my classmates that we should meet Friday night, because I don’t feel any guilt over the thought, and the only thing I’d feel guilty about is lying to Mommy and Tatty, which I would do. I could tell them I’m going to Washington Heights for shabbos, they’d be happy about that, and I could do what I want.”
“Don’t do anything till I get home,” he texted back. “Let’s talk when I home.”
So I waited. We talked when he got home.
We sat in my room and talked for a long while. He made it clear right away that he wasn’t going to try to convince me to do one thing or the other. He just wanted to talk me through it and make sure I had considered things.
“Right now you’re weighing joining a writing workshop or keeping shabbos,” he said. “And okay, right now the writing workshop is more important to you. So you’re saying ‘hell with it all, I don’t want to be religious anymore.’ Think about what happens when you’re 70. If you’ve done this, if you stopped being religious at 25, will you regret it when you’re 70?”
I found that hypothetical a bit difficult to answer.
“What about your children? Will you be upset if your children don’t know anything about shabbos or anything Jewish? Will you want to raise your children with some knowledge of Judaism? If you’re not religious, how will you do that?”
That was the clincher for me. I vehemently responded,
“I don’t care at all if my kids don’t know anything about Judaism. And NO, I don’t want to raise them with shabbos.”
“Okay, then. There’s your answer.”
So I emailed my classmates and said that I could go back to the original plan – that I could do Friday night. I would just need to sleep over at one of their places.
We decided we would meet at the apartment that two girls in the group shared, and I could sleep over there.
I told my parents I was going to Washington Heights for shabbos. They asked if I’d be staying with our cousins there.
“No, this time I got the shul to set me up with a family where I could both sleep at and have meals with.”
My stomach turned as I told this lie. But they were satisfied, and I was free to go.
Later that night, I got a reply from a broker I had contacted. He had an apartment in Inwood to show me. I set up an appointment for Friday night, just before the workshop.
I dressed in shabbos clothes late Friday morning and headed to the train. I went to school, sat at a library computer in my uncomfortable knee-length straight slate-grey skirt, did some work to pass the time.
I tried to ignore the little clock in the bottom corner of the computer screen. But I watched it ticking away the minutes, and when the zman for candle-lighting came and went, I lost my breath for a minute.
There was a whoosh, a sense of something swooping past, while I sat still.
It was dark when I left school. I got on the train and felt – outside. So this is what a train looks like on shabbos, when no religious Jews are on it. (The same – that’s what it looked like.)
I marveled at being on this inside of the train, when until now the train has ceased to exist as a space on shabbos. We watched it go past – the elevated train on my parents’ corner. But it was a space that seemed closed off, separate, a bit distant from the world. Now my world was in it, not looking up at it.
It was such a small thing. It’s a train – I use it every other day of the week. But it was significant that I was on it now, on shabbos.
I met the broker outside the apartment. He held out his hand. Rather than my standard “I don’t shake hands with men” response, I shook his hand. I felt like a fraud. I was acting like an adult, looking at a potential apartment to rent. I had thought about the decision to move out long and hard. But I still felt like a rebellious little kid.
Armed with a list of questions a friend had advised me to ask about the apartment, I pretended I knew what I was doing.
On our way out, the broker chatted with me about my personal life, and I confessed that this was the first shabbos I was not keeping. He was Jewish, though he hadn’t been raised religious, and he delighted in my adventure.
“Good for you! So do your parents know you’re looking for a place to move to?”
“No, I haven’t told them yet…”
He chuckled. “Good luck with that. I mean it – I wish you the best of luck.”
We both knew I couldn’t afford the apartment he had shown me. He had mentioned the possibility of getting a guarantor, but there was no way I was asking my parents to sign as guarantors. Telling them I was moving out would be bad enough.
I hopped back on the train, feeling again like I was in a bubble, and joined my classmates at their apartment.
The workshop was great. We laughed, we joked, we commiserated – we edited.
For a large part of the time, I stared at the pen in my hand – on shabbos! – and rolled it between my fingers, watching it move against the grey background of my shabbos skirt.