Sima D. Schloss
The reasons that I turned my life upside down at the age of thirty-four--becoming both an observant Jew and joining a Twelve-Step program are neither dramatic nor extraordinary. I did not suffer any traumatic experiences. I grew up in a loving family and now have a wonderful family of my own. As a child, I attended Sunday school in a liberal synagogue, and services on Friday nights. We celebrated the Jewish holidays, and I was proud of being Jewish, but I was given no concept of binding commandments given by G-d. Even though I always enjoyed learning about Judaism, it never occurred to me to do anything more.
Searching for Happiness
Perhaps the most traumatic event of my childhood happened when I was sixteen, and my cousin, Ezra, an epileptic who otherwise was perfectly healthy, suddenly developed a blood clot in his brain. He lapsed into a coma, and as a result, suffered severe brain damage. Ezra was a married man in his early thirties and the father of two children. For months we would pack up the car with food every Friday and visit his family in the Bronx. I would sit in the car with my mother, aunt, sister, and cousin, and take in the aroma of baked chickens emanating from the trunk. We would visit Ezra in the hospital, leave the food for his family and return to Long Island. After awhile, he was moved to a rehabilitation center nearby. Then his family came to us. We set up a crib for the baby. When they could do no more for him, Ezra was transferred to a county nursing home, where my aunt visited faithfully every week until she died. To this day, Ezra remains in this home. He is blind and sits all day in a wheelchair. His brain has healed to the extent that he knows enough to be unhappy, but he will never get better.
As a result of this tragedy, all the things that everyone else thought were fun or important lost their interest for me. I became angry with G-d and threw Him out of my life. As I got older, I searched for something that would add meaning to my life, but I could never find exactly what I needed. Music was my first love, and I found comfort playing piano and studying music.
After graduating from college, I visited Israel. The trip helped me feel more connected to being Jewish, and I felt strongly about marrying someone Jewish. A few weeks after my return from Israel, I met the man who would become my husband. He came from a
Conservative Jewish family and wanted to keep a kosher home, so we did. After a year and a half, my husband signed a contract for work which brought us back to Israel. It was there that I learned Hebrew and more about how to keep a kosher kitchen. We lived on Kibbutz Ketura. Ketura is a unique kibbutz because it accepts all people, regardless of their beliefs. The individual members include observant, non-observant, and secular Jews. As a community, Ketura observes both Shabbat and the laws of keeping kosher. My bond to Judaism strengthened in the two and a half years that we spent in Israel.
Exploring My Heritage
When we returned to New York in 1982, I taught in the afternoons at a liberal synagogue. One of my responsibilities was to teach the weekly Torah portion to classes of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students. The more I prepared for each class, the more I wanted to know. In the fall of 1988 I attended classes offered by the Jewish Heritage Center of Queens. Rabbi Portnoy, who was in charge, sent me to learn with a small group of women led by Dr. Blema Feinstein, Professor Emeritus of C.W. Post College, Long Island University. Dr. Feinstein is both a Torah counselor and teacher of Jewish women newly motivated by their enthusiasm for Torah life. She teaches privately and through organizations such as the Jewish Heritage Center. By the end of Dr. Feinstein's first class, I was inspired. She was able to combine the beauty of Torah with the idea that learning can help one's personal growth and development. Dr. Feinstein's teachings impressed me because they related to me both as a Jew and as a woman. With her help, I developed a passion for Torah Judaism. Dr. Feinstein has remained both my teacher and mentor ever since that first meeting in 1988.
Soon after I began learning with Dr. Feinstein, I noticed how frequently Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah. Just going to services on Friday nights didn't seem enough for something that seemed to be a key to being Jewish. It certainly bore no resemblance to the Shabbat that was mentioned in the Torah. I felt drawn to the idea of this day of complete rest and dedication to G-d.
First, I stopped doing laundry and going shopping, making Shabbat more of a family day. Then I began to light candles and make chicken soup for dinner. Shabbat evolved slowly in our home. By the spring of 1989, I made a commitment to fully observe Shabbat, including all the laws--for example I stopped driving, carrying, adjusting electric devices, or answering the telephone. This was a turning point in my acceptance of the Torah as a way of life. My life became more imbued with the Torah ideas that I had been learning. Once I began to observe Shabbat, I slowly added other mitzvot (commandments) into my life, such as observing all of the holidays and fast days, covering my hair, and putting kosher mezuzot on all of the doorposts of my house.
My daughter was only four when I began to observe these Torah laws. She accepted the changes naturally, as if our lives had always been that way. For her, Shabbat meant more quality time with Mommy. The changes were not as easy for my husband. At first, they were only my changes. Being stricter about keeping kosher in the house was not a problem for him. I tried not to ask my husband what he ate out of the house. My daughter and I began to walk to shul (synagogue) together on Shabbat mornings. Eventually my husband joined us. He would say he liked to walk and was concerned about our walking alone. I did what I had to do about being observant, and I tried not to question him. This is one area where I believe I have acted in a healthy way. Our commitment to each other allowed us to give each other some space but still stay together.My husband was often amazed and not always pleased about the changes that I brought into our household, but, thank G-d, I am proud to say we have remained married. An unhappy wife does not make a happy marriage. In the long run, I think my husband sees the benefits that Torah has brought to our marriage and family. Some of the changes have been difficult for him to accept. We try to communicate and compromise with each other. He doesn't like the hats that many Orthodox women wear to cover their hair. So I bought some stylish caps and a quality wig.
Learning the Torah and doing the mitzvot changed my life by giving me new goals and a new direction. I found that by attaining a greater knowledge of G-d, doing His will, and by being satisfied with what He has given me I was finding a way to a happier life. I use the phrase "way to a happier life," because even with all the dramatic changes in my life--keeping Shabbat for the very first time, following stringent kosher laws, learning Torah, and doing mitzvot--even with these changes, I still was not content. My learning was unfocused and my goals were unclear. The ideas were not integrated into my life in a way that would give me a sense of peace or happiness. Although I was surely heading in the right direction, I could not seem to get to where I needed to be.
My life was good. There were no tragedies, no awful people complicating my life. I had only my share of the normal stresses--work, the house, and family members who needed me. The death of my aunt, and then my mother, were big personal blows, but certainly something others experience as well. My father moved in with us for about nine months, but still there were only four people in my household.
I was trying to be a better Jew and a better person, but the everyday demands of life often overwhelmed me. I did not have any more problems than anyone else. Maybe, I had even fewer problems. So, why was I still unhappy?
Searching for Myself
I gradually discovered that I was unhappy because I couldn't stop taking care of everyone. I was the habitual helper. My giving to others was the result of feeling that I had to, instead of deliberately making a choice. I really did not know enough to understand the Torah concepts of chesed (kindness) and tzedaka (charity). I did not understand that I was not supposed to help others if it meant harming myself.
I felt that I could save or help everyone, if only I tried: When my mother became ill, I read case studies in the hospital library about her type of cancer. Although there's nothing inherently wrong with that, I took on the responsibility for her staying alive. When she died in 1992, for a long time I believed that she might still be alive if only I had found the right cure for her in time.
After my mother died my father moved in with us. I was working two days a week as a special education music teacher, and there always seemed to be so much to do--I never knew what to do first. I would be preparing a meal and worrying that I should be spending my time sending out resumes for a better job. If I went on an interview, I would think about how my poor cousin Ezra could really use a visit now that his regular visitors--my mother and aunt--were no longer alive. I would travel to Manhattan to see my grandmother, all the while worrying about returning home in time for my daughter. Even though my husband's office was in the house, I felt that my daughter really needed me to be there when she arrived home from the local yeshiva. While doing the laundry, I worried that perhaps my husband needed my help; so I would help my husband and feel anxious about the house being a mess. Somehow, I had turned the act of giving into a way to control other people, to buy friends, and to feel accepted. I found that I could feel good about myself as long as I could help someone else.
Even though I was always ready to help others, I could never ask others for help. I felt I could do everything better, and, in addition, I didn't want to bother anyone. When I felt overburdened, I resented my family for not offering assistance. Yet how could they help me? I had made it clear that their help would never be good enough.
That was my life in 1993. I was so busy taking care of everyone else that I found no time to take care of myself. Six years after our first meeting, I confessed to Dr. Blema Feinstein how busy and stressed I was. Dr. Feinstein listened to me rush on about how overwhelmed I was and how I took care of everyone. She immediately said, "You need CoDA (Codependents Anonymous)." She saw that I had lost myself in the role of taking care of everyone else. She made me aware of the ideas of codependency and the Twelve Steps of recovery.
I resisted. Why would someone like me need the Twelve Steps? I already had Torah. Besides, weren't the Twelve Steps for people addicted to drugs or alcohol? Soon I came to see that my own bad habits and codependent characteristics were causing my unhappiness. I will forever be grateful to her because she helped me discover both the Torah and Codependents Anonymous. And I discovered that the Twelve Steps helped me make a stronger commitment to Torah Judaism. The combination of Twelve Steps and Torah makes for a powerful mix.
Ms. Schloss has recently written a new book entitled: "Starting Over: Using The Twelve Steps and Torah To Find Happiness." Her book details her journey to recovery from codependency integrating the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with Torah principles.
"Starting Over" is published by the Judaica Press and available online at: http://www.judaicapress.com/starting_over.asp