Posted by: gruvenreuven | January 29, 2010

From Gruven to Reuven

I guess this post is overdue. My twitter stream yesterday was talking about payos. You know, the side curls found typically amongst men in the orthodox Jewish community. (Mostly Hasidic) I let it slip my payos were more of the “Brisk” style, which prompted the question: “Being Lubavitch, why aren’t your payos of the Lubavitch variety?” My response was that they were a throw back from when I cut my mid-back length pony tail six years ago. That prompted the request of: “Can you post a picture of yourself when you were Gruven prior to being Reuven”. So, after posting the wild hair picture shown here, a number of requests were made as to how I got from “There to Here.”

It’s a valid question. One that I get asked many times from friends I used to know way back when. (And even family) So here goes….

When I was 5, I was a pretty spiritual kid. I don’t know why… I have a theory, but it’s pretty Chassidus in nature and best be left for another post. Let’s just say as a toddler I adored Pesach. I loved going to synagogue with my Grandparents, I loved Shabbos dinner at my Grandparents. As a 5 year old, my grandmother never had to “bribe” me with candy to keep quite in Synagogue. All she needed to tell me was that “if I was quite and paid attention, I could shake the Rabbi’s hand and wish him a Good Shabbos after services.”

I grew up in a typical conservative Jewish household. My folks were your typical High Holiday only shul goers. My Dad was Israeli born. My Mom was born here in the States after my Grandmother fled Nazi Germany while 9 months pregnant. All 4 of my Grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

My story follows the old Jewish Joke… Question: How did the Conservative Rabbi rid his synagogue of mice? Answer: He gave them a Bar Mitzvah. So like the joke goes, I put my Judaism on hold for almost 25 years after my bar mitzvah.

When I was 6 my parents joined a Conservative Shul at the request of me wanting to go to Hebrew School like my best friend Ari. So they put me in Hebrew School. But I quickly hated it after a couple of years. I wanted to know Whys and Hows of Judaism, but all we got was practice reading from rote. Not understanding what we were reading. To me it was just making sounds. It was your typical bar mitzvah mill.

I do remember the defining moment when I threw the proverbial “Baby out with the Bath water.” I was in Shul with my Grandparents right after my bar mitzvah. I was folding a paper airplane from the weekly Kiddush Flyer during the Rabbi’s Shabbos D’var. I had no intention of flying the thing; I was just killing time as the Rabbi’s D’var was usually about Politics and not Torah. A woman right behind me tapped me on the shoulder and loudly proclaimed with of self serving pride for all to hear… “WE… do NOT!!! fold on Shabbos!”. I was mortified! She’s right! How could I have not of know! My Jewish guilt kicked into overdrive. For the rest of the service I was obsessing on it. After services we got up, and then I saw that same woman strapping her pocketbook over her shoulder. “Wait a second!” I thought, we don’t carry or deal with Money on Shabbos!! Later I saw her in the parking lot get in to her car (as we did ours). At that point, I couldn’t really deal with the Hypocrisy of picking and choosing which Mitzvot you wanted to keep, and which you weren’t because it cramped your life style.

That was my last visit to a Synagogue (besides Family Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and the like) until I was 37.

In between, I was an accomplished Chess Player, Deadhead, Djembe Player, Hiker & Computer nerd. In my early adult life I experimented with all sorts of religions, meditations, crystal new age stuff, you name it. I was a real Hippy type. Followed the Grateful Dead for 18 years. I attended (and recorded) shows from Philadelphia to Paris, San Francisco to Canada and all points in between. As far as Deadheads go, I only saw 113 shows, which isn’t that much in comparison to the real hardcore tour-heads.

In 1988, I “accidentally” found out I had Cancer. It was a total freak accident. Matter of fact it was a series of 5 accidental events that normally didn’t occur during my typical day. All these events played off each other in succession which led me to the discovery of my tumor. (It’s a long story and a good candidate of a future blog post) Suffice it to say, the cancer was aggressive. The cancer was so aggressive that the doctors told me I didn’t have time to seek a second opinion, and that in a manner of a couple of weeks would probably not be treatable. The good news was I caught the Cancer early and after 2 surgeries including a very painful lymph node dissection I was cancer free. The price for my life was that I would not be able to father children.

Now you would have thought I became religious after my “lucky” bout with Cancer, but no… I needed another hit over the head.

Around 1990 my wife and I toyed with the idea of adoption, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that we set the wheels in motion. In summer of 2000, we went to Romania to bring home my then 2 year old son.

Having since moved to the fringes of galut, there were few if any Jews in our neighborhood. I was so far removed from my Judaism that when the subject of circumcision arose, I was full heartedly against it. Fortunately, my wife and family overruled me, and about 2 month after we brought my son home, we had him circumcised at a local hospital with a mohl and surgeon.

I remember being scared, as they wheeled him to the operating room. More scared then when I went though my cancer surgeries. In the waiting room, I said the Shema. It was the only prayer I still remembered at the time. I said the Shema like a mantra, over and over again for a good 45 minutes non-stop.

They say there are no atheists in a fox hole. A few weeks later it occurred to me. When the chips were down, who did I turn to? Hashem! That prompted me to join a local small synagogue. I wanted to give my son a Jewish Identity. At that time I started to read… I read a lot. I read sites like Torah.org. I remembered that when I was going through cancer a friend of the family who was frum got me on a Lubavitch paper mailing list out of Philly. I remembered that, and looked them up on the web and started reading Chabad.org.

I only lasted about a year at the “liberal Conservative Synagogue” we joined (How’s that for an oxymoron.) Don’t know if it was the organ on the High Holidays, or the Rabbi setting up video equipment for a bar-Mitzvah, but I really wasn’t comfortable there. The more I read the more I became observant. I started putting on my old bar-mitzvah Tefillin, I started eating quasi-Kosher, I stated not working on Shabbos, and wearing tzitzit… Slowly but slowly I kept tightening up my observances. New Kosher Tefllin, Kosher Mezuzzot, etc…

I was out for Internet World in San Jose during Pesach. I caught a communal Seder run by Rabbi Aaron Cunin. I didn’t know it was Chabad, but went and it totally clicked. The next week when I went home I immediately looked up our local Chabad house. A year later I was fully Kosher & almost fully Shomer Shabbos (I still drove to Shul on Shabbat). A year after that, I started staying at the Rabbi’s house for Shabbos and was fully Shomer Shabbos.

I started studying everything I could get my hands on. When I could slip away from the family, I spent weekends as a guest at the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Morristown NJ. The weekends I managed to spend in Yeshiva were a real treat. I would live and breathe Torah every minute I could. I would study with the Bucharim non stop. Well almost… More like 6am to 1am. I couldn’t get enough. There was always MORE to learn. The deeper I dove into a topic, the more I saw I was only scratching the surface. By visiting the Yeshiva, I learned how to learn.

My study had expanded. I totally fell in love with Torah study and began eating it up as if I was making up for all those lost years. I’ve been studying Daf Yomi for 5 years now. For the past 4 years I have been studying Chumash with Rashi Daily as well as Tanya and Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (One Chapter a day). And that’s just my daily core Seder!

As much as we loved our Rabbi, relying on Shabbos hospitality didn’t feel right. We also wanted to move to a larger Jewish community with Day Schools, Mikvot, Kosher establishments and places to Daven daily. Sadly the Chabad house we went to, only supported a Shabbos morning minyan. So two years ago we made the decision to move to Lower Merion.

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism 9 years ago, it all seemed to click. Things that troubled me growing up in the Conservative movement now all seemed to make sense. Does that mean all my question were answered? Heck no! Does that mean Orthodox Judaism is not with out its quirks? No! But I found the beauty of Torah. I also found there is a spiritual/mystical element as well that you do not really find (Or I didn’t find) in mainstream Judaism. I didn’t have to explore Eastern & New Age Religions like I did as a young adult. It was all under my nose the entire time in Judaism!

So that’s my story… Sorry if I offended any of my Non Orthodox brothers. That’s just my experience, and the color of the filter in my glasses that I see though. As they say… Your mileage may vary. But don’t say that until you at least spend a Shabbos with us as our guest.

added after the original post:
Just want to say something that should have gone in the original post…. Thanks to my wife of 23 years for taking this Journey with me.
I’m the one that changed the rules in our relationship. She’s an Eshet Chayil to the extreme! Love ya Mrs_Gruven!

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Responses

  1. Great post. very inspirational! the conservative part is very similar to my husband’s experience in conservative movement. with his permission, I will post that on my blog another time. This was well written and you are well-thought out. Happy to see you are satisfied with your decisions. What about your wife? Did she go along at the same speed? And your son?
    Thank you for posting this. You should send this to Chabad.org for them to use to inspire others.

    • It’s a journey we are on… I ran down the path. My wife took it a bit slower. Each at their own pace. My oldest son enjoys being Jewish and is working towards his conversion. My 4 year old is “Frum from Birth” so to say and will start Jewish Day School in the fall

  2. Very interesting, even inspirational. I always find it interesting what makes people gravitate to religion. If I can ask, what was wrong with the New Age religions you tried? Why aren’t you still a new ager? And what was it about the mystical aspects of Orthodox Judaism and sincerity of many of its adherents that made you decide it accurately describes the world?

    > They say there are no atheists in a fox hole.

    I appreciate that this was an influential moment in your life, and I respect your feelings about it, but please don’t use that particular phrase. It’s insulting, implying that atheists have such weak convictions that in a tense moment they’ll go running to the nearest religion.

    Besides, the impression I get from your post isn’t that you were an atheist, but that you were a deeply spiritual person in search of a fulfilling religion.

    > Orthodox Judaism…mainstream Judaism

    There’s a perspective you don’t see often in the frum world. As far as most frum people are concerned, Orthodoxy IS mainstream Judasim.

  3. > > Orthodox Judaism…mainstream Judaism
    >
    > There’s a perspective you don’t see often in the
    > frum world. As far as most frum people are
    > concerned, Orthodoxy IS mainstream Judasim.

    Of course, frum people are hardly united as to what constitutes Orthodoxy; Neturai Karta/Toldos Aharon and Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai/Yeshivat Haraayon Hayehudi no doubt both consider themselves frum but the other heretical.

    Though actually, Neturai Karta and Toldos Aharon probably have real issues with each other as will, since the former is misnegad and the latter is hasidic.

    Not to mention the religious issues the Ashkenazic Haredi Yahadut Hatorah vehashabbat (United Torah Judaism) voters are having with Mizrahic-Haredic Shas voters right now over their joining the WZO.

    And a whole mess of frum groups have issues with the Lubavitchers as being “Orthodox” or in the meshichist cases, even Jewish

  4. Also, is folding even not allowed? A topologist would say you’re not creating anything new by folding, after all.

    If only the great mathematician rabbis of the Middle Ages (Ralbag and ibn Ezra, among others) had ruled on this …

  5. I’ve always believed the best part of Orthodox Judaism is the beauty that lies at our very core.

  6. Absolutely awesome story! I had always wondered, and now I know. Hol HaKavod. You are truly an inspiration.

  7. of course, I mistyped – I meant to say Kol HaKavod. Need more coffee…..

  8. Thanks for telling your story. I had a similar experience…going from Reform Judaism, then investigating some Eastern religions and finally “discovering” the beauty of the mysticism and spirituality of Orthodox Judaism. I mostly was looking for a spirituality that I didn’t find in liberal Judaism, looking into meditation in Buddhism, etc., and than I discovered that there is a tradition of meditation in Judaism. (Thanks to Aryeh Kaplan’s books). As I studied Orthodox Judaism, everything “clicked,” as in your experience and I know that this is what my soul has been searching for. It is awesome.


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