Some of you will take offense at what I’m about to say, but I just gotta get this off my chest. I also would like to add that I’m not a misandrist, and that I love and respect my husband more than any person I know.
Being in Maine, far away from any sort of Jewish community is, I suppose, pas nisht (Yiddish for unbecoming, improper). And the truth is, it’s a conundrum for me because this lifestyle goes against everything that defines living one’s life as an Orthodox Jew: being a symbiotic part of a community to facilitate observance of mitzvos. Being Orthodox in the United States means that one is limited to an urban lifestyle, because that is where the community is: a Jewish education for one’s chiildren; peers that share your values, customs, and observance; a synagogue where one can daven with a minyan and turn to a rabbi for guidance; and a supply of kosher food and other sundry items of Judaica necessary for daily living and ritual. The fact that one doesn’t travel on Shabbos means that one is “forced” to live within walking distance to one’s shul; ergo have other Jews as one’s immediate neighbors.
But what if you believe that living in an urban environment is primordially unhealthy?
There were Jews living in isolated rural areas of Europe before WWII but even if they were religious, they were looked down upon by the mainstream Orthodox community as ignorant country bumpkins, because by virtue of their isolation they could not practically be a part of a community nor be especially meticulous about their practices nor attain excellence in learning. In recent times, the few rural areas in the US that Orthodox Jews called home either built themselves up into small towns or suburban sprawls (i.e. Lakewood or Monsey); or they’re hopelessly fighting to stay afloat; or they’ve since died out altogether.
I can rationalize and say that Rav Nachman of Breslev used to go into isolated areas for extended stretches of time, to find himself and to better commune with HaShem. And it was an acceptable practice for yeshiva students and their rebbis and teachers who were followers of the Mussar movement (a rigorous course of self-improvement) to go into the woods alone and cry out to G-d. But at the end of the day, they came home to their community, to their shuls, to their yeshivos. They never thought of their temporary sojourn away from it all as anything but temporary.
One thing I could never understand is why some women get upset with or feel threatened by the blessing in morning prayers thanking HaShem for making us according to His will. If HaShem is a Master Designer incapable of error, and women are singled out as having particular attention and care in HaShem’s design and creation, what’s there to be upset about? Do men get the same flattering mention? No! They get nothing, so instead they’re stuck with thanking G-d for “not making me a woman.” Ask a rabbi and he will tell you that this is because men are supposed to feel privileged that they have the opportunity to perform certain mitzvos that women are not required to perform, so men are happy they score some “extra credit.” It sounds good, but I don’t think it’s the only reason. I don’t have the wisdom of a rabbi but my simple take on it is that men have grandiose egos and they cannot handle feelings of insecurity. So they say their bracha because it empowers them, while reminding (chiding?) them that they have to submit to someone (HaShem) higher than themselves – they have to relinquish control so they don’t lose control – of themselves!
Kind of pitiful, isn’t it?
By not making women responsible for observing certain time-related mitzvos, HaShem is telling women that they have something else that is even more important to do with our time and energy! So important, that we are not held responsible for doing a mitzva that, if a man were to avoid it, he’d be held accountable! And you can’t say it’s exclusively about raising children, because after one’s children are grown and gone, and women then have more time for performance of mitzvos without distraction, women are still not required to perform those “man only” mitzvos. Understanding the male psyche and ego and the potential for depravity, HaShem creates positive “busy work” for men in the form of mitzvos, to keep with the Program, so that a man may elevate his own soul. A woman’s neshama (soul) is already on a higher plane; she doesn’t need this extra reinforcement.
So when I’m up here in Maine, and I’m not going to shul, I might be missing out on a powerful prayer experience of davening with a quorum, but I’m not sinning by not doing so. A man is not so easily excused. So if I feel any guilt about our time away, it’s that I’m aiding and abetting and even instigating my husband’s inability to fulfill certain mitzvos, precisely because living in a rural location, we are not part of Jewish community life.
That is not to say that we cannot keep Shabbos or keep kosher or learn Torah – we do. We also have an opportunity to make a kiddush HaShem because in a place where many people have never met a Jew, and have a negative stereotype of what a Jew is made of, we can act with kindness, integrity, honesty, and pleasantness. We can demonstrate a commitment to living an ethical, moral and religious life, and contribute intellectually and professionally in such a way that we will be an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, especially if we conduct ourselves with humility and without pretension. We have more of an opportunity to do this here, surrounded by gentiles, than we do in our home town, surrounded by landsman.
That’s very nice, but it still doesn’t solve the practical problem of why Jews can’t be rural if that’s where they are most fulfilled. Which is why it gets difficult for me. I love it here. I am so happy here. I am growing here. And despite a loving family and adorable grandchildren whom I miss, I think I could settle here long-term very happily if circumstances would allow. Even if I were to live here permanently, I’m not kidding myself – I will always be an outsider and not a part of Maine culture. I am living a strange existence, not really feeling at home in any one place – a wandering Jew, if you will – involved and part of two communities but for divurgent reasons, not really whole in either of them.
Perhaps I need the equivalent of a shtetl? How can our experience in Maine be “pas nisht” if I’m growing in a positive way? Is my happiness selfish, hedonistic, and narcissistic? And what if I need more time here – maybe months or even years – to continue to grow?
Yesterday I received an email from an Orthodox rabbi from my home town. He was less than enthusiastic about my adventure when I informed him of our plans (unlike another Orthodox rabbi in my home town who gave us his blessing and was truly happy for us) . He asked me how I was doing, and if “Maine is treating you well.” Here is what I answered, with complete sincerity:
“I absolutely love it up here in Maine – what’s there not to like?! It’s so beautiful here. HaShem’s glory is reflected in everything you see, and in every bit of pure air you breathe and in every drop of sparkling mountain water that you drink. I am internalizing it with such kavana (with meaning, concentration, sense of direction, and intensity) and relishing each and every precious moment. It has been a wonderful 2 months of healing – spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. I only hope that I can retain all that I have gained when I return to my home town. This life I am now living is such an amazing experience and privilege and so restorative. I am so grateful for this opportunity! While it’s true there are few Jews here, and most gentiles have never in their lives met a Jew, there are therefore many opportunities for making a kiddush HaShem (acting in a way that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism) and being an ohr l’goyim (light unto the nations) with one’s behavior – living consciously and conscientiously – concentrating on sever panim yafos (having a pleasant countenance), etc.
Hodu LaShem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo (Give thanks to HaShem because He is good; His kindness is everlasting)!”