Imagine what it is like to be an Orthodox Jewish teen without an Orthodox Jewish community, a father who is not Jewish, a sister who is almost completely secular and a loving, pious Jewish mother. Now you have my situation.
Being a 14-year-old religious Jew is certainly one of the hardest things to do anyway. We are at a time when the world of secularism seems so nice and wonderful. Despite the fact that we know it would damage our Jewish souls, not to mention upset our Jewish mothers, and personally I don't know which one is worse, we may find ourselves fascinated with the secular way of life: the newest hair styles, the coolest new music, or maybe even the girl next door who isn't Jewish.
|The Harrison family: Fred, Chaver, Sasha, and Tehillah.
I often hear the phone ring and the voice of my mother on Friday afternoon telling my sister, "Now my sweet daughter, don't forget to light shabbos candles at such and such a time. It's an extremely important mitzvah!" My loving mother has been a great help in encouraging me in my decision to pursue an Orthodox Jewish way of life.
I was always drawn to the Orthodox way of life. It was not a shaliach (emissary) from Chabad who influenced me, though Chabad has helped me to stay Orthodox. My mother would always encourage me by supplying religious items such as siddurim and Kiddush cups. I remember a time when my mother decided to get me my first siddur. It was like a big picture book with prayers and berachot in it. I fell in love with davening from then on.
But although I continued to grow religious, my mother still stayed with Conservative Judaism. There was a time when I would go to the Conservative synagogue, I very much enjoyed it, but I never did feel complete. So I did some research and dived, I would definitely say head first, into becoming completely Orthodox. I took all that I could get from the internet and the Artscroll books that I had in my room in the house reserved for davening. I may have been ignorant, but I tried with all my might to become an Orthodox Jew.
I probably looked sort of funny. I had long peyes. Most of the time I wore a yarmulke, though at first I only wore one when I prayed, ate or studied. I always wore dark blue jeans, and white t-shirt with my all-in-one Talit Katan/T-shirt underneath. My dad, mom and sister all said it was too hot during summer to wear three shirts.
I decided to visit the only Chabad House of the area. They warmly welcomed me, and little by little I integrated with the Orthodox way of life.
But just when life seemed to be going so well I became a teenager. I am a 14-year-old loaded with hormones, emotions, thoughts and doubts about being Orthodox. I sort of dragged my mother into being Orthodox too. She’s very happy with it now, but that stresses me out more than before. I know that's what she's like; if I had made the decision to practice Reform Judaism, my beautiful mother would also have supported me through and through. Even today, if I decided suddenly to become a secular person, my mother would support me--though I think she would be a little confused.
I think my father is very happy with my decision, and he's proud I'm finding my own identity. He never once said no when I wanted anything Jewish. He never minds when my mother covers her hair, I guess he finds her just as beautiful as before. I think it really has brought us closer being that the nature of Orthodoxy is mostly family based.
But it's difficult to be different. I imagine someone who isn't Jewish seeing my family at the zoo. Look, a 14-year-old boy with some sort of, oh what they call those things… skull cap and dressed for some kind of wedding or something: black pants, white button down shirt, black shoes, black kippah and so forth. And right beside him is an olive-skinned woman (Sephardic Jew) with a long skirt, long blouse in 102 degree heat and some black hair that looks sort of like it could be some sort of wig. (My mom covers her hair with a sheitl.) Beside her is a typical light-skinned Kansan with blue jeans and tennis-shoes.
It was different when I was a little boy when I couldn't care less what people thought of me. But just from becoming a teenager, it seems my whole personality and my outlook on life changes. They must think the weirdest things.
But despite all the strange looks, friendly or hostile, I still would rather remain an Orthodox Jew, or no Jew at all.
Being Orthodox is not for everyone, but it sure is for me. And when I look back on where I’ve come from and where I am going I feel a warm feeling inside because I know deep down there in my heart, I’ve made the right decision.