I've written extensively in other places about my innate desire to return to being kosher (Facebook statuses, e-mails to close friends, even once my Blackberry Messenger status was updated to reflect this... way back when, when I actually had a Blackberry) - and I don't simply mean a return to the Hebrew dietary laws, rather, a complete return to being religiously Jewish in every sense of the word, in every sphere of my life. While I am an odd duck in the modern Orthodox world (in that I respect and admire other streams of Jewish thought and can find merit in them), I am, at the end of the day most attuned to a dati leumi sort of lifestyle. I love modern Orthodoxy in so many ways I cannot count - my beliefs coincide most forcefully with this particular Jewish denomination. But being Jewish is never primarily about belief - it's about practice, and as it stands, my practice puts me squarely in the pews of a Reform congregation (and I don't mean this disparagingly at all - but that's really not who I am).
I believe that life is a journey and every journey has purpose, even if we can't always fathom that purpose while it is happening. While I lived in Israel, I was very precise in my modern Orthodox practice. Coming to Trinidad for the past four years has subdued my practice (and that's putting it mildly). I won't rehash how "good" I was in Israel, nor will I tell you how "bad" I've become in Trinidad - what I will tell you is what I don't/won't do in Trinidad: I don't eat pork, shellfish, or any of the other treif animals which Trinis tend to consume (including, but not limited to: horse-meat, iguana-meat, turtle-meat and shark-meat. I do, however, eat treif chicken, beef, lamb and duck - Trinidad has no capacity for kashering any meat, so I am stuck with eating treif chicken, beef, lamb and duck). I won't celebrate Christmas or other non-Jewish religious holidays (as one of the most diverse societies in the world, Trinidad boasts the Hindu festival of Divali and the Muslim holiday of Eid-Ul-Fitr, alongside Christmas and Easter, as national holidays). I won't eat anything during Pesach that doesn't have a kosher l'pesach hechsher on it (unless it's fresh fruits or vegetables). I don't go to bed without saying Shema (i.e., I always say it), but I don't always pick up my siddur and say the whole bedtime Shema. And finally, like most Jews - regardless of religious practice - I put everything aside and definitely won't eat or drink or shower on Yom Kippur. And that's the extent of my Jewish practice in Trinidad. I've fallen off the bandwagon - and I'm desperately trying to hoist my muddy self back up onto it.
I am ashamed of how far I've sunk into being treif. It's such a slippery slope, giving up one part of my Jewish practice, and then another, and then another... ad infinitum. Four years is a long time to be in kibbutz galyot in a land where there isn't much to propel and fortify a person's singular quest for modern Orthodox practice. I yearn for the day I can return to Israel, where being Jewish is as easy as breathing - but until that day comes, I'm in Trinidad for a reason, and I have to make the best of things and just make it work somehow or the other. (As an aside, I'm stuck here, partially because of my own fault. I'm doing my MBA here, and am currently stuck on my final course - Finance - against which I have the most enormous mental block. The moment I pass this course and am handed by MBA degree, I am hauling tail from Trinidad and headed directly for Israel. But I need to buckle down, eradicate that mental block and pass Finance. In a way, I kind of wonder if I'm using Finance as an excuse to stop myself from going back to Israel - as an only child whose parents, three grandparents and aunt I'm very close with (my mom's sister, Annmarie) are still alive, I can't say that the thought of leaving them doesn't scare me. But anyway, this is a rant for another day and for another blog. Let's get back to the issue at hand: me being terribly un-kosher).
As I said earlier, everything happens for a reason - and I can partially ascertain a few reasons for my having to leave Israel/a large Jewish community and being in Trinidad:
1. Being close to my parents, grandparents and aunt - while I've always been close with these six amazing people, who've taught me so much and helped shape me, I've always been the child in their midst. Spending these past four years with them and growing into a late twenty year old adult, I've begun to view them as peers, and gotten to understand them on entirely deeper, more human levels; thus appreciating them differently and loving them more.
2. Learning to appreciate the various Judaic denominations outside of my particular modern Orthodox mindset - in Israel, I turned my nose up at other streams of Jewish thought, and thought of modern Orthodoxy as "the way". Coming home to Trinidad, to a Jewish community which is, at once, pluralistic and non-denominational, I've managed to see Judaism from a unique vantage point which allows me insight into all various streams of thought which abound: Conservative, Chabad, Reform, secular, atheist - and I've ben able to appreciate all these denominations and viewpoints, and, furthermore, been able to understand myself and modern Orthodoxy in a much deeper way, and managed to learn the beauty of acceptance of those who don't share my views (I want to expand on this point more thoroughly in a blog one day).
3. Being away from Israel has made me miss it more and struggle to understand it more - being away from Israel these past four years made me miss it so much that I voraciously read up on the Israel I'd left behind. My knowledge and understanding of Israel has widened and deepened exponentially in relation to how much I miss it. I understand Israeli culture, Israeli politics, Israeli entertainment, the Israeli religious establishment, Israeli defence, Israeli art, Israeli literature in ways I wouldn't have had I never left and stayed in the Anglo bubble in which I lived whilst I was there. Absence doesn't just make the heart grow fonder - it makes the mind grow wiser as well, it seems.
So yes, being in Trinidad serves a higher purpose (that, and I do love Trinidad tremendously. I am not roughing it here by any stretch of the imagination), but at the same time, being here has basically eradicated all traces of my Jewish practice - and for this, I am truly regretful. The thing is, you see, the Jewish community here is small. No - that's not the right word. The Jewish community of Trinidad is miniscule. To put things into perspective for you: on an island of 1.2 million persons: a total of twenty-something are Jews. Yeah, yeah, the official word is "there are anywhere between fifty to a hundred Jews on the island, depending upon who's in the country at any given time" - but that's misleading in the most manipulative and most watered-down sense of the word "Jew". The Trinidadians who ascribe to Judaism as their only religion, who consider the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their only Deity, who won't go to church and bow before Jesus, number all of only twenty-something persons. I kid you not. Yeah when there's Rosh haShana or Chanukah, we have large turnouts, but the fact is, in Trinidad, we bandy around the word "Jew" quite loosely, in order to up the demographics for whatever reason. With such a tiny core group - and within that group you find all the varying Jewish beliefs under the sun - it is difficult to find support for the modern Orthodox lifestyle. Mind you, I know that, ultimately, the fault lies with me - but there is a certain ease which comes with having others share your mindset. I love my fellow Trinidadian-Jews and I wouldn't trade a single one of them for a million modern Orthodox Heebies, but at the same time, I'm the only representative modern Orthodox person here on the island, and, as such, can feel quite lonely at times (concurrently, we only have one person who is traditional, and one person who is Conservative, and only one who is Reform, and only one who is Conservadox, etc. - and I'm sure all of them yearn for a fellow Trinidadian-Jew who will share their belief/viewpoint/practice). I don't want to feel like an odd duck walking around the length and breadth of the island with a kipa on my head and tzitzit blowing in the wind. I don't want to feel different. But isn't that the very point of being Jewish: the otherness/the separateness/the different-ness? The meaning of the Hebrew word kadosh (which translates as 'holy', but is absorbed erroneously into the non-Jewish mindset as 'sacred') really means separate or different. To be a kadosh/holy nation is to be separate and different. True, in my personal little pickle, this is quite an extreme version of being different - as I'd be the only weirdo prancing around in a kipa in Trinidad - but maybe it wouldn't be so bad? I'm a person who's easily prone to embarrassment, and even as I think of going out in public, looking conspicuously Jewish, I'm blushing quietly in the privacy of my bedroom. But again: maybe it won't be so bad? Trinidadians on a whole are a quite accepting people. The religious diversity of our people has led to us being pretty cool about other religions, and with Judaism so severely under-represented on the islands, kipas aren't really identifiably Jewish to the average Trini. However, at the same time, there is a definite threat of radical Islam and secular Israel-hating present on the island, so I know if I do opt to wear kipa (and I so badly want to for religious reasons) there is the odd chance that I can attract unwanted attention. But still, the primary reason of not wanting to be different is what makes me balk from donning a kipa full-time in Trinidad.
Perhaps I could just move past the kipa thing on the outside and start wearing it all the time (or as often as I could) at home. That would be simple enough; provided random guests don't show up and quiz me mercilessly about the piece of cloth I have attached to my head with bobby pins. Kipa is worn in order for us to always be in a state of prayer and since this is my confessional of sorts, I guess I must confess about prayer here: I don't say my blessings the way I used to - since I knowingly eat treif food (albeit it only chicken, beef, lamb and duck) - which I know is usually made with some sort of dairy, I've slipped from no longer counting between dairy and meat meals, to completely disregarding saying brachot before meals and bensching afterwards. Furthermore, despite my built-in self-regulated insistence on saying Shema before bed (thanks, in no small part to my mother who always made me say bedtime prayers), I don't really say any other sort of Judaically sanctioned prayer during the day (ok, in my defence - as pathetic and poor as it may be - I do sometimes do sporadic bursts of "thanks God!" for particular good things that happen, but, admittedly, these are few are far between). I've noticed that with my ever-decreasing focus on food-related prayer came a directly related decrease in prayer overall. Running alongside this is an overall lowering of interest in Judaic reading material (although my Zionist reading material has remained constant and even, possibly, increased).
Indeed, the highway to treif is broad.
Which brings me to my final article of neglect: Shabbat. I'm always ever so excited about incoming Shabbats. But hosting Shabbat is an enterprise in itself - and my bachelor-type existence doesn't make such a weekly venture possible. And even if I could, while I know there are members of the Trinidadian-Jewish community who would show up, the vast majority wouldn't be able to: for work reasons, for distance reasons - I know it's a difficult day. We're living in a largely Christian country, and Saturday has become, by and large, either a work day, or the only day we're able to run errands. And so, most Shabbats are spent by myself. But I am always excited - the setting of the sun on a Friday evening has become something of a ritual to me; no matter what I'm doing, I stop, I pause and I take note of the fact that the Shabbat is upon me. I usually attempt to light candles, and though this is a regular practice for me to light candles, it isn't an every-Friday-night sort of thing. Ok, give Jack his jacket (or Nick his kipa), I probably miss candle-lighting maybe ten times for the yea, but that's still ten times too much. And even though I regularly light candles, making kiddush doesn't always naturally happen afterwards. Things happen - and I violate the Shabbat inadvertently. It's not that I want to - it's not that I don't want to afford her the respect that we're commanded to; but it's not easy. Yes, this is me making pathetic, fumbling excuses for my own mess. I tell myself, "Nick, you must keep Shabbat today", but then something would happen and I won't. And being the eternal procrastinator that I am, I always suck it up and think to myself "Next week! Next week for sure!" It's not that I even usually go out on Fridays. Generally my (exclusively in Trinidad) non-Jewish friends are quite accepting and understanding of this weird Friday rule I have and they don't push me or try to coerce me to go out (in fact, all of my friends are quite supportive of my Jewish oddities all-around), so the onus really is on me.
I need to start upping my practice because I feel spiritually empty without having all the fences of Jewishness around me. I ritually, everyday, place my Magen David necklace around my neck, but it is an empty gesture, devoid of merit. My Jewishness is not just identification - as proud as I am to be affiliated with this honored religion, my soul craves the practice. It's a matter of discipline, when you think about it, isn't it? It's so easy to develop bad habits - but so unbearably difficult to break those bad habits once they've been formed. And it's funny, but even though it's difficult to try to break bad habits, it isn't hard once you've got the hang of being good, again, is it? I'll give you an example: last week, I somehow managed to keep kosher! I got to Thursday, and thought to myself "hold on, Nick, did you just keep kosher for the past three days?" Sure enough I had! Without even consciously trying, I did it. I had salmon and tuna, salads and bread, rice and cereal, and nuts and even more salad (lots of our foodstuff is imported and carry recognizable hechshers). Keeping kosher wasn't even hard! The thing is, you see, I must admit, my primary aim had been to eat healthy and lose a couple of pounds, and in so doing, I inadvertently took to keeping kosher. I kept kosher, not for the sake of God, but for the sake of vanity. It was a sobering thought to think that all of my excuses of things being so hard, blah blah blah, really didn't become hard when I had to put myself first. It was a lot shameful when I looked at it from that perspective. But the fact is, I was able to keep kosher, and though I didn't realize I was keeping kosher and didn't keep kosher for the right reasons - I proved that I could do it. If I could keep kosher in Trinidad (and not eat meat for three days!), I can definitely stop making excuses and do the rest: I can keep Shabbat and I can say my prayers as well. It's just three little things to get back in order, and the buck must stop somewhere, and that somewhere is here and now.
So this is what I've promised myself I'll do: I blog about it and keep track of what I'm doing and how I'm doing and whether I'm progressing and continuously upping the ante of my Jewish practice. Maybe I'll come on here one day and type: "Kept Shabbat, prayed three times today, completely kept kosher, gave tzedakah" and be able to hold my head Jewishly high. But for right now, my head is looking at the ground, Jewishly embarrassed.
The target date is set: tomorrow, with the incoming Shabbat, I will strive to keep it to the best of my abilities. The fact remains, I've kept Shabbat before - it is no insurmountable task - and had Shabbat been some sort of miracle to lose weight or look good, I would've been doing it in a heartbeat. I've kept kosher before (hell, I even did it again last week!), so that shouldn't be hard. I've never really managed to pray/go to shul three times a day; so this is the one real challenge I face - but I'm going to start small. I'll commit myself to saying Shema three times a day and maybe the Amidah as well (can one even say Amidah without a minyan? I'll have to check up on that) and just go slowly, one prayer at a time.
So it starts tomorrow. I'm excited and not a bit nervous. I'll keep you in the loop.