The Last Hurdle An unexpected message in a restaurant

As told to Rachel Weingarten

I first landed on Suri Hoffman’s couch not long after my husband and I split up. I had just gotten over a pretty serious bout of depression that I didn’t particularly care to talk about, due to having recently gotten divorced. Suri was an excellent therapist, and thanks to her I was eventually able to pull out of it and move on with my life.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Growing up, I was a typical American Jewish kid. I studied the Hebrew alphabet, went to a Reform Sunday school and learned the basics of all the songs, holidays and customs that our grandparents used to keep.

My parents were fervently liberal, embracing the cause of equal rights and social justice with every fiber of their being. Despite having sent me to Sunday school, they were also agnostic, only doing so for the cultural enrichment I would receive. In fact, in their minds, religion was the primary cause of all conflict in the world. Even the alleged “apartheid” practiced by the totally secular Israelis against the “poor indigenous people” of Palestine was a form of religious oppression. If there had never been such a thing as religion, they firmly believed, there would be no suffering. All peoples and cultures would coexist peacefully and sing “Kumbaya” together.

Looking back, I think things really started to go south when my mom’s sister started to explore Orthodox Judaism. I must have been around eight years old back then, but I remember that time period vividly. My mom and her sister were extremely close, and my mother viewed my aunt’s dalliance with religion as a total betrayal. My aunt ran off to Lakewood, New Jersey, and her entire family morphed into black-hatters. Over the following few years she would still make the drive up to Pittsburgh to visit, but the once-jovial family get-togethers rapidly devolved into fierce arguments and debate. Eventually, my aunt stopped showing up altogether, claiming that it was hard to make the trip with so many kids. For my mother it was only further proof that she was right about religion.

As a teenager, I would often stare at the modestly dressed Jews walking the streets of our neighborhood on Saturdays.

“Aren’t you curious about the way they live?” I would ask my mother. “They seem so happy and fulfilled.” My mom would snort and angrily honk the car horn at the religious pedestrians as we drove by. “Trust me, Cindy,” she’d say. “It’s only a way for folks to escape their problems. They live in an alternate reality.”

The only time she would deign to talk to them was on particularly scorching Saturday afternoons, when she would derive immense pleasure from offering them a ride, feigning shock and indignation when they politely declined her overtures. “It’s 96 degrees outside and your children are suffering! What’s wrong with you?” she would practically shout at some poor mother shepherding her flock of young children.

Eventually I learned to stop asking, and my curiosity gradually waned.

I went to a good college, landed a decent job and eventually got married. But while my life seemed to be perfect on the outside, I always felt that there was something missing. It was hard for me to pinpoint exactly what was wrong. After all, what was I lacking? I had married well and enjoyed financial security. Nonetheless, I wasn’t truly happy.

After my divorce, I finally decided to seek professional help. Suri was the perfect therapist for me. She had an uncanny ability to understand what I was saying even if I sometimes failed to articulate my thoughts very well. She was 100 percent emotionally attuned to my needs, and was able to help me identify inner feelings that had often eluded me.

Oh, and yeah, the fact that she was an Orthodox Jew intrigued me just a little bit.
In the beginning, whenever I brought up religion she would brush it aside and change the subject, but as we got to know each other and she realized that my interest was genuine, we got to talking. We spent hours debating everything from evolution to the meaning of life. Were there really millions of Jews present at Mount Sinai? I was especially moved by the so-called design argument for the existence of G-d, which I had never heard before.

Slowly but surely I started falling in love with Orthodox Judaism, and it became an integral part of how I saw myself. In fact, it irked me that anyone would ever think negatively about it. There was still a long, winding road ahead of me before I became completely observant, but the wheels were definitely in motion. The Torah wasn’t some outdated collection of fables; it was something real and vibrant that I could live with on a daily basis.

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