You can't suppress your past without killing part of yourself
I'm currently working on a biography of Rabbi Meir Schuster ztz"l, who, over the course of over 30 years, brought thousands to their first taste of Yiddishkeit. In the course of the project, I've been saddened by the number of those who feel deeply indebted to Rabbi Schuster, but who nevertheless asked that their names be left out of the book because they or their children feared the possible impact on shidduchim.
Frankly, I think that fear is overblown, and the children will generally be judged on their own merits. The Steipler Gaon did not hesitate to grab a son-in-law who was not born into a religious home: The only important criterion was that his chassan was considered the outstanding bochur in Eretz Yisrael and possessed sterling middos.
Sure, there are those who will not want the child of a baal teshuvah for a son- or daughter-in-law, but my attitude has always been that such a family would likely not be a good match for us anyway, and that the baal teshuvah question serves as a useful filter.
But more disheartening to me than those who did not want their names mentioned out of practical concerns was a conversation I had with an old acquaintance. After I told her that I had heard a great story about her for the book, she was horrified and informed me that her own children did not know she was a baalas teshuvah. My first thought was: How did you pull that off? Kill your parents, chas v'shalom? I felt sorry for her. For decades she has been carrying around some shameful secret, even though it in no way reflects poorly upon her.
I'm not suggesting that baalei teshuvah need to hum old Beatles' tunes at the Shabbos table, or share every detail of their past lives. And yes, we should learn to make Kiddush and daven from the amud, without broadcasting our latecomer status. But neither should we get too hung up if we overhear a yeshivishe son comparing notes with a similarly situated friend on the funny things baalei teshuvah do (like laughing too loud).
My recently deceased friend, Rabbi Ze'ev Kraines, zt"l, about whom I wrote two weeks ago, exemplified a healthy relationship with his past. At the shivah house, I discovered that all his children all knew the story of his abbreviated valedictory speech at his Fairfax High School graduation in the Hollywood Bowl — abbreviated because the school administrators had him pulled from the podium, as he launched into a litany of typical early-'70s attack on the Vietnam War and a host of societal ills.
The rest of the 1,200-strong class (largely Jewish) then sat down and started chanting, "Let him speak," as police helicopters circled above. When he told me the story a few years later, Reb Ze'ev took particular delight in the scene of his mother running after those hustling him away, shouting, "Don't hurt my Warren."
Over the years, I've noticed that the most successful baalei teshuvah are often the ones who see the changes in their lives as an outgrowth of the values with which they were raised and particular parental virtues — commitment to truth, concern for others, pride in being Jewish. I just heard from Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb something that his wife Rebbetzin Leeba Gottlieb a"h, who passed away last week, taught him: When parents react angrily to children becoming baalei teshuvah, the children should express to their parents their gratitude for all ways the parental values led them to their current stage in life. It is very difficult to remain angry at someone who is busy expressing hakaras hatov to you.
Reb Ze'ev's oldest sons, Zechariah and Meir, related at the shivah how they would accompany their father on the long Shabbos walk to shul in Mexico City, during which time he would share stories of his youth — how he was orphaned of his father when he was eight,and how his mother raised two sons alone with great strength.
The message he shared with his sons on those walks to shul was: These are some of the experiences and people who shaped me into whom I am today, and made it possible for me to make the decisions I have.
That attitude made it possible for him to successfully re-channel his natural talents, rather than attempt to suppress them, and in the process kill part of himself. True, he had to discipline his naturally poetic nature to become the talmid chacham he was. But the poetic side remained ever present, and in the love of Hashem, he found his true subject. Glancing at the Hebrew language collection of essays Reb Ze'ev published just before his passing, one of my sons marveled that a non-native Hebrew speaker, who had not lived in Israel for 35 years, could write such literary Hebrew.
The Kraines children also knew of their father's freshman year career as the classical music critic for the Cornell University student paper. Music remained a major part of his life and of his family's; they produced at least one CD of family favorites. Serving as Yamim Noraim chazzan in Mexico City, he would become so carried away with the niggunim that he often forgot he was leading a nusach Sefard congregation — much to the irritation of the elderly members of the kehillah.
Reb Ze'ev's comfort in his own skin as a baal teshuvah made it possible for him to maintain and convey a nonjudgmental attitude to every Jew he met. I noticed at his levayah in Israel many former South Africans. I asked one of the Kraines sons at the shivah house how many Jews who had passed through Ohr Somayach of Sandton are now living in Israel.
He replied that he had no idea: His parents never counted people. Then he added that he never once heard his father say to someone, "Don't you think it's time you started doing X?" He could not push, only demonstrate his own joy in Torah and mitzvos and share it with others.
The most frequent comment at the shivah house was: "He was not only my rav, but my friend." Rabbi Kraines never sat at the head of his Shabbos table, but always in the middle so that he could interact personally with all the guests and children.
I suspect that the non-pushy approach that allows each person to decide how much he is yet ready to take on is more effective in the long run. A prominent kiruv personality in the United States recently described to me a growing phenomenon of those who have been in yeshivah or seminary in Israel for a period of time returning to the US and after a while dropping their newfound religious observance.
I suspect what happens in many of those cases is that fresh baalei teshuvah begin to wonder whether they ever really made a decision to become observant. Perhaps it was only the momentum generated by the yeshivah or seminary, or the desire to please admired mentors that pushed them.
Maybe that is why Reb Ze'ev and his wife Nechama did not push. They knew there are few uglier phrases than, "I made so-and-so frum." No one can "make" someone else frum; they must choose for themselves. What one can do is show one's fellow Jews that one cares about them deeply as individuals and offer them as much Torah knowledge and as many Jewish experiences as they are ready for.
In that fashion, the Kraineses built and sustained a shul and community where none had existed for 27 years, even as they guided many of those who began in the shul toward aliyah or to one of the thriving Torah neighborhoods of Johannesburg.