I grew up in a home where we usually watched Saturday morning cartoons on television, where we often ate chazir, where we sometimes opened presents set under a Christmas tree. In the context of American Jewry a half-century ago, of “religious school” a few days a week that culminated in a Bar Mitzvah—sometimes a Bat Mitzvah—that ended any semblance of Jewish education for most young Jews, it was a typical home.
Also typical for many American Jews was the path I chose years later. I veered from my childhood roots in Reform and Conservative congregations, stopped turning on the TV on Shabbat, gave up McDonald’s—and, of course, didn’t have a Christmas tree. Today, in the Orthodox synagogues where I continue to daven, in the yeshivot where I learn the intricacies of Rashi and Rambam, I look around and see myself surrounded by men, of various ages, from similar backgrounds.
Whether wearing a black hat or kippah serugah, many of the mitpallelim and talmidim in my circles were raised, like me, by parents who loved being Jewish and who wanted us to be good Jews, but not in the way that their shuckling, Yiddish-speaking, kapata-and-shtreimel-wearing immigrant parents had been.
They wanted us to be good Americans, too.
So what did we do? We went off and learned to shuckle. We learned Aramaic, and some Yiddish too. We put on a kapata and shtreimel.
To all appearances, we are devoted frum Jews, virtually indistinguishable from the frum-from-birth (“lifers,” we call them) Jews next to us.
We are part of the ba’al teshuvah movement that, contrary to secular assumptions about the imminent death of Torah Judaism, has swelled shuls and yeshivot in the last few generations.
Good Americans, we have shown that you can lead a Torah-observant life without sacrificing the professional success that our parents prized. Thanks to the growing number of Orthodox Jews, many of whom who were not Orthodox as children, you can study medicine in shomer Shabbat residencies. You can take clients to meals in kosher restaurants where the cuisine rivals that of any treif establishment. You can even run for vice president.
I don’t like labels, but I proudly identify myself as an Orthodox Jew. When pressed, I’ll even say I’m a ba’al teshuvah.
But questions remain. For how long can I keep calling myself a ba’al teshuvah? And am I really a ba’al teshuvah? Is anyone?
Thirty years after I made the first tentative steps toward a life of traditional Jewish observance, after I spent a month at an intensive learning program, after I began wearing a kippah all the time, after I asked my mother to prepare only kosher chicken in our home, after I started staying at my Orthodox friends’ homes on Shabbat so I wouldn’t have to drive, I still ask myself these questions.
The learning and davening, kippah and kashrut are still in place, but the question stands: What—or who—is a ba’al teshuvah? Is it anyone from a non-observant background who has adopted a shomer mitzvot lifestyle? At what point do you pass from ba’al teshuvah to plain frum Yid?
As my personal anniversary of frumkeit approaches, as the evolving ba’al teshuvah movement adopts new ways of reaching today’s potential members of the Orthodox community, the questions grip me not only on a philosophical level.
Am I flattering myself to call myself a ba’al teshuvah? Am I—or is anyone who has gone from zero to 613—arrogant to do so?
The term means, literally, “master of return.” What have I mastered? I’ve admitted with my mouth that I had, unwittingly to be sure, violated countless halachot and Jewish precepts in my first three decades, but I don’t know if I feel the proper shame in my kishkes. I learn, but I’ve not become a talmid chacham. I wear a kippah, but I don’t know if my behavior always reflects that of a pious Jew. I keep kosher and Shabbat, but that’s the easy part.
“There are no ba’alei teshuvah today,” my rabbi in my hometown, now a recognized leader of Klal Yisrael in Israel, once told me. The title denotes such a commitment, such a level of knowledge, that the people who so loosely take it upon themselves shouldn’t do so, he explained.
He told a story of a man who embraced a life of Torah observance in London a century ago. Standing out in his long black coat, mocked for his adherence to Shabbat and kashrut, he was known as “the ba’al teshuvah,” so rare were his ilk in his days.
He was a ba’al teshuvah.
So I’m not a ba’al teshuvah.
So what do people like me call ourselves if someone asks about our background?
I don’t have a good answer to that question.
Several years ago I heard a story about a talmid from one of Jerusalem’s leading ba’al teshuvah yeshivot—he was frum from birth and admired the yeshivah’s derech halimud—who went to a gadol for a berachah.
The talmid introduced himself, identified his institution of advanced Talmudic learning and then added, “But I’m not a ba’al teshuvah.”
“Why not?” the gadol asked.
Chagrined, the talmid realized that it’s no disgrace to be a ba’al teshuvah, no matter how you define the term, no matter how many years have passed since you joined the ranks of the Orthodox, no matter how you judge yourself.
So until someone comes up with a better title, I’ll go on calling myself a ba’al teshuvah.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the Jewish Week in New York.