Seven years' ago, I arrived in Israel with uncovered hair, short sleeves and jeans. I kept Shabbat (or so I thought…); I kept kosher (again, before I realized that not all hechshers are created equal); I believed in G-d (as a general concept. G-d having a say in my actual life was a completely different level of 'believing in G-d', and back then, I just wasn't there yet). In short, I was a very modern, trendy, 'frum' woman.
I moved my perfect family into my perfect new house, and as I've written about many, many times, all the 'perfect' collapsed breathtakingly fast and we found ourselves having to sell up and move.
The family who bought that house were apparently going in the opposite direction to us, in many ways.
They'd just left a 'religiously oppressive' environment to move to our neighbourhood. The woman had been 'forced' to wear skirts in the old place, and was looking forward to adopting a more 'relaxed' dress code. I'd just started to cover my hair, and I was feeling completely like a fish out of water.
Financially, we were also heading in completely different directions. We were selling up because both our careers had imploded, and we were 10 minutes away from going completely bankrupt. Her husband was a rising star in his office, and just before they actually moved in, he was made partner.
The couple who bought our house were very nice people. But that didn't stop me being green with envy over them for years. They moved in, and redid the garden (twice…) They redid the kitchen. They renovated the basement, and expanded. The place was straight out of the pages of 'Ideal Home'. Every time I had to go round to pick up the mail, the very nice wife would show me all the additions and improvements to 'my' old house, and I'd smile and nod and feel sick as a dog. Because I was leaving that larger, nicer, remodelled old house of mine to return to a life of debt, uncertainty, enormous stress and rented accommodations that were so small (comparatively) that I'd had to shove half my furniture in storage for a year.
We made arrangements to get the mail forwarded on direct, to spare me the torture of seeing someone else living my 'perfect' life, and that was the last I saw of that nice lady until today.
It's my oldest's bat mitzvah this year, and one of the projects she has to do in school to celebrate this amazing milestone is something called 'Roots', which tells the story of my daughter, her life to date, her family, all the interesting stuff about her parents and her ancestors (well, not all of the interesting stuff, but I digress…)
She's been finding the whole project very stressful for a number of reasons, not least, that she couldn't actually remember most of her kindergartens, or where she'd actually lived when we first got here, because we kept moving her around so much.
We had a big chat about it all, and I asked her if it would help her to take a drive, to see some of the earliest places we'd lived in when we first made aliya, and maybe take a picture or two. She agreed, and today, we set off to visit her first kindergarten, or 'gan', and our first house.
We did the kindergarten first. Seven years' ago, it wasn't even built. They literally built it from scratch, using pre-fab caravans and a lot of concrete, in the two weeks they had between registration and the first day of school.
I couldn't believe how big all the trees had got, that we parents had planted at the first Tu Beshvat 'ceremony' we'd ever attended as new immigrants. But the gan itself was completely empty, and looked like it had been slated for demolition, or some serious refurbishment. I couldn't believe how fast that brand new gan had got old and obsolete.
The next stop was my old house. For years, I used to try to avoid driving anywhere near my old house or my old neighbourhood. It was just way too upsetting, to see how all my old neighbours were continuing to add to their 'perfect' lives with yet another bedroom, kid, or all-wheel drive vehicle, while I was still stuck in debt, infertility, chaos and uncertainty.
This past year, a lot of those horrible negative feelings seemed to have finally come unstuck. I didn't have the same jealousy, anger, resentment or feelings of failure to contend with, and I was even quite curious to see 'my' old house again.
As G-d would have it, the nice lady that bought my old house was standing right outside it, as though waiting for me, when I drove up to take a picture. At first, we didn't recognise each other. She was dressed in her skinny jeans, her expensive top and her Ugg boots (all very stylish, and EXACTLY what I would have been wearing seven years' ago…) I was dressed in my long cord skirt; my headscarf, and a jumper that is so old, I was definitely wearing EXACTLY the same thing seven years' ago…)
We both did a double-take, and it took a minute for us to see past the external changes and recognise each other. Seven years can be a very long time. A lot of things can change a lot - or not at all.
For me, it was a seminal moment of truth: I was back looking at 'my' old house in 'my' old neighbourhood; I was driving the same car I had when we left; I was still career-less and baby-less and direction-less (at least, in terms of my material aspirations). Lots of external things hadn't changed at all in six years. I had no badges of 'success' to wave around or boast about.
She had a new car in the driveway; an extra child; a great hair-do.
Was I jealous? Envious? Was I still wishing, even a little bit, that I could have her 'perfect' life - my old 'perfect' life - back again?
Thank G-d, the answer was 'not at all!' Not even a little bit. I was so relieved to be me, even though I'm not trendy any more, and I'm not financially comfortable any more and I'm not a 'success' any more.
Because in the ways you can't really see and that I can't really talk about to people on the street, I've never been more successful than I am today. Today, I sleep so much better than I used. I have so much less stress (rockets notwithstanding). I feel so much more love for my children, and so much more appreciation for my husband.
I wouldn’t switch the spiritual gains I've made for anything. That sounds like a no-brainer, maybe, but until today, a part of me always wondered if I was still a bit missing my fake 'perfect' life.
Seven years is a long time. It's taken me seven years to finally get away from the wistful feelings that used to haunt me every time I remembered myself in that first place, that first house, in Israel.
I went through the hardest time of my life in that house. Even though we've faced harder tests since, that first year was so difficult because I was still trying to get along without G-d in the picture, and it very nearly finished me off.
For seven years, it was too painful to go back and look the old me in the face, to see if I really felt that all the pain, all the effort, all the confusion and doubt and loneliness were worth it.
Spiritual journeys are not easy things. They are very demanding, very challenging. They can take every last ounce of strength that you didn't even know you had. But in the end, they are worth it. It's taken me seven years to be able to say that and mean it, but Baruch Hashem, I'm finally there.
Even so, one visit a decade is enough. When it comes time for the next daughter's bat mitzvah photo montage, the picture I took today will do just fine - even if it is three years' old.
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Check out Rivka Levy's new book The Happy Workshop based on the teachings of Rabbi Shalom Arush