A little while ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who told me about the latest ‘parenting craze’ to be sweeping the frum world, at least in Israel.

In a nutshell, this new system or shitta is telling parents, particularly mothers, that they have to find out what their problem is, in order to raise their kids properly.

Apparently, the thinking is like this: if you can help the parents to uncover the ‘fatal flaw’ or big emotional problem, or personal issue that defines them and their approach to everything in life, including how they parent their kids, then you’ll help them to change their behavior, and peace will reign in Gotham City.

I know, it theoretically sounds great doesn’t it? There’s just one problem: it’s a load of baloney, and in practice it’s going to end up doing far more harm than good to everyone involved.

How do I know all this?

Simple: in our quest to be better Jews, and better people and better parents, me and my husband have been through a whole bunch of shitot and systems based on ideas that sounded good in theory, but were actually useless (at best) or very damaging in practice.

Christians believe that people are ‘fatally flawed’ as a result of the ‘original sin’ where Adam and Eve brought death into the world. By contrast, Jews (especially Breslev-friendly Jews) believe that people are fundamentally good, and that the real them, their soul, is only good and holy, just it got caught up in a bunch of klipot (evil husks) and yetzer haras (evil inclinations) that it needs to fight off and fight through.

That’s the work of this world, and it really can take 120 years to achieve it.

But what’s happening in even the most frum circles is that people are taking a bunch of half-baked ideas rooted in the heresy of modern psychology and psychiatry, or in the idol-worshiping notions of Christianity or the Eastern religions, and then concocting all sorts of ‘workshops’ and ‘parenting courses’ that aren’t based on truth, and only serve to drag participants’ vulnerabilities, difficulties and yetzers out for public scrutiny, without giving them a real solution for how to actually resolve them.

I know so many people, my husband included, who have been caught up and hurt in all the frum public confessionals happening all over the place.

But however these things are being dressed up and sold to others, they’re all based on the same basic principles: encourage people to admit their biggest hurts, deepest secrets and darkest shames in front of a bunch of strangers; then, have the group’s ‘guru’ explain to them – publicly – what their problem is, how it’s affecting them, and why it’s so bad. Then – leave them to deal with it. Alone.

If they start to struggle, or feel even more alone, depressed or ‘bad’, explain to them that either:

  • They didn’t get what they’re meant to be doing, or they didn’t complete the program and process properly and it’s their problem they’re so broken and can’t be fixed;

And / or:

  • Promise to give them the answer to their problem in the next workshop (or six…); or the next private coaching session (or 10…); or the next super-expensive private retreat.

I have seen people keep coming back to these ‘gurus’ and the hugely profitable organisations they’ve built on the back of other people’s suffering for literally years. For as long as they are in touch with the ‘guru’ and the system they’ve built, they’re hopeful that the answer, whatever it is, is just one more group meeting away.

But it doesn’t work like that!

Quite the opposite: as time goes on, the participants split into 2 camps: increasingly despairing, angry, empty and cynical, or completely detached from the reality of who they really are, and what’s really happening in their lives and in their relationships.

Neither of these modes is emotionally healthy, or compatible with yiddishkeit.

So what’s the answer? Where are all these frum gurus going wrong, and why are they doing so much damage?

In a nutshell, you can sum it up like this: what helps people to be better parents, and to treat their kids nicer, and to be happier people, and to be able to deal with their issues and flaws appropriately, is when they concentrate on seeing the good in themselves, and developing more self-compassion.

Remember, God arranged the world as a mirror, to show us who we really are, and what we really need to work on. If we secretly believe ourselves to be selfish monsters, or hateful failures, or fatally-flawed and unfixable in some way, that’s the ‘self’ we’ll see reflected back to us from the people in our lives, and especially our children.

The more ‘down’ we get on ourselves, the more we dislike ourselves – all for the best motives in the world – the more we’ll be irritated by, dislike and probably mistreat our kids, who are just our mirrors. By contrast, the more we learn to see the good in ourselves, and to judge ourselves with compassion and understanding, the more that inner goodness will shine out of our kids, too.

(If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Rebbe Nachman’s Azamra, you’re dead right.)

There’s a lot more to say about this, and I think I will be coming back to this idea again and again on my blog. But for now let me leave you with this:

The single biggest thing you can do to improve your parenting, and help your kids, and to build the world, and to become the fulfilled, happy Jew God created you to be, is to learn how to love yourself, and to concentrate on finding all the good He placed in your soul.

That’s it.

And if your course, workshop, or frum guru is not telling you that, or if it’s telling you to focus on your problems, flaws and issues, then run away as fast as your legs can carry you.

In the last one of this week’s posts, I want to take a look at the good that came out of my experience with the religious phoneys, because surprisingly, there has been a lot of it.

The first good I gained from the whole experience is:

It made me much more humble.

There’s nothing like realizing you’ve been duped, or that you’ve made some massive errors of judgment, to bring you down a few pegs, and to help you realize that for all your talents and abilities and knowledge, you still can’t do a thing right without God.

Before the wheels came off the ‘religious phoneys’ bus, I was very self-sanctimonious, intolerant and judgmental of other people – especially those people who wanted to earn a decent living and not live in a dump.

How superficial and gashmius they are! I would think to myself.

Then, me and my husband seriously hit the skids for two years, we lost our home, we nearly ran out of cash, and we had weeks where even putting food on the table was a struggle. It was a massive wake-up call that we weren’t Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and couldn’t make do with one outfit every 12 years and a carob for Shabbat lunch.

Now, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to make and have parnassa, and I’m so ‘anti’ all these religious phonies that make orthodox men feel bad, or flawed somehow, for doing an honest day’s work, and looking after their families the way God intended.

It made me much more real.

(I know, that one’s a bit scary J).

You know, I absolutely love long jeans skirts. Always have, always will. I decided five years’ ago that jeans skirts were not befitting my level of religious phoniness, and I gave them up.

Now, they’re back – I got one custom-made by someone in the States, exactly how I like it. And I LOVE wearing it! I feel so grateful that God a) gave me the money to buy it b) found me a cheap tailor and c) let it fit so nicely. I feel like a million tznius bucks in my jeans skirt, and it puts me in a good mood just pulling it out of the cupboard.

More and more, I’m accepting those parts of myself that might not be ‘black and white friendly’, but that still have their heart in the right place, and are not contravening any of God’s halachas.

It made me more compassionate (especially about my kids).

The most judgmental, intolerant, hate-filled people are those that feel that they ‘denied’ themselves something they really want, and can’t stand to see other people doing or having those same things.

I used to be so down on kids for not dressing so frum, and for not wearing socks. Now that I’ve eased up on myself, I’m much more tolerant, understanding and forgiving of them – and guess what? Their tznius is better than it’s been for years.

My kids truly were just mirroring my inner dimension back at me. The more I reclaim the parts of that ‘lost self’ that are compatible with yiddishkeit, albeit still not ‘standard’, the less of a big deal my kids are making about keeping mitzvahs.

They’re doing more, and they’re doing it much more happily – and so am I! Accepting myself, my real self, was key to me enjoying my yiddishkeit again, and that’s what my kids are reflecting back to me in spades.

I got my sense of humour back.

There are so many things that you just have to laugh at them, or go mad.  When I was being a religious phoney, life got way too serious and ponderous. God has a sense of humour: He wants us to laugh at ourselves, and to not take everything so darned seriously all the time. He’s running the world, not us.

I learned that humility and humour go together – if you can’t laugh at yourself, it’s because you’re taking yourself way too seriously, and that’s coming from arrogance, not holiness.

 I like people again.

This one was one of the biggest presents of all: I like people again, even if they don’t keep Shabbat, don’t live in Israel and don’t believe everything I do.

Now I’m admitting, accepting and loving my own imperfections, I’m not challenged or annoyed by other people’s, which means that I can focus much more on all the tremendous good around me, and in others, instead of getting so caught up in negative judgment calls about the ‘bad’.

I’m much happier.

I got so stuck trying to meet the religious phonies’ impossibly fake level of Torah observance (ie, they like to pretend that they’re in a place they really aren’t, and then make you feel bad that you’re not also at that incredibly high level) – that I was getting very little joy from any of the mitzvahs I was doing.

Now, I don’t take my mitzvahs for granted, and I know that every little thing I do is a present from God, and not an automatic right, or self-created achievement.

I’ve stopped worrying about money.

All my life, I was chasing after the illusion of stability and financial security, as being the answer to all my troubles. We went so low financially last year, that I truly believed I was going to end up in a dumpster. So then I decided, if I’m anyway going to end up in a dumpster, let me buy a nice dress while I still have some cash…and a new PC….and a new duvet set…and a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume…

Ironically, hitting the skids cured me of my obsession with money. I understand profoundly that as long as God wants me alive, He’s going to pay for me to live. And that ‘living’ doesn’t just mean a roof and food, it also (especially in our generation) means buying myself the clothes and other bits I need to feel like a human being, without feeling guilty that I’m so ‘gashmius’.

There’s probably a lot more to say, but that will do for now.

Let me end with this:

  • God wants the heart.
  • God wants us to serve Him 100% happily, as us.
  • God wants us to be humble enough to accept that try as we might, we are never going to be able to give God perfection – and that’s really OK!

And if you’re not getting these messages reinforced again and again from your religious advisors, dump them pronto, and find someone else who’s more compassionate and more clued-in.

So, in the last post I was talking about how my superficially-frum bubble got burst last year,

by a few people who looked 100% the part externally, but who were actually very far away from compassion, emuna, truth and a real understanding of what God really wants from us.

For years, I’d been blindly following them down a path of increasing severity and external piety, all the while thinking that God really wanted me to graduate to a padded head-band and bullet-proof stockings, and that that would be the pinnacle of kedusha and yiddishkeit.

Man, I was so miserable being religious like that!

I felt like I’d lost everything that made me ‘me’, from my favourite jeans skirt, to my permission to read, to my ability to reach out and relate to people who weren’t super-machmir-frum-angels.

Then God did my the biggest favor of my life (although it didn’t feel like that at the time): He showed me that the people who were running off their mouths the loudest about other people’s flaws; and who were putting on the biggest show of being unimpeachable, super-holy rollers; and who were full of criticism and competition and superiority about their own apparently lofty religious levels, and what everyone else was meant to be doing – were actually very flawed people, with hugely problematic character traits.

They were selfish, jealous, competitive, untruthful, insecure and arrogant.

But they dressed impeccably in black and white, had big shtreimels, and ‘ticked all the boxes’ externally, 100%. To put it another way, they were living a huge lie, and the main people they were lying to about what was really going on was themselves.

I had such a strong reaction against their religious hypocrisy last year, that it’s only because Rabbenu was hanging on to me so tightly that I managed to hang on to my faith, albeit it still got pretty badly mangled.

It’s taken me months of praying and searching and asking God for help to really emerge out of the other side of the experience, but thank God, I think that’s the stage I’m now at. But I want to tell you what I went through, and what I learnt from it all, so it can hopefully help you to avoid having to go through the same sort of heartache and confusion.

There is so much that could be said, but I’m going to concentrate on two things, to try to make my point: the latest Star Wars movie, and my husband’s green jumper.

Last week, I saw an ad for another Star Wars installment, replete with an ancient-looking Harrison Ford (is that a wig, or what?) and all the latest hi-tech hoopla. I got pretty weird after I saw the ad, and started to feel all weepy, but didn’t know why.

A few hours of personal prayer later, and it struck me that I’ve seen every one of the previous 6  Star Wars movies, and they were kind of ‘movie milestones’ that cemented other key things in place that were going on in my life. In short, Star Wars isn’t just a movie for me, it’s a kind of self-reference point, a way of me pegging myself in the world. And now, that frame of reference was gone, and I was feeling pretty lost again about who I really was.

Then, the little voice in my head told me: give yourself permission to go and see it. So I did: I imagined getting it out on DVD; sitting down at my pc to watch it; how it would look, how I would feel before, during and afterwards. And at the end of that process, I knew with complete certainty: I do not want to watch this! It’s a waste of time, and will fill my head and soul with a lot of damaging stuff.

I felt so good!

The old ‘superficially-religious’ me would never have heard that little voice out; I’d have been far too worried about ‘where is this going to lead…’ – which means that really, I’d have been really pining to see the movie on the inside, where stuff really counts. This way, I brought the whole issue out into the open, and I CHOSE not to see it. And the difference is enormous.

Next, I came and had a serious talk with my husband about the whole ‘package’ we got sold by the religious phoneys a few years’ back, who made us feel like we were so materialistic for doing things like holding down a job, wanting a nice place to live, and not devoting ourselves to the cause (ie, their cause…) 24/7.

Thanks to them, my husband felt like he was a terrible person for working.

Thanks to them, we both felt like we were letting God down, every time we wanted to take a day’s holiday, or buy something new that wasn’t directly connected to keeping Shabbos or a yom tov. Thanks to them, we ended up financially broke, spiritually broken and completely alone in the world, trying to jump through more and more impossible hoops to keep their harsh version of God appeased.

(Yes, I know it was all from God, and all for the good, but that’s a post for another time.)

So I came and asked my husband: that favorite olive green jumper of yours, that you couldn’t quite throw away, even though it wasn’t black or white. Do you think God would mind if you wore it again? Do you think you’ll be letting God down, somehow, if you decided that the ‘real you’ likes wearing olive green jumpers?

He looked at me shocked. But now he’s thinking it over, and we’ll see what happens next.

The point is not that he should, or shouldn’t wear it: the point is, that he, and me, and all of us, should be asking ourselves

what does God really want?

Because there’s a lot of people out there telling us that God wants padded head-bands, and impossible religious perfection, and miserable, super-machmir, intolerant, superficial yiddishkeit that looks so impressive, but feels so horribly wrong.

But really? God wants the heart.

And if it happens to come packaged in an olive green jumper, I  have a feeling that’s fine by Him.

In recent years, every time we get to parsha Mikeitz, where Yosef HaTzadik is finally freed from prison, and finally gets to see what all his suffering, loneliness and pain was for, I find myself getting in a funny mood.

You’re meant to find yourself in every letter of the Torah, somehow. Somehow, God’s put a coded message for every single one of us, into every nuance, every detail, every cantillation mark. Sometimes, you need to be a genius like Rebbe Nachman or the Vilna Gaon to have a clue about working them out. Other times, the messages hit you straight in the face with the force of a punch, and then you have to be a fool to miss them.

Yesterday, I read the parsha Mikeitz, and when Yosef starts sobbing when he sees his brothers, it struck me: the man went through a personal shoah. He lost his home, his family, everything he held dear, his status. He almost lost his soul, when enticed by Potifar’s wife, and then his faith in humanity (again…) when he was unfairly incarcerated as a result of doing the right thing.

How could he not lose his faith in God, when stuck in a hellish Egyptian prison for 12 years, all alone?

The fact that he didn’t shows how much he earned the appellation ‘ha tzaddik’. But existential loneliness, when God hides His face from you, and you have no-one in your life to love, or to love you back, is one of the worst punishments known to man.

Somehow, Yosef comes through all that. He finally gets out of prison. He finally rebuilds his life, albeit still all alone in his Egyptian splendor, with no old friends to reminisce with; no siblings to joke around with, or remember things with; no parents to encourage him from the side, and tell him how proud they are of him.

And then his brothers show up, and Yosef has to set a chain of events in train that will atone for their previous misdeeds against him, and rectify them for the future. And in the middle of all this, he suddenly realizes that these are his brothers. He’s reunited with his family physically, but spiritually and mentally, he suddenly realizes that what was, was. It can’t be regained, it can’t be rebuilt on the same foundations, because such a huge shift has occurred to the very foundation of who Yosef now is.

He’s a man who was sold out by his family, and treated mercilessly by the people who should have loved him the most.

He’s a man who had to face the most difficult, alien, exile alone, bereft of all sources of comfort except his emuna that God would eventually remember him, and turn it all around. He’s a man for who all the illusions and pretensions people like to have that ‘they are there for each other’, and that ‘they really care about each other’, and that ‘you don’t have to suffer alone’ had disappeared like smoke. And once those daydreams go, you can’t get them back, for all the wishing in the world.

So I think he was crying a little about what was, and what had been lost, and what had been done to him. But mostly, he was crying because even though they were all reunited again, really, he was as alone as he ever was. Maybe even more so.

The brothers could never go back to being true ‘brothers’ to Yosef, because even though he forgave them unconditionally, they couldn’t really forgive themselves.

Yosef was a permanent, and permanently uncomfortable, reminder to them of their own flaws and limitations and capacity for evil, and there was nothing Yosef could do to erase that knowledge, and truly regain his family.

I think this story has to resonate for anyone who’s a baal teshuva; anyone who’s made Aliya; anyone who found their life going in a direction that changed them fundamentally, even for best of reasons. The ultimate outcome is only good, the spiritual rewards are more than worth the pain and the effort.

But the aloneness of it all seems to stay with you forever.

The other day, I was listening to Shlomo Katz in the car, when he started singing the intro to a song like this:

‘On the holiest day of the year, the holiest man in the world would enter the holiest place; and he would say the holiest name.’

He was talking about the Kohen HaGadol’s Yom Kippur service in the temple. Just then, I came round the bend in the road I was driving in the Old City, and the golden dome hit me full in the face. For a few seconds, all I could think about was the temple, and how we Jews are missing it so much, without even realizing it.

Just think of this: you could drag the most crazy person in the community off to the temple, give them the fattest bull you could find to slaughter is as an atonement – and that person would come out of that temple service a human being again, maybe for the first time in their lives.

Man, we are seriously in need of the temple, and the atonement and peace it could bring to all the troubled souls wandering around in 2015.

The same week I was having ‘temple envy’, I was also trying to find one of my kids a new school. It’s one thing to have demented lunatics trying to stab you on the way to school every day (God forbid), but it’s another thing entirely when you get to school only to find that demented lunatics have taken over the classroom, too.

I’m not going to spell out in detail what’s been going on, as a belated and pathetic attempt at minimizing my lashon hara, or evil speech, but suffice to say it got to a point that I didn’t know which matzav – the outer threat of physical violence, or the inner threat of emotional and spiritual violence – was really more scary or damaging.

I was praying on it for weeks and weeks, unsure whether to try to move my kid (again…) or just try to tough it out, and wait for the Arabs to calm down a bit, and the ‘difficult person’ in school to really cross the line, and get forced out by other parents with less patience and more gumption (and protektzia).

In the end, God forced my hand: my daughter got suspended for 3 days for complaining too loudly about the fact that she had 6 exams coming up in the next two weeks.

In the UK, you usually have to be caught doing hard drugs in the school toilets to get suspended, and even then it’s not automatic. My usually calm, level-headed husband tried to sort things out – and came off the phone foaming at the mouth and gnashing his teeth.

I’ve watched him stay calm around some of the most crazy-making people you’ll ever meet in your life, so his reaction to a 5 minute ‘dose’ of the difficult person showed me what my kid was really up against.

But moving is so hard!

For a few more days I was in an agony of indecision, unsure what to do, or how to even do it. I decided to do a long hitbodedut (personal prayer) session, and at the end of that I got the message loud and clear: get your kid out as soon as possible.

But to where?

Next thing I know, my daughter starts telling me about this newish school in Har Homa that she’d be happy to go to. One of her friends from class had already moved there, and another wanted to go, but wanted someone to come with her.

Long story short, we went, we had the interview, she sat the tests, and she starts tomorrow, together with her good friend from class.

A miracle! Thanks, Hashem!

But it’s still scary to move.

And it’s even scarier to tell the ‘difficult person’ in the old school that we’re leaving. Part of me feels so sorry for her, because I know she’s so hard on others because she’s so hard on herself, too. But I couldn’t risk her damaging my kid’s neshama any more.

This generation only kicks against harsh punishments, cruel words and power trips – and God’s made it that way, because ‘harsh discipline’ is not the Torah-true way of educating our children. It always should have been ‘education with love’, as Rav Arush writes about so extensively, but in this generation education with love is not a luxury – it’s the ONLY way to relate to our kids.

In the meantime, I think about all the children, all the adults, who have been so fundamentally warped and damaged by all the criticism, harshness, anger, shame and blame they’ve experienced, and it makes me very sad.

Only the temple can really fix this mess. I hope God gives it back to us soon.

A few days’ before Rosh Hashana, I had a fairly long drive somewhere, so I took along a couple of Rav Ofer Erez CDs – randomly, whatever I grabbed, I took. Dear reader there is never any ‘randomly’ when it comes to Breslev stuff; whenever I ‘randomly’ open up a Breslev book, listen to a ‘random’ Breslev CD, it’s always exactly what I need, and this time was no different.

The CD I happened to be listening to was all about teshuva. I learned some awesome things from that CD, the main points of which were:

  • We don’t do confession of sins on Rosh Hashana because on some very deep level, we’re not 100% sorry for them. 5% of us actually really enjoyed sending that poisonous email, or cheating on our taxes etc, and that 5% is enough to bring a whole bunch of judgement down on the poor penitent’s head. So the rabbis decided ‘better leave the whole confession thing alone on Rosh Hashana, and only get into it properly on Yom Kippur’, which is a day over-flowing with God’s holy love for us.
  • You can’t make teshuva in 10 seconds – it takes a LONGGG time. I’ll write about this separately, but Rav Ofer Erez brought a very interesting discussion that occurred between the famed Iraqi Kabbalist, Rav Yehuda Fetaya, and a bunch of demonic spirits, that made it clear that complete teshuva normally takes years to do. (So breathe out, if you’re still not quite ‘there’ yet).
  • Rebbe Nachman reveals that there’s a short-cut to making teshuva, what Rav Ofer Erez called the ‘Teshuva Elevator’. What is it? To hear yourself being embarrassed, shamed, humiliated, and to keep shtum.

I have to tell you, Rav Ofer made the Teshuva Elevator sound so appealing – because in one shot, you can scrub off all that really dodgy spiritual stuff that’s been kicking around for years, and calling you loads of problems. But as Rav Ofer made it clear, it’s easy to say, and the hardest thing in the world to actually DO, because there’s something about someone saying horrible things about us that just makes us see red and go for the jugular.

Or, makes us want to throw up with extreme feelings of guilt, panic and ‘I’m wrong’-ness. Rav Ofer explained that it takes 30 years’ effort just to keep quiet once every 50 disses, and another 30 years to stay quiet one in every 30 criticisms. IE – it’s really, really hard spiritual work.

I realized: ‘This test is still completely beyond me, Hashem. Please keep the internet psychos away from me after all, as I don’t think I’ll be able to stand up in it.’

And that was the end of the matter.

Until a few days’ later, when I suddenly got a steady stream of poisonous emails accusing me of all sorts of horrible things. Normally, I’d see red, go for the jugular and defend myself verbally as much as I was able. This time round, some really bizarre thing happened: I could actually see through all the horrible accusations to the core of pain that was bubbling underneath.

My verbal assailant was hurting badly, and was trying to make themselves feel better at my expense. Once I got that (and believe me, it’s a complete miracle that I got that) – I somehow didn’t take all the horrible things I was being sent personally. I still felt a bit sick after skim reading the last couple, because words are very powerful and affect us very powerfully. But I knew: this is the Teshuva Elevator!

And because of that, I didn’t respond with hatred or attack. I still responded – as one of the things I was being accused of was cruelly ignoring the other person – but I kept it short, and as pseudo-friendly as I could. I don’t know if that’s what God wanted, but that’s all I could manage.

You know what else is amazing? Apart from writing this, it isn’t taking up all my headspace and filling me with self-hatred and confusion, as would usually happen in these types of situations. My peace of mind is pretty intact, which astounds me.

If God hadn’t sent me that ‘random’ Rav Ofer Erez CD, I would for sure be in quite a state at the moment, two days before the Yom HaDin. As it is, I’m strangely even a little bit pleased about it. Maybe I really am the crazy, misguided lunatic my emailer is accusing me of being, who knows.

But I have to tell you that even if that’s true, life is SO much nicer this way.

This year, I found the Nine Days pretty hard going and emotionally intense. To put it a different way, I was blubbing like a baby for almost a fortnight, and felt like I was getting hit with one emotional tsunami after another.

I’d have one massive ‘issue’, talk to God about it, try to learn the lessons or make the teshuva (repentance) I needed to, feel good again – and then the very next day, I’d get hit with another massive issue to work on.

By day 8 of the Nine Days, I was a complete wreck, so I did what I always do in those circumstances, and sought some solace by Hashem. As I live 15 minutes away from the Kotel, that seemed like the natural destination to do some emergency personal prayer, so I took my knitting, and went.

I took my knitting for a few reasons:

1) I’m in the middle of knitting a shawl, and it’s going to take me months to finish it.

2) Knitting while I talk to God sometimes helps keeps me focussed, especially when I’m somewhere ‘busy’ like the Kotel, where I can get carried away with looking at everyone else there, instead of doing what I came to do, ie talk to God.

I don’t often knit and pray, but I’m going through a stage of doing that at the moment, and for this time and place in my life, it’s working for me. So I got to the Kotel, I sat down off to the side, I took my knitting out, and I started crying my heart out as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.

I had a lot of heartache well up and break out again, and from past experience, I know the best way to deal with it is to let it surface, speak honestly to God about what’s hurting me, and then wait for Him to tell me what’s really going on, and why it’s going to be OK.

So I talked a bit, knitted a bit, cried a bit, sat a bit, on and on, for a good hour until I finally started to feel better, and the tears were starting to dry up. I’d done one and a half rows, and they were pretty wonky, but inside I was starting to fill much more pulled together and OK again.

Which is when the old bag swooped in and attacked.

At first, I thought she was asking me for the time, or something, so I gave her my best friendly face and tried to pay attention to what she was saying. What she was saying, in Hebrew, was this:

“Tell me: have you asked a rav if it’s OK for you to be knitting at the Kotel?”

Once I understood her, I started to see red (I’m half Moroccan, and very occasionally, it shows.)

“Why should I ask a rav?” I asked her. “What’s wrong with knitting?”

She didn’t know, but she just felt I should ask a rav, because she was sure it was wrong (it goes without saying she was as ‘frum’ as they get, padded headscarf and all.)

I tried to explain that I was knitting while I was talking to God, which is when she really started having a go at me, because it was completely forbidden to talk to God while doing anything else!!!!

At this point, something snapped and my Moroccan Mrs Hyde completely took over.

“Tell me,” I asked her, “have you asked a rav it it’s OK for you to be embarrassing people in public like this?”

She tried to tell me that she wasn’t, and that she was only trying to give me ‘rebuke’, like you’re meant to.

“OK,” I snarled back. “Let’s make a deal: I’ll ask a rav if it’s OK to knit, if you ask a rav if it’s OK to treat people in such a nasty way, and to have a go at them in front of so many other people. And if you like rebuke so much, you can have as much of it from me as you want, just give me the word…”

At that point, she turned on her heel and left.

I sat there fuming for another 5 minutes, knitting in lap. What an old bag! What a hypocrite! She was still holding her prayer book open at her place in the middle while she was talking to me, because she’d interrupted her own ‘devotions’ to come and have a go at me.

Then, I started pondering what the message was, and also, should I finish my row? After all, God was behind that old bag, and maybe He wasn’t so impressed with my knitting hitbodedut? I did some more talking to Him about it all, and here’s what I got:

The lady was a test, to show me how much things had changed.

In the past, I’ve been bullied a lot in various circumstances, and God wanted to show me that I could handle the crazies better now, and that I could stand up for myself, and that I didn’t have to feel like the perpetual victim any more.

The second thing I got is that I should knit another row, just for God. (I have to say, that bit surprised me a little.)

God helped me to see that talking to Him and working on myself, knitting or not, is the most precious way I could be spending my time.

So I carried on purling, and by the end of the row and my visit to the Kotel, I felt so much better.

Don’t give up, dear reader, if you have an obstacle, or wig-wearing bulldog, trying to pull you away from your conversations with God, however modest or imperfect they appear to you.

They’re changing the world, really.

I think that’s why sometimes, they attract so much negative attention.

That’s what my eldest asked me this week. Of course, I hadn’t because I don’t listen to the news or read papers, but I’m a very small minority in my daughter’s class, so of course all of her friends had heard about the rabbi in Tsfat, and were vigorously discussing it.

My daughter told me that a lot of her classmates were really, really upset about it, and that it had put a severe dint in their belief in our holy rabbis. I don’t blame them. Every time I meet another fraudulent rabbi or self-serving ‘spiritual mentor’, my heart also sinks a couple more notches.

But it doesn’t stay there for long.

You know why? Because so many of our holy people explained that in the generation before Moshiach, a huge number of our leaders and rabbis would be fakers.

There are many definitions of what these fakers do and how they act, but their main identifying traits are that they are in the game only for their own honour, power and kudos, and that they excel at being the most arch hypocrites you’ll probably ever meet in your life.

They’ll make it seem like they hold themselves to super-high, super-strict standards of everything themselves, and that they’re incredibly holy and beyond reproach, but to put it bluntly, they lie about everything and often treat their fellow man like rubbish.

Now, in the Levy household we’ve unfortunately had far too much experience with ‘holy fakers’. As each ‘holy faker’ exploded in our face, my husband and I had to pick up the pieces of our emunat tzadikim, rebuilt our faith and emunah, and work really hard to see God behind it all.

At the same time, we had to educate ourselves, and our children, about what was really going on in the world, to ensure as best we can that neither we, nor they, would be hurt by any more ‘holy fakers’ in the future.

That means I’ve sat my kids down, and quoted them bits from Rebbe Nachman, and from Rabbi Chaim Vital, and the Gemara in Sanhedrin and a few other places too, where it talks about how a huge number of our leaders and rabbis would be fakers, before Moshiach comes.

Forewarned is forearmed, so my children are not fazed in the same way now, to hear that yet another ‘holy faker’ got unmasked. But their peers are not so fortunate. Their peers are still being told by the adults in their lives to ‘stop talking lashon hara’, and to ‘stop questioning our holy rabbis’ – which was the correct response 50 years’ ago, but is definitely NOT the correct response now.

Why not?

Simply put, because this is the generation before Moshiach, and a huge number of our leaders and rabbis are fakers.

I want my kids to grow up believing in God, serving Him happily, and having a strong connection with the true tzaddikim who do still exist, and are still out there, albeit currently a quiet minority.

We need to teach our children (and also, ourselves!) to listen to the inner voice that’s telling us something isn’t ‘quite right’ with many of the people in authority positions in our lives. If more of us would advocate for judging people on the basis of their personalities, instead of being blinded by their reputation and title, things would be very different, and these unholy fakers would find it much harder to take us all for a ride.


It’s all so heavy and unpleasant, isn’t it?

I wish from the bottom of my heart that all the lies being told would vanish, so that we could all have a clear picture of who’s really holy and good, and who isn’t. But that’s one of the biggest tests of this generation, that no-one is going to spell all this out to you except God.

That’s how God wants it, and as I explained to my kids, the single best (and probably only) way I know of being able to distinguish between who’s a faker and who’s for real is personal prayer.

Personal prayer enables you to have a real conversation with your ‘inner voice’, and it gives your soul the space it needs sometimes to convince you of the things you really don’t want to hear or believe.

Like, a huge number of our leaders and rabbis are fakers.

In the meantime, I’m sticking close to Rav Arush, Rav Ofer Erez and Rav Berland, because I know from personal experience that they’re the real deal.

And I’m encouraging my children to trust their gut instincts, and to not assume that a big beard and a bit title automatically equates to ‘holy’, because sadly, even without keeping up with the news, I’ve had enough fakers in my own life to know that in 2015, genuinely holy leaders and rabbis are pretty few and far between.

One of the things that Jews regularly ask our Creator is that God should ‘turn His anger into compassion’.

I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot recently, because my husband told me an idea he read in Likutey Moharan that explains that God often takes His cues from us. For example, if someone is working very hard on turning their own feelings of anger into compassion, God is much more likely to take that person’s prayers on the subject of turning the Divine anger into Divine compassion much more seriously.

I guess you could sum it up by saying God hates hypocrites. If we want Him to act nicely with us, and to overlook all our many millions of shortcomings and issues, He wants to see if we’re willing to act like that with other people.

Now, here’s the thing: it is SUCH hard work to regularly turn your anger into compassion (or at least, it is for me.)

Not a day goes by where I don’t read something, hear something, experience something that triggers off some massive rage fit. All this anger, and judgement and self-righteous disgust bubbles up – and dear reader, it always feels so just and proper at the time, especially when I’ve just discovered some particularly nauseating behaviour – and then I have to work like a dog to try and calm it all down again.

Depending on the circumstances, one session of hitbodedut, or personal prayer is often enough to dissolve the problem, or at least, my negative and angry reaction to it.

But sometimes, I find myself working on the same old problems, the same old difficult people, for days, weeks and even months at a time.

Just when I think I’ve finally put my angry feelings to bed about a particular person, they’ll go and do something even more annoying or disgustingly hypocritical, and then I find it all bubbles up again.

My yetzer starts whispering at me that it can’t be right to just let these people off the hook, and to keep judging them favourably, and can’t I see how horrible they are and what terrible things they’re doing and causing?

Literally, I can go round that mental track for a whole hour, noticing all the bad, disgusting stuff about a whole bunch of individuals (and believe me, it’s not even usually hidden) – and then trying to figure out how to judge it all favorably, and bring it all back to Hashem.

Let’s be clear here that BAD ACTIONS are always bad, and must be clearly recognised and responded to as such. But BAD PEOPLE is a whole different matter. Just because someone killed a granny in cold blood (BAD ACTION) doesn’t mean they themselves are completely evil and bad (BAD PERSON).

See, I told you it’s really, really hard to pull this stuff off.

But I’m still trying, not least because I know that there is no such thing as human objectivity. Every single one of us is adept at judging our fellow’s behaviour in very stark, harsh terms, while making a whole pile of good excuses for ourselves about how we just HAD to kill that Granny, because really she was the secret head of Hamas, or something.

To put it simply: I want God to tie Himself in knots to judge me favourably, and to turn His anger against me to compassion, so I have to practice what I preach.

But it’s so hard, and sometimes I get despairing and give up.

To keep me going, God has taken to sending me more, and more profound insights into human behaviour, so that I can really start to understand a little more why people do the things they do.

For example, I recently really got, for the first time ever, that certain people are so fundamentally obsessed with self-preservation, that it literally blinds them to any other consideration.

Their yetzer tells them that ‘X needs to happen at all costs, in order for you to feel good and happy and safe’, and then off they go, dead set at making ‘X’ happen regardless of who they have to squash or crush in the process.

Now, I’m not excusing the BAD ACTIONS, but I’m starting to understand that BAD PEOPLE are incredibly messed up, vulnerable and generally pathetic human beings. Once I got that, it got much easier for me to switch out of anger and into compassion mode.

At least, sometimes.

So there I was, minding my own business in the start-up hub right next to my house, where I go to do all things internet-related, when this super-stressed business man suddenly showed up, and started politely demanding that I move seat.

He had a big skype call to make in a minute…blah blah blah.

He just HAD to sit in the place I was sitting…blah blah blah.

If was the only place with a neutral backdrop for his call…blah blah blah.

I could move back there when he was done…blah blah blah.

In his polite, bullying way he managed to bully me out of my chair, and to get me to move while he then made one of the most tedious, long-winded and loud Skype calls in the history of mankind (when I left 3 hours later, he was still going.)

I have to say, the whole incident left me fuming.

The more time elapsed, the more angry I got at him. I mean, who did he think he was? Why was his skype call automatically more important than me, and what I was working on? Why didn’t I stand up to him, and tell him to get stuffed (in a polite, British way, natch)?

That last question really held the key to it all, as when I went to talk to God about it the next day, I could see that the bullying businessman had managed to press on some very old buttons about being able to stand up for myself, and defend myself.

Until I did my hitbodedut (personal prayer), I’d forgotten that I was routinely bullied in school for years. When I was asking God to show me why this whole incident seemed to have gotten under my skin in such an extreme way, He brought up a memory from my second day of high school.

My old non-Jewish high school in the UK was the epitome of goyish snobbery: it had a swimming pool; it had its own coat of arms; it was 450 years’ old; it had such a strict uniform that even your underwear had to conform to the rules, or else you were asking for big trouble.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I can’t stand uniforms. The one caveat in the school uniform code was that for some strange reason, you could wear white or red socks, as red was the official school colour and therefore, blessed and holy.

I only had two pairs of official school socks (white and red, as per the uniform list). I wore the white pair the first day, and the second day, I showed up to school with the red pair, completely oblivious to the fact that you didn’t actually do those kind of things.

That lunchtime, I was sitting on a bench by the playing field, minding my own business, when a gang of second year girls suddenly showed up out of nowhere, and started picking on me.

“Don’t you know that only prostitutes wear red?” one of them asked me (I was 11 and she was 12. It just goes to show you the moral level of non-Jewish society 30 years’ ago in London, doesn’t it.)

I wasn’t entirely clear what she was talking about, but I knew one thing for sure: I was being bullied.

I ran away crying, and that was the first and last time I wore those red socks to school.

Now, as the grown up me, I know that God is in the world, and that God arranged the whole thing.

But I think it was only this morning that I started to get a glimmer of an idea why. Red attracts a lot of attention, clearly bad attention. Even though I was completely naïve and clueless, God was ensuring that I wasn’t going to be wearing those red socks again – and it was an act of love, albeit I didn’t realize that at the time, anything but.

Strangely, as soon as I went back to the socks episode in school, my huge animosity towards the bullying businessman also kind of disappeared. I think God just sent him so that I’d go and rescue that 11 year old self from thinking God was bad, for sending me more bullies on the second day of my new school.

I now see that the guy has huge issues, and is a nebuch (sad case). If he asks me to move again, I’ll appreciate I’m dealing with someone with enormous emotional issues, and I’ll move happily because, hey, thank God I’m not him.

For a few hours there, I was questioning God’s goodness a little again, as to why he had to send me another bully, at the age of 41. After hitbodedut, nearly all my issues have dissolved, and I have a lot more clarity and peace of mind.

But without personal prayer? I had at least 10 different strategies planned out in my head for how to let the bullying businessman have it, next time round.

That guy has no idea what a debt of eternal gratitude he owes to Rebbe Nachman.