I thought it was just me, but then one of my kids started telling me how she’s feeling life, and school, is so heavy and meaningless at the moment… and then one of my friends called me and told me: ‘Rivka, I’m going crazy! I just feel so frustrated, and that my life is so empty and pointless, and all these bad middot are pouring out that I never even knew were there!”
The person saying this is objectively one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, a busy mother, and constantly trying to do kindnesses and to work on herself, spiritually. My daughter is also a mitzvah machine, and is constantly engaged in big and small attempts at fixing the world.
And me? Well, I actually write a lot of useful stuff (mostly behind the scenes, for other people…) so intellectually, I know I’m not wasting my life as much as I could be. And yet, that ‘life is meaningless vibe’ also blew me off my feet this week.
Yesterday, I bundled my sourpuss self into my car, and drove up to my youngest daughter’s new high-school, or Ulpana, where they were having ‘a night for mothers and daughters’.
In the past, these nights have almost always been a peculiar form of torture, where I had to follow instructions in Hebrew I couldn’t understand, to say or do things that were mortifyingly embarrassing even if it was all in English, and where I’d just kind of space out and dissociate to get through.
(I have a huge amount of C-PTSD from attending 12 years’ of these ‘events’ in Israel.)
So, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
I get there (20 minutes late, to try to minimize the torture…), and my kid whisked me straight into the (packed…) classroom. Sigh. Gulp. Unveil the thumbscrews. The young, very pregnant teacher smiled sweetly, handed me a whole big sheet (in close typeset Hebrew….) and started to discuss - Rebbe Nachman’s tale of the Lost Princess!
My spirits rose, because I already knew this story really well, so maybe I could actually fake participating in the group exercises, this time around! The teacher was not at all bossy (what a relief!) not at all insisting that I read out all the personal stuff I’d discussed with my daughter in my terrible spoken Hebrew (thanks, Hashem!) and also, unusually insightful about the story.
“It’s about the process, not the goal!” She told the class. “Don’t get so hung up on the outcome, or the exam! It’s all just about the journey!”
The next stage of mental torture began, where I had to mill around with the other mums, feeling completely like I don’t belong and having intermittent bouts of ‘mitpachat envy’ when another toweringly colorful creation entered the room. My hair is at a really awkward length at the mo, so anything I try to put on my head looks awful. The best I can do is try to smother it in a tea-cosy type hat which isn’t so ‘cool’, but at least keeps most of my hair under wraps.
Luckily, this awkward stage was also cut short by my kid finding us a deserted spot on the swinging bench outside, where we could eat our soup in peace and gaze at the stars spotting the Shomron sky.
Then it was time for the main event, the hatzega, or show. I usually try to park myself as close to the aisle as possible, so I can feign going to the toilet five times, if required for mental health purposes. This time, my kid made me sit right at the end of the row, right at the top of the benchers.
Kid, are you crazy?! Don’t you know this stuff makes me claustrophobic?!
But as I sat down, I could feel a reassuring vibe in the air. As I was about to discover, Rabbenu was in the building.
We got through the standard menahelet’s opening speech OK. Not too long, not too boring, not too self-righteous, preachy and subtly menacing - and then it was time for the main event, which turned out to be a half-acted / half-filmed rendition of The Lost Princess!
To cut a long story short, while three young Israeli women acted out the story onstage, the narrative was spliced together with interviews on screen with four Israelis who were living the story of the Lost Princess (as indeed, we all actually are.)
One had been abused by a step-father, and left home as a young teen to live on the streets for a couple of years. One had a bad accident at age two that left him blind and almost deaf. Another, Miriam Peretz, had two sons killed in action in the IDF. And a fourth was a famous Israeli entertainer who’d felt so soul-dead and empty in the midst of all her success, she’d lost the will to live and the ability to get up in the morning.
That was how the story began, with the Lost Princess being banished to the place of ‘no good’, a place where the outside all looked so shiny and amazing, but where the inside was painful, empty misery.
These four people on screen explained how the ‘no good’ had played out in their own lives. The homeless teen had done parties and drugs; the entertainer had done more songs, more shows, more ‘celeb’ stuff, etc.
But then, came the point when they realized that wasn’t the answer - that all the escapism and superficiality was killing them - and the quest to reclaim the Lost Princess really began. They tried to pull themselves up by their boot straps, and to move on.
The blind guy learnt how to shoot hoops and started working out, and became the Tanach champion of the year; the homeless girl decided to start dreaming of a future where she’d be married, a mother, in her own warm, loving home. Miriam Peretz decided to reclaim life and to start enjoying cake again, after the death of her first son.
But at the last minute, the quest failed. They ate the apple and fell asleep just at the moment they could rescue the Lost Princess. She reappeared, distraught but encouraging, and told them to try again, to spend another year trying again.
So they did.
And again, at the last moment the ‘success’ was snatched away from them, and they fell very, very badly.
They gave up hope. They didn’t want to continue. They didn’t want to be alive anymore. They couldn’t take the endless struggle, the endless knock backs, the endless reminders of their issues, lacks and problems. They couldn’t escape the feeling that their life was completely meaningless, and that they were stuck in awful circumstances that they couldn’t get out of.
But the story continued.
At some point, they woke up, and quest began again.
Miriam Peretz decided to use her grief to inspire others, and to do good in the world in the memory of her two dead sons. To remember her pain, but also to remember her ongoing joy in life, too.
The homeless teen got herself off the streets, and found a caring, frum midrasha to go to. The blind guy taught himself computers, and started making a fortune in hi-tech. The entertainer finally got married, had children, got frum - and experienced inner peace for the first time in her life.
In short: they came a huge step closer to finding the lost princess.
Rebbe Nachman’s story doesn’t actually end, because life doesn’t ‘end’, until it inevitably does. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination, which is fixed for every single one of us.
I sat there transfixed throughout this show. I had chills down my back in parts, I cried my eyes out in others, and above all, I had an abiding sense of gratitude and hope that this is where I live, this is what I’m part of, these are the messages that my children are getting in school.
Not that they have to be perfect, soul-less, frum robots. Not that they have to pretend that they never fall, or struggle, or have huge crises of faith. But that falling down, and getting up again, are part of the journey, part of the quest.
And it’s the journey that really counts.
I just want to add one more thing, here, about living in Israel.
I know it’s such a controversial topic for so many reasons, but I can see that so many of the things that are so wrong about the Jewish world, orthodox and otherwise, in chutz l’aretz stem from this need to keep sweeping the real issues we all face under the rug, and to pretend all is well in our personal lives, and that the Jewish community doesn’t have any problems.
Nobody’s falling around here!!! Nobody’s sick to death of all the materialism, competition and superficiality engulfing their lives!!! Nobody hates their job so much it’s literally making them physically ill!!! Nobody’s got issues to work on!!! Nobody feels so lost and lonely they literally don’t want be alive anymore!!!
Except of course, when they do, and that’s when they’re summarily bundled onto Prozac or some other ‘mood stabilising’ narcotic.
In Israel, life is dealt with square on. You can still be an orthodox Jew and express pain, and disappointment, and admit to having flaws and faults, and hating kugel recipes.
This basic level of ‘realness’ is so missing, so lacking, in the Anglo-Jewish world, regardless of religious observance.
The streets of chutz l’aretz are paved with gold, I know. But maybe, the real you doesn’t want that, doesn’t like it, and knows how much it’s really killing you?
I’m not saying that Israel is the only place you can find your Lost Princess, but I am saying that increasingly, Israel is the only place where frum Jews are encouraged to be real, and to be truthful about who they really are and what they really feel.
It's only when people are allowed to be real, really them, warts n’all, that they're even going to start looking for the Lost Princess, let alone finding her.