“So I guess now we get back to normal,” I said to my friend, at the end of the intense, whirlwind Tishrei ‘holiday’ season. I’d expected a smiling, shrugging ‘Yeah’, in reply, but instead, my friend, a long-time baal teshuvah, seemed to take my throwaway comment with more grains of salt than a cook like me throws into a pot of soup. After a silent moment, he said to me that the word ‘normal’ had been intriguing him for quite a while.
Growing up in a secular, rather progressive and left-leaning home, he said, the word had always carried a somewhat pejorative connotation…boring and plebian. He remembered how, as a young kid in summer camp, getting an unintended rise out of his counselors with the t-shirt he often wore, and its bold-printed message—‘Conformity is no Virtue.’
Things ‘de-normalized’ further when he matured and in college had settled naturally in with an artsy, eccentric clique that deemed ‘normal’ people and activities as unfortunate victims of societal brainwashing. Being quite the creative type, he had little trouble earning a place of status among his peers.
Then he became frum.
Suddenly ‘normal’ was in. It was a goal to be sought and a badge of distinction. “You know what’s the greatest thing about the Rosh Yeshiva?” His starry-eyed chavrusa would gush. “It’s that he’s soooo normal!”
“Uh…huh,” he’d answer, mentally scratching his head beneath his ill-fitting yarmulke.
And normal they were. People wore suits (all the time, not just for ‘services’ or to the office). They got married. They had kids. They wore short, neatly cropped hair.
He wouldn’t have stuck around long, he said. He’d been sure the path of spirituality that he’d set out to seek was to be found at the furthest fringes of existence and with its denizens—certainly not among the ‘normal.’ What kept him there, though, was that beneath their normal facade, these people were living (and not just talking about, like so many of his old, eccentric crowd) lives devoted to spiritual, idealistic, and world-transforming values.
Still it bothered him. How did normality fit into the picture? He couldn’t just write it off as an aberration in an otherwise tuned-in culture. One thing he’d discovered early on was that frum Jews never did anything ‘stam’ (for no reason). If they were doing ‘normal’, they saw it as a value, not just a fashion choice.
Then it hit him. They and he had been viewing the word in two entirely different ways. While to him it meant mediocre and mindless; to them it meant balanced, centered, and aligned with the flow of existence. The Torah was meant to connect worlds; the physical with the spiritual. To veer too far in either direction was to lose balance. To walk the line, the middle path, the narrow bridge, was to be totally connected with the otherworldly—without letting it pull you out of the world. It was an incredible balancing act, a feat of nearly super-human spiritual strength…and normal.
I could relate to what my friend told me—at least when it came to cooking.
The evolution of my cooking style had walked a very similar road. I’ve always been drawn to the culinary exotic. The more intense, the spicier (I have a Yemenite stomach, I tell my kids), the more outlandish, the better.
I worked a stint as head cook in a kosher macrobiotic restaurant, where among other things, we made our own tempeh. I’d skulk up the rickety ladder to the attic (which was the only place that had the right temperature to ferment the big trays of spread-out soybeans) and feel like a mad scientist as I sprinkled them with the edible-mould spores that would soon weave them with ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ silken threads, into bars of chewy protein, which when properly roasted and spiced tasted (almost) like meat.
I’d make seitan, rinsing and rinsing high-gluten whole wheat flour until all the starch washed out, leaving stretchy strands of protein that felt like the primordial stuff of existence (at least gastronomically). Whichever adjectives you’d use to describe this food, ‘normal’ would not be among them.
I carried my funny-food fixation into the first years of our marriage. My wife, who’s firmly rooted in the Hungarian tradition of delicious, plentiful, but quintessentially normal food, good-naturedly put up with my culinary moonwalks. Our Shabbos menus were delectable and outrageously creative, but decidedly not Boro Park…or even Central Park.
When our kids were little, they didn’t notice the difference, and really only cared about the store-bought nosh anyway. But as they got older, my wife and I jointly decided it was time to get normal and gift them with a tradition of regular, Ashkenazi Shabbos foods. As I mentioned, Jews don’t do anything ‘stam’, and if gefilte fish, chicken soup, and bean-and-barley chulent had become signature Shabbos foods, there had to be a reason why.
A number of seforim I’ve read and people I’ve met (including one Chassid who claimed that it was brought down that anyone who didn’t eat potato kugel on Shabbos was to be suspected of not having a soul) confirmed that the traditional, ‘normal’ Shabbos and Yom Tov foods nearly all allude to deeper meanings and ideas. So I’ve gone ‘normal’. The only vestige of our once avant-garde Shabbos tisch being my wife’s fabulous whole wheat challahs (that she bakes as a concession to me, despite our kids’ preference for white).
So as we settle in to the ‘normal’ month of Cheshvan, (the only month consisting of entirely normal days; not graced with a full-fledged or quasi Yom Tov, fast day, etc.) we can bask in the comfort of knowing that in this unbalanced and often meshuganeh world, the sane, balanced, ‘normal’ Torah life we’re fortunate to live…isn’t so normal after all.