The end of rush hour traffic roared by as I walked alone along Touhy in the opposite direction from where the students would go if they left the dormitory. There was no grocery store, drug store, basketball court, or library this way; just some nondescript office buildings and a restaurant about 20 minutes ahead. Each step I took in the cool October night air was a giant one – as if I was on an airplane watching the Yeshiva get smaller and smaller below. To a regular person, a dinnertime walk to a restaurant would be mundane, but for me every stride was part of a ritual-in-the-making. I’d thought long and hard about what to do to symbolize my final break with Orthodox Judaism.
I’d done any number of things that shocked other students, a few so irreverent that somebody should have told a Rabbi and gotten me rightfully expelled. I’d ripped about 20 pages of a Talmud in half when my study partner and I couldn’t come to any resolution on a debate that some sages started many centuries before in Babylonia. It wasn’t out of anger. I just wanted to shock him. Similarly, one night I’d walked into a dorm room with my exposed penis wrapped in T’fillin – the holy straps we put round our arm for morning prayers. The joke fell completely flat among my shell-shocked friends. Those were performances for the other students, and this was between me and God.
Each breath I took filled my lungs with aloneness. This section of Touhy Road was strange to me and that seemed appropriate. I’d taken my yarmulke off and felt the wind in my hair. The restaurant was brightly lit and a waitress took me to a table. I read the menu purposefully, like it was a chapter from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, or a scene from Sartre’s “Devil and the Good Lord.” Those were the books that had displaced my Rebbes and the older theological students who were supposed to guide us. A handful of books had blasted holes in the Yeshiva walls, opening giant picture windows on a world of ideas and worldviews that were way out of bounds.
My grandfather had been a shochet in the Chicago stockyards, but I had no idea what parts of the cow or pig some of the menu items referred to. I read each gastronomic entry like it was a line of poetry we’d been assigned to interpret in English class. I whispered the words, “cheeseburger” and “pork chop” to myself, just to have my teeth, tongue, and lips roll them over, but when the waitress returned, I ordered a mushroom burger and a Coke. A traife medium rare burger would get me as far as I wanted to go this night.
I was probably the only customer in the restaurant thinking about God with every bite and chew. Three-plus years of hearing and saying his name dozens of times a day had backfired on me, cooking up a skeptical stew. Though I tried intermittently to soak in the sacred and live wholeheartedly in the fold - all those commandments, the ledger of good and bad deeds, and the prayers that venerated an ill-tempered man up in the sky – pushed me back. The Emperor seemed to have no clothes.
The most offensive part to me was the belief that God had a single chosen people. We had 613 commandments to follow while the rest of humanity had only 6 – kind of like lanes for elementary school students. Somehow, even with all that brainpower they could assume that a wise and holy Creator wanted a special relationship with just one group of people. If I brought up my doubts to a Rebbe, the response was a question. “How can you doubt the wisdom of the sages? Do you think your intellect or your inner holiness is a fraction of theirs?” The answer was to keep studying the Talmud until everything became clear.
At that point, I didn’t know that virtually every religion has its own chauvinistic view of “us and them,” and each religion fields its team of fundamentalists to judge everyone else. I knew next to nothing about Eastern or even Kabbalistic images of God as Energy within every form.
What I did know was that the unkosher mushroom burger tasted the same as a kosher one. I knew that as soon as I picked up the burger, I was leaving a bet on the table in its stead. Mostly I knew I was moving on into unknown territory. This night I was defining myself by what I was not, eager for the chapters where I’d discover who I am. I walked back to the dormitory resolute with my secret, new expanded diet. I’d made it over the wall. True, I could feel the burger intact in my stomach as though I had swallowed it whole, and as though it would not digest. But even a cuckoo bird has some trepidation when it first flies from the nest.