Update: Self-Improvement in Elul

Part of the impetus for the previous blog post was that I am re-reading The 20 Something Manifesto by Christine Hassler.

The book is a guidebook for those transitioning from the last stages of childhood to adulthood.  The 20s are a time of great flux, with some people firmly established with a spouse, children and mortgage by age 25, and others are still searching, traveling, volunteering, etc.

I just came across this article from the past week’s New York Times, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” addressing the phenomenon of delayed adulthood that it claims is increasingly prevalent.  It quotes The 20-Something Manifesto, in precisely the segment I found the most thought-provoking (expanded from the book below):

I developed a terrible fear that my job wasn’t a real career because I couldn’t support myself.  I was embarrassed.  What did I have to show for myself?  Was everyone waiting for me to stop with the publishing business and start my “real” career in business or law?  It feels like life at twenty-three is just another round of make-believe.  I want to pay my own taxes and cover my rent and start thinking about buying a house.  And then I don’t — I want to stay out until midnight singing karaoke with my girlfriends and read all day on Sunday.  I want to pretend for a little while longer.  I wait for a turning point, a clearing in my head.  I am torn between reality and make-believe.

I am part of “the Entitlement Generation.”  I was encouraged to think creatively.  I had so many options that I had too many.  This led to a sort of plateau in my personal development.   It is a double-edged sword because on the one hand I am so blessed with my experiences and endless options, but on the other hand, I still feel like a child.  I feel like my job isn’t real because I am not where my parents were at my age.  Walking home, in the shoes my father bought me, I still feel like I have yet to grow up.

– “The Blessed Miserable Generation,” by Julie, 23 (pg. 17-18)

My mother has reminded me many times that when she was growing up, she had the option of being a secretary, nurse, or teacher.  The world is at my fingertips, to make myself into anything that I want to be.

Perhaps my attraction toward religion and toward coming to Israel is that it just makes things simpler.  There are fewer choices and more direction.  At the end of the day, I feel that my most important job will be to be a mother and that while I am trying hard to build a career, I have a fear that the further I climb, the harder it will be to juggle that and caring for another needy human being.

That said, Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, is filled with all sorts of searchers.  Many people seem to be actually surprised that I am working, whether it is because the assumption is that someone comes to learn in yeshiva or seminary or that new immigrants can’t easily find work, or some combination of the above, I’m not sure.  But never have I lived in a place before where the underlying assumption is that a college graduate living on her own is not working.

Some segments of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jewish men famously shuck the obligations of work in order to focus on Torah.  But this concept is truly not limited to this segment of the population.  I’ve met numerous men and women of all ages (usually in their 20s) who have come to learn in yeshiva or seminary, sometimes for years, as they grow in Torah and find themselves.

Especially for those newly observant, gaining a foundation in Torah may be for living a full, halachic Jewish life.  But where does the personal development end and the personal responsibility begin?  I simply can’t understand how so many people, not all of whom could possibly be independently wealthy, study full-time for years.

How is this different from pursuing an advanced secular education?  In some ways, it’s not.  As “What Is It About 20-Somethings” mentions, many 20-somethings return to education because they can’t find work and / or can’t handle facing the reality of paying the bills on their own.  But an advanced education at least theoretically translates into a better earning potential and opens up career opportunities.

I similarly wonder how new graduates with entry-level jobs or trying to make it in show biz afford big city rents and a big city lifestyle.  In some ways it’s the same way that yeshiva students do.  Either Mom and Dad foot the bill, or they cram together into a low-rent address and eat ramen (or worse, yeshiva food).

A yeshiva or seminary education is investment in one’s spiritual self, which is arguably just as or more important than financial stability, but where does the self-development end and the self-indulgence begin?  If given the choice, I would also learn all day long.  But an ethic of personal responsibility tells me that it’s up to me to pay my own bills.  Not my parents.  Not a scholarship from some wealthy donor.

I’m jealous, actually, of people who find nothing wrong with it and dedicate themselves to study for years, without ever having the intention of using it to necessarily become teachers or some other kind of educational professional, just like I envy those who manage to go backpacking for years, living on a shoestring and odd jobs.

How much should we encourage people to study l’shmah, for its own sake?  That is the exalted way to study, but, especially in a Jewish country, if all Jews, or at least all men, studied l’shmah all the time, society as we know it would fall apart.  Those with more faith in Torah study to heal all ills would say that is a good thing, and that society would actually be better off, and all parnassah is from Hashem, and it would all work out.

Maybe they’re right.  It all boils down I suppose to the balance between our need to take action and responsibility, hishtadlut, and the emunah, the faith, to recognize that all comes from Hashem.  But we can shuck our hishtadlut and personal responsibility without turning to Hashem, and we can turn away from Hashem without turning to ourselves.

One way to answer this 20s dilemma in the religious community is to push young people to marry and begin to raise families.  That certainly is a “solution” for forcing young people into adulthood.  Nonetheless, it is precisely the freedom to search that led me toward Torah in the first place.

There can be a place for “searching” and for “settling” but rather than following a clear path set by society, today each has to carve his or her own.  May the coming year lead us down the right path.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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