I had a flare of Obsessive – Compulsive Disorder after my son was born. I didn’t know I had a mental illness, I just knew I was losing my mind; But only mildly so. I was a good and loving mom to my baby. I went back to work as physician and did a good job there too. But, while I was pumping my milk and multi-tasking, I was feeling my neck for sprouting cancers. I avoided the outdoors, lest I be stung by a bee and die. I couldn’t look at peanut butter as it might cause anaphylaxis. I held my breath in my garage, in case of Hantavirus mouse droppings. I thought my husband would give me AIDS. It didn’t matter that I am not allergic to bees or peanuts and that my husband was HIV negative. I knew I was irrational, so I tried to ignore myself. I went mountain biking and hiking and planned my next child. But I was miserable with anxiety that bubbled just under my skin. I got into a fight with my husband because he wanted me to eat a wild berry.
My son’s babysitter was a religious woman from rural Mexico. With my family far away, she was one of the few maternal figures I had in New Mexico. We spent a lot of time in my kitchen talking about our lives. She also tended toward anxiety. I asked her once how she handled flying in airplanes, something that had become scary for me. She said she trusted in God. I wanted that. I wanted a loving God who would protect me. Even if he couldn’t, at least give me a God that I believed could. What I really wanted was Peace Of Mind. I didn’t know a thing about finding that. So I went looking for God.
I like being Jewish, so I looked in Jewish places. I started to attend Chabad services every Sabbath. Chabad is the outreach movement of a sect of Hasidic Jews who feel it is their mission to help other Jews become more religious. They have outposts all around the world, for Jews who live there, or who are just passing through. They follow the teachings of their deceased leader, or Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, who escaped Europe’s persecution of Jews, and died of old age in New York City in 1994. I figured I had a better chance of finding God with the Chabadniks, than with the Jews who prayed down the street and dressed like me, but didn’t keep kosher.
The Chabad mission to further my yiddishkeit or Jewishness was perfect fodder for the insatiable OCD gremlin in my head. I started to feel something strong take hold of me. I HAD to pray. Soon I had to pray better, and longer. I HAD to light Sabbath candles. Then, I HAD to make sure no one blew them out. I HAD to stop touching money on the Sabbath. I was compelled to these acts. If I didn’t do them someone would die. In life or death situations it is hard to be flexible. My husband was horrified as my religiosity and my rigidity increased sure and steady. The more anxious I became, the harder I looked for God.
Orthodox Judaism has a lot of rules. Members of this group find pride in following them. The mystical and spiritual side is less obvious to outsiders. Hasidic Jews believe that their leaders are channels to the divine. Week after week I would attend Sabbath services at the Chabad outpost. After the religious service, I would stick around for the luncheon. This is when I started to hear stories about the Rebbe’s Ohel, or tent.
The beloved leader “the Rebbe” is buried in a cemetery in Queens, in New York City. I laughed when I heard this, because anyone who’s been to Queens knows that it seems like everyone is buried there. Endless rows of graves. One of them belongs to Menachem Schneerson. Apparently it is believed by many, that praying at the Rebbe’s grave is the closest thing to having God’s ear. Over a couple of years of Sabbath luncheons, I heard a handful of stories of miracles that occurred after a graveside prayer.
I mentioned this to my father who lives in New York. He is a very practical, rational, and grounded man, and only mildly religious. I was surprised to learn that he already knew about this place. In fact, his brother had prayed there. “Really?” “I want to go,” I said, hopefully. “On your next visit to New York, we’ll go.” He replied with the assurance of a deal just closed. I couldn’t believe it. My father would help me get God’s ear. At Chabad, they told me, “Be careful what you pray for, because it is going to come true.”
My dad arranged everything with a Chabad Rabbi he had met in NY (who turned out to be my local Rabbi’s uncle). My father had a client who also wanted to join. In honor of our trip to the Ohel, the client hosted us to breakfast that morning. The NY Rabbi Uncle picked us up in a very old and declining sedan at the very fancy Carlyle hotel, in Manhattan. He had a couple of other men with him who were happy for a ride to the Ohel. There we were: Three Hasids in matching overgrown brown beards, pasty-white skin, and poorly fitting black suits; two stylishly dapper middle aged men with silk ties, and one modestly dressed freckle-faced me.
The NY Rabbi Uncle maneuvered that jalopy as I thought only a city cab driver could. We zoomed from one borough to the next, over a bridge, and through narrow one-way streets with warehouses and defunct storefronts. Eventually, he stopped on a residential street and parked the car with confidence. Feeling like the new kid at school, I followed the others into an unassuming brick “house-like” building. It functioned as an antechamber to a very large area – that may have, in fact, been a giant tent. There were rows and rows of fold-up tables and chairs. Some people were milling about, others seated and writing. Based on their dress, I saw that some were Hasidic and some not. The space was still mostly empty. Clearly this was only a fraction of what the room had occupied and would again. I remembered seeing footage of the Rebbe leading gatherings, or fabringens, of thousands of his followers, who relished the opportunity to be in his presence and receive his wisdom. They had moved their fabringens from Hasidic Brooklyn to this Queens cemetery to be near their Rebbe.
We did a preparatory ritual hand washing and sat down to contemplate and write our prayers. I would ask for 2 things. I wanted my anxiety removed from me. I also wanted a child. I had been unable to get pregnant after 18 months of scientific “trying”. I didn’t dare ask for a girl, but I did request “healthy”.
As soon as I started writing my skin began to prickle. I became numb, and detached. I felt as if I were floating. When my peripheral vision started to blacken, I called out to the NY Rabbi Uncle. He pulled me out of that large room and quietly called for assistance. Several Hasidic men with bushy beards and black suits jumped up and came to my aid. My dad was there, a cup of water, a bench. My vision was clearing, but I was terrified. What had just happened? “What if God doesn’t want me to have what I am asking for? What if God thinks I am wrong for asking? Will God kill me?” The NY Rabbi Uncle looked at me with a piercing gaze that grabbed me firmly yet with compassion. His white skin seemed translucent and ephemeral and his blue eyes sparkled. From inside that brown forest of a beard his invisible lips said simply, “It doesn’t work that way. God is good. Ask.”
I finished writing. I followed the prescribed ritual. I removed my leather dress shoes and walked my stocking feet along a narrow concrete pathway to the grave. I lit a candle, and went to the women’s area. Others were there, with head-coverings and long sleeves, their lips moving in quiet fervor. I read my prayer in a whisper. And then, as is the custom, I tore it to shreds and let the pieces float onto the enormous pile of paper bits. I turned and left it in God’s Hands.
Back in the big room, I felt drained and fragile. At the NY Rabbi Uncle’s urging, I had some juice and a bagel. The Hasids caught a ride back to Brooklyn to get ready for the Sabbath. The NY Rabbi Uncle sped us back to Manhattan. I was relieved to be out of there. It was all too intense. But, if I had had God’s ear, it was definitely worth it. That night, I hoped I would have a sign. I did. I had a vicious panic attack, the worst ever. My friend was visiting and it came on suddenly. She saw me rocking, retching, and beyond help. It lasted for hours. I felt destroyed and utterly abandoned. This was God saying “No.” I would never be free of the terrors that haunted me. I wouldn’t get my baby girl. I should never have asked for what was never to be.
Years later I realized that I had misread that sign.