From Drama Queen to Shabbat Queen
The Lasky family in 2010
By Kaila Lasky
Even before I was born, I was being groomed for stardom. The name chosen for me was Kelly Dianne Scott. Not only did it have the distinct advantage of being as non-Jewish as possible, it was carefully structured to look symmetrical up on the marquee.
By the time I was three, I was having Clairoxide combed through my hair to make it blonder and being entered in beauty pageants; Little Miss America, Little Miss Half Pint. At age eight, I was performing in local theater and at eleven I auditioned for and was accepted to the High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. And no, that's not a typo, I was two years ahead in school. But my intelligence was of no consequence; it was made crystal clear to me that anything of value was on the outside. Of course, I understood that the pinnacle of success was to be rich and famous and good looking.
My intelligence was of no consequence; it was made crystal clear to me that anything of value was on the outsideCertainly this philosophy was reinforced at Performing Arts. We all shared the same dream: to be a famous actor, dancer or musician. What counted was how well you performed. Did you get the applause?
Although I continued studying acting and performing in film, on TV and on the stage well past my mid 20's, I have to admit that my acting career became a sideline very early on due to one incontrovertible fact: I was very possibly the worst waitress on the planet. On December 25, my fifth day of work at Churchill's restaurant near Radio City Music Hall, when all the employees were given their bonuses, I got the pink slip. And who could blame them? Remembering whose steak was overdone, who needed ketchup and who got which drink was clearly beyond my skills set.
Except for those with trust funds, anyone I knew who stayed in show business was at one time a successful cater waiter, bartender or restaurant server. Not being independently wealthy and having been brought up to want the finer things in life, I needed a job. Not just any job, but one that would keep me in the style to which I so desperately wanted to become accustomed.
What was I trained for? What was I qualified to do? Look good and charm people. Naturally, I ended up in sales, first selling ridiculously expensive men's clothing on Madison Avenue and eventually in real estate, where for most of my career, I managed the leasing of the building advertised in The New York Times as "The Most Expensive Rental Building in Manhattan."
I was surrounded by wealth, celebrity and power; everything I'd always coveted. My life revolved around which black tie charity event to attend that night, where in South Hampton to spend the summer, whether to fly to Paris, Morocco or Mexico, and who to invite to the next champagne party on my fabulous wrap-around terrace. And most importantly, the ultimate validation of my personal worth: Can I get into the VIP room at the newest club in town? What meaning! What fulfillment! I did have fun, but, I certainly wasn't happy. When the music stopped, I was alone with myself. There was emptiness, a void that was unbearable at times. Something huge was missing in my life, but I didn't know what it was or where to look for it. I only knew to race to the next good time, running away from myself.
It was sometime during this whirlwind that I started forming a fragile connection to my Judaism. I'd always strongly identified as Jewish. The only plausible explanation I can think of for this is a vague memory of my grandfather taking me to synagogue when I was little. He died when I was only five, and from then on, we lit Chanukah candles and then went to the Maccolinos, (our Italian friends), for gifts around the tree. We attended some kind of Passover Seder. That was the sum total of my connection to Judaism for most of my life. I wasn't even conscious of the fact that there was Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur until I was twenty years old!
When I heard that there was a Jewish New Year and Jews went to synagogue, I wanted to go too. But none of my friends attended services and I heard you had to have tickets. Too intimidating! Unfortunately, I didn't know that there were synagogues where everyone was welcome, no tickets, no judgment, no requirements. It would be another five years before I finally made it to a Rosh Hashanah service.
When the music stopped, I was alone with myself. There was emptiness, a void that was unbearable at timesAt the entrance of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, there were two boxes, one containing yarmulkes, the other doilies. Even after it was explained to me that the doilies were for the heads of married women, I insisted on wearing one. I was finally doing something Jewish and I wanted it all, even if I did it wrong. The service was all in Hebrew; I didn't understand a word. I stood and sat and shook around, trying my best not to look like a complete idiot. The woman next to me, realizing how clueless I was, was kind enough to point out the place in English every so often. I prayed intently, in spite of the fact that, even in English, I didn't know what I was saying. I survived the experience and went back, desperate for a piece of whatever was happening there.
Soon after, I attended my first Jewish class/gathering, a singles' event on the Upper West Side. There was food and drink, some Torah and open questions. This was my first opportunity as an adult to ask a Jewish question. My first one was "If there's a G‑d, how could there have been a Holocaust?" How could so many innocent people suffer so horrifically; what kind of G‑d would allow that? My second question was "Why are religious Jewish women treated like second-class citizens?" Mind you, I didn't know and had never known any religious Jewish women, but I knew as well as I knew my own name that these women were barefoot, pregnant and chained to the stove. Someone needed to rescue them, educate them, liberate them.
My questions were answered with such logic and sensitivity that I came back for more. I soon was attending a weekly class across town. We started at the beginning, with the very first word in the Torah, and would sometimes spend an entire hour on one sentence or paragraph! I learned that there were seventy facets of meaning to every word in the Torah. I later learned together with physicians, physicists, attorneys, Jews from every walk of life. We all agreed that learning Torah is the most intellectually stimulating course of study known to man.
I found out about more Jewish holidays that I hadn't heard of, like Purim, Shavuot and Sukkot. I was invited to families who shared these and other lovely celebrations with me and never commented on my many egregious faux pas. At my first "real" Passover Seder no one said a word about the fact that my mother and I arrived over half an hour late.
It was only years later that I could appreciate what it meant to keep four hungry kids waiting to begin one of the most exciting evenings of the year. And what kids they were! I couldn't get over it. They were so articulate and intelligent, respectful and refined! They were like no one I had ever met. They were as far from me as possible, or at least the "me" I then knew. I will never forget turning to my mother and saying "Someday I want to have kids like these." Now, this was so implausible as to be ludicrous. My life and values were so far removed from this family's reality that there was no way that this could happen. But G‑d obviously was listening when I spoke my heart's desire and He had His own plans for me.
The learning, the warmth, the joy and the food were all incredibly compelling. I was becoming a bit of an intellectual Jew through the learning, I was definitely a gastrointestinal Jew, but I hadn't changed my lifestyle one little bit. Not enough had penetrated past my mind or my stomach. There was still something missing – action.
I was finally doing something Jewish and I wanted it all, even if I did it wrongYou see, the pull in the other direction was just too strong. I was living the life. If the Saudi princess was having a party on Shabbat, there was no contest. There were so many great non-kosher restaurants to explore, so much shopping to do, so many club openings to attend on Friday nights. I was like a tourist in observant Judaism. "It's a nice place to visit, but I don't want to live there. It's not for me," I assured myself.
I can't honestly say what would have happened if my parallel worlds hadn't come crashing together in the person of my husband, Eli. It was only by G‑d's hand that we were even introduced (another great story!). Here was someone who, to my eyes, had it all. He was handsome, successful and Shabbat observant. The material and ethereal, the flash and the substance! Who could resist? Not me. We dated for three months as I slowly changed my ways. Four months later we married, at the second Orthodox wedding I had ever attended. The first was three weeks earlier. I quit my job, left Manhattan and shuffled off to Buffalo to begin a new life.
To the outsider it had seemed I was really this fully immersed, Torah observant woman. There I was, keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher and the other commandments, I had two beautiful little girls. Life was wonderful…but I still didn't get it. My Judaism felt hollow and empty. I felt like I was just going through the motions.
I needed to experience a different kind of learning, something that would penetrate my soul.
With my husband's encouragement, I packed up my youngest and headed to a women's Torah study retreat based on Chassidic philosophy. It was my first of many. A few years later, our whole family spent our summer vacation immersed in learning and and I had the opportunity to study, hike and dance with passionate, brilliant, beautiful Jewish women as role models. Their warmth and sincerity, as well as that of the rabbis and the light of the teachings, awakened my soul and transformed my being. I returned home, able to receive inspiration and express my Judaism on a deeper level and slowly, slowly to upgrade my observance.
The teachings that stood out most for me and that I try to share with others are as follows: Learning that I was just as Jewish as the Rabbi! I – the Jew who knew nothing – and he, who had never tasted non-kosher food, we were equally Jewish! I didn't know before it's not what we eat or wear or even believe that makes us Jewish. We're Jewish because we have a Jewish soul that's a piece of G‑d inside of us. You can't be more or less Jewish, only more or less connected.
I was becoming a bit of an intellectual Jew through the learning, I was definitely a gastrointestinal Jew, but I hadn’t changed my lifestyle one little bitCrucial for me was finding out that Judaism is not an all-or-nothing proposition, that I didn't have to be perfect. I could grow in my observance at my own pace and G‑d still loved me totally. Every mitzvah I did stood alone and was worth a spiritual fortune.
I needed to know that the Torah is not just an accounting of our history and a repository of wisdom. Just like my laptop and my car and my blackberry, I came with instructions. I learned through living it that the Torah gives us the tools to achieve self-actualization and fulfillment, true success in business and in life, everlasting romance in marriage, equilibrium in handling life's many challenges and even inner peace. This is what I said was not for me?! Was I out of my mind? No, just ignorant.
It's been seventeen years now since I started living a Torah observant life. And upon reflection I can now say how true it is that even before my birth I was being groomed for stardom. It just took a while to discover that my most unique and special attribute was within me all along.