Leah’s Story: Unconditional Personhood

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(1/6) “Agency”

“My mother grew up without a lot of agency, with little say in what happened to her in her life. At a certain point, she took life into her own hands. She raised me to always be 100% true to myself. I was a very passionate, feisty and fierce young woman growing up in Flatbush.

My mom was the one who gave me the space to do what I loved. Everything that I am is because of the woman she became, how she reclaimed her own life and made space for mine. Even until this day, she is my rock and she encourages me to pursue my passion and fight for what I want. She always taught me to own myself as a human being, and never pressured me to do something else, or be someone else. Because of that space she gave me, I was able to design my life the way I wanted it, without shame.

All I ever wanted to do was perform. It was always such a natural thing for me. I often felt like an outsider when I was growing up. Whenever I would express what I wanted to be when I grew up (a famous movie star!), people in my community would shut me down and tell me, ‘You can’t do that as a religious girl.’ The truth was that I didn’t know how I could do it as a religious person. I always wanted to keep Shabbos and stay religious, but I also wanted to perform. For a long time, I struggled to try to balance two sides of myself that didn’t seem like they could work together.

When I was 15, I was living in LA, auditioning a lot and going to a very religious girls school. My mom would pick me up in the middle of the day and we would go audition for all different projects.

I was still able to keep Shabbos and sometimes it would conflict with a project and sometimes it wouldn’t and I was booking things. I acted in commercials and music videos and I was having the time of my life, doing what I loved. I felt most alive in front of the camera.

I had been playing around with the concept of ‘Law of Attraction’ (which my mom introduced me to). It is all about aligning your thoughts with what you want. Instead of going into a negative state and focusing on the difficult things in your life, or things you fear, you focus on the positive things you have and on the things you want. So basically you act as if you already have the things that you want in your life, or you feel as if you already have them. It is so simple and so powerful, and it changed my life. It helped me focus on what I wanted instead of where my mind would automatically go. It’s about intentionality, and not letting your thoughts control you. It gives me the power to not let negativity define my life. It’s incredibly empowering.

Two weeks after I began playing around this idea, I booked a big TV show. It was a huge moment in my life where I saw the power of intentional, specific, positive thoughts. ”

(2/6) “Rebirth”

“Communal pressure is the exact opposite of ‘Law of Attraction’. Communal pressure makes me focus on what other people want for me, and forces me to fixate on what I don’t have. The focus – on what you lack – is all wrong.

In the interplay of communal pressure and singlehood, for example, I was told ‘you need to do this’ and when I hadn’t done it, all I thought about was that I was lacking. If we focus on what we lack, we will stay lacking.

When our identity in the community revolves around what we lack, or something we can’t move past on our own, we get stuck in it and it is super damaging. I would always be stuck if who I was was based on what I lacked. I needed to shift that perspective to focus on what I had and what I wanted, from a positive place.

This pressure makes you feel desperate, empty, and worthless.

So how did I combat deep unhappiness from the feelings that stem from not feeling like I could move on, or be who I wanted to be, or accomplish what I wanted to accomplish?

That feeling of incompleteness; it’s not so simple to unpack, because we all have years and years of communal pressure and expectations. At the same time, in a small way, I could unpack it, by turning internally. By shifting my own perspective, even for a few minutes a day and making it an intentional practice. If I choose to focus on the good that I did have in my life, what I wanted from a place of joy. Choosing to know that what I wanted is on its way, already on its way at this very moment. Reminding myself that ‘God has got my back.’

Something that I have experienced often in my life, is that when something painful or traumatic happens, when I am in it, it feels like the world is ending. It feels like there is no way I will ever recover. But I have found the most painful experiences are the ones that lead the way for the biggest joy, and it’s the most significant life changes that bring me exactly to the place I need to be.
The way it happens is never the way I expect. But those painful experiences lead to rebirth.”

(3/6) “Joy now”

“Healing pain through connection with others may be one of the most significant factors in being strong through communal pressure, especially when it comes to being single.

I get so many messages from viewers who watch Soon By You, who are going through the dating process and feel so alone all the time. They feel alone because people don’t share their experiences, or talk about how painful it can be. They watch the show and realize, ‘Oh wow- somebody gets me!’ Even if their situation doesn’t change, even if they aren’t dating the love of their lives the next day, seeing that someone else understands where they are coming from is huge. It can play a significant part in healing and moving past pain.

We need to reach out to each other, in order to lift this existential loneliness that is projected on people who are single in our community. We need to stop making people feel so lonely. We need to value people for who they are, where they are- and stop valuing them based on their marital status. We also need to talk about the pain and loneliness within these expectations and let ourselves be vulnerable with each other.

We don’t have enough communal spaces that affirm who we innately are, especially as women. We are unconditionally people, first and foremost. I think everyone has something that makes them feel alive. So many people are on the quest to discover what they were made to do, or what brings them joy. It can be something simple. But we should be valuing a focus on those things more, no matter what your marital status is or where you are in your life. Bringing easy joy to ourselves, because when you are single you are struggling to get to the ‘really big’ joy that you think will make everything perfect and better. But you can tap in joy right now by doing something simple for yourself. Your life is right now. This very moment. Why not choose to feel joy now?”

(4/6) “Creator”

“A large part of marriage for women, besides for having a life partner, is about becoming a creator. We want to create a partnership, a home, children, a certain kind of life that is rich with meaning. As a community, we need to engage with the role of creator that we crave, and validate that there are many ways to create and contribute. Not everyone will be able to have children. Not everyone will get married when they want to, or at all. We don’t always have control over those things. Nor should we assume that every woman wants them, now or ever.

I choose to change the language that I use to speak to women. Often when someone meets someone who is single or doesn’t have children, their questions immediately go there. So instead, ask her, ‘What are you passionate about? What are you excited about? What do you love doing?’- not ‘Are you looking for someone? Are you dating? Do you have kids?’ With those questions, we are essentially asking, ‘Are you empty? Is there something missing?’ Instead of affirming, we are denying.

If a woman goes through her life inundated with those questions, of course she is going to feel like she is lacking something. Why would she feel excited about creating in other ways? If we direct our questions towards what brings others to a joyous place, how much more developed and embraced would our senses of self, be?

The immediate assumption that marriage and babies are all that a woman wants to talk about needs to change. Talk about other things that are meaningful.

I feel lucky. Because I am known in connection with creating the show, that is usually how people begin their conversations with me. They ask me how I got started, and about the creative process. Those conversations validate my art, my perspective and me as a person because the show is a part of me. It’s something I created.”

(5/6) “Pressure”

I am really lucky that my mother never pressured me. Not once. As much as other family members or random strangers have pressured me about dating, and would say to me, ‘Nu? It’s time’’ – I would just go back to my mom. She gave me the choice and agency to focus on what I wanted to focus on. It saved my life. If I felt pressured to settle down at a young age, I wouldn’t be the person that I have become. I feel good about taking my time and knowing that I am a full person and have always been.

Going into a relationship from that place as opposed to a place of intense lack, is so much more empowering and so much healthier. I also think that when people are coming from a place of feeling fulfilled and positive, they are so much more attractive.

So though I am able to protect myself from the toxicity of communal pressure around dating, I did choose to make a show about dating. I had the idea when I started dating seriously, and I was freaked out because I was so not wanting marriage at that moment. But I was 22 and felt, ok this is what I need to do now. So my art that developed into a show, was a manifestation of the stage I was in. And it’s evolving as I evolve.

The show also was born from a lot of experiences that my friends had. In episode two, Sarah Feldman is on the phone with her aunt, who says to her, ‘You’re turning 26! Don’t wait! It gonna be all over then!’ That was an actual experience my friend shared with me. I was so astounded that someone would say that or that that is a belief people have. So I wrote about it because I was so profoundly pained by it.

Creating a show about dating has affected my life in a lot of ways. A lot of times it would be a subject discussed on dates, sometimes men would not want to go out with me because of the show. Sometimes, men would want to date me because they liked the show. I’ve even had guys ask me if I was going to write our date into the show. It has definitely been an interesting experience.”

(6/6) “What I was meant to do”

“We don’t understand why things happen when they happen. We usually can’t see what is coming around the corner.

When I booked that TV show when I was 15, it was everything I ever wanted. I was having the time of my life, and I was so excited to be a part of it. When we began, I had to cross off all the days on the film schedule that I wasn’t available. So we tentatively crossed off all the Fridays and Saturdays and sent it back in. And shockingly they said it was ok! I felt like I had beaten the system. I could be religious and an actress and do the work that I loved. We started filming and the actors were amazing, and I was learning so much. It was everything I had been working towards for the past ten years.

After we filmed a few episodes, we got a new director. He could only film on the weekends. The Chagim were coming up, and I had to quit/ was fired. As a 15-year-old, it felt like my life came crashing down. I was devastated. I worked so hard, and now my dream was yanked away from me.

After some time, I realized there was no way I was going to stop acting. It is what I felt I needed to do to be me. So I started writing and creating my own work. I started writing and directing short films in high school. And then I realized, ‘Wow. Wait a minute. This is what I was meant to do.’

From that super painful experience came my entire career and my entire life. That pattern has repeated through my life, and now I am at the point where I am watching it happen. So I can go to a place of observing my pain when it is happening, and then I tell myself, something has to evolve from this.

Something good is coming my way.”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.