Before you begin reading, I should warn you that this is not going to be an article about something exciting. I lead a simple, normal life. I eat and sleep like a regular person. I like piña coladas and long walks on the beach, just like everyone else. I don’t have any breaking news or deep, dark secrets to reveal. But for some reason, I seem to be the topic of a lot of people’s conversations lately.

I was in Texas visiting my family a couple of weeks ago, when a friend called to say that she and a few other people from our Hebrew-school gang were going to drop by for a while. It had been at least a couple years since I’d seen most of them, so I was looking forward to catching up.

I seem to be the topic of a lot of people’s conversations lately Dalia was the first to arrive. After a surprisingly abrupt and hurried hug and how-are-you, she hastily sat me down in my living room. Skipping any further formalities, she wasted no time before cutting to the chase. “Before everyone else gets here, we need to discuss something,” she informed me.

Here we go, I thought. I knew this was coming. In fact, I was surprised it hadn’t come up sooner. But as she sat me down in my living room to “discuss,” I realized that my anticipation of this no-longer-hypothetical conversation had not adequately prepared me for its actualization.

“Shana, everyone’s worried about you,” she began.

“I’m sure they are,” I responded, trying to hide my irritation.

“Well, you know, you’ve changed a lot lately, and they’re afraid you’ve been, well . . .”

Here it came. The controversial cliché I’d been hearing so often. Flashy and scandalous, there was only one word that could end a sentence like that. A word I loathe. A word that makes me cringe and brings my blood to its boiling point. The B Word.

“Brainwashed?” I asked.

“Well, yes,” she conceded. “They think you’ve been brainwashed.”

Now, I know I said I was regular and unexciting like everyone else, and I also know that being brainwashed sounds neither regular nor unexciting. So I guess I do have one little secret. I’m what they call, in politically correct terms, a religious freak. I have totally changed my life and my belief system, adopting extreme and bizarre religious practices, because I’ve been convinced that I’ve found Truth. So according to some, yes, I have been brainwashed.

Before we get carried away, let’s examine what brainwashing means. One definition I found through a quick online search said that brainwashing is “persuasion by propaganda or salesmanship.” I will be honest: though most of what I’ve been taught in classes has been a simple presentation of what’s in the books (namely, the Book, the Bible), I can’t say I’ve never been to a class where the rabbi “sells” observant Judaism as a way to a happier, healthier life. Granted, they give fact-based reasons for these statements. But if you want to call that propaganda, so be it.

I will argue, however, that if we’re using the above definition for brainwashing, then I hate to break it to you, but it ain’t just me who’s brainwashed; it’s all of us. When someone buys a pair of Ralph Lauren shoes that he “likes,” it’s because Ralph Lauren paid Brad Pitt to wear those shoes on the cover of a magazine, and who doesn’t want to be like Brad Pitt? People get all upset when someone decides to take their religion more seriously, but for some reason, nobody seems to mind when the majority of world civilization conforms to the standard of the highest-paying advertiser. Let’s face it: anything that is popular is such because SWM (Someone With Money) spread the word that it would be good for people to buy SWM’s product, whether that product is fashion, political partisanship, celebrity gossip, or any of the other myriad of things deemed “personal taste” that consume people’s entire lives. This is blatant brainwashing at its best (or worst, depending on how you look at it), and nearly every person on the planet is prey to it. And the worst part is, almost no one is aware of it.

I can safely say I’ve done my research on why I’ve chosen this life I will not be so bold as to say I’ve never fallen victim to SWM’s selling tactics. I like to keep up with the trends just as much as the next gal. But as far as the big picture is concerned, I can safely say I’ve done my research on why I’ve chosen this life. It’s not because someone sold it to me. It’s because, after learning about it for years, it makes sense. Everyone is inevitably brainwashed by one thing or another, but if a person is to live an honest life, a life in which he is truthful with himself, it is crucial that he be aware of his influences, that he choose who will be the washer of his brain.

As I sat listening to my friend’s concerns for me, I began to wonder if she’d be as upset if I’d adopted some other extreme observance. Would she react the same way if I had become a fruitarian, built a house out of mud, and hovered at the checkout aisle in the grocery store to spit at all the meat-buyers?

What is it about this particular brainwashing, i.e., the Jewish kind, which gets people (namely Jews) so upset? When a Jew turns off his cell phone on Shabbat, he’s extreme; but when a Jew changes his name to Chandaka and takes a year off to travel to far-off lands where he can explore his newfound Buddhist identity, he’s deep and adventurous. When I started to become more observant, the only people who had a problem with it were Jews. My non-Jewish friends applauded and encouraged my new commitment to my faith, while my Jewish friends became afraid and begged that I shouldn’t let them “get to me.” What is it about a Jew getting more in touch with Judaism that upsets other Jews so much?

I think back to a conversation I had with a very close friend shortly before I left for Israel to learn more about Judaism. This friend is Jewish, and though she is not religiously observant, she is one of the most morally conscious people I know. Growing up, she was always made fun of for being a goody-goody and a teacher’s pet. She wasn’t trying to gain the teacher’s favor; she just genuinely wanted to do the right thing. This trait has lasted until today, and she still lives by a strong moral code that is hard to come by. During this particular conversation, we were discussing my upcoming trip to Israel, as well as my new attempts at following Jewish law. She suddenly became visibly uncomfortable, and she began to say that even though she wasn’t “religious,” she still always tries to do the right thing, and she continued defending her lifestyle as if I’d accused her of doing something wrong. I realized why she was upset, and I asked her, “Do you feel like I think you’re a bad person because you’re not as observant as I am?” She responded, “I don’t know how you could not think I’m a bad person. We’re both Jewish, and you’re doing all this Jewish stuff, and I’m not.”

I realized that her discomfort had nothing to do with my becoming more observant. She was upset because she felt judged. She felt that by choosing the path I did, I was not only rejecting her path, but I was rejecting her.

I explained to her that my choice was exactly that: a choice. I simply evaluated what I wanted out of life, and I chose from the options. That doesn’t mean that, because I didn’t choose what she chose, I think she’s a bad person. I can only do what’s right for me, and believe me, figuring that out is enough of a challenge on its own without trying to tell someone else what’s good for them, too. People assume that because I’m observant, I must think I’m better than everyone else, but the Torah teaches exactly the opposite. One of Moses’ most outstanding characteristics was his humility. When G‑d made Moses the greatest prophet to ever walk the earth, Moses didn’t think he was better than everyone else; he said that if someone else had been in his position, they’d have been even greater than him. Because we can never truly know another’s strengths or struggles or set foot in his shoes, we are taught to always assume the best, and to judge others favorably.

I can already hear you saying, “Uh, Shana, isn’t it a little hypocritical to say ‘judge people favorably’ after accusing the entire world of being brainwashed conformists?” But it’s not what it sounds like. I’m not accusing anyone of conforming; I’m saying that the tendency to conform is in human nature. Though the desire to be like the neighbors is hard-wired in us humans, we were also programmed with something else: free choice. When everyone around us is setting a standard for normalcy, we have the ability to choose whether normal equals good. Sometimes the status quo is just fine, and other times we need to reevaluate. It is easy to go with the flow, to follow the crowd. But it is far more rewarding to know that the life you live is such because you chose it.