Arrivals: Illuminating the darkness

A profile of Ateret Violet Shmuel, 30, who made aliya from Boston to Jerusalem in September 2012.

Ateret Violet Shmuel (photo credit: MUSHKIE HASKELEVICH)
Ateret Violet Shmuel
Looking at her today, you might never guess the storm that raged within Ateret Violet Shmuel during her youth.
Shmuel, commonly called Violet, was a sensitive, artistic, deeply spiritual young woman with no healthy outlets. “As a young person, I didn’t have the facilities to express what I was going through, to express the needs of my soul, let alone to feed it. I grew up in the punk scene – radicalism, anarchism. My life was not easy; I was a scary and very angry teenager.”
Yet while maintaining her punk-rock persona, Shmuel earned a 3.9 grade point average (with 4 being the highest possible) in her final two years at a prestigious public high school.
At 16, she met a friend who was struggling with her own demons. “I had a lot of secular Jewish friends, then I met this girl who had come from a Chabad family. My first experience lighting Shabbat candles was with her; we lit candles, then went to a punk show.
“Our friendship ignited a spark within me,” recalls Shmuel. “We would sit on my porch learning philosophy, drinking tea until the wee hours. It did something to me: I was never able to go back to the superficial, drug-soaked, violent punk-rock world. I couldn’t get any enjoyment from it once I saw there was more to the world.
“Meaning and Judaism and history and hope were the world she came from. I was this little girl who knew nothing but darkness and sadness. She, who came from a world of light, had come into my dark world.”
After a year at Northeastern University in Boston, Shmuel transferred to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, to get away from her punk-rock life. “Slowly, slowly, I started making my own way. I got involved with the Jewish community at Brown. I started looking more normal; I grew my eyebrows back.
The campus Chabad House was welcoming and open. I studied comparative religion with a focus on Judaism and Islam; studying hassidut on an academic level made me more interested in Judaism.
“I grew up as a super-academic, intellectual, anti-religious, hard-core liberal New Englander. In those circles, Israel is not such a positive topic. I became active in many peace and coexistence groups that were not very friendly towards Israel. I also ran a progressive organization called Tikkun at Brown,” she recounts.
“I carried a lot of guilt and genuinely thought that my people were doing to others what had been done to us. It was very important to me to consider the human aspect of the conflict and bridge gaps between Israelis and Palestinians, between Jews and Muslims. My politics haven’t changed so much, but my understanding of what is true, based on actually living in this country and seeing things firsthand, has changed.”
Shmuel left Brown temporarily to earn tuition money. While sitting in a coffee shop, someone who was impressed by her “satanic/kabuki/warrior princess” look offered her a job as the head costume designer for a local theater.
From there, she designed costumes and makeup for other theater companies, eventually moving to the science fiction and horror film industry, where she established her reputation for doing extreme makeup.
During her Providence years, Shmuel was fully engaged, doing makeup, designing costumes, making jewelry and teaching art to at-risk teens. All that creative expression was a healing balm to her soul.
Shmuel slowly became religious there. “My metamorphosis was gradual; it was soul-ripping, painfully slow. I’m a really sensitive person and I felt really intimidated by Orthodox Jews. I was attracted and, at the same time, was very much aware of not fitting in that world.
I stayed very far away from them for fear of being judged; I only entered Reform and Reconstructionist communities.
“The process of becoming religious happened internally; I learned over the Internet. I was so isolated for so long. It was very difficult for me to find my way on my own,” she remembers.
“I worked really hard to create a life for myself in Providence that was good. I had my own business; I ran nonprofits; I was becoming more and more religious. At this point, I had no relationship to Israel at all.
“One morning, I woke up and there was this screaming voice inside telling me to make aliya. I ignored the call, but it kept getting louder and stronger and more insane. I thought about moving to Israel all the time. I didn’t want to be isolated anymore. I came from nothing and built up this empire, created friends, family, a wonderful job that was super-meaningful… and there was something inside of me that would not let me go. It consumed me; I realized it had to be from my soul.”
Then, the defining moment: “I got a plane ticket and traveled around Israel by myself for two weeks. When I got to Jerusalem, I felt this intense sense of being where I needed to be for the first time in my life. For a girl like me, who had never belonged anywhere, that was huge. It was earth-shattering.
“After those two weeks, I went back to America, got off the plane and… everything was just empty. I tried to fit into my old life, and nothing held the same kind of meaning anymore. I felt less understood by the people around me; even the food didn’t taste as good. I couldn’t stay there.
“I spent the next couple of months getting rid of everything I owned, and moved to Israel four months later. I liquidated all my possessions and boiled everything down to three suitcases. I came on a Taglit-Birthright trip and canceled the return flight.”
Shmuel built up a life in Israel from there. “After Birthright, I studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. And when I wasn’t making art and hanging out with a radical crowd, I was learning Torah in Bnei Brak. Within a couple of months, I met my best friend, who is also a former punk rocker turned Breslov [Hassid]. I found [the community in the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Nahlaot, I started learning [the teachings of Breslov’s] Rebbe Nahman – and my soul has been ablaze ever since. There’s not been a day that’s gone by that I have regretted giving up everything to live here.
“Israel provides the context I was so lacking as a child,” she asserts. “It gives me a community of kindred spirits, a means to interact with and understand myself within the context of something much larger, something that transcends time and space and helps me have an understanding of the fundamental spiritual fabric of my existence.”
“I met and married this amazing man in Israel,” Shmuel reveals happily.
“My husband comes from a traditional Indian/Israeli background. He was everything I ever wanted that I didn’t believe could come in one package. Our 400-person wedding was a complete melding of Indian Judaism and punk, hassidic Judaism.
“Now I have exactly what I need. I live in a Breslov, Rav Kook [unifying Zionist ideals of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook], Chabad, [“singing rabbi” Shlomo] Carlebach world and I fit in so well here.
Here there’s abundance. I’m surrounded by people who are also weird, crazy, artistic, adventurous and also strictly religious. Here, there’s no conflict between feeding my soul and feeding my personality.
“In America, I had American success, but I didn’t have the meaning and the spirituality,” she concludes. “I gave up the material for the spiritual – and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.”