I’ve seen my fair share of stories about children raised in strict religious environments in all sorts of settings, but one group I’ve not read much about is ultra-Orthodox Jews. I once caught a glimpse of that lifestyle when I was invited to services at a Chasidic synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, then dinner at a friend’s place in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood heavily populated by followers of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Next door was the Jewish Children’s Museum, the largest of its kind in the country. My visit was a glimpse into a lifestyle I’d only heard about in books. To be mixing with people who came straight out of a Chaim Potok novel was beyond fascinating.
Potok, in fact, wrote several books about the struggle between faith and secularity and it’s this theme that got explored in a New York Times magazine piece this past weekend about Jews who leave the Orthodox life. It starts thus:
On Thursdays, the nonprofit organization Footsteps hosts a drop-in group for its membership of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who mostly refer to themselves as “off the derech.” “Derech” means “path” in Hebrew, and “off the derech,” or O.T.D. for short, is how their ultra-Orthodox families and friends refer to them when they break away from these tight-knit, impermeable communities, as in: “Did you hear that Shaindel’s daughter Rivkie is off the derech? I heard she has a smartphone and has been going to museums.” So even though the term is burdened with the yoke of the very thing they are trying to flee, members remain huddled together under “O.T.D.” on their blogs and in their Facebook groups, where their favored hashtag is #itgetsbesser -- besser meaning “better” in Yiddish. Sometimes someone will pop up on a message board or in an email group and say, “Shouldn’t we decide to call ourselves something else?” But it never takes. Reclamations are messy.
At the drop-in session I attended, 10 men and women in their 20s and 30s sat around a coffee table. Some of them were dressed like me, in jeans and American casualwear, and others wore the clothing of their upbringings: long skirts and high-collared shirts for women; black velvet skullcaps and long, virgin beards and payot (untrimmed side locks) for men. Half of them had extricated themselves from their communities and were navigating new, secular lives. But half still lived among their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox sects in areas of New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and were secretly dipping their toes into the secular world attending these meetings, but also doing things as simple as walking down the street without head coverings, or trying on pants in a clothing store, or eating a nonkosher doughnut, or using the internet. They had families at home who believed they were in evening Torah learning sessions, or out for a walk, or at synagogue for evening prayers. On the coffee table were two pizzas, one kosher, one nonkosher. The kosher pizza tasted better, but only a couple of people ate it.
Thus, the reader is introduced, through a series of short vignettes, to several members of Footsteps or the people they know: The folks trapped in arranged marriages they had sleepwalked their way into; the two sisters who had both committed suicide; the Israeli woman who went through with an Orthodox wedding, but refused to consummate it; another woman who serves as a prostitute to Orthodox men and so on.
Leaving such communities is incredibly difficult, the reporter writes, partly because so many of them use Yiddish as the lingua franca, meaning that youngsters are on the same level as immigrants in grasping English. The reporter asks:
What kind of person wants to leave safety and start from the beginning, sounding different from everyone else, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to make a living -- not knowing how to read past a sixth-grade level, because English is taught as an afterthought, if at all, in many of these schools?
The people I met on my visit to Crown Heights were not like this, as far as I knew, but they were only a few steps removed from those who were.
Then, in the middle of the story, the writer goes into her own Orthodox background. Now we are on different territory, in terms of journalism.
It was clear to everyone that religious practice just never took with me, and I waited out my time in my house until the day I left for college, when I swore I’d never wear a skirt again or rush around in anticipation of sundown on a supposed day of rest. I swore I would rid myself of the vestiges of what was taught to me, which was to be afraid of an angry God who made me a certain way and then disavowed that way in the hope that I’d be some ideal of a person who committed arbitrary acts of blind devotion -- eating kosher food only; not turning the lights on during Saturdays; not wearing linen and wool together, which is an actual and serious Torah law. I’ve been only marginally successful in keeping this oath.
Note: Few journalists get the luxury of explaining how a story personally impacts them. The more I read and re-read the article, the more it felt like the reporter was still working through the suicide of Faigy Mayer, a 29-year-old woman and Footsteps member whose family had rejected her after she’d left Orthodoxy. Mayer’s 20-story jump to her death is the lodestone to which the story returns again and again.
The story has a happy ending -- as happy as a story like this can hope to have -- but the prognosis for a lot of the unhappy young adults in this story is anything but cheery. The unspoken point: That separation from one's family is something very few people ever get over, is quite clear. Not so clear is the question the reporter is posing to the Orthodox families who hover like ghosts in this piece: Is your adherence to your religion's rules worth the life of your child?
Apparently so, for some families. At the beginning of the piece, the reader gets a glimpse of the vicious gossip that travels through such communities and which destroys the reputations of any families whose kids don't toe the line. And if one child deviates, the marriage possibilities of their siblings are jeopardized. No one wants to marry into such a family, is how the thinking goes.
This is crucial: When a form of religious faith is centered on the family, leaving it is almost like dying. It's small wonder that those who've been shunned by their families feel that God has shunned them too.
I don't know if it's just a coincidence that Passover begins in a week, but don't you think it's interesting that the magazine timed the article to run just before the Jewish holiday that, more than any other, acknowledges the role of the family?