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 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 and 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.