A Bittersweet Story

I came across this story and want to share a few snippets (click through to read the full story – it’s long and not very well-written, but an easy read and worth the time). Parts of the story remind me so much of myself – particularly the way Yisrael doubled down on things he didn’t believe in, in a desperate attempt to fit into the life his family and community expected of him, in a desperate attempt not to deal with the inevitable upheaval that would result from really and actually listening to himself. I also really love the way he talks about what truth is, what Torah is, what Judaism is. I don’t share his beliefs or his desire to still maintain a religious Jewish identity. But it’s quite beautiful to read his words.

A few excerpts:

In his period as a media adviser, who helped develop strategies to change public opinion within the ultra-Orthodox world, Heller was close to Haredi functionaries and rabbis. He describes himself now as a kind of mercenary and admits that it took him a while to consider the full implications of his actions. The more strongly the campaigns took root, the more alienated he himself became from them and the less he was able to justify them to himself. Today he seems contrite about that period.

Heller says he actually began to break away when he was just a teenager. “I was never truly religious,” he says. “As a boy, I experienced great torment and I grappled with a big, inner question: Why am I like this? I wanted to change. I liked studying but didn’t connect with prayer. I spent time on the street instead of in the synagogue. My father didn’t grasp the situation. He has 13 children, and if he understood, he preferred to ignore it. When people reported on me, he tried to ‘tame’ me. But I kept doing my thing.”
One day, around bar-mitzvah age, Heller saw a man jump to his death at a construction site next to his home. “I started to think about death,” he recalls. “I asked myself why someone would want to die. Why one lives. As a Haredi, the answers are very clear. But I was flooded with thoughts. About the world-to-come. They teach you that secular people are useless garbage, but suddenly you understand that every person has a soul.”
During adolescence, he started fishing newspapers out of recycling bins and mailboxes, and read them avidly. When he was a yeshiva student, he would spend hours in the local library reading books on philosophy, history and whatever came to hand. He wanted to remove the shackles but lacked the resolve to take even one step. His sense of helplessness paralyzed him. After marrying, at 18, he abandoned his daydreams, doubts and agonies of faith in order to immerse himself in making a living. He began to learn about the world through the Internet and taught himself, slowly but persistently, English and computer programming. He became an authority on graphic design in the Haredi press and entered the media world. He thought that his crisis of faith would recede, but the opposite was the case.
“In fact,” he continues, “you can be a Haredi and not think about God at all. No one thinks about God, but they are all working in the name of God, against the Zionists, against the Internet. That’s the method.
The method isn’t based on belief but on empty slogans. As a result, when you lose the Haredism [literally, the fear], and take a critical view, there’s no way you can continue. It wasn’t until I shed Haredism that I was able to start thinking about God, and my faith was then built from the ground up. I have a different view of the Torah now; I discarded Haredism and became a Jew.”
Heller adds that the Torah is spoken of as “the way of truth,” but “actually, nothing has anything to do with the truth: Contrary to what people think, the Torah of the Haredim is not the Bible. The Torah of the Haredim is new prohibitions that were created in the past decade, such as against learning a profession or serving in the army. They are observed more rigorously than the prohibitions in the Torah. And there are also the rules of modesty: the length of the skirt, the thickness of the stockings, the width of the hat. The true Torah contains not a word about the current form of modesty. It’s all politics between the rabbis – which of them will be more extreme.”
“My son would see a soldier and shout ‘Hardak!’ – a word that was my creation,” he says without any obvious pride. “That upset me. I felt that my children were becoming part of the routine, even if I was more liberal. I realized that I had to find the way that was appropriate for me, and that I would then be able to educate my children honestly. It came to me that I was responsible for their lives and that I did not want to continue with this way of life, primarily for their sake, not for mine.”
The next day they went to a café to talk. A first date in 13 years. “I didn’t know my wife until then. The conversations brought us closer,” Heller says, adding, “I was in conflict with myself. I didn’t want her to go through the wild experience I’d had. But it turned out that she is very sharp. Not conflicted. The moment she understands, she draws conclusions much faster than I do.”
Cheli did not run to her parents. She read one book and then another, investigating the life in which she’d been raised. Questions of choice, love, partnership and freedom of expression came up for discussion at the kitchen table. “I wanted to know,” she explains, “to understand his world. I didn’t want him to leave me. I loved him.”
After a few weeks, she decided to take the plunge and follow him. “We discovered our love,” Heller says, his face radiant. “In this process we found one another anew and fell in love. I even proposed again.”

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