I Mourn

איכה ישבה בדד, העיר רבתי עם היתה כאלמנה

How can a city
Once bustling and joyous
Become so divided
So hateful and dark

How can a people
Once loving and smiling
Be splintered and fractured
And closed off alone

אם אשכחך
Oh I will not forget you
My brothers and sisters
Shut out all alone

תשכך ימיני
My right and my left hands
Must join now together
Bring all of us home

—–

Today is Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av – the day when the destruction of the Temple is mourned. But we don’t need to go back in time 2000 years to find reason to mourn. We can find it here and now in the exclusion and hatred being perpetuated in Jerusalem in the name of religion. So today, I rewrote Eicha. Today, I pledge not to forget Jerusalem – the Jerusalem that belongs to everyone, not only to Jews.

Four years ago, in the summer of 2014, my mother expressed her pain at my non-observance by saying “it hurts to know Tisha b’Av will be just like any other day for you, that you won’t be feeling connection with Judaism by mourning the destruction of Jews.” But Mommy, I do feel connection with Judaism – by mourning the destruction perpetuated in the name of continuity, by mourning the methods of dealing with pain that fight hatred with hatred – and I pledge to fight hatred with love.

The Exhilaration of Teenage Rebellion

Originally published on Tales Out of Bais Yaakov.

A few years ago, my sister was in her BY high school play. I sat in the audience and watched the girls having the time of their lives on stage, over-dramatic acting and all. During my sister’s dance, though, I was jolted almost right out of my seat by one of the moves.

It was nothing very exciting. The girls in the dance dropped down onto the floor for two seconds and rolled over, then popped back up and flowed into the next move. They were great, and it looked terrific.

But it sent me way back down memory lane.

In the play I was in, Listen With Your Heart, there was a scene about “The Doctor’s Plot,” when Stalin accused nine doctors, six Jewish, of plotting to kill him, and had them arrested. The dance following this emotional tale had half the girls dressed as KGB officers and half dressed as doctors.

At one point, the dance heads had choreographed the doctors dropping onto the floor with the KGB officers standing over them. The KGB officers would do some motions, and then step away, at which point the doctors would all roll over toward the edge of the stage.

Everything was going fine throughout practice and rehearsals. During the last week of dress rehearsals, one rebetzin came to the public school whose auditorium we had rented out, to watch the “run-through” and comment on any lack of tznius.

She commented on this move.

It’s a complete breach of tznius, she said, total pritzus, to have girls lying on the floor, kal v’chomer when you have other girls standing over them, and kal v’chomer even more when the girls roll on the floor! And even if it weren’t so untzniusdig, it’s definitely not dignified. (Because dressing up in our shiny gray choir costumes was definitely dignified…)

 

The dance heads listened, nodded shamefully, and let her finish.

But then a discussion ensued when the rebetzin left. How could they change this? It would affect the entire choreography, and there were only two days until the first performance on motza’ei Shabbos (three, but you couldn’t count Friday).

The girls in the dance were in an uproar and refused to change it. The heads were ready to change it, because you can’t outright disobey the rebetzin like that.

“But listen,” one of the dance girls reasoned, “Rebetzin Overseer always comes to the first performance. And everyone knows the first performance is basically like the last run-through, no one expects it to be perfect. So make up some stupid change, don’t stress too much over it, and we’ll do it in this first performance. Then she’s gone, and satisfied we’re not being pritzusdig, and we can go back to the way we practiced for the next four performances. And I mean, we could even leave it in for that performance. What’s she gonna do? Get up on stage and make us stop the performance?”

I don’t actually remember what they did. I do remember that the move was in the play, but I don’t know if they used that bit of subterfuge.

Perhaps they did speak to Rebetzin Overseer and convinced her that there was nothing pritzusdig about it. That might at least explain why it was okay for my sister’s dance ten years later to include that move.

There was one time where the logic of this subterfuge did work.

In the same play, the girls in songdance wanted to make use of the audience aisle.

They were originally supposed to exit the stage at the end of their songdance by forming two lines, each one exiting off to one side of the stage. The problem was that the right side led to the classrooms where the rest of the grade was hanging out, waiting for their turn on stage, but the left side led to a tiny room where the props were kept.

And the scene after the songdance lasted another ten minutes, so the girls who exited to that room would have to stay silent there for ten minutes. Not a fun prospect.

So they proposed to their heads that instead of exiting sidestage, the two lines would use the two sets of stairs leading off the front of the stage, walk up the aisles of the audience, and exit out the back doors of the auditorium. Those stairs were being used by the actresses throughout the play already anyway.

The directors of the play said no.

The heads of songdance relayed this message to their group, who weren’t very happy. They grumbled through the first two performances, but were fed up after the third night of having to wait before they could join their friends in shrieking when their performance was over.

So they decided on this plan of action: banking on the directors’ desire for the appearance of a smooth, perfect performance, they knew that they wouldn’t be stopped if they did something ridiculous (one actress had already taken advantage of this and shouted out a hello to her mother in the audience while she was supposed to be acting drunk).

So if they just marched off the stage, no one would stop them.

Sure, they’d get a yelling afterwards, but it was the last performance anyway.

They had to get the two girls who led the two lines to agree to this pact, and to resolve not to lose their nerve. And it worked! They all marched off, still singing as they were supposed to, and walked out the doors. Of course, they were so excited at their little rebellion that they shrieked as soon as they exited, and everyone in the audience heard it through the open doors…

They got a yelling.

But they also got that exhilarating feeling – that sweet, sweet feeling of adolescent rebellion!

An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews Disobedience: Part 2

I have been sitting on this for a while, afraid to post it because it doesn’t sound like a “real” review. But then I decided fuck it – I’m not a “real” reviewer, so I should just post my random messy thoughts without trying to write in a genre I have no knowledge of or experience in. The film is being released on Blu-ray on 7/17, so I figured I would post these scattered thoughts now.

I also discovered (not because I was Googling my own name, why would you think that?) that my first post about Disobedience was shared on tumblr and (gulp) people I don’t know have apparently been reading my stuff and looking forward to the Part 2 I promised but haven’t yet delivered. (I didn’t mind flaking on my friends, but the pressure of strangers’expectations….! Lol.)

So here are some additional thoughts about the movie, a random collection of my reactions and responses with no real attempt at cohesion or coherence.

Spoiler alert! I’m not trying to keep much suspense in here. I’m not giving away the exact ending, but you’ll find out a lot of plot details if you read this.

  1. The storytelling, apart from Jewish, XO, or queer concerns:

    Some things are left unexplained a little too long. I thought Dovid was Ronit’s brother for too long in the film. And we never really know why the rav was taking care of Esti, or where her family is. These details don’t matter much to the overall story, but they did leave me wondering.

    Related to that: Ronit says she has friends, but we never see any indication of that. The characters do seem to exist in a vacuum – and that’s understandable to a point, since ultra-Orthodox Jews do exist in the vacuum of their own insular community. But the reality of an XO coming back to her hometown is that she does not live in a vacuum – she would certainly have been in contact with her friends from NY while visiting her childhood home, and we don’t get to see any of that.

    Good stories may not tell us everything about the characters, but they do at least indicate that the characters have lives beyond the frame and beyond the bounds of the movie. I was left unsatisfied with the way this film did that.

  2. The accuracy of Jewish religious things:

    I don’t care so much about the inaccuracies, because in my opinion the film does an excellent job of portraying an emotional truth, and that’s more important to me than getting all the details of ultra-Orthodox rituals right. But there were lots of inaccuracies, and some friends who have not yet seen the film want a rundown of those inaccuracies, so here they are.

    a. “May you live a long life.” The characters greet each other and say goodbye to each other with this phrase. I’m not sure if this draws from Naomi’s own life, but I’ve never heard it. Is it intended to be a variation on “tseischem l’shalom“? Why not just say “shalom” or “go in peace,” which would be more in line with what people actually say?

    b. Ronit goes in for a hug and forgets not to touch Dovid when she first sees him. This moment is useful for highlighting the significance of the end, where they all hug and she touches his cheek in a display of how much closer and more accepting Dovid has become. But it felt a little off to me. Part of the reason for my discomfort is because if she left when they were 18 or so, she wouldn’t have been touching Dovid anyway, and the resistance to physical touch would be ingrained in her. She wouldn’t have had to remind herself not to hug Dovid, because it’s not a natural thing for her when coming in contact with him.
    On the other hand, it is conceivable that Ronit has spent so long without any boundaries that her body memory takes a moment to catch up when she’s in the community again. My own experience says this is not realistic, but I can imagine that others have different experiences than I’ve had 😉

    Along the same lines, Ronit sings to Dovid when they’re in the kitchen (which, by the way, is the moment when I inwardly groaned “Rachel no!!” because her pronunciation of Hebrew is so terrible). Why doesn’t Dovid stop her? Her voice is kol isha, and he’s not allowed to hear her sing. He’s so careful about touching, but the filmmakers seemed not to have realized that hearing a woman sing is just as forbidden in ultra-Orthodox practice as is touching her.

    c. The close relationship that Esti, Dovid, and Ronit had as adolescents is unrealistic in this community. While not every Orthodox community maintains strictest segregation of the genders, the dress and customs of this community indicate that they would. There is no way that a post-bar mitzva boy would be allowed to have close female friends, especially is he’s a “good boy” like Dovid who is being groomed by the rabbi to be his successor!

    d. The depiction of the shiva week is more like a Christian wake and memorial than a Jewish shiva. An ultra-Orthodox Jewish funeral happens as soon as possible – on the same day of the death if there’s time before nightfall, and the very next morning if the person died after nightfall. If no one knew Ronit was coming, it’s very unlikely that she would have had time to buy a ticket and fly over in time for the levaya.

    And the shiva – where are the low chairs for Ronit’s aunt, sister of the deceased?

    The main plot point that drives Ronit’s stay is the hesped, the eulogy that Dovid will give for the rabbi. But that is not how it works. The hespedim are delivered during the funeral, in the chapel before the levaya leaves for the cemetery. Even allowing for slight differences in practice, this delayed hesped sounds more like a Christian or secular memorial than a Jewish ritual.

  3. The subtle storytelling and mood-setting: A lot of the tense, pent-up emotion is portrayed so beautifully, through small moments:

    a. The muted quality of the opening scenes, especially the general non-display of emotions in the shiva house. Everyone is just so straitlaced – someone just died, for goodness’ sake! But they’re all polite, formal… It’s enough to make me want to scream. But that’s good, because it really captures the expectation of decorum and reserved emotion.

    b. Dovid’s careful movement around women when moving through doorways is pronounced to nice effect. It’s very subtle, and it’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But when women are in the doorways, and he smiles demurely and looks modestly down, and the women press into the one side of the doorway while he presses into the other side, to avoid all risk of brushing past them and touching them accidentally – it’s subtle if you don’t see it, and like a brick to the head if you do. (Yes, that is a profound observation.)

    c. Ronit is wearing pants when she arrives, but her top is fully tznius’dig. It’s a choice I would make, if I had to go home – and it’s a choice I did make, in fact. Ultimately my parents and some of my siblings were just always too uncomfortable with it, but I wanted to draw the line of “respect the home” at donning a skirt.

    d. Towards the end of the film, Esti stands in the doorway to the men’s section in shul. Dovid doesn’t want to talk to her, and he has the power to stay inside while she motions that she wants to talk to him. He’s engrossed in conversation with other men, and he motions to her like “what? what do you want?” and then ignores her. The punch to the gut effected by that brief moment is so powerful.

    e. This point I really love. There is no “beautiful shul” moment until the end of the film. In many films about the frum world, the beautiful singing of shul and davening is used to introduce the community. But this film is not about the beauty of the community. It’s about the anguish and pain and grief. And since the first hour and a half or so of the film develops the pain and anguish part, when we get to the beautiful singing in shul at the end, it’s more achingly heart-wrenching than serene and beautiful. It puts the audience into Ronit’s mind so much more effectively.

  4. The characters:

    a. Esti: She is presented to us at the beginning as timid and meek. It is absolutely wonderful to watch her shed that mask and become the one to initiate the renewed sexual relationship with Ronit. She’s aidel at first, and by the end she’s more outspoken and powerful – but she never loses her essential core character – and that’s a testament to Rachel McAdams’s amazing acting!
    But while she’s aidel at the beginning, we already begin to see flashes of her strong personality: When Ronit asks why no one told her that Esti and Dovid got married, Esti smiles – a sweet, silky, dangerous smile – and says “you disappeared.” There’s a sense of anger and hurt underneath the polite smile. Later, when Esti shows Ronit to the guest bedroom, Ronit asks if she should find somewhere else to stay. Esti answers “Do what you want.” I didn’t catch it the first time I saw the movie, but it was so clear the second time I saw it – she is so angry at Ronit. That anger comes out more clearly later, but at the beginning, Rachel McAdams masterfully portrays a woman who has settled into her role in this community but still harbors so much pain and anger about the past.

    In the Friday night scene, Esti seems to be easing up off her anger at Ronit. When the rebetzin says they never expected to see Ronit again, Ronit says “Sorry to disappoint you!” and Esti stifles a laugh and ends up with a little half-smile on her face. She seems to be softening to Ronit, moving from the anger and betrayal she feels back to the affection they had for each other as teens.

    We also see a glimmer of the “real” Esti at that meal. On the topic of women changing their names when they get married, Esti says “their own histories are gone.” There’s a brief silence, and then one of the men tries to argue against that. But I love that Esti says that, without any prompting. It’s clear that she is not comfortable with the silencing and erasing of women in her community, despite the fact that she stayed in that environment.

    And then we find out that Ronit was not the “bad influence” on Esti – quite the contrary. Esti was the one who kissed Ronit when they were twins – Esti awoke Ronit’s queer tendencies, not the other way around! I love that little detail. It makes such a difference to Esti’s character.

    b. Ronit’s uncle. One of the first moments when this character stood out for me in the film is when he talks about his own son at the Friday night meal. “He’s a nebbish,” he says, and his wife Fruma laughs and says “Look how he talks about his own son.” The uncle goes on, “I love the boy, but he is – he’s a nebbish.” That term alone – nebbish – is enough to paint a very clear picture of what this man’s values are, and to let us know that he does not respect people for who they are. He’s one of those people in the community who represent all the worst of it – the judging, the insularity, the sneering at anyone who’s even slightly different.

    He shushes Ronit at the shabbos table when she tries to talk about selling her father’s house – it’s a business matter, after all, “nisht oif shabbos geredt” (not to be spoken of on shabbos). That creates a funny moment when Ronit tries to say “okay, but we’ll meet after shabbos? You’ll help me?” trying simply to secure a promise of help – but her uncle is so strict about not doing business on shabbos that he won’t even commit to that.

    And then comes the most powerful part: when Ronit goes to his office. His office is (inexplicably) behind a wig shop. While Ronit waits for him, she tries on a wig and doesn’t take it off when she enters his office. He looks at it and raises an eyebrow, and Ronit says jokingly, clapping her hands to her head, “I’ve gone frum!” It’s a pretty good joke, in my opinion 😉 But her uncle’s response is a sour-faced “don’t joke.” And she subsides and they get to talking. It’s like – yes, we get that this is important to you, that frumkeit and Yiddishkeit are super-heavy topics for you. And that you carry pain (or do you?) that your niece isn’t frum. But really? She makes a joke about wearing a sheitel and you get all offended? Okay then.

    The zinger comes shortly after. In the course of conversation about Ronit’s father, her uncle says “It must be very painful for you not to receive the rav’s forgiveness.” Ronit visibly deflates at that, and I wanted to rush to the front of the theater and punch him in the face for that. He is arrogant, callous, and unbending – all the things that make him a good guardian of the faith. Dovid is on that path too – but he develops and gets out from it before the end of the film.

    c. Ronit’s aunt, Fruma:adore Fruma. She’s so amazing, representative of only a few frum people I know who are so accepting, with no conditions and no strings attached. The first time we see just how amazing she is, is that same Friday night meal. The “Rebetzin” (who I despise, by the way), makes many snide comments. One which could be seen as innocent involves Ronit’s mother’s candlesticks. “Give them to your children,” she says, in an overly saccharine and earnest voice. “I don’t want to ever have children,” Ronit responds, and the rebetzin’s face goes slack with shock – at the sentiment to begin with, and at Ronit’s brazenness in coming right out and saying this. Fruma intervenes, with her calm voice and smile: “You take the candlesticks, and you pass them on. That’s what you do. You pass them on,” she says – removing any mention of children. Ronit looks up at her briefly and smiles, then looks back down.

    Towards the end of the film, when everyone is filing in to the shul for the hesped, Ronit says, almost desperately, taht she doens’t want to cause trouble, she just wants to be here for her father. Fruma takes her hands gently, smiles, and says “I know.” She knows everyone else will be judging and disapproving, and she lets Ronit know that she has at least one friend and ally, no matter what.

  5. Ronit and her father: I really think that Ronit’s relationship with her father is the more important plotline / theme than Ronit and Esti’s relationship. (Which is why some of my queer friends didn’t like the movie – it wasn’t queer enough. I get that, but I will maintain that this is first and foremost an ex-Orthodox movie, and only secondarily a queer film. The marketing of is as a queer film which incidentally happens to be about an ex-religious Jew is… weird.)

    There’s a point where Ronit says, in context of how much the community loved her father, “I used to wonder if I loved him at all.” Everyone else in the community adores him and talks about him like he’s infallible. This is a common dilemma for children of high-profile figures. The child knows the parent as a parent, not as the public figure everyone else knows. But the child sees and hears everyone else loving and adoring the parent, and wonders what’s wrong with them that they don’t feel the same way.

    Later, when Dovid says that no one really know what they want, Ronit says, “I do. I want my dad to know I loved him.” Not “I want to know my dad loves me,” not “I want my dad to accept me,” nothing like that. This is a very very difficult relationship.

    The last shot in the movie is of Ronit snapping a photograph of her father’s grave (she had said earlier that she regrets never having taken his portrait), and then laying a hand gently on the mound of the freshly-dug grave. It’s extremely poignant, and to me solidifies the idea that he main point of this story is Ronit’s relationship with her father. Or, at the very least, Ronit’s relationship with the community and with her past as primarily filtered through her relationship with her father and secondarily her relationship with Esti and Dovid.

  6. The audience: I was very interested in the audience’s reactions. The first showing I went to was attended by many Orthodox and ex-Orthodox Jews. The second was attended by many lesbian women. And this made a difference to how they reacted, very much so. I scribbled a lot of notes about the audience’s reactions, but I’m not going to share them all. Just one:

    When Esti and Dovid have sex: the reaction on the first night was laughter, and on the second night – SILENCE. I could read all sorts of things into that. I would actually have expected it to be the opposite. But I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.

    My reaction to that scene was an aching sadness. Because it simultaneously displays the awkwardness of prescribed sex with prescribed positions and the love between them. And Esti and Dovid certainly do love each other. Dovid loves Esti sexually, and Esti doesn’t return the sexual love. But she does love Dovid as more than a friend. That is very clear.

    And let me leave off with one final, somewhat preposterous thought: I was left thinking that in a perfect ideal world, Dovid Esti and Ronit would be in a polyamorous relationship. It seems so clear that they all love each other and should be together.

 

Just One Shabbos

The very last time I visited my family was Shabbos zachor, the shabbos before Purim 2017. That shabbos was a major factor in why I decided not to go home for Pesach, which led to my parents pressuring and pleading with me to join “family time,” and eventually led to my decision to cut off contact with them.

Here are some highlights as I wrote them to myself, to make sure I remembered, immediately after the shabbos (and yes, during shabbos too, when I could escape to the room I was sharing with my sisters, and take out my phone and type for a few minutes).

The best part is the very last point here, which happened at the very end of shabbos, in which I did not remain silent, did not clench my teeth.


  • My brother tells a story on his way out to shul Friday night. It ends with “a goyishe kup. Goyim are so stupid.” I wasn’t part of this conversation, and although I thought about saying something, like a comment about all my goyishe friends, in order to make everyone aware that not everyone in the room agrees with them or has the same experiences, I stayed quiet too long and the moment passed.
  • While the men are in shul, the three new sisters-in-law are discussing how their husbands use yeshivish and chassidish language that they don’t understand. One points out that her husband doesn’t understand some of her “girl talk.” Another says, “yeah, he never will. Boys can’t understand girl talk. Boys and girls are just different. That’s just the way it is.” I was half-part of this conversation, and I’d heard this line from this sister-in-law before, and had no interest in engaging.
  • One sister-in-law talks about her job in a real estate office, and how one agent is chassidish and looks totally “foreign” and barely speaks proper English. She says, “I don’t know how he’s so successful. I mean, I wouldn’t trust someone who barely speaks English.” She imitates his chassidish-English, and marvels in awe at how successful he is at selling houses even though he looks and sounds so foreign. I refrain from commenting on the locales where he’s selling (all the places around Lakewood that are the center of an outrage because Jews are pushing goyim out by out-pricing them etc), or on the attitude about someone who doesn’t speak English not being competent… Another sister-in-law says, “you see, it doesn’t make sense, it’s because Hashem is amazing. He didn’t need college, Hashem takes care of him. It’s so clear.”
  • The three newlyweds discuss married life. One talks about how she hasn’t gone to the gym since she got married, and it leads to a comment about “when I was single, if I wasn’t at the gym, I’d be shopping or sleeping.” The third sister-in-law, who has been quiet through most of this conversation, says, “I didn’t shop much at all when I was single. But I was in college, so I was always busy with that, I never had time because I was studying.” I think she felt a little guilty after she said that because it was obvious she was being snarky about the idea that a “single girl” has absolutely no life besides work, shopping, and gym.
  • A discussion about one of my brother’s fish dying and the necessity of maintaining the ph levels in fish tanks leads to this comment: “Oh those ‘environmentalists’ were shrieking chai v’kayam when the oil spilled, and they worked so hard to clean it up. But then winter came and they had to stop working, and when they came back after the winter, the oil was all gone – because idiots, the ocean takes care of itself.” I was part of this conversation but was trying so hard not to blow my top at this point. These little things build up. So I kept quiet and didn’t say, “and what about all the sea-life that died while the ocean was taking care of itself after irresponsible money-hungry oil companies caused an unnatural spill?”
  • In the kitchen during the meal, one sister-in-law asks me, “so you’re really a professor?” I say, “yep. Well, not really because I’m still working on my PhD, but my students call me professor.” She says “It’s amazing that you’re doing that. Getting a PhD. It’s like, so much work. Is it like, *in* something, the PhD?” I stop myself from guffawing and say “yes, in English literature.” She goes on to give a long speech about how hard college is, and she knows someone who took an accounting course, and it was so difficult and this girl almost broke down so many times. I try to say something about my actual experience as a college student before and a PhD student now, but end up just agreeing that yes, college is hard and college students break down fairly often. (This was less annoying than the time a few years ago, when another sister-in-law asked what I do as a literature PhD student, if I write “book reports.” But that’s not entirely related to OTD / XO – all grad students deal with that from family members.)
  • One brother shares a story he had seen but mistells it as a male boxer tricking his way into being on the women’s team and therefore being able to beat up all the women. Another brother (who I expected way better from) starts going on about how people get offended when he thinks they’re male because they’re dressed like a man and “if you want me to know what you are, dress like what you are. You can’t get mad at me if you dress different than what you are.” My mother pulls aside the first brother to tell him he got the story wrong, that actually a trans man who was in the process of transitioning was forced to play on the women’s boxing team even though “she” already had male hormones. I’m upset at the misgendering but surprised that she even said anything, and also that she’s no longer calling trans people “it.” I leave the table when the transphobic comments get too much. The meal is over by then anyway.
  • My mother tries telling a “vort” about how the optic nerves actually match the lines of tefillin. My brother (who is in college) says no, that’s not how the optic nerves look in the brain. They argue a bit, my brother says “look, I know, I held brains in my hand and saw it.” Another brother says, “but that was a shvartze brain, so it doesn’t count,” and then laughs like it’s so hilariously funny.
  • Someone tells a vort about how Haman’s daughter heard Haman saying “kocho yai-aseh la’ish….” And should have recognized her father’s voice. But she knew that he was so attention-hungry that if no one was around to lead him on the horse and proclaim this, he would do it himself. Some details of how and why she then threw garbage on Haman’s head are unclear, and everyone gets very involved in trying to make the plot details work out logically. I refrain from telling them what I told my students about a medieval romance last week: in these kinds of stories, the logic of the plot is not all that important…
  • My mother tells over what she heard a rav say – in the age of the internet, when everyone has access to “Dr. Google,” they don’t trust doctor’s prescriptions and diagnoses, they google everything themselves and then tell the doctor “but I read…” and don’t listen to the “mumcheh.” And that’s why students don’t listen to their rebbeim and ask questions, and reject the rebbe’s authority. One brother (the one who held brains in his hand) objects to this and says that there’s nothing wrong with a student asking questions about what the rebbe presented. Another brother says that he won’t ask questions like that until he’s a talmid chacham himself, otherwise he will accept the chacham’s authority (this is verifiably false, because he has asked numerous questions and apparently doesn’t even realize that asking questions is a large part of how gemara study works). Rather than yelling “critical thinking is not a bad thing!” or pointing out the lack of logic in comparing one situation (trusting Google more than a doctor who spent years in training) to the other (asking a rebbe to explain or prove his statement or provide a source), I leave the table.
  • And the last one, in which I speak up: As we’re waiting for the zman, my brother says, “oh, Esther Shaindel, it’s almost your day!” (referring to the upcoming Fast of Esther, the day before Purim) And goes on to say how Esther was the one who got things done, because even though Mordechai had to tell her what to do and how to do it, she got things done, because she needed Mordechai to give her that push… He was attempting to be empowering, I think? It came out terrible, it came out sounding like Esther was a weak-willed girl who needed Mordechai to remind her that if she doesn’t go to the king, “revach v’hatzala” etc. I did respond to that – I said “well, she was contemplating being killed…” and then said “yeah, in this story, Esther is the one with balls!” I think only one brother (who wouldn’t care if I say things like that) heard me, and the rest were confused and then just ignored what I’d said.

Smiling with Clenched Teeth

I wrote this piece over two years ago. I no longer go home, and I no longer clench my teeth, or my fists under the table. I no longer put myself in situations where I must be silent. Even if I go to frum events, I try not to be silent. It doesn’t always work – at the friend’s wedding I went to recently, someone made a racist joke and I ignored it, but she pressed it and thought I didn’t understand, so she explained the racist joke to me, and I said nothing because it was right before the chupah and she wouldn’t have understood anyway and and and…. And I feel guilty about that. But when I’m not silent: If someone makes a comment about how getting married and having kids is the goal of every woman’s life; if one of my (female) friends makes a sexist joke or comment about how stupid and weak us girls and women are; etc.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote over two years ago:


So much of going home OTD is about silence.

Events in the past years when I listened to speeches and resisted exploding out of my seat in outrage and indignation:

  • a dinner for Bais Yaakov High School at which my mother was being honored. The speech included a mention of how wonderful she is because all her children bring her such nachas, because they’re such good Jews, following the mesorah. (My OTDness wasn’t well-known in the community at that point…) It also included lots of mentions about the Holocaust and how we carry on the interrupted legacy, and how the girls in Bais Yaakov are so tzanua and so willing to serve their husbands.

    10338322_10202297533504306_4053105648863680165_n
    with my sisters at the Bais Yaakov dinner honoring my mother
  • my grandmother’s levaya. Speeches in Yiddish included praise of her selflessness and how she never thought of herself, how she was great because she didn’t consider herself important and completely erased herself in order to serve others.
  • my uncle’s yahrzeit seudah, at which a rabbi whose opinions I already had reason to despise talked about the posukishtecha k’gefen poriyah al yarkisei baisecha.” A good wife is compared to a grapevine, he says, because she chooses to put all her efforts into the fruits. She is not like a tree, infused with a sense of her own worth, building up her own trunk and branches. Instead she finds her greatest joy in the accomplishments of her children. (He actually used the words “sense of her own worth” in saying this…)
  • my grandmother’s hakomas matzeiva, where I saw that my grandfather’s headstone contains a verse from gemara about how his whole life was about learning, and my grandmother’s newly erected headstone merely says “she served her father and husband with honor and respect.”
  • my uncle’s second yahrzeit seudah, at which a nephew started off a speech saying “we all know everything happens for a reason.” I was sufficiently practiced by that point to tune out the speech while appearing to listen. Well, okay, no I wasn’t. I did listen to it. But it was something about Parshas Noach, and I don’t remember it, to my great relief.

I go to these events because they’re my family. I stay quiet because this is not the time or place for an argument. I clench my fists under the table, I grit my teeth, because it is so hard to be the only person in the room who doesn’t take these ideologies for granted.

OTD: The Frummest of Them All

Image from the Chumrah Song. A more appropriate song for this post is the Aveirah Song but this image was too good.

I maintain that OTD people are often the frummest of them all… 

There’s an in-between stage many of us went through (or are still going through), that weird space of “I don’t believe this is all true, but I grew up with this and how can I make a completely sudden about-face and stop doing or believing in everything all at once?” Not everyone experiences that, of course. But those of us who do, those of us who have to grapple with changing deeply-held beliefs, convictions, and modes of thinking about our daily lives – we get creative.

And in so doing, we prove that not only are we not as  ignorant of law and philosophy and rabbinic rulings as some frum people would make us out to be, we are of necessity sometimes more knowledgeable about halacha and rabbinic rulings than some frum people.

We out-frum the frum.

And then we leave. (Or not.)

After I had a text conversation with a friend about this recently, he posted to his Facebook page, which has many many OTD and frum followers, asking people to share their stories. His angle was about frum people. My interpretation is that OTD people often go through this stage. Not all who go through this stage leave. Many of the comments below come from people who are still devout believers. But anyway, I find it fascinating.

So here’s a selection of some responses, edited and loosely organized by topic.


The prompt:

So you know how frum people do stuff they themselves think they’re not supposed to do? And often it is accompanied with an internal heter? This is a phenomenon commonly found among children and teens, but adults too.

So for example, taking off a kippah, feeling it’s something you shouldn’t be doing, but doing it anyway because you know “it’s only a minhag”? Stuff like that.

Share your stories and I’ll share mine.


Music:

  1. After I failed to only be able to listen to frum music, I would occasionally listen to songs with untznius lyrics about love and lust. I would think of the songs as metaphors for the shechina. Hey, if Shir hashirim could do it…
  2. I told myself it’s okay to listen to music during the three weeks and sefirah, partly because it’s just a minhag and partly because “I need it for my mental health.”
  3. I discovered goyishe music when I was told I couldn’t listen to music as a 13yo yos’m (orphan).
  4. I listened to Spanish music radio for a while, rationalizing “well, if I can’t understand the words, they can’t have a bad influence on me.”

Aveilus:

  1. I  did private things during my year of aveilus like buying new clothes because I needed new clothes, and I didn’t make other people wear it first because ew, and these laws only made sense back when you only bought clothes once a year and it was a Big Deal.
  2. Friend of mine’s dad died, and he told us that he had a heter to listen to music during the year, and we all were sort of pondering it, like if it makes sense. You know, makes sense that a 16 year old orphan was going to be able to listen to music because he really, really, really needed to.

Kashrus:

  1. I told myself it’s okay to get tuna sandwiches at a non-kosher Dunkin Donuts because 1) the tuna is kept in little packages, and a rabbi I knew once said that tuna could be bishul akum, it’s fine; 2) the bagels are baked off-premises, so all the kosher and non-kosher bagels must come from the same place; 3) when they toast the bagel, they use an oven in which no bacon or sausages goes.
  2. I once, in a winter month, calculated the shaos zmaniyot so I could eat a cinnamon bun after I had had beef jerky for lunch a couple of hours prior
  3. I’m from NYC, which was settled by the Dutch, the Dutch keep one hour, so can I.
  4. When I lived in Frankfurt, I was soymekh on the ReMA and regularly waited only 3 hours between meat and dairy. Then again, there was nothing kosher to eat that wasn’t meat or dairy.

Sex:

  1. I rationalized masturbating with the “heter” that it’s assur for boys but mutar for girls. Also, every night after I did it, I would roll over in bed, feel dirty, and promise myself this was the last time.
  2. I rationalized it that I wasn’t yet bar mitzvah, and then when that ship sailed, that onshin don’t start until you’re 20.
  3. “Premarital sex is just a derabbanan…”

Limud Torah:

  1. (from a girl) We can’t learn Gemara but if it’s pages stapled together with only bracketed excerpts that can’t be asur.
  2. Gemara is really hard because I suck at languages, so I’m sure God couldn’t have such a problem if — for the sake of my mental health — I also spend a lot of time learning about hashkafa and Jewish history, which I’m better at…

“It’s okay, because I feel guilty.”

  1. I don’t bother with justification. I just say “My core essence is just too tempted and there is no permissible alternative.”
  2. I did more feeling guilty than rationalizing, lol. I was just like, wow, I suck at this. A lot of ashamnus and bagadnus for me.
  3. I just assumed I was a terrible person. Too lazy to do the right thing.
  4. I rationalized some, felt guilty about what I couldn’t
  5. If I was even more cynical than I already am (and more conspiracy-minded), I would think that it was set up this way on purpose. Pick something that nearly everyone inevitably does. Make it the WORST SIN EVER. People feel incredibly guilty. And now whenever anyone has doubts, it can be blamed on them being weak-willed hedonists looking for ways to throw off the ol hatorah in order to assuage their guilt over indulging their taivos.

And then of course, there’s the smart-alecs, because no OTD post would be complete without at least one:

  1. I told myself it’s ok to be a goy because all of yidishkayt is basically just one big-ass minig anyway, and while bobemaysis are nice to tell and can sometimes be useful, narishkaytin are only worth it if it’s, like, not too much of a tirkhe so there goes ershtins anything that costs money or takes too much time or interferes with being a normal person or requires me to remain in New York or having to associate with this bande m’shegoyim or having to tolerate odious Zionist opinions so, like, basically everything.
  2. I gave myself a heter to smoke on shabbos because shabbos is supposed to be enjoyed. That mesorah goes back at least to Volozhin.

 

 

High School Follies: “An Open Letter to the Girls in My Class”

This, for once, I did not write. The girl who wrote it likely would not stand by her words today – sanctimonious as they are! To  be fair, though, the structure of this piece is quite good (if a bit long). She is a talented writer, even now. (Yes, I’m still in touch with her… I won’t link to her work, though – she can do that in the comments if she’d like!)

I am in the middle of davening [praying]. The words of shemoneh esrei seem to leap out of the page at me. Baruch atah Hashem, magen Avraham – Hashem, You have defended our ancestors so many years past. Please defend our tiny nation against the wolves who would devour us. Baruch atah Hashem, mechaye hameisim – Hashem, please let me be one of those who merit walking upon the physical earth again. [Editorial note: these brachos are supposed to be shevach, not bakasha, but okay.] Atah kadosh – How holy You are, Hashem. How holy is everything You have done, Your holy Torah, Your —

“Your shoes are stunning!” “Thanks.” “Where’d you get them> I want to see what other shoes they have.” “__________, and they were only forty dollars.” “Wow! That is such a good price!”

Atah chonen l’adam da’as – Hashem, I try to do well in school, and please my parents. Please help me succeed. Hasiveinu avinu l’sorasecha – Hashem, there are so many out there who do not know You or Your name Help them discover Yiddishkeit and bring light into their lives. Selach lanu avinu ki chatanu – hashem, forgive us! Forgive us for our sins. We do not mean to do badly, we are sorry —

“I’m so sorry I didn’t call you last night. I meant to, but I don’t know what happened. All of the sudden, the doorbell rings. We ask who it is, and this guy is screaming into the intercom – we all got so scared –”

Re’eh nah b’anyenu – Hashem, see our pain and redeem us from it. It cannot go on this way! Refa’einu hashem v’nairafeh – Hashem, there are so many people out there suffering in hospitals, so many families broken because of illness and accidents. Barech aleinu – Hashem, make this year a blessed one, with only good for Klal Yisroel. Help those out there struggling with parnassah. Baruch atah hashem mekebatez nidchei amo yisroel – Hashem, please, gather us in, return us from —

“Would you believe it? He did not let me return it! He was so nasty! I had the receipt and I was even going to exchange it, but it was a day later than what the store lets. One day! Probably because I wanted something worth like, ten dollars less. Big deal, so he’ll lose ten dollars. Now he lost a customer.”

Hashivah shoftenu k’varishona – Hashem, make it like it once was. Be our King, we love You so much. V’lamalshinim al sehi tikvah – Hashem, so many want to kill us, oblierate us, wipe us off the face of the earth. Save us from their hate, from the killing. Al hatzadikim v’al hachasidim – Hashem, keep the good people out there. Help them inspire us, and let their zchus save —

“Save one for me, I really like those. By the way, what bracha are they? I never figured that out.” “Some people say they’re ho’adama, some say they’re shehakol. It’s really ground so that you can’t see the pieces, so I say shehakol, but then again…”

V’le’Yerushalayim ircha b’rachamim tashuv – Hashem, come back to Yerushalayim, the holy, beautiful city. Es tzemach David avdecha meheira tatzmi’ach – Hashem, please bring the meluch of Beis Dovid to its proper rule ship [sic] and glory. Av harachaman shem koleinu – Hashem, so many of us are pleading for Your help, listen to them, listen to us —

“It is forbidden to listen to any derogatory remarks even concerning little children, unless there is a beneficial purpose to your listening, such as a parent listening to a teacher in order to correct the child’s behavior.”

V’sechezenah eineinu b’shuvcha l’tzion b’rachamim – Hashem, more than anything, You know, deep down, we really want Moshiach, even though we forget it in our every day lives. Modim anachnu lach – Hashem, thank You. Thank You for the goodness in our lives, for the fresh, clean, cold air, for water, for family, for Yom Tov —

“I’m so excited Yom Tov is coming up, we finally get vacation.” “Yeah, we have so much home work –” “Not only the homework, school itself — I come home so exhausted –”

Baruch atah hashem hatov shimcha u’lecha na’eh l’hodos – Thank You Hashem again, for the good of every day, for making us Jews. Sim shalom tova u’vracha – Hashem, let there be peace, real inner peace. Elokai netzor lishoni mei’ra – Hashem, help me not speak evil. Help me perfect my middos. Help me be a better person. help me not be jealous of anyone. Help no one be jealous of —

“I am so jealous of you! You are so lucky! I have been dying to go to Eretz Yisroel. My brothers and sisters always go, but for some reason, I can never go. I wish I could go. You are also getting off two weeks of school. Lucky…”

Do not let my yetzer hara — “Maybe I can come along…” Make me not brag — “I can fit in your suitcase…” Build Your city — “I’m small…” Gather us in for Moshiach — “But hey, I weigh more than seventy pounds…” Do it for Your name — “Maybe I shouold go in your carry on: they don’t check those…” Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet!

You don’t realize I know. You don’t realize there’s a whole wide world out there (the hallway would be fine) where you could go to talk. Where your words won’t grate on my ears as I try to talk to Hashem. I know you think it’s just one sentence. Sometimes even I slip up. I try to forgive you: I even think I do. But who knows how much my tefillah could have accomplished had my concentration been complete. We would have both benefitted. Only Hashem knows. Only Hashem knows… and maybe punishes us for what we ruined? Maybe — maybe because you didn’t let me daven?

— Any girl in any class in any school