The Frum Community: An Ideology of Guidance and Dependence

In One of Us, the 2017 documentary that follows three people who broke free of their Hasidic upbringing, at least three people on three separate occasions talk about the way the frum community’s networks of chesed help and hinder.

Chani Getter, Program Manager of Footsteps, mentions the networks in positive terms. These are constructs of community that are hard to give up, she says. In the community, whenever anyone is in crisis – or even just needs some extra help – the community is there to help out.

Look at any Bais Yaakov chesed program, and you can see this is true. [in-line image of chesed updates page] The myriad of programs, from Help-A-Mom to Adopt-A-Bubby, are designed to make sure that no one is ever left alone with no one to depend on.

Beyond Bais Yaakov’s chesed programs, the community’s organizations (some of which are depicted in the image at the head of this post) are a safety net and an assurance that if you belong to this community, you will never be left to fend for yourself.

That sounds wonderful. But it’s not uncomplicatedly so. That dependence on systems and networks can be very harmful to anyone who doesn’t choose to live that life. It makes leaving that much harder.

Etty and Luzer both talk about how it’s difficult to make it “on the outside” because of how living in the community affected them. Luzer focuses on his lack of marketable skills due to the lack of secular education in Hasidic yeshivas, and Etty talks about how the loss of chesed networks – both formal and informal – is difficult.

“It’s designed to make it hard to leave,” they say (paraphrased). Now, while I wouldn’t say it’s designed because that presupposes a designer (watch and watchmaker, anyone?), it is certainly true that the design of the community as it has developed over time does make it hard to leave. The essential structures of the community condition us to expect help and support, and therefore make it difficult to transition away from these supportive structures.

In fact, one of the things I heard most often as I contemplated leaving – most often from my mother – was this:

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish. Here, they’ll take care of you and support you because you’re Jewish. Out there, no one cares about anyone else because there’s nothing binding them. Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.”

There are a few things wrong with this statement, so I’ll take them one at a time.

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish.” It may be true that everyone takes an interest in you simply because you’re Jewish, but it’s “caring al t’nai” – it comes with conditions. Conform to all the rules, and you’re a valued member of the community. Violate any of the rules – religious or communal – and you’re an outsider on the inside, worthy not of care but of suspicion, of polite distance, and maybe even of kiruv.

“Here, they’ll care of you and support you because you’re Jewish.” True. Even those who violate rules will be taken care of if in crisis. Of course, when the crisis is caused by the community’s ostracism, the community will not take care of them then. But in terms of chesed when hospital visits or doctor referrals or chevra Kadisha is needed – yes, they will take care of you simply because you’re Jewish. What’s wrong with that? Well, it breeds insularity, racism, and xenophobia.

“Out there, no one care about anyone else…” Demonstrably false, but when the only environment you know intimately is the one telling you this, you can’t even begin to argue against this horrible statement.

“…because there’s nothing binding them.” It may be true that in the secular world, there are no ties (or fewer, weaker ties) based on religion. And yet that does not mean that there is nothing binding people to each other. In my life at the moment, I have communities bound together based on our identities as: ex-Orthodox; literature scholars; medievalists; LGBTQ; femme-identified; pagan; writers; teachers; activists of various causes. In all of these communities (yes, communities), members take care of each other when necessary. Just this morning, someone posted in Queer Exchange asking for urgent help because there was a mouse in their apartment and they’re terrified of mice. Someone (a stranger to this person except for Facebook) immediately volunteered to come over and get rid of the mouse and help clear up. Mi k’amcha?

“Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.” I already disproved this in the previous point, but there’s something even more insidious about this statement than the suggestion that no one outside of Orthodox Judaism cares about other people: It assumes that being forced to take care of yourself is a bad thing. Now, okay, being forced to do anything is bad. But taking care of yourself, not always relying on others taking care of things for you, is not a bad thing.

A couple of years ago, about two years after I left the frum community, I had some intense medical issues. I needed to find doctors but had no idea how to do it. Until I was 25 years old, anytime I needed a doctor – or any service, really – there were structures in place to tell me which one to go to.

No, the rabbis didn’t order me to go to one doctor or another! But the Bikur Cholim could guide me as to which doctor to go to; Relief Resources could guide me on mental health professionals; whisper networks and word-of-mouth “I used that doctor for my baby, don’t take your baby there” – these are all built into the structure of the community.

And don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing that people can rely on community organizations that guide them through tough times. But the absolute reliance and the lack of necessity to think things through on one’s own sets us up for failure if we reject this community and, of necessity, its structures of help and guidance.

This is not accidental. It has nothing to do with the actual religion of Judaism, of course, but it is not incidental or superfluous to the ideology of the frum Jewish world, either. Guidance and support are essential components of this community’s worldview.

An example that starkly highlights this:

In the months leading up to my decision to move out of my parents’ home and leave religion, I gave other religious Jewish communities a trial run. I had some conversations with my mother about moving out – all strictly in an abstract sense, because whenever I brought up the real possibility of my moving out, she turned the conversation from logistics about the move to reasoning with me about why I should stay.

We talked about the “singles communities” on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights, and she made this point:

In Washington Heights, the singles community exists alongside the structures and institutions of Yeshiva University and Breuers. On the Upper West Side, the singles community exists alongside young couples, but with no central guiding institution. Therefore, she concluded, the Washington Heights singles community was better grounded in Jewish tradition, and I should try them out and ignore the Upper West Side.

(Ironically, I did follow her wishes and visit Washington Heights for a few shabbosim and Yom Kippur, but ultimately I moved to the neighborhood above the Upper West Side.)

The idea of mesorah (tradition) and hadracha (guidance) is a firmly set ideology. Young people cannot decide things for themselves. Young people need guidance from older people. Older people need guidance from wiser people. No one should be left to fend for themselves – whether they want to or not.

So is the community designed to limit our ability to function once we leave? Like I said, I wouldn’t go that far and imply that it’s a conscious and directed goal of the community structures. But the ideology that propels these structures does indeed point to a goal of dependence, a denial of independence – independence of thought or of action.

High School Follies: A Capitalist Approach to Kindness

Next installment of the “what was I thinking” things I wrote in high school!

(See other posts here, here, here.)

This one’s just funny, really. Not that it intended to be funny, but oh dear lord, is it ever funny. I don’t have much else of great import to say about it.

Except: My mother taught economics in twelfth grade when I wrote this, and everyone laughed at how I wrote about “long-term investment,” when really all I had been drawing from was the way the school talked about how chesed affects your life and how much it can affect your shidduchim. I was a lil feminist, subverting their “everything you do will affect your marriage prospects” into “I can get a job based on what I did as a teenager.”

Also, note the “Hungry Hippos” reference. I was exasperated at that point at the way my little sisters loved to play that game, and I hated it…

Also also, I obviously had no idea how jobs worked. I mean, the nepotism is accurate. But the “this is the only job in Boror Park” – lol.

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Long Term Investment

Raizy trudged down the block. She just wanted to go to bed, but she’d promised Mrs. Greenbaum that she’d help her again. She loved kids, but the Greenbaums were extremely lively – and it wasn’t as if she got anything for it! The first time Raizy went to help Mrs. Greenbaum, it had been as a favor to a neighbor. Raizy sighed. Her “volunteer” status had been established then for all her jobs.

‘Why do I have to be so good-natured?’ she thought. ‘Why can’t I just say no for once?’

“Hi, Raizy!” Mrs. Greenbaum said as she opened the door. “Right on time, as usual! Thanks so much for coming. I’m going out. I’ll be back soon. Bye!”

Raizy smiled and waved and went to the kitchen, where the kids were finishing supper.

“Hi, Raizy!” Moishy greeted her, throwing his arms around her and splattering her with ketchup. “We got a new game today, and Mommy said you’ll play with us!”

“Really, Moishy?” Raizy enthused, disentangling him from her waist. “Well, finish youor supper, and then we’ll see about it.”

“Raizy!” Sarala yelled. “We learned alpeh today! Look!” She ran and pulled the aleph-bina off the shelf.

“Sarala,” Raizy called, “come back to the table. You’ll show me while you’re eating.”

“But then it’ll get dirty!” Sarala pouted.

‘Oh, no,’ Raizy thought. ‘I really don’t want a tantrum now. My head is splitting.’ She pulled Sarala onto her lap and opened the aleph-bina.

“OK, Sarala, so show me now, and then you’ll finish eating.”

“Who cares about alpeh!” Moishy shouted. “I already know all the nekudos! Let me show you.”

“Wow, Moishy, you’re almost a tzaddik already! But first Sarala will show me alpeh, and then it’ll be your turn, OK?”

“No!” Moishy grabbed the aleph-bina and flipped the pages to the nekudos. Sarala began bawling, and Raizy began consoling.

***

Half an hour later, when Sarala and Moishy had both finished their supper, they pulled Raizy into the playroom.

“Look what Tatty bought us!” Moishy said proudly, holding up a box labeled “Hungry Hippos.”

“We even know how to play,” added Sarala. “Watch!”

They unpacked the game and set it up.

“See?” explained Moishy. “You press here, and the hippo comes and eats the ballies!” He proceeded to demonstrate with an earsplitting racket. “You play also!” he shouted over the din. Ignoring her throbbing temples, Raizy smiled and sat down to join in their fun.

***

“I’m really nervous,” Raizy confided to her friend Esti. “I mean, I know Fraidy also wants the job, and she has a much better chance at it than me, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Esti commented wryly, “Being that she’s the principal’s niece, you mean?”

“Exactly,” said Raizy. “But you know, I’ve been dreaming of being a pre-school teacher for such a long time. If I don’t get this job, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get any! This is the only opening in all the schools in Boro Park, after all.”

“I know,” Esti said sympathetically. “Honestly, I don’t see how you have a chance over Fraidy. Maybe you should look for a completely different job.”

“But I want to teach pre-school so badly!” Raizy cried. “I think I made a good impression at the interview. Not that that’ll outweigh Fraidy’s pull, though. Well, no harm in hoping, is there?”

“Not at all,” laughed Esti, “except getting your hopes up for nothing. Well, call me as soon as you know one way or the other, OK?”

“Of course,” said Raizy. “As soon as I know.”

***

“Hello?” Esti answered the phone.

“Esti! Hi, it’s Raizy. Guess what? The principal called and asked me to come down tomorrow to talk salary!”

“Wow, Raizy! That is so great! I’m really happy for you. So much for not getting our hopes up!”

“I guess it wasn’t for nothing, after all.”

“But why’d she choose you over her niece, I wonder? You can’t really ask her, so we’ll probably never know why.”

“Actually,'” Raizy said, “I do know why. Remember Mrs. Greenbaum, the one I helped for so many times?”

“How could I forget?” Esti laughed. “With all of us spending our evenings earning money by babysitting, and you helping Mrs. Greenbaum for free…”

“Well, I got paid now – and with interest! ‘Cuz the principal told me she called Mrs. Greenbaum as a reference, and her report was the main reason I got the job!”

“Shti-cky! Talk about long-term investments!”

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The cover of the “Chesed Press,” the school’s quarterly updates on all the chesed initiatives. The logo in the top right corner is taken from a long-running popular children’s publication, the Olomeinu, published by Torah Umesorah. It’s completely unrelated, though. Just using the same words and logo, with the added words “of chesed.”

A Culture of Closeness that Breeds Opportunities for Abuse

A few days ago, a brave soul published her story on YouTube (video below). It’s a difficult watch, but an important one for all parents sending kids to camps, especially in the frum world. Frum culture celebrates closeness between authority figures and their charges – but the “kesher” that is so venerated is so so so dangerous too.

There’s a reason there are laws about how and when and where a teacher can touch a student. Frum Jewish institutions often think they’re above the law, or beyond the law, in this issue. They think that the spiritual nature of the educational environment they provide necessitates closeness of a kind that the goyishe velt cannot understand.

They are wrong.

Every child needs to be protected. Part of the reason I think young Leah couldn’t understand that what was happening was so wrong was this: So many girls in that culture of closeness yearn for a “kesher” with someone. Principals and camp directors often talk about instances where teachers or counselors made a difference in a girl’s life by paying extra attention to her.

This is a breeding ground for abuse.

(It’s worth noting that Leah was forced to rely on beis din to get justice because the statute of limitations ran out five years after her 18th birthday. This is why we need to pass the Child Victims Act and support ZAAKAH’s efforts.)

All of this made me think about a piece that was printed in Torah Umesorah’s publication for teachers a year ago.

After months of meetings between a few former Bais Yaakov students (myself included), Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of Agudah, Rabbi Shmuel Klein of Torah Umesorah, and a number of Bais Yaakov principals and teachers, the first public action we decided to take was to write up a piece that would get others interested and begin to build momentum – to raise awareness of the issues that we had brought to the attention of the rabbis, teachers, and principals. Ultimately, Rabbi Klein effectively shut us out of the writing process by insisting that a teacher take point on the writing.

By the time the article was written, we (the group of former BY girls) knew that we had no hope of getting it to say what we actually wanted it to say. We were horrified by multiple things that were written, completely the opposite of what we had been saying all along. We did pass along some requests for revision, and the teacher who wrote the piece edited a bit. But there wasn’t much we could do about the underlying ideologies of what a teacher is and what her role is, so we left it and abandoned the effort we had undertaken.

Below, I’m pasting the full text of the article as Rabbi Klein emailed it to me after it was published in the Purim issue of Hamechanech. [All text in square brackets are my own additions, as are all hyperlinks.]

I’m sharing it in conjunction with the above video because I deeply believe that the culture and approach to teaching espoused in this article is intimately connected to the unique opportunities for abuse in frum environments.

Bais Yaakov: Looking Closely at a Century of Achievement
Mrs. R. Toplan

Chinuch today. A far cry from its beginnings a century ago. When Sara Schenirer founded Bais Yaakov in 1917, very few would have guessed that it would have expanded to its current level of success. From its humble start in a single Krakow building, Bais Yaakov has burgeoned into a tremendous educational movement- tremendous both in quantity and quality. And that’s despite the losses and destruction of Churban Europe! But how is the Bais Yaakov system really doing? Let us take a close look.

Our schools are constantly striving to move ever upward in their mission of chinuch habanos [educating girls]. The graduates are leaving our schools in a way that reflects well upon our institutions. We are graduating learned b’nos Yisrael [daughters of Israel], with solid hashkafos [worldviews / values]. The curriculum has evolved to include more sophisticated lessons (both in content and delivery), reflecting the changes in our general society. Teachers are ever more in tune with the concept of “al pi darko” [each according to his way] and are trying to tailor their lessons to reach more of the student population effectively. Differentiated instruction and modified testing are now considered standard fare.

We all revel in the success stories in which we’ve played a part, or the miracles we have witnessed that our colleagues have wrought. It’s a delight to share the stories of that one menaheles/mechaneches [principal/teacher] that reached out to that struggling student. She could be the social outcast, the misfit, the academically/emotionally/behaviorally challenged learner or even the attention-seeker of the class. We love the happy endings of those stories, with the mechaneches literally saving the girl’s life- whether it was b’ruchniyus [in spiritual matters] or b’gashmiyus [in material matters]. Yes, there are hundreds such gratifying stories. Yes, it does pay to repeat these stories constantly, since the chizuk [strength/inspiration] we derive from them gives us the strength to keep forging ahead and making a difference in the lives of our talmidos [students]. And, yes, we should keep publicizing them, to be mechazek [strengthen/inspire] our colleagues who are feeling stuck.

In Parshas VayechiYaakov Avinu blessed Ephraim and Menashe. We still use this brocha [blessing] with which to bless our children, since Ephraim and Menashe are the archetypical golus [exile] children. Despite being born in the depravity of Mitzrayim [Egypt], they thrived under the chinuch [education] of their father, and rose to the madreiga [level] of being included in the shevatim [tribes]. Note the unusual method employed by Yaakov Avinu in the giving of this brocha. There is simas yadayim – physical placing of his hands on the heads of Ephraim and Menashe. This is the only place in Tana”ch where simas yadayim is mentioned. The Ba’al Hafla’a explains that the physical reaching out and connecting was an essential part of this brocha. This connection was necessary to fortify these children of golus, and was done in order to transmit the mesorah [tradition] in an everlasting fashion. As mechanchos [educators], we know it’s vital to bear this lesson in mind. It is only through reaching out and connecting that we can effectively pass our mesorah to the next generation of the children of golus. By reaching out to our students’ specific challenges, only then are we closing that dreaded generational gap.[1]

Another beautiful thought comes to mind. Throughout the Torah, the right side is considered the dominant side of a person. If this is so, why is the heart- the seat of emotions and the organ responsible for keeping a person alive- said to be on the left side? This doesn’t seem to be logical! The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the left side is the logical placement for the heart. We are enjoined to use our hearts to assist our fellow Jews; indeed the only purpose of our emotional sensitivities is to be nosei b’ol [to carry another’s burden]. So, as we face our fellow man, our heart is on their right side![2] This idea drives our teachers to reach out to their students and do what’s right for each individual one. This reaching out and connecting is the foundation upon which mechanchos base their missions.

Interestingly, when a management team engages in problem solving, they often use a method called “extreme immersion”. This refers to looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum- the most spectacular success and the most devastating failure- in order to assess the best method going forward. It behooves us to learn from this methodology in our classrooms. We’ve already taken a look at a sampling of success. Of course, looking at the failures is painful, but we will come out ahead of the game if we do so.[3]

Let’s take a look at the other side of the spectrum. Unfortunately, we all know a number of students who do not seem to receive the message of Bais Yaakov. Some display this clearly in high school, some leave the community as soon as they graduate, and some drift off later in life when they find alternatives. Because we don’t always know what happens to our students after they graduate, especially the ones who prefer not to keep in touch with teachers, it may seem to us like this number is small (although every neshama [soul] counts). However, it is actually larger than we think.

What causes these students to leave? Why do they glide through their high school career, Teflon-impervious to the messages of their teachers? Recently, a group of alumnae representing a greater number of dissatisfied students met with representatives of Torah Umesorah and Agudath Israel and multiple groups of interested teachers to provide feedback on their educational experiences.[4] All of the alumnae had chosen different paths in life, ranging from choosing a different stream of Judaism to going off the derech [path] entirely. They brought up a short set of reasons that they felt encompassed all the reasons they had negative feelings about their Bais Yaakov experience. They provided anecdotes and explanations collected from about 50 Bais Yaakov graduates describing how these issues affected their feelings toward Judaism and colored their high school memories.

After a number of discussions, we think it is possible to remedy some of the things that these students claim left with a bitter taste in their mouths. We have decided that the next step write regarding their perceptions to the greater teaching community and opening up a dialogue about how we can better serve the entirety of our school population. Among the topics discussed were bringing mechanchos to a greater awareness regarding kavod habriyos [respect for people], answering challenging questions, approaching tznius [modesty] in a positive fashion and the necessity of teaching to learn.

Most of our preliminary discussions focused on kavod habriyos. As an explanation, we posited that there are two kinds of respect. The one we tend to focus on most in Bais Yaakov is the respect we owe to leaders, teachers, elders, and other authority figures. Our students owe us respect for our knowledge and dedication, for our experience and position, for our learning and our leadership. There are clear guidelines for how to express this respect, in how you speak and behave, which we teach and often enforce in our classrooms.

However, there is a second kind of respect which we tend to take for granted. This is the respect every person deserves simply because they are a tzelem Elokim [image of god]. The way we show this kavod habriyos may vary a little based on culture and expectations, but there are some things we all agree on. For example, we do not insult or use derogatory terms regarding our friends. We don’t go through our neighbors’ mail. We don’t intrude on someone’s personal space. These are all ways we show respect for our fellows and their boundaries. This kavod is due to our students as well. Many students perceive a lack of this type of respect within the school system, even from well-meaning staff. This complaint of non-respect has been corroborated by those in the field of high school placement as well.[5]

Along the theme of tuning in to showing our students respect in a more respectful (!) way, a wonderful thought from R’ Shamshon Refael Hirsch comes to mind. We know that all words in Lashon Kodesh [literally: the holy language, ie Hebrew] can be traced back to their shoresh [root]. The shoresh for the word chinuch [חינוך] is ches-nun-chof [ח-נ-כ]. As R’ Hirsch points out, shorashim with similar spellings are often linked. A related word would be chenek [choke – חנק], whose shoresh is ches-nun-kuf [ח-נ-ק]. How is it related? When we are in a position of providing chinuch, we must be reaching out to the mechunach [student] almost to the point of chenek, just short of choking her. The balance must be there: too loose a connection, and you lose your opportunity to make an impression; too tight a connection, you strangle any opportunity for reaching her. Note the one different letter between the shorashim. The difference between the final chof and kuf is just one small connecting stroke of a pen. A chof [כ] is a connected letter, signifying the connection inherent in the chinuch relationship, whereas a kuf [ק] has a disconnect. A coincidence? Certainly not![6] When a student is “choked” they become cynical about the message being conveyed, and in the worst cases, it drives them away entirely.

One example that we discussed concerned a case where the choking was more literal than figurative. In this case study, a student ran into a teacher in the street on a Sunday. The teacher reached over and buttoned the student’s top button, while expressing pain that the student had her collarbone exposed so close to Rosh Hashanah. There is a beautiful story of Sarah Schenirer doing exactly the same thing to Vichna Kaplan, who we know became a key player in the Bais Yaakov system. However, young Vichna Kaplan travelled miles and made enormous sacrifices to become a protégé of Sarah Schenirer. She was primed to accept the constructive criticism of her teacher with the Ahavas HaBriyos [loving people] and Ahavas Torah [loving Torah] in which it was intended. Not every student in the Bais Yaakov system today is in the same position. Rather than coming across as an expression of love and caring, this action of buttoning a student’s button would come across as an overbearing and aggressive invasion of personal space. As teachers, it is important for our actions to draw in and embrace our students (figuratively), rather than choke and push away (literally).

How do we know what effect we are going to have? It’s too much to make a teacher second-guess every expression of caring. We have many students, all with different levels of need. What shortcut can help us understand what is likely to cross a student’s line? Consider this: who else would you or wouldn’t you treat the same way? The teacher-student relationship can be a unique one, but no matter how unique a relationship is, there are certain rules that will always apply. If, in general, we only relate to our very young children in a certain fashion (physically buttoning their top buttons), we should hesitate before doing so for others. This simple question of “who else would I treat this way?” is also an interesting one when considered broadly across all of one’s relationships. Perhaps this could prevent us from trampling on our students’ sensitivities.

Many more questions come to mind. How do we reach all our talmidos [students], so that fewer of them experience distress? How many young adults today are suffering in silence because of our less than optimum awareness of their sensitivities? Can we even do anything to perfect the Bais Yaakov system which (for the most part) is thriving? Is it worth our time to do so? After engaging in all this introspection, it easy to sink into a state of yiush [despair]. However, despair never belongs in the arsenal of a mechaneches. Especially since there are various solutions that have been and are being discussed!

Now, let the dialogue begin!

Mrs. Ruchie Toplan lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY. She has been teaching and mentoring teens in Bais Yaakov of Boro Park for over 25 years. 

[1] Mrs. Ayala Berney

[2] Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kramer

[3] Ms. Bryna Lieder

[4] Thanks to EB, RB, HD, RF, LG, RT, YT

[5] Rabbi Yehuda Zakutinsky, High School Placement Director/ Counterforce

[6] Mrs. Ayala Berney

The Nation Could Not Ascend

This seems to be turning into a Shavuos tradition of mine: revising and revisiting the piece I wrote on the first Shavuos I was XO.  I wrote it as a stream of consciousness with line breaks… I can’t even quite call it a poem. But every time I read it, I feel every bit of the emotion I was feeling at the time, all over again. So I know there’s something there, something worth coming back to. For now, most of my revisions were to take away the line breaks so this reads a little more smoothly. We’ll see what next year brings…


Every Shabbos I wake up thinking about how you all are in that mode of peaceandserenityandrestandholiness —

how I will be packing up my books heading to school — the library — the park, to work — to write — forbidden activity, forbidden thoughts.

I got used to that.

Strange detachment — your Shabbos table a faded image at the back of my mind — and I’m separate.

I got used to that.

And then.

You plead with me, that overused argument — I was there at Sinai, my soul was there at Sinai, I said I accept — I can’t deny it because five million witnesses — three and a half  thousand years — and no one said “my father didn’t tell me that.”

I cry. I argue. I rail. It’s not enough for me.

Fate’s a bitch — Shavuos only days later. I wake up thinking about how you all are in that mode of peaceandserenityandrestandholiness, add a dash of accepting Torah and God, with a pinch of crying because I’m not there.

The used-to-it-ness goes away.

Fate’s a real bitch.

I’ve been waiting for this for so long — now, breath stolen — the golden glowing ark as Indiana strains, lifts the badim — vestiges of awe as the line of men proceeds with the blue velvet cloth covering it — I’m back in seventh grade learning about the joy of recovering the aron with the luchos, bringing it to Shiloh, the dancing, the celebration — the dead who dared to touch the holiness

villains delighting in opening the holiness look in wonder, in crazed joy — the gold spirit emerging, swirling throughout — Indiana knows: “don’t look, Marion”

and then the spirit inside burns, melts flesh amid screams and terror and holiness

and the gold spirit ascends in a tornado of light and fury, the chest is rising — the aron, ark of the covenant, is rising, returning to god, just like he said — I feel — relief

but it’s only the cover — and it crashes back down, along with my insides — covers the ark, conceals holiness — terror

Indiana and Marion survived because they didn’t look

and I think I’ll never get used to it


The blackout page below isn’t so much of a poem on its own – this one is definitely an “art-poem,” as I’ve begun calling my creations. I’ve chosen the lines in the account of Matan Torah at Har Sinai that describe the terrifying sights and sounds accompanying the giving of the Torah. On the same page, I pasted familiar, recognizable images from children’s coloring books — images depicting joy and happiness, flowers and dancing. There’s even a space for children to paste their own faces to represent the lore that every soul was at Sinai. I filled in that face in my own way.

I can explain all my thoughts and my own interpretation of what I’ve created, but I’ve given you enough and I’ll leave the rest to you…

ויעל עשנו כעשן הכבשן
ויחרד כל ההר מאד
לא יוכל העם לעלות
וכל העם ראים את הקולת
ואת הלפידים
ואת קול השופר
ואת ההר עשן
וירא העם וינעו
ויעמדו מרחוק

And his smoke rose like the smoke of the oven
And the entire mountain trembled violently
The nation could not ascend
And the whole nation saw the thunder
and the lightning
and the sound of the shofar
and the smoking mountain
And the nation was afraid and they trembled
and they stood far away.

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Scientific Evidence that Social Binaries Are Bullshit

Years ago, when I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and started getting regular blood tests including hormone panels, I found out that I have very high levels of testosterone for someone afab (assigned female at birth). High levels of testosterone is actually quite common for afab people with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), and this high level manifests in me as male-pattern sweating and intense facial hair (which I sometimes care about and sometimes don’t!).

As I’m wont to do when I find out something medically intriguing about myself, I did some research and discovered that sometimes high levels of testosterone means an afab person has testes, not ovaries, even if the external genitals are female-presenting. People with this “condition” tend to find out when they reach puberty and don’t begin to menstruate.

I found a whole slew of other “conditions,” none of which is in any way life-threatening or really life-altering – just facts of existence that don’t align with society’s binary of sex or gender. Some “conditions” (which I’m putting in quotes because it’s not like it’s a disease, after all, it’s just a state of being) are discovered when an afab person is trying to conceive and finds out she can’t. There are a number of ways a person’s sex organs can be configured, and some of them preclude biological reproduction.

For a hot second, as I Googled and contemplated these results, I was ecstatic – would this mean that I no longer have to grapple with my lack of desire to have children?? Do I now have an excuse so I no longer have to justify myself to others, and to myself?

But of course, by that point in my medical journey (which is long and complex) I had had many ultrasounds of my ovaries, and they are in fact ovaries. Plus I got my period really early and had been menstruating for about ten years at that point…

I was still frum (religious) at that point (wouldn’t begin to seriously dream of leaving for at least another three years after that), and wasn’t yet comfortable with ideas about cis / trans – but this brief foray into communities of intersex individuals (as the sites and support groups I looked at called themselves) was illuminating and exciting.

I no longer identify as fully female. I’ve been calling myself femme-fluid most recently, and that feels right. The journey to discover myself will continue, likely for a long time still – but knowing that “biology” and “nature” is not an excuse for maintaining a binary which is supremely uncomfortable to me is absolutely liberating.


A couple of easy-to-read pieces about biological sex:
https://io9.gizmodo.com/why-do-birds-have-zw-sex-chromosomes-instead-of-xy-1682328912
https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2015/02/24/sex-biology-redefined-genes-dont-indicate-binary-sexes/

Image from: https://www.etsy.com/listing/244016543/6-genderfluid-buttons-genderfluid

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An Ex-Orthodox Queer Reviews a Review of Disobedience

This weekend, I saw Disobedience twice. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since I saw the first clip of it, months ago. A story about two queer women, one who left the frum community and one who struggled to stay? Yes, please. Plus, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams! And the costumes looked so authentic! And it seemed like it was done with such sensitivity! I hadn’t read the book (I still haven’t, though I plan to now). So I didn’t know much about the story other than that it deals with Ronit’s return to the frum community after her father’s death and with the two women’s forbidden love.

On Thursday, April 26, I attended the 7pm screening at Angelika Film Center. I was anxious, my stomach unexpectedly roiling as I sat in my seat and waited for the movie to start. I became more and more anxious as I looked around and saw kippa-wearing men and skirt-wearing women, as I heard Hebrew being spoken all around me. I was here for a liberating movie – titled Disobedience, for fuck’s sake! – and I felt the same claustrophobia and mounting scream inside me as I felt when I had to attend frum events.

I cried a fair few times during the movie, and I stayed in my seat and sobbed for a bit after the movie was over. I wasn’t crying over the queer parts. I was crying over Ronit’s relationship with her father.

I walked out of the movie in a bit of a daze. I texted some friends about it, but they hadn’t seen it yet and didn’t want spoilers. In an effort to keep the experience going, I decided to look for reviews and other information about the film. I found a review by Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, and I immediately became furious.

The title is “The Flesh Is Willing in ‘Disobedience’.” Wtf. Way to miss the point of the movie? (Also, really? You had to go to the New Testament to find a good title for a movie about ultra-Orthodox Jews?)

The content of the review is even worse. Now, Manohla Dargis is a respected movie critic. Her resume is quite extensive and impressive. And yet I feel perfectly comfortable saying – this review sounds like it was written by someone who does not understand film and storytelling.

Fired up, I decided to write my own review. I do have thoughts about the movie that go beyond Dargis’s points. But I’m going to start by quoting and reacting to some of her statements. If you want to just read my thoughts about the film more generally, wait for it – that’ll come in Part 2 😉

“In ‘Disobedience,’ the emotions are reserved, the palette muted, the rooms claustrophobic, the storytelling restrained.

True. So far so good.

It’s almost a surprise that Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful art photographer living in New York, can breathe, given how drained of oxygen this frustrating movie is.

Wait, what? Remove the word “frustrating,” and I would say this sentence hits it on the nose. The movie is (purposely, I would argue) drained of oxygen, because of the repressive environment of the frum community. And if Ronit seems unable to breathe – well, isn’t that the point? I can personally attest to the feeling of not being able to breathe, of gasping for air, when returning to frum environments. That Dargis felt that lack of oxygen and inability to breathe is proof of the film’s success, not of its failure.

It doesn’t seem especially airless at first, when Ronit is seen taking a portrait of a tattooed, bare-chested, much-older gent. They’re in a nice, roomy studio…

Exactly. It begins with openness and ease in Ronit’s whole persona, and that changes abruptly when she goes back to her childhood home. That’s the… whole point, Dargis. The whole point. You’ve just described a genius move of the movie, but your framing of it as a drawback is just so… not.

…and as he poses, she teasingly speaks to him about smiling, a nonchalant exchange that telegraphs some of this story’s larger concerns.

Okay, I disagree with this interpretation, but it is a valid one. I similarly disagree with Dargis’s interpretation of the beards on this tatted man and the rabbi as symbolic (in the following quote), but that’s a critical interpretation that’s at least valid.

Ronit lives in the modern age, in the here and now of groovy tattooed seniors, art photography and liberated women, but ‘Disobedience’ tracks her when she steps back in time after the death of her rabbi father (Anton Lesser), a revered religious figure in north London. Like Ronit’s portrait subject, the rabbi – seen early on delivering a sermon – is prodigiously bearded, though the other man’s body art underscores the divide separating these men and their realities. This in-between space is where Ronit now uneasily lives. She doesn’t cover her head and freely smokes, yet she also rends her clothes in mourning, ripping material with her teeth as the tears fall.

This is just… no. She does not live in the in-between, nor does she do it uneasily, at least not that we can see. Her life in NY, for all we know from the scene we’re shown, is completely separate from her previous life.

Why would she cover her head? Even if she were frum – she’s not married!

She smokes freely, yes – but in this moment it’s not an expression of her in-betweenness. Later in the film, the smoking becomes a motif that very much does carry symbolic weight, as Esti refuses a cigarette and then plucks Ronit’s lit cigarette from her hand to take a drag, charting her inner turmoil and re-blossoming disobedience. But here? It’s not a symbol of in-betweenness, just of living a secular, arty NY life.

And oh, dear lord, but way to take a really really poignant scene and reduce it to so little! She rips her shirt with her teeth, yes. It’s part of the rituals and rules surrounding mourning and grief. And her engagement with this practice is so powerful, not because she does it, but because of how long it takes her to do it, and what she does first.

The film cuts from Ronit in her studio being told she has a phone call to a close-up on her face as she walks along darkened streets. We’re left to infer that the phone call was about the man we just saw collapse and die in shul on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s no dialogue, just a quick series of shots:

Ronit walking along the night streets; Ronit dancing wildly to the pulsing music of a club; Ronit being fucked by a faceless man against the wall of the club’s bathroom, the pulsing music muted in the background – and she is being fucked, passively, as her expressionless face makes it clear she is not contributing much to the encounter other than her body; Ronit ice-skating in a rink, the camera following her face as the background music swells to fill the room and presumably her mind; Ronit sitting on a bench in the locker room, breathing deeply, exuding so much aching sadness that I began to cry before she did – and finally, Ronit grabbing her neckline, biting it, tearing it with teeth and hands, leaving her collarbone exposed and collapsing in utter exhaustion against the wall as her eyes well up with tears.

This is a brilliantly directed and acted sequence. Ronit has just found out that her father, whom she has not spoken to in years, is dead. She knows how to grieve according to Jewish rules, but she resists that and tries to deal with the overwhelming grief by drowning it in drink, dance, music, sex, the meditative rhythms of ice-skating – and none of it works.

Finally, she tears her shirt according to Jewish law – and cries.

Maybe I’m projecting, but those tears seem to me a result of both grief at her father’s death and pain at the limbo she finds herself in. That is the in-betweenness, that is the achingly painful part. Not the actions of smoking-and-tearing-clothes. But the feeling of wanting to alleviate grief, the need to deal with it somehow, the realization that the only way the grief might be alleviated is by following customs she has rejected, and the recognition that those customs will no longer work for her the way they would have if she had never left. She can find comfort in these rituals, but without the profound belief that they are divinely commanded, they are empty, hollow gestures.

Reising kriah was her last resort, and it enabled an emotional release despite her lack of belief in it. That is the in-betweenness.

Based on the novel of the same title by Naomi Alderman, ‘Disobedience’ delicately and far too bloodlessly charts the intricacies of Ronit’s return to a tight religious community that no longer wholly welcomes her.

Oh, sweetie pie. Bloodlessness is what allows a rigid community like that to survive. Emotions held in check, careful careful, don’t let them see, don’t let yourself see – the film’s bloodlessness perfectly matches the actual experience Ronit has as she returns to a tight religious community.

Besides, the entire movie is not bloodless. One of the most amazing things about the movie is the way the characters, especially Esti, become far less inhibited and rigid as the movie progresses. The movie brilliantly balances muted silence of sound, colors, body language, with bright vividness – to amazing effect.

One who does, though hesitantly, is Dovid (a very good Alessandro Nivola), a once-close comrade who is her father’s probable successor. Ronit also resumes her relationship with a former lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams), Dovid’s wife. The women’s reunion rapidly rekindles a passion that – with stolen kisses and progressively steamier intimacy – disturbs this world’s scrupulous order, a disruption that is more about hidebound tradition than about religious belief.

A mostly good summary of the plot. But that bit about the disruption being more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief” – let’s keep that in mind and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The director Sebastian Lelio should have been a good fit for this story if only because of the sensitivity he’s brought to female-driven movies like ‘Gloria.’ Although ‘Disobedience’ seems to offer him similar material – female desire up against the patriarchy – it defeats him.

Let’s just be clear here: the “female desire” of the film need not have been lesbian desire. Ronit could have been a man, and the story wouldn’t have changed very much. If Esti and “Rafi” had explored their hetero-sexuality with each other before marriage and been found out, the rav would have been horrified as well – perhaps a different kind of horrified, but still. “Rafi” may have left while Esti stayed and married someone else. With “Rafi’s” return, an old love between “Rafi” and Esti is rekindled, and Esti engages in extra-marital hetero-sex, and the storyline changes not all that much.

Yes, this is a wonderful queer story. But that’s not what it is mainly about. It is, as Dargis says, about “female desire up against the patriarchy.” But as to why it defeats Lelio:

He handles the story’s cloistered confines with visual intelligence, finding beauty in austerity though to an aestheticizing fault, as when Ronit walks amid a procession of mourners in which everyone seems arranged by height. The problem isn’t the scene, which is gracefully shot and staged. It’s that you notice the visual design but have no sense of – or feeling for – the faith binding these mourners.

First of all, I paid careful attention to this scene the second time I watched the movie, after I had read this review. That procession is not at all arranged by height… Dargis must have misremembered it? I don’t know. All I know is – that scene looks aesthetically exactly like small processions through the streets of Boro Park or Midwood or Williamsburg might look (except for the mixing of men and women). I didn’t notice the visual design of it, and I think Dargis was projecting some of her own biases onto her perception of that scene.

As to the lack of feeling for the faith binding these mourners – that’s because faith is not what binds them!

Remember how Dargis said earlier that the disruption is more about “hidebound tradition than about religious belief”? She seems to have forgotten her excellent point here – this procession is not about belief or faith. It’s about adherence to ritual and custom. And hoo boy, do we get a sense of that in this scene!

That puts a heavy burden on Ms. McAdams, who with some cursory lines of dialogue, a lot of brooding dark looks and some behind-doors weeping needs to make a persuasive case for why Esti stayed in this world and with her husband. Ms. McAdams, who lets you see the eddies of emotion rippling over Esti’s face as she pulls off her wig, does some lovely work here to convey a woman agonizing over her existential situation.

I categorically disagree with the first part of this analysis.

She does not have “cursory lines of dialogue.” She has some of the most powerful lines of dialogue in the film. In the scene embedded in Dargis’s review, as Esti and Ronit walk together, you can even see how Lelio highlights one of her most anguished and poignant lines of dialogue: Ronit questions Esti about her life, and asks her “what about you?” Esti’s vehement response, “That is me!” is amazing. Lelio explains why he chose to cut to a close-up on Rachel McAdams then. Here’s my take on and reaction to that line:

Esti is expressing an internal struggle so beautifully, so painfully. She may not tell us why she stayed in this world, but as someone who stayed in that world far too long, I fully understood why Esti did as well.

On my second viewing, on Friday evening after I had read this review, I paid attention to whether the film lets the audience see this, or if I was just projecting my own experience onto Esti. I think the former, to some degree.

The film doesn’t hit us over the head with “here’s why she stayed.” I don’t think Esti is even meant to understand why she stayed.

And I don’t think the film wants to give us a tidy explanation for why Esti stayed. This is a complex, painful, multi-layered situation, and the film does a beautiful job of portraying that complete confusion, that lack of self-awareness, that repression of self-awareness in order to stay with the familiar.

Esti was heartbroken when Ronit left, after all. The movie never tells us how old they were, but one assumes they were seventeen or eighteen. And Esti did have a support system of sorts in the rav, who advised her to marry Dovid. It sounds like she didn’t believe what the rav did, that marriage would “cure” her, but I really don’t think that the movie needs to explicitly show or explain that staying with what’s comfortable and familiar is often the default.

Later in the film, as Ronit leaves to catch a flight, Esti says, “It’s always easier to leave, isn’t it?” That, combined with an earlier statement to Ronit about how she profoundly believes, and how the word of Hashem is her life, should be enough for the viewer to understand the intense internal struggle that led to Esti’s choice to stay.

The movie never tells us why Ronit left, either. I find it interesting that Dargis wants an explanation for why Esti stayed, but doesn’t ask the same of Ronit. All we know of Ronit’s departure is that her father caught her and Esti engaging in sexual activity, and Ronit abruptly left. Why did she cut off ties with Esti and Dovid, if they were so close? Why didn’t she take Esti with her? Or rather, why didn’t Ronit and Esti leave together? Dargis seems wholly unconcerned with these questions, focusing instead on one that is in fact answered in the film.

Yet even as she and the filmmakers – Mr. Lelio shares script credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz – thicken the texture, adding realistic details that should energize the scenes, the movie insistently puts a secular frame around its story, leaving little room for the metaphysical.

What?? Secular?? Metaphysical?? Hang on, hang on…

Part of what makes Ms. McAdams and Ms. Weisz such appealing performers is how persuasively they convey the inner lives of the characters they play, which makes it easy to put yourself on their side. Yet ‘Disobedience’ is so emphatically on Ronit’s side from the get go that the character has no mystery, which in turn robs the audience of the very possibility of discovery or surprise. Ronit is an uncomplicated exile from patriarchy, and demonstrably ill at ease among the Orthodox. In this, she clearly serves as a proxy for the secular viewer, who in ‘Disobedience’ is invited to intimately witness the agony of faith but not its potentially more unfamiliar, more discomfiting ecstasy.

Okay, okay, so much wrong with this paragraph. Let’s start with the end and go backwards:

  1. Yes, indeed, this movie is about the agony of faith. It is not about the ecstasy. If you want to see a movie about the ecstasy of faith, that’s fine – but go see a different movie. That’s just not what this movie is about. It’s like watching Spotlight and saying “this movie doesn’t show how amazing a priest’s mentorship of young boys could be.” Well, no, because this movie is about how priests groom and then rape young boys…
  2. That Ronit serves as a proxy for the secular viewer is not a bad point. But there does need to be an entry point for viewers who do not understand the ultra-Orthodox world, after all. And having someone who left come back after years away is an excellent way of doing that – of having a focal character who knows the world and can therefore move in it semi-effectively, but to whom everything is strange – as strange as it is to the secular audience. At the same time, the non-secular audience and newly-secular audience (eg: moi) gets a different understanding of the film as we experience it through Ronit. Because we more viscerally understand the pain, the wild discomfort of being back in this community. It is a good thing that Ronit serves as a proxy, as a focal character, for the audience to experience this world. (Incidentally, in the Q&A with Rachel Wiesz, Alessandro Nivola, and Naomi Alderman that I attended on Friday night, Rachel and Naomi talked about how the book is written from Ronit’s point of view, and how that affects the way the story is told in the film.)
  3. Yes, the movie is emphatically on Ronit’s side against the oppressive frum patriarchy. Again, if Dargis wanted a movie that gives voice to both sides, she should have known that this is not the movie for it. This movie tells a story – obviously not the one Dargis wanted. Besides, Rachel Weisz does a wonderful job of showing us her interiority, and I found myself surprised and delighted by revelations of her character at times (most notably at the Friday night shabbos meal when she can no longer restrain herself and gets all snarky at the rebetzin – you go, girl!)

Okay, so that’s it for my “critique” of Manohla Dargis’s abysmal review. Next post will have some of my own thoughts, independent of this crap.

Kol Yisroel Areivim – Racism in a Story I Wrote in High School

Please read this before scrolling down to the transcription.

This is a story I wrote for a school publication when I was in twelfth grade, in Bais Yaakov High School in Brooklyn, NY. It is racist. I am not proud of it. But I am sharing because, as I’ve explained in a previous post, I think it’s important to look back at my past and the things I wrote or said then.

It’s important for me, in my own personal development. But it’s also important for those considering Bais Yaakov education or ultra-Orthodox education and socialization.

The thrust of this story’s message is not about the race of the person who unexpectedly comes to the Jew’s rescue. It’s about the elite Jewish status and about the burden a visibly-Orthodox Jew carries to behave appropriately, and about the connection between all Jews and the burden of every Jew to behave to high standards because they might affect other Jews. I now think all of that is bullshit to at least some extent.

With the rise of anti-Semitism, especially events like this one, it is obvious that one Jew’s actions do affect another’s. But the idea that Jews are inherently wonderful, as this story suggests, is wrong.

And the racism in this story, although slightly and confusedly benevolent, is wrong.

The “youths” are obviously meant to be black, though their race is never mentioned. And the “huge black guy” – I’m sorry, I don’t even know what to say about that. It’s clear I thought I was portraying him in a neutral, if not good, light. But still – racist.

[side-note: notice how I talk about “teenagers.” The person who wrote this sounds very much like a self-hating teenager. I’ve heard from Bais Yaakov teachers who think it’s better for the girls to be called “young adults” rather than “teenagers” or “adolescents,” and I vehemently disagree with them. Teens should be allowed to behave as teens, to think of themselves as teens – not to be derisive of teens or to equate adolescence with hooliganism.]

Okay. Now for the story. Transcription after images.

image.png

Title in Hebrew: “Kol Yisroel Areivim Zeh LaZeh” – All Jews are connected to each other

Mr. Teitelbaum swayed over his gemara to the rhythm of the train car. His sing-song hum, baruch Hashem, went unnoticed because there was only one other man in the car, sitting at the other end. Mr. Teitelbaum always looked for empty cars on his way home so he could learn with no disturbance, and he was thankful for the quiet.

But he looked up in consternation as the doors slid open at a local stop. The sounds of loud music and wil laughter permeated the station, and a group of five rough-looking teenagers boarded his car. They settled themselves in the middle of the car and their thrumming music bounded off the metal walls of the train.

Mr. Teitelbaum sighed in exasperation and closed his gemara. There was no way he could learn with that racket. He bent down and tucked the sefer into his attache case. As he straightened up, he saw one of the youths eyeing him, almost gleefully. Two of the teenagers stood up and sauntered over to Mr. Teitelbaum’s side of the car. One stopped directly in front of him and grabbed onto the overhead rail, swinging himself from side to side so he came within an inch of Mr. Teitelbaum’s face. The other sat in the seat directly next to Mr. Teitelbaum and shuffled nonstop. Mr. Teitelbaum kept quiet. He didn’t want to start anything. He’d just wait it out till his stop.

Another teenager came over to the swinging kid.

“Get out of my place!” he yelled and shoved him. The swinging kid fell across Mr. Teitelbaum and his “seatmate.” Mr. Teitelbaum drew back but kept quiet.

“Watcha doin’?” his “seatmate” snarled.

“Waddaya want?” whined the “fallen” teenager. “This guy’s foot’s stickin’ out so far, he just tripped me!”

All three turned to Mr. Teitelbaum. Frantically he looked at the man on the other side of the car, but the man didn’t move. I don’t blame him, Mr. Teitelbaum thought. Who would want to get involved with these kids?

“Hey, big guy, scrunch up a little, you take up too much space!” the other two teenagers joined the scene.

“Or why don’t you just leave?”

“Hey, let’s help him, guys, do our good deed for the day!”

Mr. Teitelbaum stood up and picked up his attache case, but one boy grabbed it from him.

“Hey, Jewboy, not so fast,” he wagged a finger at him. “We got some business to take care of first.”
Suddenly one teenager went flying clear across the car.

“Wha-” the one holding the attache case turned, but the huge black man grabbed him and threw him to the floor, too.

The train stopped just then and all five roughs ran out the door, throwing terrified looks over their shoulders as the black man glowered after them. Mr. Teitelbaum sat stunned.

“Tha – thank you,” he stammered. “But – excuse me, but you were ignoring them before – why did you come now?”

The black man went to the stereo and shut off the music with a snap, then sat down next to Mr. Teitelbaum.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should’ve stopped them right away, but I didn’t want to get involved. But when they called you Jewboy, I had to help you, and I want to tell you why.

Right now, I look like any regular businessman, but a few years ago, I looked nothing like this. I had no job and i actually had to beg on the streets in order to live. It was humiliating, pleading with strangers to give me a bit of money, and not very lucrative at all. Hardly anyone ever gave.

There was one day when no one at all gave me anything. By mid-afternoon, I hadn’t eaten, and I had no money, so I decided to walk from car to car in the trains. I figured, when they’re sitting down, maybe people would give. But everybody ignored me. Car after car, no one even made eye contact with me! I started to feel invisible.

But then one man took out his wallet and pulled out a dollar. That alone was enough to make me more than happy, but he didn’t stop there. He grasped my hand and wished me luck – and smiled at me! All of a sudden, I felt like a person again, like I had some value as a human.

That feeling carried me through many other difficult days until I got a job again. And the man who gave me that feeling was a Jew, wearing a  skullcap like you are. When I realized you were a Jew in trouble, I thought – here’s my chance to repay that kindness the Jew did for me then.”

 

Questioning Hashgacha Pratis

See here for an explanation of what I’m doing in this series of posts.

I find this story fascinating, because it seems to end with the conclusion that “everything is ordained by god,” but I can sense something else going on here – in this story that I wrote in twelfth grade. I was obviously questioning the concept of hashgacha pratis, the trope of stories about how someone narrowly avoided disaster. In this story, my grappling ended with “even when there’s no punch line, god is still orchestrating things.” Eventually, that morphed to my current belief: that there is no god, and if he is in fact orchestrating things, it’s more appropriate to focus on the horrors of lives lost in the accident than on the “miracle” of one life being saved.

[It’s also fascinating that I used 9/11 as the basis for comparison – not the Holocaust or Soviet Russia, which were far more common in this kind of story. The story of the man whose daughter broke her arm is in fact one that was told many times. Also, ignore the total inaccuracy of the driving parts of the story, and the whole conceit of missing the ferry – I had no idea what I was talking about…]

Transcription below the image.

lchu hasgacha pratis

“Everyone in?” asked Malky, turning around in her seat. A clamor immediately arose from the back seat.

“Yeah!”

“All set!”

“Ready and rearing [sic] to go!”

“Here we go, then,” Eli joined in from the driver’s seat. “We’re in for the vacation of our lives!” Another round of shouts erupted and Eli honked loudly. “Hey, we know you’re excited, kids, but no ruckus!”

The Baum kids had been begging for this trip for ages. Eli had finally managed to get home from work early enough to take them, and they could hardly contain their excitement. Malky checked the schedule nervously again.

“The last ferry today leaves at 5:50. That’s in an hour. Do you think we’ll make it?”

“Relax,” Eli said, steering lazily with one hand. “It’s a half hour drive to the ferry. We’ll be there with plenty of time!”

After fifteen minutes of smooth driving, though, traffic became heavier and heavier until they were moving at about a mile an hour.

“Oh, no,” Eli groaned. “Look – it’s 5:00 – rush hour! We forgot to take that into account. But don’t worry, kids,” he added, seeing the disappointed looks on their faces. “We left half an hour early. We should be all right.”

But as the line of cars grew longer and longer, Eli’s heart sank. There was a construction site five miles down the road in addition to the influx of cars from the rush hour, and only one lane was open for a ten-mile stretch.

The Baum kids watched the clock nervously. 5:30-5:35-5:40–

“Another ten minutes,” whispered Malky to Eli. “Do you think we’ll make it?”

“Honestly, no,” muttered Eli. “It’s usually a ten minute drive from here, but with this traffic, no way. Should I turn back now?”

“No,” Malky decided. “If we do, we’ll always wonder if maybe we could have made it. Go on.”

But there really was no point. They reached the dock at 6:00 and found out tat the ferry had left right on schedule. Bitterly disappointed, the kids piled back in the car for the ride home. The quiet in the car was deafening. Eli glanced nervously at Malky. Malky gathered her courage.

“Do you remember the attack on the Twin Towers?” She asked. The kids looked up.

“Of course we do,” said Yocheved, the oldest. “What about it?” And why bring it up now? they all wondered.

“Well, remember all those stories afterwards? So many people had accidents, missed flights, you name it – but it all saved them from the attack!”

“Yeah,” said Yocheved excitedly. “What about the one where a man’s daughter broke her arm two months before and they had an appointment that day!”

“Look,” Malky said, “they were all so upset at first, but then they saw the amazing hashgacha pratis they had!”

They spent the rest of the ride telling all the hashgacha pratis stories they knew. By the time they got home, the kids were all smiles again.

The next morning, Yocheved listened to the radio intently. After the news report, she turned to Malky, puzzled.

“They didn’t say anything about the ferry,” she said.

“What’s there to say?” asked Malky, confused.

“Well, why did we miss it? It must have crashed or something!”

“Not true!” piped up Chani. “Maybe if we’d gone, we would have gotten seasick! Maybe anything! Just because we can’t see the reason doesn’t mean it’s not hashgacha pratis!”

By: D.B.
[I used the initials of my nickname, the name I use now, to hide the fact that about a third of the pieces in the issue were written by me….]

What I Would Say to Parents of OTD People

About a year ago, I was contacted by a rabbi I knew. He had been invited to speak at an event for parents of OTD children, and since he knew me and respected my opinions, he wanted to get my take on things.

His question to me [throughout, I have redacted any potentially identifying information]:

I’ve been invited to address a group of parents of “OTD’ers” … for a “Shabbos of Chizuk” … I have some vague thoughts about what I want to say, but I think it would be helpful for me to hear from you what message you would want to have delivered to such a gathering. As noted, the point of the Shabbaton is chizuk, so what I’m looking for is something constructive and positive.

I took some time to think about it and reached out to a few fellow OTD’ers / XOs. I sent him a numbered list of 14 points, prefaced with a brief statement and written as if I were addressing the parents themselves:

I think the best way for me to respond is to say a lot of what I’ve heard in various discussion groups, and what I think myself, about interactions between parents and children who have left. Not all of it is positive, but I can leave that part to you… And it would be disingenuous of me to put a religious spin on this, in any case. Also, most of these points are specific to people who left as adults, or as teenagers but without resorting to drugs, etc. With that in mind, here are some thoughts. I’ve tried to group them and order them in a way that flows, but this isn’t an essay after all, just a collection of thoughts…

1. Children are their own people, too – not just markers of parents’ success. Your life as a parent is not ruined because your child is not religious, and it’s not your “fault” that your child chose a different path.

2. Don’t make your child feel guilty for the pain their choices cause you. Telling your child how hard this is for you is not what you as a parent should be doing.

3. It was probably very difficult for your child to tell you they’re not religious. When it feels like your child completely rejected your lifestyle (which they may have done), realize that they trusted you enough to tell you they’re not religious. Also recognize at what point your child comes to you about it, and understand the amount of thought that goes into a decision like this. If they tell you they haven’t been religious for quite some time, it’s not a decision that is up for discussion. Attempting to reason with them now will not be effective, and will instead make them feel like you aren’t listening to them or respecting their choices or ability to act as an adult, to have agency as a person. This is a decision they made as an adult, and they’re making you aware of it, likely because they care about you and want your approval and respect even though they know there’s almost no chance of getting it now.

4. Recognize that’s it’s really hard to “go otd.” Going otd is not a quick answer to dissatisfaction. It’s not an “easy way out.” Once your child is otd, they are constantly in a position of having to prove to you and other frum people that their life is worth something without mitzvos (even when they feel no need to prove that to themselves because they already know their life is worth something).

5. Don’t destroy your family over your child’s choices. It won’t change your child’s convictions, but it will tear you apart. Make rules if necessary about what they can or can’t do in your home, but realize that rules won’t change your child’s life. The rules are there to ease the tension you feel when your child is around, and your child usually wants to ease your tension and will comply. Just don’t create rules that will add to the tension.

6. Listen to your children – it’s great to listen to what experts or rabbis are saying about how to show your child you still love them, but if your child says that won’t work in this case, trust the child. (For me, personally, it was very frustrating to hear Rabbi Horowitz saying again and again that Pesach is a time for family, and that parents should do everything they can to make sure their child comes home. Pesach is stressful for me and encapsulates so much about Yiddishkeit that I cannot stomach, so the best choice for making things work with me and my family was for me not to come home. But my parents continued to call and text and beg me to visit, even when I have explained numerous times in the past why I don’t want to. Most people do want to come home for yomim tovim, but parents should listen to their own child’s wishes, not just the rabbis’ views.)

7. Also listen to what they say about the reasons they left. Give them credit for thinking about it. Don’t assume it’s because of “taavos,” or because they just want to wear pants or just want to have sex or just want to eat a cheeseburger. It’s almost never that. Even when someone does leave because they want to “party,” it almost always runs deeper than just that. It could be an explanation your child feels more comfortable giving you, rather than a long, drawn-out fight about emunah.

8. It also could be defiance or trying to get you angry to make the separation easier – if you kick your child out, or in other ways indicate that your love and acceptance are conditional, they have an easier time of it, without having to figure out how to navigate the relationship with you… It’s also really difficult to completely separate from family, so what they really want from you is not to be kicked out. They have a choice between the anguish of an irreparable rift or the anguish of working things through. Either way, their choice is not easy.

9. It actually is possible for people to have intellectual reasons for leaving. The idea that people who claim to be atheists cannot possibly be atheists is not true. You may disagree with their beliefs, you may think they’re ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t carefully thought through their choices. Citing Rashi’s opinion about atheists at them [that every generation comes up with their own means of denying god in order to allow themselves to indulge in physical pleasures] will invalidate them as people with the ability to think and make choices for themselves.

10. The term “at risk” is so problematic because it encompasses people who are literally at risk of drug addiction and suicide in the same category as people who are not keeping shabbos. Separate them – they are not the same problem.

11. Some people have said they “went otd” in high school but hid it from their parents because they knew their parents would move them into an “at-risk” school, where many people don’t even graduate with a high school diploma. Admitting that you don’t keep shabbos could lead to never graduating high school because your parents would move you…. That’s so wrong.

12. While some people do leave because of abuse or trauma, a) just because a person has experienced abuse or trauma does not mean that’s the direct cause of them leaving; b) even if it is, don’t assume that healing the trauma will bring them back. You can’t turn back time, and a person’s entire trajectory is determined by every step and every choice they make. Maybe they’ll decide to be frum again, maybe they won’t. You should care about their trauma being healed because you want them to be whole and healthy and happy people, not because you want to bring them back. And most people can sense the difference in motivation…

13. You raised a child who either grew up and made personal choices, or struggled but survived and found a way not to give up on life – focus on the joy of that. You raised an adult, a person of integrity whose integrity manifests as the need to live their life according to their principles. If you disagree with their principles, that’s fine, but be proud you raised a person of such integrity.

14. Understand that your child can lead a productive life, even if it’s not the life you dreamed they would live. Adjust your dreams for them, when they grow up and start dreaming on their own. Try to help them be successful in the way they define success as an adult, even if that’s outside of Judaism.

The rabbi followed up, focusing on my prefatory remark about these points coming from people who left as adults or as teens who were not involved with drugs. He asked:

I wonder what response I might have received had I posed the question to someone who went off because she fell in with a bad crowd or because he was addicted to drugs or some other precipitating factor that has nothing to do with mature, intellectual choice. I don’t know the statistics, but am I right to assume that the majority of OTD cases fall into this latter category?

I wasn’t entirely pleased by the spin of this, although the group in question were mostly parents of “fell in with a bad crowd” type of OTD (ugh, that phrase). I also knew by this point that none of my reasoned responses were going to make it to the parents in any way. So I abandoned diplomacy, and wrote:

I can really only speak for myself and for those I know personally. And those tend to be people who followed similar paths as myself… So I can’t really speak to the experience of being a “troubled teenager” because in that sense, I wasn’t. (I was definitely a troubled teenager, but it manifested as trying to fit in rather than as lashing out and turning to drugs. Mostly, I think, because I was terrified – I bought into the narrative that no one outside the Jewish community will care about me, which is quite false.) But here are some thoughts about that:

Of course, I don’t know statistics either. But I did recently speak to a young girl who might seem to fall into the category of falling in with a bad crowd and getting addicted to drugs. That did happen to her, after all. But she only sought those out because she felt uncomfortable in her Bais Yaakov, started doubting some core beliefs in middle school. Because of “how will it look to the neighbors,” her parents insisted she go to a Bais Yaakov high school rather than a more YU-type high school. So by tenth grade, when she realized she would never fit in there, she started trying to find “her people.” She found people who accepted her – and gave her drugs. Now, she’s grown up enough to want a real life, to know what that is, and she’s in college. She’s gotten past the drugs and bad company. But she didn’t leave because she fell in with a bad crowd – she fell in with a bad crowd because she wanted to leave and didn’t know any other option.

Others I know (or know of) fell into bad company and got into drugs because their parents sent them to schools for “problem kids” when they started not putting on tefillin or wearing shorter skirts. Or when they were expelled from yeshiva or Bais Yaakov for skipping shacharis or keeping their tznius button open. Or being accused of being lesbian, whether or not that was true. Some girls were expelled or shamed for having a boyfriend when in fact the boy they were seen with was their brother or male cousin. What can they do after that, how can we blame them for falling in with a bad crowd or turning to drugs to dull the pain of rejection?

Maybe a point of chizuk for parents is to realize that their kids are still not adults. Teenagers will mess up – some worse than others. If we stop thinking of our children as “products,” especially if we allow them room to grow and to make mistakes, sometimes horrible mistakes, we can look forward to the future in which they do become adults. It may be horribly difficult now for parents to watch their children making horrible mistakes – but that’s adolescence. Their brains are not fully developed, and if parents (and schools) adjusted their expectations of how adolescents should behave, they could mitigate some of their own pain with the realization that this is a stage – not to say that it’s a stage and they’ll come back to Yiddishkeit, necessarily, but that it’s a stage in the development of any person. It’s a turbulent, tumultuous stage for anyone, religious or not. [NOTE: This, as I read it over again now, is perhaps the most important point in all of what I’ve written.]

In the Mishpacha a while back, in response to the OTD survey, Eitan Kobre wrote a scathing dismissal of the results. In that response, he included a line about how if you believe this survey’s results, OTD people are all altruistic and idealistic. On the whole, I have found this to be true. I know that many people who left as adults did so because of this directly, and even those who left because of drugs, even those who spent time on the streets as teenagers, have huge hearts and want to right wrongs in the world. There’s one girl I know who is … determined to work in child psychology and trauma. She spent her teenage years living on the streets and addicted to drugs and alcohol. I don’t know the exact details of how she got into drugs and alcohol, but I do know that she has a tremendous caring heart and is devoted to making people’s lives better. As a college student, she has … helped numerous people already.

I saw a video of someone (a well-known rabbi whose name I recognized but have forgotten just now, and can’t find the video again) speaking to a Flushing, Queens community about children at risk. He made many good points, and one which resonated with me was – people who turn to drugs or who suffer from depression or who are suicidal are often some of the most sensitive, caring people in the world. We feel the weight of the world, we want everyone to be happy, and we know that most of the time we can do nothing to make that happen. Sometimes the knowledge that the world is terrible to so many people, at home in our own communities and around the world, gets to be too much. While we have to be careful not to romanticize suffering and mental illness (“broken souls are more beautiful” is a wrong attitude on many levels), there is truth to this.

And I do hope that it gives parents chizuk if they can see their children as unique, sensitive, wonderfully caring people who just don’t know how to handle all that care and sensitivity. Because they’re still just adolescents!

For myself, yes, I left because of intellectual reasons. I tried for years to reconcile my intellectual doubts and bring them back in line with Orthodox Judaism.

But a large part of what I took issue with was the way in which Orthodox teachings seemed to care about some people more than others. I was sent to the school guidance counselor in fourth grade, and I was referred to a psychiatrist during my first year of teaching, my first year post-seminary. I was diagnosed as bipolar, and I was medicated and in therapy for seven years. About two years ago, my psychiatrist revoked the diagnosis of bipolar, and said that in fact my uncontrollable bouts of mania and depression were actually just my coping methods – I couldn’t bear the lie I was living, and I couldn’t bear the feeling of wrongness about what I was told is truth. When I witnessed conversations at friends’ weddings, when I had to fit into a mold or else be gossiped about, when I saw people who are wonderful not getting a shidduch and being whispered about, when people spoke of “am hanivchar” and meant that all others were trash – my heart broke, and I would get depressed. I attempted suicide three times before leaving (though my parents don’t know about this – the attempts never left serious effects).

I don’t know what chizuk I could offer to parents. My thoughts about this are more in line with telling parents to be better, to parent better, to see their children as separate people from them – not as extensions of their own lives – and to accept that their children will sometimes mess things up monumentally. And that when that happens, they still need to do their job as parents, and still need to care for their child – not for the neshama, not for the child who will bring them nachas, not for the kvelling from the rest of the community, not as a child who will bring good shidduchim for his siblings – but as a child, as a person who needs to be cared for, whose subjectivity and agency need to be respected.

His response:

Oy.

 

Ma Nishtana

Why do we do this, Tatty?
Mommy, please tell me why.
And why do we say this, Mommy?
Tatty, please tell me why.

K’dei die kinder zul’n fregen, mein kind –
so the children will ask,
we change our routine –
and we do all these things
so the children will ask.

But I’ve asked now, Mommy,
will you tell me why?
And I’ve asked now, Tatty,
will you tell me why?

K’dei die kinder zul’n fregen, mein kind –
and you’ve asked so well.
Our mesorah dictates
that the father should tell.

Will you give me an answer then?
Because I’ve asked so well?
Will you tell me everything,
all there is to tell?

Oh, mein kind, I have told you
all there is to tell.
We want children to ask,
and you’ve asked so well.

Tatteh leiben, ich vill dir fregen
But I want an answer too.
Ich hub gefregen die fir kashes –
questions I’ve asked of you.
Four and five and seven hundred questions
the whole seder through.
Bitte, enfer mir a teretz, Tatteh –
or is asking all I can do?

DocFile (8)
covering children’s curiosity with routine is untenable

Entry for Day 2 of NaPoWriMo.
Notes:

Pesach is framed as a holiday aimed at children – the purpose is to pass on the knowledge to the next generation. (Traditionally, the answer to the Ma Nishtana is “Avadim Hayinu,” we were slaves in Egypt and were redeemed.)

And yet so many times, when a child asks, the answer they’ll get is “ah, we wanted you to ask. We wanted to do things differently so the children would be curious and ask.” And there is no answer beyond that.

While I re-created some of my father’s seder for myself on the the second night of Pesach, I was texting with some friends who were at their parents’ sedarim. “Seder 2.0 is the worst,” one said. “Especially with the same people all over again – it’s just so repetitive.”

So what am I saying with all this? I don’t know. This isn’t an essay – it’s a poem with some musings for context. You decide what the poem means!

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My mini-seder on the second night of Pesach 2018.
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The original text of the page from which I created the blackout above.