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Miss Liberty: Escaping Orthodoxy

Susan Reimer-Torn
November 24, 2012

by Susan Reimer-Torn
My husband wonders why I am so withdrawn. Like a prodding parent, he wishes I would show off my Jewish education. It is true that I can read Aramaic and my Hebrew is altogether literate, but on this day I choose to be silent; invisibility, were it possible in this unsparing light, would suit my mood even better.
What is happening to me, the zealot’s runaway daughter? Why am I here, mid-week, at a lunch-time Talmud class in a conference room in one of New York’s most muscular law firms?
There is the appeal of the teacher, Rabbi Rolando (Roly) Matalon, the sweet and soulful, soccer-mad Argentinean import who heads the liberal Upper West Side’s B’nai Jeshurun. There is also the irresistible course title he has chosen: “Perversion and Holiness, Stories of the Talmudic Rabbis.” Still, the last time I beheld a Talmudic text was some forty years ago, when I was 17 and cramming for the final high school exam. Having not followed a word the Talmud teacher had said for weeks, I was counting on my best friend Lilah to decode the crowded, squiggly black letters into streams of logic in a couple of pre-exam all-nighters. She did so faithfully, both of us sprawled on the floor of my bedroom along with graham cracker and salty pretzel crumbs. Kneeling over the weighty tome, Lilah would draw for me a coherent line through the cryptic, circuitous text. She did not even mind when I managed to match her own fine score in the next morning’s exam.
We parted after senior year, she going off to Israel, me to college and then to France. A decade ago, I was still living in France, and Lilah was dying of brain cancer in Florida.
We are on the phone, Ft. Lauderdale to Paris, discussing details of her upcoming burial. About to enter hospice, Lilah needs help with a logistical problem. A survivor of breast cancer, she purchased her burial plot in New Jersey years before, taking advantage of “a good deal.” After her burial up north, she says, her three girls will have no place to sit the first few days of shiva. Of course, I tell her, they can use my place in Manhattan. Then she warns me: Her middle daughter, 26, pregnant and the mother of three, is married to a fiercely pious ba’al teshuva, a humorless, take-no-prisoners, born-again Jew. He will commandeer the apartment and the proceedings; her daughters and I will have nothing to say.
Lilah is amazingly lucid for someone whose brain has been invaded by unshrinkable tumors. She reminds me that I will have to find high necklines, low hemlines and long sleeves. We laugh about the imperative to hide “our irresistible elbows and knees,” even more so “our incendiary armpits.” Her son-in-law, I must understand, will erect a makeshift mekhitse (partition) in my living room to separate the men and women. There may well be times when the zealot deems it unacceptable for women to appear at all. I see myself banished to the hinterlands of my own apartment by a dark-bearded, 28-year-old kid glowering at me from under his brimmed black hat. Although I don’t ask, I am certain there will be no option for any of us lowly females to recite the kaddish. The son-in-law, a newcomer to Orthodoxy, will be the self-appointed proxy to hastily mumble the prayer that shepherds Lilah’s soul to the higher spheres, while the three daughters she single-handedly raised will be obediently silent.
I reply to her in Hebrew:“Of course, b’seder, however you want it to be.” Then I am silent in anticipation of all that is to come.
“I’m here.”
“Just take it lightly.” After a pause: ”Have a good laugh on me and the irony of life.”
The urge to defy the Orthodoxy in which Lilah and I were raised felt like something subterranean, an undertow. Yet as soon as we dared a little taboo busting (who can forget the first electric light defiantly switched on during the Sabbath day?), the tug turned into a riptide that carried us further from the safety of familiar shores, faster and more irreversibly than we ever intended.
We were 17 when we met that Sunday on Upper Broadway for a premeditated foray into the forbidden. It was a blustery autumn day, the clocks had been turned back, and the withered leaves were being whipped up into a circle dance by the chilly winds off the Hudson. We hooked eyes over a streaky Formica table in the recesses of a Four Brothers coffee shop.
“You haven’t changed your mind?”
Lilah shook her head of kinky dark curls.
“You’re doing it because you want to, right, not because of me?”
Lilah nodded, her blue eyes dilating behind her thick-rimmed glasses.
I steeled myself on her uncontrite expression, hoping mine was equally unflinching. Lilah paused to douse her burger with ketchup, as if she were already well-established in the routine. Then, on unspoken cue, we raised the non-kosher hamburgers toward virgin lips . . .
Breaking away meant closing our eyes and taking the greasy plunge. Weeks earlier, it had meant stopping our hearts from exploding while sticking out our thumbs, daring to hitchhike into Manhattan while our families assumed we were just out for a walk in the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood where everyone from our world was sleepwalking in a full-bellied Sabbath haze. We had speed-walked several blocks out of the parameters of the many shabes strollers towards a main thoroughfare. I had stepped out into the street and, just to make Lilah laugh, raised my skirt to show off my ankles the way we’d seen naughty girls do in old films.
A low-slung Chevy skidded to a stop. The driver was wearing a battered leather jacket strewn with cigarette ashes. “Where ya headed, girls?”
“We don’t really know,” I said.
“We just wanna go that way,” Lilah offered, pointing to the skyline across the river.
“Goin’ nowhere fast, huh?” The guy smiled in an understanding way.
We scrambled into the back seat, and squeezed each other’s hands as the car levitated over the East River. We were flying over a bridge, crossing the Great Divide, soaring across the sparkling water. In the back seat, the stuffing had popped out of a rip in the upholstery, and I imagined someone slashing it with a knife, maybe in the heat of a scuffle. Out there on the other bank of the river, clearly visible from the bridge, the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan gleamed like gates of a forbidden city.
As soon as we touched down, we scurried to the subway to make our way back home to Brooklyn from the Other Side. We arrived just in time for the havdalah service separating the holy Sabbath from the other days of the week. Lilah brandished the braided candle high, not flinching even when the wax drippings singed her tightly clenched fingers. She reminded me of Miss Liberty, ample, grounded, reassuring yet defiant, holding her torch high in the midst of all that shimmering water.
From the windows on the 38th floor, with a xeroxed page of Talmud and its English translation spread before me this lunch hour, I can again glimpse Miss Liberty way out there in the harbor. I’m quiet still, remembering how when Lilah got to Israel after our high school graduation, she gave birth to — and was immediately forced to give up — a girl baby. After that, she hastily married a shiftless Romanian handyman with whom she shared no spoken language. He promised to help her get her baby back, but, of course, never did. Within three years, she mothered three more daughters, and before long she was raising them on her own.
By the time Lilah was nearly 50, long-divorced and battling her second bout with cancer, two of her three daughters had returned to Orthodoxy. Only the eldest, Talia, who did most of the hands-on caregiving when Lilah got sick, was not (yet) so inclined. Their home in Florida was my haven from many a sunless European winter over the years. Talia and I would bike and roller-blade along the funky Hollywood boardwalk, find a secluded place to smoke a joint and listen to the Grateful Dead, and swim out in long strokes beyond the waves while Lilah, tickled by my intergenerational friendship with her daughter, waited with a book and ample snacks, often mommy-ing my own two little boys under an oversized umbrella near the shore.
In December of that millennium year, I was back in New York, visiting from France, when Talia called from Florida to tell me that Lilah had decided to stop taking her meds. She knew her situation was beyond the help of medical science and saw no reason to burden her final days with a regimen of pharmaceuticals. I told a panicked Talia to respect her mother’s decision — Lilah had always carved her own path. We would be leaving her this dignity of choice, even if it shortened what was left of her life.
I returned once again to New York from Paris in time for Lilah’s New Jersey burial. I put on a long though not shapeless skirt and covered my head with a gold and turquoise, Lanvin-print scarf that Lilah had once offered me as a gift. For three days, I gave my home over to the tribe of loveless black hats and, as promised, made not a peep of protest. Although the men’s eyes never met mine, their surly coldness declared their resentment — or was it confusion? — that God, in whose volunteer army they served 24/7, had seen fit in His unfathomable way to inflict them with ungovernable females. They yanked and clunked the antique couch that sat against the wall into a makeshift mekhitse cutting the living room in half diagonally. Although the kitchen was vegetarian, every morsel of food was wrapped in layers of aluminum while some woman kept my stove burners lit for hours to burn away any impurity.
One night, Liz, the aged cat I was keeping for a friend, wandered out and took up her perch on the displaced sofa. Liz had lived a long life, and she was ornery, conditioned to fighting off foes, real or imagined. Weeks before the shiva, she had claimed a corner of the sofa as her rightful place. Not one of the men could stand up to her snarling refusal to be displaced. That night, wearing quilted mitts, I had to scoop her up before one of the men kicked her in the sagging belly. Another night, the intercom gave out and a bearded man stationed himself like a brooding sentry in the lobby; my discomfited neighbors shared the elevator with legions of black-vested men. There was never a word of gratitude from the black hats, though Lilah’s three girls constantly expressed their thanks.
“Suzi,” I kept telling myself, “do as she said: just take it lightly, enjoy the irony, have a good laugh on life.”
I’m not sure if the Talmudic material we are studying with Rabbi Roly is what I would call perverse, but it certainly is highly unusual. In the seventh chapter of the Bava Metzia tractate, we are introduced to a revered rabbi who has an innocent man arrested and then cuts off his own flesh to see if it will rot in the sun. He declares the non-rot to be proof of his vindication in the nasty affair. Next, we read of some rabbis engaged in a bragging contest about the size of their sex organs. Then there’s a rabbi who preens like a peacock in front of women emerging from the mikve (ritual bath). He is there, he insists, to encourage amorous feelings within couples, and because the sight of his own beauty will foster the birth of beautiful babies.
Next comes the passage in which the reputation of Rabbi Eleazar, son of R. Simeon, is impugned by the carelessness with which he performs his duty of authorizing sexual intercourse between married couples after the obligatory period of abstinence during and following a woman’s menstrual flow. According to Orthodox Jewish law, marital relations are strictly forbidden during menstruation and for seven days afterwards, at the conclusion of which specimens of vaginal discharge must be examined and, when of questionable purity, presented for the okay of the community rabbi (or, as more common, the rabbi’s hapless wife). In his case, Rabbi Eleazar is suspected of having too hastily approved specimens. He counters with proof of his rigor: After all, in each and every case (sixty in all), the couple resumed relations and nine months later were all the proud parents of a new baby boy. (And all sixty, he adds, were named after him!)
There is some murmured confusion among my fellow lunchtime students. I speak up loudly, and for the first time: Had the post-menstrual discharge been ritually unclean, I explain, the result would have been the birth of a baby girl rather than the coveted boy. Females are the living result of haste and transgression. We arise from impurity; our essence is the issue of a bloodstain.
I am not sure how the others sitting around the big conference table, their paper plates piled with fruit salad and bloated tea bags, are relating to these bizarre Talmudic tales, but I’m beginning to appreciate the unflinching honesty of the compilers. There’s one in which the preening rabbi and his spiritual son, a repentant thief, suddenly begin insulting each other over a minor legalistic dispute. Repressed anger and long-buried resentment erupt into a quarrel that results in their untimely deaths — from heartache, an overdose of unconscious passions and a sad inability to forgive.
How many of our group personally know about such dangerously repressed emotions and wild explosions of wrath? I do, having spent seventeen years withstanding my own father’s uncontrollable rages and radical mood swings. In fact, many of those most revered for their leadership in working-class Orthodox communities had a fiercely furious dark side. They clung to their religious practice like Odysseus tied to the mast, binding themselves with leather tfillin straps against spasmodic bursts of aggression.
There was my friend Hesh’s father, the revered, white-robed, guest rabbi from Yeshiva University who deigned to lead our modest but fervent community in the High Holiday services each year. I remember him rushing by in august haste, tall and flushed, securing the cord around his white, flowing robe. Later on, during my teen years, there was tragic news that he had lost his first-born son, Hesh’s older brother, on the operating table during a repair of the boy’s congenital heart ailment — and then, in a nightmarish incident shortly after, Hesh had been jumped by some Puerto Rican hoodlums and beaten so badly that he was laid up for days.
It would not have occurred to Hesh and me to speak or even to look one another in the eye over the great gender divide ­— but fast-forward a decade or two and we found ourselves romantically involved as members of an ad hoc mid-1970s subculture of Orthodox refugees who were floating Chagall-like through a kaleidoscopic wonderland of a world. Hesh told me, then, of his father’s inconsolable sorrow-turned-to-brutal-rage over the loss of “the wrong son” — and how it was the father, not the Puerto Ricans, who had beaten Hesh to a pulp.
One steamy night, sitting half way up in our rumpled bed, Hesh also told me the story of Elisha ben Abuyah, an esteemed religious leader who abruptly turned apostate and became known as The Akher, the Other. Now, in the sterility of a corporate conference room, that long-forgotten tale is retold.
One Saturday afternoon, the Akher flamboyantly rides through town in defiance of the Sabbath laws. His disciple Rabbi Meier runs alongside the horse lost in urgent discussion and oblivious to time and space. When they are about to exceed the Sabbath limits, the Akher cautions Rabbi Meier to turn back: A bat kol, a voice from the hidden sphere beyond the veil, he explains, has called out that all erring children should return — all errants, that is, except the Akher.
Hesh and I, two exiles from Orthodoxy, shared a fascination for this figure, who is unabashed in profligacy yet with a depth of wisdom so unique that a student destined to be a great teacher still wants to study with him, even if he has to trot breathlessly alongside horse and rider on the Sabbath day. If the Akher truly does not believe in the authority of rabbinic law, why does he care about Meier’s imminent transgression? Why does he not urge his student to throw off the yoke and join him on the other side? How can the outlook of a great sage who has renounced the abiding authority of God still be dictated by a bat kol presumed to emanate from God’s abode? Hesh and I loved to get entangled in these sorts of impossible contradictions between making love in the wee hours.
In Talmud class this midday, I learn something I had not known before. Rabbi Meier’s continuing devotion to his heretical master is questioned by some and justified by others. His defenders compare the Akher to a pomegranate: Perhaps, they suggest, the Akher’s essence did not change, only his exterior, and Meier ate only of the the Akher’s internal seeds while knowing to throw away the peel.
Does the distinction between the inner and the outer person suggest that certain emotional quirks, inadvertent traumas, or otherwise transitory determinants of our nature allow certain people to steadily maintain faith, while the same “external” (or personality-linked) factors make it impossible for others? Does this imply that the souls of those who stray from observance may remain untainted in their essence?
Lilah, Hesh, and I spent many hours exploring what it was that made us different from those in our community who never strayed. Our awakening intellects constructed well-reasoned arguments against the basic tenets of Orthodox faith. Our youthful zest for living burst the narrow confines of the permitted. The late ’60s deconstructed all previous cultural assumptions, and a deadening, doubt-riddled faith was no match for a world in the throes of turning on, dropping out and loving freely. Yet there were those who lived out the upheavals with their ingrained commitment to Judaism unchanged — there were, after all, those who survived the death camps with their ingrained commitment unchanged — and there were others who were involved early on, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with pioneering attempts to revive and renew the Jewish tradition. We wanted no part of it. What accounted for rebel-hearts like ours? What made it impossible for us to draw near?
Rabbi Roly is saying that sometimes there is a controversy in the Talmud that cannot be resolved. I hear myself saying “Taiku” out loud, recalling: During the all-night study sessions with Lilah, after a pitilessly long trek through the maze of each player’s particular take on legal logic, sometimes the intellectual jousting would wind down into a carefully wrought conclusion. Other times, no matter how many angles we considered from, it was not possible to come to a consensus. In these instances, the Talmud would invoke a single word to relieve the over-stimulated cortex: Taiku, meaning, “Let it stand.”
Roly is explaining that Taiku is an acronym for the coming of Elijah, he who will someday answer all questions and resolve all disputes. In fact, there is a tradition that each of us will be granted the privilege of asking Elijah one question, just one. I will ask Elijah to help me find meaning in my still-unfolding life journey. Until his coming, all we can do is clumsily conduct our own investigations into the mysteries of individual journeys, purpose and fate.
Both of my friends died in their mid-50s, neither living long enough for me to share my return to lunch-time Talmud classes. But neither Hesh nor Lilah would have been surprised. Like the Akher, not one of us could have considered resuming an Orthodox way of life, but we would have enjoyed a late night discussion about the pomegranate and the Jewish Question. The call of an ultimate concern is not so easily silenced — there is a bat kol, an audible voice from behind the veil, beckoning and broken, haunting and harsh, that always remains — even if the answer, again and again, is Taiku, let it stand.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.