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by Susan Reimer-Torn
From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
FAIGY MEYER BECAME a tabloid headline last July when she leapt to her death from a Manhattan rooftop bar. Faige (shown below) was not a fictional character, nor did she write a memoir. She was a 30-year-old woman who had left behind her ultra-Orthodox upbringing for a secular life some six years before. Friends said she carried a darkness within that she could not dispel. Since I, too, broke with the Orthodox world of my childhood, I empathized with Faigy’s self-rejection and despair. I imagine that there were days when she felt brave and determined, possibly even powerful and free, but on that summer day when she took the fatal plunge in the Flatiron district, Faigy had once again lost her faith. This time, it was not her faith in religious doctrine but in her own worthiness to live.
Back when I was Faigy’s age, I rarely told people from non-religious backgrounds of my Orthodox origins. Organized religion (as opposed to “spirituality”) was in such disrepute among flower children of the 1970s that it seemed futile to explain where I hailed from and why it hurt so much to leave it behind. Today, however, I am among a cohort of women authors contributing to a successful wave of tell-all, up-from-Orthodoxy memoirs. How has the social climate changed to champion our success? What is it we have to say about the larger issues of religious fundamentalism, patriarchy’s power, women as catalysts for change, and the current schism in the Jewish world around these very issues? And why are today’s readers drawn to our stories? Are these memoirs harbingers of a turning point in an increasingly global, ideological conflict between religious fundamentalism and modern society?
The books consistently trace an arc from their authors’ origins as obedient daughters, through conflicted adolescence, into a full-flowering womanhood in which they seek autonomy of worldview and lifestyle. Their stories are marked by a slow-simmering awareness of their own dissenting spirits, a terror of the unavoidable consequences, and admirable, sometimes sacrificial, courage. For every freedom gained, there is a cutting emotional loss; in some cases, the price a woman pays for her freedom is the right to maintain contact with her own children.
There are, of course, important differences in the stories. Some transitions are smoother, some rockier and more haunted; some of the writers find greater fulfillment in their new lives, others are more bereft. The personalities and preferences of each author emerge within these narrative distinctions, but the overall social significance of their reports lies in the dissident trajectory that they share.
The books owe their appeal in part to the public’s curiosity about daily doings within these hermetic Jewish communities. Uninitiated readers anticipate passing through closed doors. But since the authors, as females, are themselves excluded from central activities such as study, prayer, and leadership, they report from the excluded side of the gender partition. The early action takes place in bedrooms shared with sisters, in all-girls schools, in women’s synagogue balconies, and in their aunts’ and grandmothers’ kitchens, where the girls are indoctrinated in the lavish preparation of food for others.
ALL THE AUTHORS agree that the ultra-Orthodox community’s main obsession is with tsnius, the imperative of female modesty. In Deborah Feldman’s debut book, Unorthodox, the word “ervah” is written in big block letters on the blackboards of the Satmar school she attends. Ervah refers to the exposure of any part of a woman’s body that must be covered — in public, essentially all but hands, feet, and face. Girls must avoid ervah, and this not so much for their own sake as for the sake of the men, whose moral fitness is paramount. “Any time a man catches a glimpse of any part of your body that the Torah says should be covered, he is sinning,” Feldman’s teacher repeatedly warns. “But worse, you have caused him to sin. It is you who will bear the responsibility of his sin on Judgment Day.”
All of these authors chafe under the community’s tight control of their sexuality. As little girls, they are often pampered, adorned, and cherished; they are encouraged to dress well, and there is even a certain indulgence of materialism — clothes are expensive and carefully chosen. At the first sign of puberty, however, the same girls are abruptly marginalized. With the onset of menstruation, they are completely objectified as soon-to-be brides for arranged bridegrooms, ideally by age 18.
In Chaya Deitsch’s affectionate depiction of her Lubavitcher upbringing in Here and There, it is her older cousin’s transformation from maiden to bride, from light-hearted companion to sober and subservient mate, that seals Deitsch’s determination to seek another lifestyle. In Uncovered, by Leah Lax, a lesbian writer not born into ultra-Orthodoxy, the narrative opens with the wedding that she herself insists upon when she chooses a Lubavitcher lifestyle over the liberal laissez-faire culture of her flummoxed parents. Years later, after playing out the roles of dutiful mother and wife, Lax finally claims her sexual orientation and goes her own way.
As these women tell it, a relentless regime of mind control seals off the community from corrupting outside influences, which means living in a pre-Enlightenment, self-imposed ghetto. Many community members speak only in Yiddish; secular education is minimal; radios, TV and the Internet are off-limits; most non-sacred books are forbidden. Non-religious music and magazines, trips to the public library, and conversations with outsiders are also forbidden sources of contamination. Elders are on the lookout for any impulse, expression, or act that deviates from piety. Rebellion is a sure sign of surrender to the yetzer hara, the “evil inclination,” and brings with it terrible repercussions.
In Anouk Markovits’ I am Forbidden, Mila, a Holocaust survivor who saw her parents killed before her eyes as a child, is told that every self-abnegating act of piety will hasten the messiah, whose coming will resurrect her parents. With the stakes so high, how can she possibly stray from the path?
WHILE MEN are subjected to the same regime, it is women who, due to their very nature, are under constant suspicion. Their sexuality is the most powerful destabilizer, but curiosity, openness, and a tendency to think in terms other than black-and-white are also threats to the established order.
Self-sacrifice is the ultimate womanly virtue. Feldman recoils from this when her teacher offers as a role model Rachel, the saintly wife of the Talmud’s Rabbi Akiva: “Rachel,” the relentless tsnius teacher declares, “once stuck pins in her calves to keep her skirt from lifting in the breeze and exposing her knee caps.” By the time Feldman is sent to a psychiatrist for her insubordination and maladjustment, the reader is already clear where the madness lies, and we cheer for young Deborah, as we would for anyone who flies high over the cuckoo’s nest.
Self-sacrifice flows seamlessly into sexual submission. Its roots are deep in the misogynistic culture that the women reject — and internalize. I know one London-based artist who has remained within her Orthodox community while anonymously created a series of drawings of Orthodox women in states of sexual bondage. She once told me she preferred to speak of bondage and domination plainly, and to render visible a mostly denied psychological syndrome, rather than living the cultural lie that it does not exist.
Submission easily morphs, as well, into masochism. Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood is a stark and unsparing account of her psycho-sexual misadventures once her family cruelly rejects her for simply exchanging letters with a boy. On her own in New York City at the age of 17, with barely enough money for food, she subjects herself to self-mutilation and sexual exploitation.
Vincent reminds us that even when women consciously reject institutionally sanctioned misogyny, its toxic messages still hold sway. The more Vincent senses her sexual allure, the more she wants to be punished for it. Desperate for the attentions of a Rastafarian drug dealer who rapes her, she says, “I had been groomed to handle men — God, my father, my future husband — with relentless worship. I carried that lesson from my childhood into my relationship with Nicholas and beyond, like a butterfly dragging its cocoon.”
Defying her upbringing by going off to college and sleeping with non-Jewish men, Vincent remains observant for a surprisingly long time. Then she discovers cutting.
Too much. Too much. Too fucking much. I couldn’t hold all the emotion in my body. The pressure was mounting. I needed to let it all out. My pink plastic razor sat on the edge of the bathroom sink... The cutting gave me such release, I returned to it again and again. And thanks to my long sleeves, no one saw the railroad of bloody tracks that made their way up and down my arms.
Her self-loathing hits a nerve in me in more ways than one, and is typical of escapees from religious cults, although not limited to them, as the prevalence of anorexia and cutting among young women of all backgrounds attests. These memoirs embody the tension between self-hating and self-affirming autonomy, the always-uneasy balance between emancipation and promiscuity as young women come of age.
Taken together, the books offer a particularly courageous spin on the classical coming-of-age narrative. Born with little access to resources and power, raised to feel inherently impure and inferior, each of these women becomes the author of her own destiny. It is not too much to say that they are forging a new feminist archetype of a heroine’s journey, in which the young woman triumphs not by slaying external foes but by cultivating a critical and deconstructing gaze on all that they once thought to be true.
Each author offers her own version of the gradual if steady process of alienation from cult and community. Their stories are testimonials to intuitive, sometimes brilliant, minds that will not be shut down by intellectual starvation, of core identity emerging in an environment entirely hostile to its health.
Each woman describes her hunger to live with more personal freedom. In Markovits’ novel, I am Forbidden, a young Atara “wondered whether a secret passageway might link her to the outside world.” Feldman writes, “I feel a strong and desperate desire to bridge the chasm. There is nothing more dangerous, but I am drawn to the mystery of the foreign world so close to my own and yet so far away.”
IT ALL BEGINS with breaking the first taboo and the slowly dawning, life-shifting realization that the sky will not fall. Taboo-busting begins as a much deliberated idea in the mind. In my own book, Maybe Not Such a Good Girl, I describe my approach-avoidance hesitation before finally tearing and using a piece of uncut toilet paper on the Sabbath. Flushing away the incriminating evidence, “I watch the waters rush with a dizzying thrill.”
The best of the memoirs communicate the tension between alienation and a never-assuaged grief for all that has been lost.
Deitch, however, softens the conflict to an extent that I find irritating. Her title, Here and There, and even more so her subtitle, Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family, make the unconvincing case for her ability to leave a traditional world while not forfeiting its warmth. She writes in her introduction, “Mine is not a narrative of escape,” but it most certainly is: Her family hardly embraces any of her choices, and she cannot easily visit their circumscribed world. Perhaps Deitch has not fully metabolized the reality of her rupture, but she alone among these writers seems to deny herself and her liberation as radical.
Anouk Markovits handles the schism between the part that leaves and the part that stays in a more sophisticated way. While fiction, I Am Forbidden has clear autobiographical elements: When the French-born Markovits was sent from Paris to enter an arranged Satmar marriage in Williamsburg, she fled, striking out to make a whole new life for herself, alone in the New World. In her gripping and poetic book, she presents not one, but two women: Atara, raised in Brooklyn by Satmar parents, breaks with her past, while her adopted sister, the Hungarian-born Mila, stays, bound by the promise that her piety will revive her murdered parents.
Atara is unable to accept simplistic platitudes of faith and longs to study medicine. When her father forbids her to attend college, she decides to leave. As if speaking to a still clinging part of herself, she breaks the terrible news to her shocked sister: “Dead people cannot be brought back to life.” Then Atara flees her home, hurrying down the stairs with her father’s curse echoing in her ears: You will fail at whatever you undertake. You will sink from one depravity to the next. You will wander the world and never find a home.
Like Atara, any woman who walks out on the established patriarchal order is bucking her father’s curse — “father” being the biological male progenitor and/or the Father in Heaven, whose authority the biological father enforces. She is in revolt against a codified sexist hierarchy: God is to man as man is to woman. Nothing less than the intertwined values of Divine law and manhood are on the line, these to be furiously defended against the demonized female.
When a woman intuits the illegitimacy of this socio-religious power structure in which she has been raised, she has a few choices: She can internalize inferiority and go along with the male-dominant credo; she can live a life of daily conflict; she can leave. Nowhere is the personal more political than in these memoirs.
In my own, I wrote about a
subterranean, unspoken counter-knowledge, a heterodox truth alluded to in whispers, hinted at in hushed laughter... We daughters frequently intuit the fragility of our fathers. We understand that the established order has been imposed in order to restore to men a power base they do not come by naturally. And You Will Love the Lord Thy God... But what if, in the formative experiences of your coming of age, you glimpse that your might is mightier than His? What if, venturing a world-shattering step further, you find that your might is His undoing?
BACK IN THE 1970s, the Orthodoxy I lived within was far less extreme than today’s. It demanded observance of halakha, Jewish law, but we young women were nonetheless encouraged to partake of education and career, even if Sabbath observance, kashrut, a proper marriage, and family concerns all came first. This orientation is known today as “modern Orthodox.” By contrast, the ultra-Orthodox have moved so far into fundamentalism — and with a tinge of violence, in Israel but not only in Israel — that the testimony of these breakaway authors takes on a must-tell urgency and powerful cultural resonance. Critic Laura Blum says of this literary wave, “They are having their Arab Spring.” The parallels are persuasive — these writers and artists are in the avant-garde sounding the first notes of a call for self-determination. The analogy is also sobering.
Dissidents who strike out for an alternative lifestyle without adequate support systems or workable models are courting chaos. The ensuing terror can lead the less stable to leap from rooftops. (As I write, Faigy Meyer’s younger sister was found to have hanged herself after learning of an arranged marriage.) There is also the problem of replacing the old system of close community ties, clear religious values and ultimate Truths, with something equally satisfying. An often-boorish culture of conspicuous consumption does not nourish the uprooted soul, and it takes time to find peace and fulfillment in a world without absolutes. The gradual reknitting of meaning, connection, and purpose in a secular environment, in which banality often overwhelms inspiration, is a challenge with which we all can identify.
These writers emerge from a world in which the lines between religious piety and “secular depravity” are clearly drawn. Are they able to create some kind of synthesis between opposing worldviews, or must they renounce any identification with a tradition they have experienced as abusive? When they first break free, many commonly avoid Judaism as well as any other form of spirituality. Gradually, however, several have found a way to live some form of a Jewish life. Leah Lax says, “I’ve now returned to a deep ethnic sense of identifying as a Jew.” She and her wife Susan celebrate Passover together with a hagode that Lax has written. Deborah Feldman speaks of living a life that “incorporates the best of Judaism,” and sends her young son to a religious school. When Chaya Deitsch passes a Lubavitcher proselytizer on Fifth Avenue, rather than cringe, she feels “protective of this sincere teenager” and wants to save him from the snarls of other Jews.
In a recent interview, Leah Vincent lamented how the ultra-Orthodox world, while claiming to represent authentic Judaism, has turned its back on centuries of Jewish affinity for debate, philosophical sophistication, a nuanced sense of ethics, and a historical openness to foreign cultures. Instead, it has retreated to a pre-Enlightenment mindset of tribalism, fear, and patriarchal rigidity. The resulting disregard for human dignity (based on recognizing the Divine spark in every individual) and disdain for the pleasures of God’s creation violate fundamental tenets of mainstream Judaism. Vincent remarks, “I would have expected more depth, more compassion, more deliberation and charity.”
The authors also sound a note of caution, perhaps unintentionally, to Orthodox feminists who see themselves as working for gender equality “from within” while still tolerating endemic, systemic inequality. The maharat (woman leader) who has an education equal if not superior to most rabbis accepts refusal of the rabbinic title simply because of her gender; she accepts the anomaly of leadership that still does not qualify her to be counted as a person in a minyan, a prayer quorum. These memoirs offer warnings to such a woman against compromise and against legitimizing sexism through concessions.
In these women, we hear the voices of humanity refusing to be stifled. They have risked all primarily for personal freedom. As a by-product, they are rescuing normative Jewish values from extreme perversion. By daring to say “no” to tyranny, they are calling out for enlightenment from a dark and dangerously distorted religious landscape. Their lives and work shine a light on a path that hopefully will soon be much-traveled.
Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: A Memoir of Rupture and Return, published by our Blue Thread Books.