UPDATE: I accidentally screwed up and posted an earlier draft of the interview with Gaius that got mixed up with the finished version. I will post the updated responses to the questions in red text. Sorry!
The second kofer we're meeting in our series, is Gaius Octavius, a single professional working in the financial services industry who lives in New York.*
Gaius grew up in a moderately prestigious yeshivish family but became a kofer as a teenager. However, he pretended to be frum for many years. Currently, he publicly lives an openly secular lifestyle except when he's around certain groups of people.
Here is my interview with Gaius.
* Some identifying details have been changed, as Gaius prefers to remain anonymous, for reasons that will become obvious shortly.
Can you describe the religious environment which you grew up in?
I grew up in a yeshivish community where secular education and knowledge were proscribed. However, English was my first language and I had more exposure to the outside world than if I was chassidish.
My family was yeshivish before it was common to be yeshivish. I have a grandfather who was a prominent rabbi. However, in a strange way, being from such a family probably meant that I was in an environment that made it easier to question frumkeit. The primary reason that frum people give why to believe is that even if you do not understand, there are rabbis who are much smarter than you who did figure everything out. But if you are around the people who are considered daas torah, it is easier to see that their motives are not always religious devotion but self interest.
What was the primary impetus for your decision to stop being frum?
It was an intellectual decision. I became an atheist when I was thirteen, when I was first exposed to the theory of evolution. Even after becoming an atheist, I never considered the possibility of leaving Orthodox Judaism; I never knew anyone who did, and as a thirteen year old, I could not imagine it could be done. I assumed I would spend the rest of my life living as an Orthodox Jew while secretly not believing any of Judaism's claims. It was only when I was older that I realized that I could leave.
When I was thirteen, I was in a boarding school, (yeshivish people call them “out of town yeshivas”) where no radios were allowed. I was always a curious sort, interested in world events, so I smuggled in a radio. I was already having doubts about what I was being taught, primarily gemara. The amoroim seemed so primitive in their understanding of the world, and we were supposed to believe they were all-knowing. I toyed with the idea of becoming a karaite, even though I assumed (falsely) that there were no karaim left for hundreds of years. I then became a tentative atheist after I decided Chumash itself seemed untrue. Then one night I heard Jay Diamond on WABC radio interview the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an evangelical Christian who was a “creationist” and a Catholic priest who believed in evolution. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was very persuasive (at least to a thirteen year old). But I was amazed by the fact that the Catholic priest believed in evolution. I was led to believe that people believed in evolution because they were hedonists who needed to deny god’s existence so they could pursue their immoral desires. Thus, I could not make sense of a priest believing in evolution for any reason other than that it was true. Because I believed that evolution was incompatible with the existence of god, I have remained an atheist ever since.
Did you ever encounter any rabbinic or religious figures that you felt addressed your questions in a satisfactory way?
No, I never asked. I thought it was best not to.
Did you ever meet anyone who might have been open to even hearing your questions?
No. But although I never asked, I knew exactly what answers I would have gotten had I asked.
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
Since I was young, I always hated pashas zachor. On the shabbos before Purim, everyone is required to hear the torah portion in which god requires the Jews to remember that the Amalek people attacked the Jews in the desert when they were wandering to the "promised land" and as such, the Jews should heed god's command to wipe out the Amaleki people. Even as a child, I thought genocide sucked, big time. I learned in yeshiva that I was required by god to hear every single word of pashas zachor. Thus, I would always cover my ears for one word to assure that I was violating the religious requirement to hear pashas zachor.
How did you family react to you becoming non-religious?
Actually, my parents don't know that I'm not frum. They think I'm "modern orthodox." I put on a yarmulke when I visit. They'd prefer that I be ultra-orthodox but they're accepting of the fact that I am not. Of course, they would be very disappointed if they knew that I am an atheist who does not observe anything, which is why I do not plan to ever tell them.
Of course, there are many hints that should clue them in, but denial is a powerful thing and the hints are simply ignored.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
I'm interested in learning about a lot of cultures, including Jewish cultures. I'm more likely to see films with a Jewish theme and I have a particular interest in Jewish life in places where Jews are an extremely small minority group. Note that I use the plural "cultures" because being Jewish has different meaning in different places and there is no such thing as a single "Jewish culture."
On the other hand, I find the Jewish religion to be meaningless to me. At the core of the belief is the idea that a god appeared at a mountain a few thousand years ago and said you are special people and if you just follow these special weird 613 rules, you will be blessed. I don't believe in that myth. When you take away the myths, there is simply no reason to see value in the Jewish religion.
Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?
I'm sure if I was more self aware I could come up with something, but offhand, I can't think of anything.
Now that you've left, how do you view the religious community?
It demands extreme conformity and a willingness to sacrifice the right to engage in independent thought. It must be comforting to believe that there are people that are much wiser than them and/or have a direct connection to god who have everything figured out. I could never believe in that, but for those who do, the community probably works fine.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all?
The biggest drawback is that I'm more distant from my family. This is to be expected of course, as I don't share in their joys the way they do. When my sister tells me excitedly how her kid is making a siyum mishnaois at his bar mitzvah, I feign happiness while secretly thinking, he's a smart kid, why couldn't he spend his time learning something useful like AP algebra.
With that said, I never regret for a moment my decision to leave. If I had to do things over, the only thing that I would have done differently is that I would have left earlier on. It's emotionally hard to live the double life.
Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult?
Dating is more difficult. At some point, I would like to marry and have children. Many women are put off by my background and bothered by the fact that me marrying might somehow impact my relation with my parents (who expect me to only marry a religious Jew, being that they think I am modern Orthodox.) As such, I prefer dating people who are more liberal minded but also come from a culturally conservative background. They can relate to the conflict I feel.
I often joke that when I meet women I want to say that I am an orphan; it would make my life much simpler. But I obviously would never start a relationship based on dishonesty.
Can you name something you are currently doing in your life that would have been difficult, if not impossible, in your former life?
Exposing myself to a multi-cultural environment in which I could have close friendships with people from diverse backgrounds. I am really interested in other people's experiences, (I should have been a sociologist), so cultural diversity is important to me.
What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?
The world outside of ultra-orthodoxy isn't monolithic so it's hard to say. I can only comment on the portion of it that I've interacted with. With that said, I found that it's more carefree and less intellectual than I expected. You would think people who have greater freedom to think would take advantage of it, but many do not. I guess its like when the Eastern European counties became democratic. In the first election, everyone voted, but after a while, people took it for granted and fewer people did.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you'd like to correct?
I think that there are a lot of misconceptions, but I'm past the point that I care to address them.
When you left the frum world, were there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?
I became a non-believer at such a young age that I really don't remember buying into this caricatured view of general society. I actually have difficulty articulating how I perceived "general society." Thus, I can't really say whether those perceptions were true or not.
What's the best thing about not being frum?
The ability to read and say what I want without having to worry about whether it's kefira (heresy) or is in violation of communal beliefs.
What's the best thing that you recall about being frum?
Cheesecake on Shavous. We associate the yom tovim with heavy fleishig meals so having a milchig meal on Shavous was great.
Are there any parting words you'd like to tell the frum world?
No, because I don't think that they would listen. From a very early age, frum people are raised with the idea that everything about the frum world is the greatest. They take a lot of pride in that belief. Thus, they engage in irrational denial when faced with the possibility that not everything is so perfect in their utopia.
Update: Gaius posted a follow-up the following week.