Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?I grew up in Crown Heights, in a large Lubavitch family. My parents were baalei teshuvah and very strict about everything. Despite their deep religious beliefs, I grew up in a house that regularly received the New York Times, which I read voraciously. So, while I was being raised and being schooled in a strict environment, I was constantly exposed to different schools of thought, the arts, and culture in general via the Times. However, when I got married I left the strict Lubavitch community and moved into a more modern-orthodox style of Judaism that my husband was raised with.
Is there any incident, idea, or experience that you can relate which captures the religious tone of your home?
My parents equated the big things with the small. Eating before Kiddush was a big one; I may as well have been eating treif. I can't recall a specific punishment for such a transgression, just the disappointment it would have evoked in my mother. Another thing that was a big deal to them that bothered me intensely was tznius, wearing tights in particular. Even though most of the girls in our neighborhood were free to wear socks, albeit kneesocks, we had to wear tights. Walking out without them would have been like walking out without a shirt. To this day I don't feel comfortable in tights, they feel very restrictive to me.
Can you highlight something you encountered growing up that made you question your upbringing?
I can't think of one specific incident that made me question, but I will never forget the first thing I learned that made sense to me. Learning Pirkei Avos when I was young, we came across a mishna, that said something to the effect of, "You show God how much you love him by the way you love his creatures." It was a big moment for me, and I remember looking around the classroom wondering why this wasn't a big deal to everyone else. It struck me then that there really wasn't a lot of love for all of God's creatures in my environment, and I wondered why, if these people loved God so much, they couldn't love every one of his creations? (Remember, this was in Crown Heights where "goyim" and "shvartzes" were very much looked down upon, and weren't they God's creatures too?) The contrast between what I was being taught, what made sense to me, and what was actually being practiced made a huge impression on me at that age. I must have been 7 or 8 at the time.
Was the impetus for your transition primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor?
For me it was all of those things. I never found a way to reconcile the way I was taught that God cares about everything little things we do, and God wants us to do x but not y, with common sense. I couldn't reconcile the scientific evidence of the age of the world with the story of the world I was taught in school. I didn't really know enough about Torah, being a girl and going to girl's yeshivas, but what I did know just didn't jive with what I knew about the world. Emotionally and socially, I could see the way children from certain families, either with money or yichus were treated differently by the schools. They could get away with almost anything with no consequence and it was blatant. I also saw the way the community was willing to give anything and everything, from scholarships to support and understanding, to those who they were trying to be mekarev (make frum), but they would not offer the same to those who they had already made frum or were born that way. When the whole Moshiach craze started I didn't think it would get far because it seemed insane to me, and I felt very removed and distant from the community when it did take hold and the Rebbe did nothing to stop it (before he died obviously.) I did not identify emotionally, intellectually, or culturally with the community I was raised in and never felt comfortable in my own skin within that community.
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
They were little things, like turning on and off lights on shabbos and not waiting between eating milk and meat. I didn't feel any specific way about them outside of the momentary quickening of fear at the thought of being caught. I felt no guilt, I felt no elation - it just felt normal to me since I saw no reason NOT to do those things.
You mentioned that when you got married you joined your husband in practicing a more modern orthodox style of Judaism, but it sounds like you had already stopped believing things at that point. Was he aware of this?
Yes. My husband was fully aware of my religious beliefs at the time. I literally told him, "You are marrying an apikores." He thought I didn't mean it! We laugh about it now.
So, at what age did you come to this realization that you no longer believed in it? And why did you decide to remain in the community if you no longer believed?
There was no age or moment that I stopped believing, it's more that I don't ever remember believing. I always felt disconnected from Orthodoxy, almost as if I was learning about the life of other people, not myself. However, before I was married, I was living an outwardly frum lifestyle because that's how my family and friends were, and I felt comfortable in that lifestyle. There was no real drive to step out of that world because I was not rejected by my family or friends and it was just easy and familiar. In general I was always a good girl and did my own thing without a rebellious flair. I never gave them a reason to be worried about me, I got good grades, didn't drink or do drugs, etc. so there was never any really dramatic confrontation or discussion about my religious beliefs.
However, as I've grown older I've felt the drive and the need to live a life more consistent with my beliefs (or lack of them). In addition, as a parent, living authentically is important because I can't bear to pass something I have no belief in on to my children. Now that I am responsible for other lives I can't just go with the flow like I did when I got married at a younger and more naive time of life.
How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now?
I was not the first one in my family to go "off the derech" so it was not a huge surprise. I did get married young, and married a guy from a modern orthodox background. My parents were not thrilled, and they still treat him in an inferior manner sometimes (as compared to my brothers-in-law who are Lubavitch.) I have to give my parents credit though, when I told them I wanted to marry him they did not object. In fact, my father said, "If you love him, and he will take care of you, of course you should marry him." My parents moved out of Crown Heights when I was a teenager and I imagine they blamed my going off on that. I did not leave frumkeit completely at that point, so I think my parents were just happy I was getting married and marrying a Jewish guy. Modern Orthodox wasn't as bad as not being frum at all, so they dealt with it. At this point, a bunch of years down the road, and with my husband having joined me in my religious leanings (or lack of them,) things are a little different. Some of my family knows that I am not shomer shabbos, which is the worst thing they can imagine, and they have handled it very well. Some have questioned me, but ultimately have accepted it and me. The family I am not very close to, my parents included, may not know at all. I won't lie to them if they ask me about it but I let them assume whatever makes them feel comfortable. I didn't leave in a spectacular or rebellious manner, so they don't have much wiggle room to argue with me about it, and if they choose to cut me off they will lose out on not only myself, but my children too.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
We live in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, so our physical connection is fairly strong. We keep a kosher home so that family can feel comfortable eating here or dropping their children off to play. My children are still in a modern orthodox yeshiva, but this is their last year there. I do have a strong connection to and feeling for Jewish culture. Jewish art, ideas, song, etc. I don't believe in it as a divine religion, but I enjoy celebrating and living the culture of my nation and I have no intention to stop. I don't observe and celebrate everything, but the ideas and holidays that have value or meaning to me are celebrated with my own twist. For example, shabbos. While I am not observing a day of rest because I think God said I should, I recognize the value of spending one day a week relaxing and reconnecting with my husband and children without the stresses of work, errands, and other demands on our time. So I spend the day with my family. We usually spend it at home hanging out, maybe watching a movie, playing board and card games, occasionally going on a fun outing together - whatever strikes our fancy.
What is something from your religious past that you miss in your life now?
The only thing I miss is the sense of community. There is something to be said for the way the different Jewish communities band together and help each other out in times of need.
Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?
Yes and no. Growing up I was taught to be a decent, honest, moral person and I remain that way. I don't attribute that to my past religious life specifically, but more to the way my parents raised me. A perspective that does stick with me is the idea that we are here to make the world a better place. If I am here I may as well do my best to leave the world a better place, regardless of whether I believe that I was put here by a god or not.
How do you currently view the religious community you came from?
I have an amount of pride and fondness for the community I was raised in. I am proud of the good things they do in this world, and they do a lot. Of course, from an outside perspective I also have some pity and sadness for them. I can clearly see how narrow their views are and the mistakes they've made and continue to make. The feelings for my old community are complicated, but I don't have much anger or hostility toward them. I can't claim to view them objectively, but I think they're human just like the rest of us - they try to do good but make some mistakes just like every other community out there.
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
Judaism as a nation and a culture? Absolutely. As a religion? No. I don't believe in God. I think he is a nice fairy tale for grown-ups, but I don't begrudge those who have that belief. I wouldn't declare myself a complete atheist because really how could I know for sure, so I guess I'd categorize myself as agnostic.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?
One of the biggest drawbacks is trying to figure out the parenting thing without religion. It's very easy to raise kids when you have a set of rules to teach and raise them by. It's more difficult when you have to figure out how to teach them to go about their lives in this world without the comfortable certainty that religion brings. I don't regret leaving it, I am comfortable, happy, and guilt free. I've always wondered why I don't feel guilt about leaving religion when so many people do. I'm not a guilt free person in general. I feel guilt when I hurt someone in some way or go against my moral values, so the guilt mechanism is there and working. I guess I don't feel it about religion because I believe so deeply that it's just not true.
Aside from the challenge of parenting, I also sometimes have a hard time being open with my family about what I do or feel about religion because I worry that they won't want their children to hang out with me or my children. Family is very important to me and I don't like to risk alienating them. I don't lie when asked directly; I am just not as outspoken as I am about other things (and trust me, I am pretty damn outspoken about most things!)
What helped you get through the more challenging periods of your transition?
The support of my husband and friends. My husband was, for a long time, a believer, or at least tried to be frum in the way he was taught, but he always supported my right to live as I wanted. He never asked me to keep religious observances that I was uncomfortable with and was never judgmental about my lack of belief. I am lucky to have a strong, stable marital relationship and equally strong relationships with friends that are both religious and not religious who all support and love me regardless of my religious beliefs, or lack of them. I include those family members that I am close with and really know me well in this "friends" category. The absolute certainty that I would not be happy living a religious lifestyle has also helped me get through difficult times. I tried being happy in that lifestyle on more than one occasion but it never stuck and the certainty that what I am doing is right for me definitely helps.
Can you name something significant which you are currently doing in your life, which would have been difficult, if not impossible, in your former life?
Nothing very interesting comes to mind. Just the freedom that comes with not living with a very narrow, prescribed set of rules. There is nothing in particular in my life that I could not have done in my former life. I am married, have children, have my own business, travel - I could do all of that in a religious lifestyle, albeit not as freely.
What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?
I was surprised to find out that everyone is prejudiced and judgmental about some other group they deem inferior to them. It is not a specifically Jewish thing to judge and condemn that which we don't understand or that doesn't jive with our beliefs. Everyone has some one they think they are better than.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you'd like to correct?
Oh boy, there are so many! One is that ex-frum people have left because they are too lazy to live a religious lifestyle, or just want an "easier" life. Like I told my sister in law once, "If you think I left because I want to wear short sleeves, you're crazy!" A non-frum lifestyle might be easier in some practical ways but more challenging in others. I think the frum lifestyle is a very comfortable one because there is little to no guesswork. You do this now, that at that time, and a third thing at another time. It's all laid out for you, even down to which shoelace to tie first, and there is a very strong support system built in.
Another thing that bothers me is the idea that all ex-frum people have left because they've been traumatized in some way. Of course we've been traumatized - hasn't everyone? I don't know a single person who has not faced some challenge and trauma in their life (aren't there researchers who believe that birth is traumatic?) Most ex-frum people I know have had no more trauma than any of the people I know who have remained frum. Sure there are some of us that are more damaged than others and have faced tougher times, but being OTD is not necessarily an indication of severe trauma in someone's childhood or life.
Are there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?
No, people "out here" are just as different and varied as those in the frum world. There are good guys, bad guys, and in between guys - just like in the frum world and every world.
Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?
I think seeing so much injustice and hypocrisy in the community growing up has made me very sensitive to injustice and hypocrisy everywhere. One of the experiences outside of the frum world which has shaped my worldview is the experience of different people and their cultures. Experiencing the music, food, and getting to know people of different types and cultures has made me realize that we are all the same even if we are different "flavors". Of course having grown up reading about different places and cultures had me suspecting that already but actually experiencing and spending time with people from all walks of life has made me very tolerant and open to different people and ideas.
What's the best thing about not being frum?
This may seem like something silly and small, but being able to go out for the day and not worry about food makes my life SO much simpler. It's the small things ;o)
What's the best thing that you recall about being frum?
The very strong sense of community.
If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?
Only one thing? I would make them less judgmental of their own. They are very tolerant of those who were not raised frum but less so of their own who have questions or cannot live the way they do. I also think that the concept that education in a secular environment (i.e. college) is bad needs to change. I know my life would be different and easier had I been encouraged to pursue a higher education instead of disparaged and discouraged for wanting to do so.
Do you think there's anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?
This is a tough question to answer because it's like imagining an alternate universe. I suppose that if they had somehow made the observances really meaningful instead of onerous, or if they had somehow managed to convince me that there was a god and that this is what he wants from us, I would still be there.
Are there any parting words you'd like to tell the frum world?
I would like the frum world to know that we are normal, average people just like them, who simply believe differently. We are not disturbed or dysfunctional (any more so than any other group of people.) We want the same things they and all people want, the freedom to pursue our lives as we see fit, the freedom from judgment, and the acceptance and love of our families and communities.