Thursday, May 21, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Shaya Getzel

Today's kofer hails from one of the established and well-known chassidish sects. He also happens to occasionally blog at Confessions of a Koifer. We'll skip the intro and jump right in.

Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?

Chassidish. Beard, Peyes, Shtreimel, Williamsburg, Monsey. You know, Chassidish.

Yeah, I think we know what you mean. What can you tell us about the religious tone in your home?

As a kid I wanted to join the Miami Boys Choir, but they were deemed too “modern”.

Can you highlight an example of an experience you encountered that made you question your upbringing?

My fathers brother - who is not frum - is married to a non-Jewish woman, when he came to visit us for a family simcha, he was informed that his wife was not welcome. In theory it was not a new concept to me, but to see that upfront really bothered me.

Was the impetus for your transition primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor?

A combination of a few of those, as I told one the “experts” sent to talk sense back into me: I don’t believe, I don’t care, I don’t want, I don’t like. At first it was the extremism that bothered me, but as I started to dig deeper, everything I grew up believing in started crumbling before my eyes.

In what way did you dig deeper? And what were some of the things that started falling apart?

I read books, spoke to "professionals" aka Rabbonim, and researched matters of faith, religion, God, nature, etc. to death. The more I looked though, the less proof I found for the things I grew up believing. Everything from the truth and/or infallibility of the Torah, to general claims of the supernatural, all the way to the belief in god, came up short in the evidence department. When my father confronted me, I asked him the questions I was having, and after yelling and screaming for a while, he basically said there are certain places he won't go (figuratively)...

Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?

Probably the first thing was not putting on tefillin, and at first I felt very guilty, but over time it stopped bothering me. Aside from that I remember the first time I ate gebrucks, heard “goyishe music”, and ate a cheeseburger, but by then I didn’t care anymore.

How old were you then?

About fifteen. It started out as indifference, and the feeling spread.

Was this period accompanied by intellectual challenges?

No. I wasn't having any big theological thoughts at the time. I believed in all of it, I was just cutting corners and feeling (at times) slightly guilty. When I got married, I was a perfectly content Chasidishe Yungerman. The intellectual issues that I mentioned all came after I was married.

How did your wife react to all these changes going on, and how did you get her on board?

At first she thought I had gone crazy, but eventually she came around. We had a lot of discussions and I made it very clear to her what I felt, but I didn't force her to agree with me, and eventually she got it. At the time, it took a serious toll on our marriage, but we pulled through, and we're happier than ever.

How did you family react to your leaving?

Surprise ("You, out of everyone?!"), sadness ("What are people gonna say?!"), anger ("You loser!"). At first they wouldn’t talk to me, but they slowly came around, and we are pretty close to normal now. I still love my family, warts and all.

What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?

My dog-tags say Jewish on them. When people ask I say I’m Jewish, but I don’t really do anything overly Jewish. On the other hand I keep track obsessively with news and gossip from back home. Oh, and I’m hopelessly in love with Jewish music.

What is something from your religious past that you miss in your life now?

Yamim Tovim with family, some of the food, but mostly the assuredness. Ignorance is definitely bliss.

Are there any behaviors or perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?

I am no prude, but I do think the outside is a little over sexualized, but who am I to complain about that? In addition, my eating habits are definitely influenced by my past. I don’t like bacon, seafood, pepperoni pizza, or cheese on my burgers.

How do you currently view the religious community you came from? (Hostility, fondness, indifference, etc.)

Again, a mix of the above. While I disagree categorically with everything they stand for, I still am a bit jealous of the naivete and innocence of most of the people I grew up around. Plus, I still have many good friends there.

Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?

Absolutely not. I am a 100%, flaming atheist. And not because of any experience I had growing up, but rather through years of studying and trying to reconcile what I believed growing up, with science and nature.

What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave?

Not being as close to my family as I once was bothers me. Hurting them through my actions as well, but the alternative was for me to have had a nervous break-down. I chose the former.

Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult in the transition?

Leaving the community was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was gut wrenching, and took years to actually go through with. I basically lost all my friends and family, and had to restart my life from scratch.

What are some things that helped you get through those difficult times?

My grandparents - who are not frum - and my wife, who wasn’t far behind me in our journey. Also getting up and leaving the area entirely. I got on a plane and flew across the country just to get away.

Can you name something significant which you are currently doing in your life, or that you've experienced, which would have been difficult, if not impossible, in your former life?

The very way I make a living. I’m in the Army. There’s no way I could have joined before. I wanted to serve my country, I was looking for an adventure, and excitement, and I wanted to prove to myself that I had it (whatever it is) in me, and I was able to do that by joining the Army. I have a job satisfaction I never had before, even in jobs where I made many time more than what I make now. None of this would have been possible before.

Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn't have been possible when you were frum?

Get my PH.D. (working on it), run a marathon (working on it), and most of all blend in with society (done).

What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?

How regular and mundane it is, we were told growing up that the outside world is like a scene out of Mad Max, just death, destruction, crime, and rape (it's not). Another thing is the reaction I get all the time from people, “You’re Jewish?!” Yeah, uh what did you expect - horns?

What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you'd like to correct?

Well the obvious, we’re not all miserable, drug addicts, sex-hungry, or crazy. I was happily married, doing well financially, had many friends, and happy, but I still chose to do what I did.

How does your life now compare to when you were frum?

I am by far a much happier fulfilled person now, and as I said I was a perfectly happy, adjusted person before.

Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left?

Before leaving, I was very conservative (I voted for Bush twice), since leaving I’ve become a lot more liberal in my thinking (not only did I vote for Obama, I cried when he won), which is one more thing I don’t discuss with my family.

Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?

Being stationed in Korea (great Chabad House), and just by studying society and culture, through books, the internet movies, and so on.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

FREEDOM OF CHOICE. And the fact that when I finally stopped believing in God, it was a huge burden off my shoulders. People say religion is comforting, I see it quite the opposite. Aside from the constant guilt, unattainable goals, and illogic, religion tells you there is somebody to blame when things go wrong. How is that comforting? (I know all the arguments, don’t waste your time) Nature on the other hand is organized chaos, who are gonna blame for that? By the way, I did not set out looking for the conclusions I found. At first I genuinely thought I could find a way to make my beliefs jive with what I was learning about science. But alas, it didn't work out that way.

What's the best thing that you recall about being frum?

Like I said, yomim tovim, simchas, family and friend gatherings, etc.

If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?

To be more open-minded. But then they wouldn’t be the same community I left.

Do you think there's anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?

No. I tried all different level of Orthodoxy, even Conservative, and Reform Judaism, they all have the same fundamental flaws.

What flaws are you referring to? Aren’t there fundamental differences to the three branches?

They all believe in the supernatural, to one extent or another.

Is there anything else about your life you'd like to elaborate on?

Sure. Check out my blog:

Are there any parting words you'd like to tell the frum world?

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.


frumheretic said...

Any chance that you could get an interview from his wife? That seems like it would be equally interesting.

superchick said...

does the more strict a person's background have any relations to how atheisitic he becomes when he finally goes off?

There are so many non orthodox jews who believe in god passionately.

TikunOlam said...

SG: Not being as close to my family as I once was bothers me. Hurting them through my actions as well, but the alternative was for me to have had a nervous break-down. I chose the former.

I can so relate to this. When I live sort of Orthoprax which was really more socially OJ affiliated than anything else it was driving me crazy and making me miserable. It was like being caught between a rock and a hard place. Eventually, leaving the OJ world won out.

E-Man said...

"Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn't have been possible when you were frum?

Get my PH.D. (working on it), run a marathon (working on it), and most of all blend in with society (done)."

You could be frum and still do all these things. Do you mean now that you are not chassidish? I have friends that have gotten PHDs, Ran marathons and blend in with society. Although, I guess that is the more Modern world. Yet still they are all Frum Jews that do this.

Pen said...

Reb Shaya, were there any kids when you left? If so how did they adjust?

Abandoning Eden said...

re: your phd- i'm not sure if you're in grad school yet or what, but if you need any help with application materials (like someone to read over your SOP and give you comments), let me know- I'm a 5th year phd student and I also run a website for people applying to graduate school.

Rachmuna Litzlon said...

Reb Shaya, were there any kids when you left? If so how did they adjust?

Indeed, we have a son, who was about 5 at the time. He was young enough that it was a pretty easy transition, he quickly learned that his name is one thing at home, and something else at Bubby and Zaidy's house. He got used to "Daddy" instead of "Tatty" too, but school was something he had to work hard to catch to. We had to all work together for a long time to help him reach the level he should have been at for his age.

As an aside, I'll never forget the day he asked for help with his homework, and I was stumped. I told him he had just surpassed my own education level, he looked at me with surprise, and asked "you don't know how to do this?" I felt like crying, but I told him "this is one more reason we left our old lifestyle".

But back to your question though, he has adjusted beautifully, and is a normal American (Army Brat) kid, that hates when his dad turns on Jewish music.

Baal Habos said...

R' Shaya. I'm a bit confused about the timeline. It says something about age 15 being when you started straying; yet you still married a chassidishe girl??

That was certainly an interesting story about your son surpassing your own education!

alex said...

"While I disagree categorically with everything they stand for..."

Up until this point, you had sounded rather reasonable. Here you just sound reactionary and a bit extreme. But if you'd like to alter your words a bit...

Anonymous said...

I like the part about the outside world is mundane. Sometimes I really feel like the frum world gets all its information about secular society from the covers of magazines at the checkout counters.

Rachmuna Litzlon said...

Until the age of about 20, I didn't doubt anything I was brought up to believe. I started slipping in my observance more out of apathy than philosophical reasons, only later did I come to disbelieve. For years I felt terribly guilty for lapsing, and vowed to do Tshuvah one day...

I didn't mean to come off as such, what I'm saying is that the core principles that guide that lifestyle - in my opinion - are based on fairy tales. And therefore I categorically disagree with the premiss upon which OJs base their life.

TikunOlam said...

Alex: Here you just sound reactionary and a bit extreme. But if you'd like to alter your words a bit...

Alex, I understand that many want the OTDer to speak in a PC manner about the worlds we left. Shaya seemed to just be saying it like it is. Realistically, is it not "extreme" to leave a life you believe is based on fairy tales to live a (what I understand to be) secular life as a soldier? No reason for him to water it down.

kisarita said...

you folks have no concept of culture, a culture exists whether or not its founding mythology is based on history or not
"their whole life is based on fairy tale?"
"everything they stand for?"

jajogluck said...

"Get my PH.D. (working on it), run a marathon (working on it), and most of all blend in with society (done)."

I am cynical about the "done" status of blending in with society. If you were indeed raised in a Yidish-speaking Hasidic community, blending in is an ectremely difficult lifelong process --it seems to me.

I wonder whether you are glossing over your struggles in order to make the bumpy ride you're taking more comfortable.

P.S. I am a OTD myself and have personally found stumbled across major hurdles, especially in my quest to "blend in". Furthermore, the Army fosters a conservative, monolithic, highly-disciplined, Chritian environment. From first-hand experience I know that it's a strange, unwelcome land for ex-hasidim.

Rachmuna Litzlon said...

Culturally I consider myself Jewish, I have no problem with my Jewish identity. What I disagree with is the basis for the OJ lifestyle, if tomorrow morning we woke up to a world where the Torah had never existed, would OJs still put on Tefillin..?

The only reason we are having this conversation in English, is because my parents are BTs. My childhood friends can't sign their name on a check. I taught myself pretty much everything I know, beyond what I learned in Yeshivah. My English skills aside, mentally and emotionally, I will never fully blend in with society. What I meant was from the outside, I always wanted to NOT stick out, and I can happily report that I've accomplished that.

As for the "bumpiness" of my journey, as I said in this piece, leaving the Chassidish community was the most excruciatingly painful thing I've ever done, I don't deny that. On the other hand, it was also the best decision I ever made. Where there time I doubted myself, my own motives? Sure. Where there bad days, miserable days? Absolutely. But I'm not here to tell you a sob story.

As for your objections to the Army, what you said is mostly true. And yet somehow I still love it. There are certain things and topics I choose to avoid with certain people, but that's life anywhere, to one extent or another we sensor ourselves depending on who we're around. Besides, the level of fulfillment, and job satisfaction I get from being in the Army, makes it all worth it.

jewish philosopher said...

I would like to bet that every single word in this post is a lie.

Proof: Can anything be independently verified? What's this guy's actual name, address and phone number? And then some morons are going to take this seriously.

Rachmuna Litzlon said...

Your right, you got me. My name is Yoely Friedman. I'm Chassidish, I live in Williamsburg, and I'm just doing this for shits and giggles.

Rich said...

Shaya - If you don't mind, I would be interested in hearing about how you ended up going OTD with your wife. where you both uninterested and then came to the decision together or did one of you pull the other along to some degree?

JP - you really are a complete ass. when are we invited to your place for a BBQ so you can share in your holiness?

Rachmuna Litzlon said...

That part of my story is a bit long, but your right - I should share. I'll write about it on my blog soon, so check back please.

BTW, its because of people like you that I keep my identity anonymous, the adverse effects to my family - who aren't to blame for anything I've done - would be terrible, and unfair.

jewish philosopher said...

I think that Jewish skeptic blogging has created a new genre of literature "Creative Fiction Written Between Sessions of Masturbation".

I hope Harvard and NYU get on this.

jewish philosopher said...

This post may give you a little idea of why I'm skeptical about skeptics.

alexbmn said...

what's interesting is that Jewish "philosopher" still doesnt recognize the fact that he's the official village idiot or troll of the skeptic blogosphere

jewish philosopher said...

Oh, and all the anonymous teenagers out their are really the philosophers.

Shalmo said...

Shaya are you involved in any programs or groups that help facilitate the escape of other Jews from the OJ world?

If not, do you have any strategies available for what can be done to help the escapees adapt better. Like having programs for adapting to the modern world, etc.

I believe the Orthodox world is part of the problem. There needs to be a way to turn all Orthodox-Ultra-Orthodox into Modern-Modern/Conservative/Reform, or some way to get the modernity into the community. So that we can have discussions on the DH, maybe letting us hear counter-arguments so we can decide for ourselves vs simply not even being told about things like the DH to even begin with.

Are there anyways you can think of with which we can break the "Orthodox wall"?

Clive said...

> but mostly the assuredness. Ignorance is definitely bliss.

> FREEDOM OF CHOICE. And the fact that when I finally stopped believing in God, it was a huge burden off my shoulders. People say religion is comforting, I see it quite the opposite. Aside from the constant guilt, unattainable goals, and illogic, religion tells you there is somebody to blame when things go wrong. How is that comforting?

Stirah minay ubay.

Rachmuna Litzlon said...

As long as you have Emunah Peshutah, and don't ask questions, you will be blissfully ignorant. But as soon as you start looking behind the curtain, things start to crumble. So yes at first I was happy, but as my belief started to unravel, all those burdensome things that I accepted until then, started to irk me.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Somehow all the same and somehow all quite sad.
I don#t know what it makes sound sad, your biography and the ways you give the answers.
Really, I try to investigate, and the idea I can think of is that it simply sounds -well, sad. For me, as a religious person, and for me as simply a reader of a man's biography.
I'm neither hassidish nor have had that sort of prison you seemed to experience.

And I basically let myself be guided by inner feelings for which some Orthodox Jews might also condemn me. I don't really care since I consider myself a free person bound by the heaven and not by earth...
Once I think R' Yochanan B. Zakai said on his death bed - I wish for you my disciples, that you will have more fear of heaven than of people down here. This to be said to over-worrying rabbanim and kehilot but also about the "free society", scientists and modern cultures.

I respect your spirtual journey and your seeking. Who knows how and with whom and why you really did it.

And now I get it verbalized, the feeling following me when I read your statements.
It's all sounding like a sad cheating cause one doesn't know better.
Since the very word of "escape" implements a giving-up, a running away than facing. Destructing than constructing.

And again something: A Jew can be with or against but never without G-d for when you deny G-d, there must be a G-d which is to deny...

Think about that...?

I'd wish you again a spiritual mashber for your own sake but it's for you to care. Everyone gets his own portion of life.

All the best