I'm very excited to have been given a chance to interview another well-known blogger for the "Better Know a Kofer" series (see the sidebar for other interviews). Today we get a chance to meet the author of Abandoning Eden. Much of her story might already be familiar to those who follow her blog, but here she's been kind enough to share with us even more detail about her unique journey.
Can you describe the religious environment that you came from?
I grew up in a right wing modern orthodox household, in a community in Northern New Jersey. We kept strict kosher and shabbas, my mom covered her hair whenever she left the house (but not when inside), I was not allowed to wear pants and neither did she. We were more modern in that we had a tv and a computer with the internet, although my parents were very restrictive in the type of shows I was allowed to watch, the types of websites I could visit - no chat rooms - and the amount of time we could watch tv or spend on the internet.
My father ran a gemarah shiur out of our dining room every shabbas afternoon and we all went to shul every shabbas, usually on both Saturday morning and Friday night (and sometimes Saturday afternoon too). My dad would daven at home during the week. My parents were very upset when as a 15 year old I started dating someone, because they expected me to “only date for tachlis.” I went to a modern orthodox all girls yeshiva high school.
Can you highlight an example of an incident, experience, or idea you encountered that made you question your upbringing?
Well I questioned Judaism throughout my childhood - one question that came up for me time and again was that Jewish people believe that they are the chosen people and that their religion is the right one - but so does every other religion. So how can we know that Judaism is the ‘right’ religion? I spent a lot of time trying to come up with an answer to that, but never could.
Then, the night before my 15th birthday, I was spending shabbas at the house of a friend of mine from school, and we were hanging out with some friends of hers. One of her friends told me about how he likes to write poetry, and somehow it came up that he keeps strict shabbas - unless he has a really good idea for a poem, and then he would write it down so that he wouldn’t forget it. I knew non-Jewish people, and I even knew non-religious Jews (including some distant cousins), but that was the first time I was aware of the possibility of growing up orthodox and then not being strictly orthodox anymore. Once I thought about that, it was like all my doubts kinda clicked into place, and I realized that if I didn’t think Judaism was the right religion, I had the choice to not follow it anymore! By that summer (my birthday is in May) I was breaking both kosher and shabbas laws to some degree, although it took years before I was completely "off the derech."
Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?
One of the first things I remember transgressing in is tearing toilet paper on shabbas. We usually kept tissues in the bathroom, and I hadn’t noticed that there wasn’t any left before using the bathroom. I felt guilty about it and kept waiting for something to happen to me to indicate that god was angry at me for tearing the toilet paper… but it never happened.
How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now?
As those who read my blog know, they have not reacted very well. I first told my parents that I wasn’t religious anymore at the age of 17. My parents initially reacted by being in complete denial about it. When I first told them my dad asked if that meant I ate shrimp now - and I didn’t - so he took that to mean that I was just “going through a teenage rebellion phase.” I had to tell them about 5 times over the course of that year before it really ‘stuck’ with my dad, and I don’t think it ever really stuck with my mother until about 2 years ago.
When I was in college my parents agreed to pay my tuition and dorm fees under the condition that I come home every weekend for shabbas so that they could be sure I was still keeping it. After college, when I moved away to grad school (and obtained financial independence), my mother continued to act as if I was religious (always asking where I was going for shabbas meals and holidays), while I continued to remind her that I wasn’t religious, and then the same thing would happen the next week.
A little over two years ago I started dating my husband, who is not Jewish (he grew up Catholic and is now an atheist like myself). I told my parents about him around 2 months after we started dating, since I already knew at that time that my relationship with him was heading in a pretty serious direction. My parents initially tried to convince me not to date him by sending me all sorts of letters and giving me all sorts of speeches. When we got engaged last year in July, my mother reacted by not saying anything at all (I called her on the phone to tell her), and then saying “I have nothing to say, you know how I feel.” We talked about 3 more times on the phone after that, and the last time she told me that if I wanted to talk to her I could never mention my husband (then my fiancé) or anything about him or our life together. I haven’t called her since then. In January she sent me an email saying that if I choose to get married to my fiancé we can no longer have a relationship with each other. My dad has been a little less extreme, but neither of them came to the wedding and neither of them have met my husband (by their choice, not mine). About 6 weeks before my wedding I attended a cousin's wedding, and my mom saw me and said hello and then did not acknowledge me at all for the rest of the night. My dad tried to get us to talk to each other, which resulted in two minutes of awkward conversation about where we had parked our cars.
I also have 2 brothers - one is very religious and lives in a yeshiva where he learns all day - he did not come to the wedding either and he called me up a few months ago to tell me that a rabbi had told him that if I got married to my husband, either “we would break up, he would convert to Judaism, or he would be dead within the year.” My other brother is not religious either, and he came to the wedding, and was the ring bearer and one of our official legal witnesses.
As for the rest of the family... I haven't told many people in my parents' and grandparents' generation that I am married, just because we don't normally have a very close relationship, and hardly talk at all except at family events. I told one of my aunts, and she never responded to my email. An uncle of mine called me up the morning of my wedding to tell me “Even though we don't agree with your decision, we still love you, you're still a part of our family, and we wish you the best.” My cousins on the other hand have all been really cool about it - surprisingly so. I have now heard many stories of people in my family secretly dating non-Jewish people and not telling anyone else about it. Even my charedi cousin who got married through a shidduch at the age of 18 (and now at 22 has 3 kids because she believes using birth control is against halacha) was very cool about it - we still keep in touch via email on a semi-regular basis, and she sends me pictures of her kids and I sent her pictures of the wedding.
What connection do you currently have to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
Not much. Many of my close friends are also lapsed orthodox Jews like myself, but that’s not really an identity or culture or religion. I haven’t kept any religious aspects of Judaism since I moved to graduate school 5 years ago. I will sometimes have some Jewish holiday-related food (like latkes on Chanukah or challah with honey and pomegranates on rosh hashana), but I don’t go out of my way to get that stuff- usually it’s because I’ve been invited to a party somewhere or a chabadnick on my campus is giving out food. Lately me and my husband have been talking about our future theoretical children and what we would teach them about our backgrounds - I think I would teach them the historical stuff (like that my grandparents are holocaust survivors, and a little about Jewish history), but not the religion or anything about the culture. We will probably continue to celebrate secular Christmas (gift giving and a big meal, no church or talk of religion) and rosh hashana in our non-religious meal eating way. If I have a boy we do not plan to have him circumcised.
You know, many people would find that, the decision to not circumcise a child, the ultimate act of turning your back on your tradition.
Well, my family has a whole lot of traditions I have turned my back on - for instance, my family has the 'tradition' that men get high-paying jobs (we have a lot of medical doctors and lawyers in my family) while women go to college, then get married, and become a stay at home mom. I've turned away from that tradition, along with all their other religious traditions. Why would circumcision be different?
Personally, I have read and thought a LOT about the circumcision issue, and after much discussion with my husband, we have decided that cutting off part of our future theoretical son's penis is an irreversible decision, and not one we feel comfortable making on behalf of our future children. If they want to be circumcised once they grow up, we would happily pay for the procedure at that point.
But circumcision is characteristically THE mark of a Jew (even for those who are not observant). Isn't it important that your child have that part of Jewish identity?
Well, no, it's not very important to me that my children identify themselves as Jews. I don't even identify myself as a Jew anymore - on surveys when they ask "religion" I now put "atheist." Although most people who know me know I grew up orthodox Jewish... kinda like the way I know one of my friends grew up fundamentalist Christian, but she isn't anymore.
And besides, why can't kids identify themselves as Jewish if they aren't circumcised? It's not like people are going to pull down their pants and do a penis check :)
How do you currently view the religious community you came from?
Probably something close to hostility, but I think that’s because I assume that people in that community will be hostile to me (and most have been), so I am preemptively hostile. I guess a better word would be ‘defensive.’
Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?
No and no.
What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?
Well I guess the major drawback is that I no longer have parents that I can call on in times of need, although I have awesome in-laws, and a great community of friends that have been a better family to me then my actual family has ever been. I don’t regret leaving at all, and I don’t feel any guilt at this point in my life, although I can’t say that has always been true (about the guilt, not the regret).
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?
Getting a PhD! Because I was not religious, I did not want to go to Stern college, to which my parents were very adamant about me going (especially since I outright refused to go to Israel for a year of seminary). I lied to my parents and told them that I sent in an application, and didn’t tell them that I hadn’t sent one in until it was too late to apply. I then ended up at a CUNY college, that I originally told my parents I was applying to as a “backup.” If I hadn’t gone to that college, I wouldn’t have taken Sociology 101 with an awesome professor who encouraged me to go to graduate school, I wouldn’t have started doing research with another professor who is still my mentor and close friend, and I doubt I would have ended up on the path that led me to pursue a PhD.
Even if I had ended up here, I doubt I would have gotten through my first 3 years of grad school if I couldn’t work on Friday nights and Saturdays - at that point I was working 7 days a week, 10+ hours a day, and there literally wasn’t any other day on which I could have gotten that work done. I still usually work on Saturdays for at least a few hours. Additionally, there is a lot of networking opportunities I would have missed out on - some of my best professional contacts have been people I have met at dinners with my professors and their friends, and I couldn’t have gone to these dinners if I kept kosher - or at least it would have been awkward and I would be the weird person not eating anything. A lot of conferences I have presented at have been on Saturdays, or have involved travel on Saturdays.
Also, obviously, it would be impossible to have married my husband. And he is pretty awesome. And this summer we are going on a cruise around the Mediterranean sea for our honeymoon, and I don’t think if I was religious I would be doing a lot of traveling to exotic places with no kosher food.
What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?
Well I was never ‘ultra-orthodox’ but what surprised me most about non-Jewish people and non-religious Jews is how nice people can be! Growing up I was always told that non-Jewish people hate Jews, and that anyone who wasn’t orthodox didn’t have morals and was just interested in materialistic things, anyone who wasn’t Jewish was never really my friends, even if they were friendly they would eventually turn their back on me, etc. And not a single one of those things have been the case.
What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you’d like to correct?
That we are all ‘teenage rebels’ who will eventually grow out of it, or ‘bums’ who stop being religious because we are lazy or we are just failures at life. This is not a teenage rebellion - I’ve been living this way for 12 years, and it is impossible for me to imagine circumstances in which I would ever become orthodox again. I didn’t stop being religious because it was too hard to keep religion and I was lazy, I stopped being religious because I stopped believing it was the right way to live. And I only have a year left until I have a PhD from a top 10 university, so I think that qualifies me as NOT a failure in life. :)
Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left?
Gender; growing up I pretty much always expected that I would go to college and get a degree, but that I would then get married and become a housewife/stay at home mom. Pretty much every woman in my family is a stay at home mom, and I never thought that I (or any woman) really had the capability to have a career that would be more fulfilling then staying at home with my kids. This was likely due to the attitude I saw amongst family and community members that girls weren’t as smart as boys, women didn’t have careers and men did, etc.
Now I am married and if all goes as planned, I will be the primary breadwinner while my husband will be a stay at home dad/part time worker. I love my career, and while I will make the time to spend time with my kids, the thought of leaving my career is not even in the realm of possibilities.
What’s the best thing about not being frum?
Well, in general the freedom to do pretty much whatever I want, whenever I want, as long as I’m not hurting other people. Also the food is pretty great - I’m a big foodie, and there are so many foods/restaurants I would never have been able to try if I kept kosher.
If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?
The xenophobia, and the attitude that anyone who diverges from the path of their parents has to be ostracized.
Is there anything else about your life you’d like to elaborate on?
I guess part of the point of this series is to show that people who go OTD are not all failures at life/drug addicts/miserable/whatever, so I’d like to elaborate a little more about my achievements:
Although I almost flunked out of my modern orthodox high school because in my senior year I stopped going to any of the religion-related courses (and I had to retake hashkafa, chumash, and navi finals over the summer before they let me have my diploma), I flourished in college, and graduated summa cum laude from my college’s honors program with a whole stack of awards and honors. I then went on to a top 10 university in sociology, where I have been working on a joint PhD in Sociology and Demography for about 5 years. I am ABD (which means I’ve completed all my program requirements except my dissertation) and I expect to defend my dissertation in January 2010. I have a masters degree as well as 3 publications in peer-reviewed journals, and a few other publications in less prestigious places. I won a major national-level fellowship competition, which included over $100,000 in funds for my PhD program. I’ve taught my own college level course several times, and received excellent teaching reviews. If the academic job market doesn’t fall apart next year, I expect to move on to a tenure-track assistant professorship position beginning in Fall 2010; if it does fall apart, I’ve already been offered a post-doctorate position for 2010-2011.
On top of that I’m in a wonderful relationship with a wonderful man who completely supports my career and who takes care of all the housework when I need to work 70 hour weeks (which I do occasionally). I am generally very very happy with my life. When people complain about getting older, I don’t really get it - because for me, every year I’ve gotten older, my life has been better.
Well, that does sound really wonderful! Are there any parting words you’d like to tell the frum world?
Lighten up, and quit worrying about how other people live their lives so much! It’ll make you happier, I promise!