Thursday, June 25, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Shoshana

Once again, I am very excited to present a new interview for the 'Better Know a Kofer' series (see the sidebar for the other interviews). Our kofer today - a 45 year old molecular biologist who stopped being Orthodox only a year ago - tells quite a different story from our past interviewees. In fact, in some ways it's almost the exact opposite of Sara's story. Please join me in welcoming Shoshana to the blog.


Hello Shoshana, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. To begin, can you tell us a bit about the religious environment that you were raised in?

My background is a bit different from the other interviewees because I didn't grow up in an Orthodox home. I converted to Judaism as an adult. In fact, I was not raised in any sort of religious environment at all. My father was brought up Catholic and has a lot of negative feelings about the Catholic church. I don't know if my mother was raised with any religious upbringing; she certainly never spoke of one. When I was younger my parents did send me to Saturday morning Catholic education classes, which I think are probably the equivalent of afternoon Hebrew school. The teachers weren't very good, we didn't really learn anything, and even the nuns said the classes were a poor substitute for Catholic school. We rarely went to church and the classes ended at confirmation (age 12).

How did you get involved in Judaism?

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago and my dad was in the scrap metal business, so most of the people I knew were Jewish. I became attracted to Judaism because of them, particularly my best friend Robin. I liked the holidays, traditions and most of all the sense of being part of a community. When I got to college and began exploring different religions, I liked Judaism because I didn't have to believe in Jesus. I was never comfortable with the whole idea of Jesus.

After college, I hung around different synagogues for a couple of years. I had picked up enough Hebrew along the way that I could follow a service. For the holidays, I would usually go to a synagogue that didn't require tickets, so I never became a member anywhere. When I met my husband he belonged to a large Conservative congregation (800+ families). After he brought me as a guest on the High Holidays, the rabbi called to welcome me. The rabbi was a bit surprised that I hadn't converted, and invited me to come in and discuss it. I spent a few months studying. I had a pretty good Jewish background already, so there wasn't a lot to learn. It was during this process that I started asking fundamental questions, such as "Where did we get the Torah?" At the time, I didn't realize that that was such a politically charged question. I was disappointed that the rabbi didn't have a better answer. He told me that the Orthodox believed in Torah m'Sinai, but wasn't able to give me a coherent alternative to TMS.

So what brought you to Orthodoxy?

After about a year as a member of the Conservative synagogue, I really became dissatisfied. It was a large congregation and I didn't find it to be very welcoming or personal. I met an Aish HaTorah rabbi at a funeral and started talking to him. He invited me to attend some classes. I'm pretty sure he didn't realize I had already converted to Conservative Judaism. When it later came up, there was a very awkward conversation with his wife which ended with her suggesting that I break up with the man I would eventually marry. I don't recall who, or if anyone, suggested an Orthodox conversion, but I eventually called an Orthodox rabbi on my own to talk about converting.

My Orthodox conversion was very different from my Conservative one. I was living with my future husband at the time and obviously had to move out. I moved in with a wonderful family and lived with them for over a year. I live in a medium sized city with a small Orthodox community (100 or so shomer shabbos families). Over the years the Orthodox community has become much more yeshivish due to an influx of families from New York, but at the time, there were a handful of kollel families and the rest were BTs. Some people were incredibly welcoming, others weren't; I had a mix of good and bad experiences. I remained Orthodox for 18 years.

What was the impetus for your transition out of Orthodoxy?

My move out of Orthodoxy was due to a combination of intellectual and social factors. While I always had certain intellectual issues with some of the things the Kiruv folks said, e.g. I had some reservations about the Kuzari "proof", I was willing to push my intellectual doubts to the back of my mind in order to obtain the social benefits of being frum. Those social benefits began to decline when my son started having trouble in school. Against the advice of the school’s principal and our rabbi, my husband and I opted to pull our son out of the day school. After that, we became marginalized in the frum community - we stopped getting invitations for meals, frum kids wouldn’t associate with our son, I was virtually ignored at shul and eventually stopped going. After my husband passed away and I became a widow, I was even more marginalized.

Was it primarily the unpleasant social dynamic that was causing you to feel more distant from Judaism or were there also ideological/philosophical difficulties arising?

I think there are three parts to my answer to this question. First, there was just the general social difficulties of widows, particularly young widows. Orthodox women my age are busy with children and grandchildren; we did not have a lot of common ground. Secondly, my husband was the only person I could talk to about how I honestly felt about things. After a few years in Orthodoxy the luster began to wear off and we started to see problems in the community. We often talked about how we felt we were in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes," i.e. there were problems that everyone pretended didn't exist. Without having my husband to talk to, I found it harder to live in this kind of environment. Finally, my husband's cancer diagnosis and eventual death did cause me to have questions about my faith and belief in God and I didn't find Orthodoxy's answers satisfying. For example, shortly after my husband was diagnosed, a rabbi suggested that we have our mezzuzahs checked. I understand that the rabbi meant well, but I find it hard to believe that God would give someone cancer because their mezzuzah's weren't kosher.

When I first started looking outside of Orthodoxy, I needed to address my original question of "Where did we get the Torah?" This was the question that got me into Orthodoxy. If the Torah was from Sinai, then, at least according to my thinking, I had to follow it. When I was involved with Aish HaTorah I heard the Kuzari argument and I am now embarrassed to say that I believed it. All it took was a quick internet search to find lots of counter-arguments, perhaps not enough to convince someone that it isn't true, but at least enough to introduce doubt. I am embarrassed to say that I didn't do this research earlier and that I bought into the Kiruv arguments. I should have been more skeptical and less trusting. I feel like I got taken by a con man.

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

My first acts were for convenience rather than to make a statement, e.g. if I forgot to turn off my alarm before Shabbos, I would turn it off on Shabbos. My thoughts were that it was ridiculous to spend all of Shabbos listening to the alarm because I wasn’t allowed to flip the switch. Later, when I started doing more public things, such as driving, I felt guilty when I was in the frum neighborhood; if I wasn’t in the frum neighborhood, it didn’t bother me. I think the first time I drove on Shabbos was when I was out of town. My son got sick and we decided to come home early, rather than stay through the weekend. I didn’t give it a second thought when I loaded up the car and drove off on Shabbos, but I was concerned about getting home before dark and having someone see me.

How has your family reacted to the changes you've instituted in your life?

My family has always been wonderfully supportive in everything I’ve done. They didn’t object to me converting or becoming frum and they haven’t said anything about my going OTD, other than to ask if I would be joining them when they went out for dinner.

How have the Orthodox people from your past reacted? Has it affected your relationship with them in a significant way?

At this point I do not have any contact with my Orthodox friends. I have been avoiding them because I'm not ready to explain my decision to go OTD. I don't want to hurt them and I don't want to fight with them. It would be nice if they could see that I am happy and accept my decision, but I'm afraid that they won't.

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

I currently belong to a wonderful Jewish Renewal congregation and am actively involved.

Can you elaborate on what Jewish Renewal is?

I don't know that I'm the best person to do this, as I'm still trying to figure out what it is myself. Basically, the synagogue I attend now is very free flowing, do what feels meaningful for you. Very 60s. There is a lot of singing and talking about individual spirituality, not a lot of structure. Also a lot of emphasis on building community. Every service is different.

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

I really miss Shabbos. I always attend Shabbat services and come out feeling wonderful and refreshed, but then I get in my car, some idiot cuts me off in traffic, and the whole mood is spoiled.

Are there other aspects of shabbos which you observe besides going to services?

I try to do things that are "shabbosdik", e.g. read, meditate. I don't go shopping, do chores, check my email or do other things I would do during the week. I prefer that my son not watch television or play video games, but that's not a battle I want to fight.

How old is your son? How has he adapted to changing his lifestyle and living without halacha ruling his life?

My son is 14. He never liked being Orthodox, never fit well in the Orthodox community, so he is thrilled with all of the changes. We talk a lot about things I consider important, e.g. be honest, kind, etc. and things I don't consider important, e.g. dressing like a penguin.

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

I like to think that being frum taught me about ethical behavior. I am still very conscious of shmiras ha lashon. In fact, I still read the Chofetz Chaim's "Lesson a Day." My husband was also very careful about what he said. When we decided to pull our son out of the day school we spent hours discussing what we would and would not tell people because we didn't want to say anything negative about the school or people involved in the school.

How do you currently view the religious community you were a part of?

Although I can understand why some OTDers might have very negative feelings about the frum world, I don’t. My son still has a lot of anger and I am trying to help him work through it so he can let go of it. I think it takes a lot of energy to be angry and I don’t want to waste energy on the people who hurt me. I miss some of my friends and being able to have some of the experiences; other people I don’t miss at all.

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

Yes, though I am still working out what it is.

What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?

As I said, I miss Shabbos. I don’t regret leaving; I think it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. If anything, I regret not leaving sooner.

Do you think that becoming frum was also a good decision?

That's a question I've given a lot of thought to. At this point, I regret becoming frum, though I do see some positive things came out of it. If I hadn't become frum I probably would not have gotten married and wouldn't have my son. Additionally, I learned a lot. When I first started going to the synagogue I attend the rabbi commented that I might be frustrated because I am far more knowledgeable than most of the membership.

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

It has been hard losing my Orthodox friends. At some point I am going to need to talk to a few of them and let them know what's going on with me. It would be nice if they could accept my decision, but I've heard the way they talk about the synagogue I now attend, so I don't think they will.

Being OTD is still very new for me. I've landed in a Jewish Renewal synagogue, but I don't know if that's where I will stay. It's a comfortable place for me to be right now while I figure out what I believe and what I want.

What helped you get through the challenges of leaving Orthodoxy?

The people at my new synagogue have been tremendously welcoming and supportive. At first, I was afraid to tell them that I had been Orthodox, but no one has held it against me.

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?

Not really, but I never totally conformed to the frum code of behavior anyway. I just completed my first marathon, but I would have done that anyway. I want to do some serious mountain climbing and through hike the Appalachian trail. My son’s life has been much more affected than mine. He has been in plays and traveled with the school chess team, which he wouldn’t have been able to do because of Shabbos.

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

Nothing really, but I never totally left it. I guess the one thing that surprises me is that no one has held it against me that I used to be frum.

What led you to believe that they would?

I've heard non-frum Jews make negative statements about Orthodoxy, just as Orthodox Jews make negative statements about other movements.

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

That we’re all angry, lonely, bitter drug addicts. We’re not.

When you were frum, what was your reaction when you heard some of the stereotypes that were expressed by frum people about general society?

At first, when I heard some of the outrageous stereotypes I just kept quiet. During my conversion I didn't want to do or say anything that I thought would jeopardize my conversion. My husband and I would talk about things, particularly later when we started to see flaws in the Orthodox community, but I didn't discuss it with anyone else. After he died, I lost the one person I could talk to about how I honestly felt about some things which made it harder for me to stay in the Orthodox community.

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

Much, much better.

Care to elaborate?

I think what's better is that I'm living honestly. When I was frum I felt like I couldn't always say what I was thinking or I wasn't free to disagree with things I disagree with. There was a lot of pressure to conform. Now I'm not afraid to speak up when I disagree.

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

Watching my husband die of cancer has definitely changed the way I look at things. I have less tolerance for BS and I am less concerned about other people’s expectations. I refuse to live my life just "going through the motions."

How did being frum play a role in how you dealt with that ordeal?

Being frum was both helpful and not helpful during the ordeal. It was helpful in that many people in the community were tremendously supportive of my physical needs. People brought me meals, helped with rides to doctor's appointments, etc. I will always be grateful for their help. However, I did not find much psychological support. Being a caregiver is emotionally and psychologically exhausting, but the frum perspective seems to be "suck it up" because "it's a mitzvah." I also tired of people trying to link my husband's illness to a behavior, e.g. check your mezzuzahs, don't speak loshon hara, etc.

After my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer somebody called me to tell me that different ailments are associated with certain types of aveiros and lung ailments are associated with loshon hara. I'm sure the person thought she was being helpful, but the implication was that my husband's lung cancer was a punishment for speaking loshon hara. I understand that because frum people believe that everything happens for a reason they have a real need to find a cause for every bad thing that happens. But, I can't tell you how upsetting it is to be in the midst of trying to cope with a fatal illness and getting calls from people who think they have ruach hakodesh.

By the way, from my conversations with other widows I know that kind of behavior isn't limited to frum Jews. But it did kind of surprise me. A lot of frum Jews like to claim moral superiority, but when it comes to helping people in crisis, my experience with frum Jews is mixed. Some people I knew were great, but some weren't. And it was my non-Jewish neighbors who noticed that my grass needed cutting and came over and cut it.

Is there anything positive in your life that you would attribute to having gotten from the frum world?

I learned a lot about Judaism by being frum. My Hebrew is better than almost anyone I know outside of the frum world.

What’s the best thing about not being frum?

I don’t have to put up with judgmental, holier than thou attitudes.

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

Shabbos. I miss the peace and calmness I used to feel on Shabbos. When I go to services now I do get into a peaceful state, but then I have to drive home and as soon as I get in traffic I get tense again. I try to create the Shabbos feeling as much as I can. Recently I started making Shabbos dinner again and then I go to services afterward (services don't start until 8) which is nice, but it's not the same.

Do you have a favorite character or incident from the Bible?

I've always been intrigued by Orpah. Even when I was frum, I wondered what it was that made Ruth stay with Naomi and Orpah return home. I wonder if it's just that she missed her family or if she saw something in Judaism that she didn't like.

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

I would like it to be more tolerant and accepting, less judgmental. I would like people to be a little less sure of themselves and more aware of the gray areas of life.

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

Not unless they were willing to change their entire mindset.

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

There is a lot of good in the frum world, but the frum world does not have a monopoly on goodness. The frum world is not as good as it thinks it is; the outside world is not as bad as the frum world thinks it is.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coming and Going

Although much of my focus here on the blog tends to focus on the chareidi world's attitudes towards people who leave the frum world, the other day I had an encounter that made me think about their attitude towards certain other people in the community - baalei teshuva (aka "born again religious Jews", or 'BT's') and converts.

Although they won't usually admit it, the chareidi world has always had a very conflicted attitude towards such people. Most of the time, when the issue arises, what you'll typically hear a born-and-bred chareidi person (aka FFB) express about a BT is unabashed admiration. Baalei teshuva and converts are often minor celebrities in those circles, frequently called upon to speak to the masses, and held up as "proof" that frumkeit is better than a non-religious lifestyle. And every frum person will eagerly pull out the quote from the gemara that heaps unequivocal praise on such people: "In the place where baalei teshuva stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand." And to their credit, frum people want to make sure that newcomers to religion are made to feel at home and welcome so they do their utmost to treat them with the greatest respect and sensitivity, trying their best to be as accommodating as they can to the newcomers often clumsy adoptions of the norms of frum life.

One of the main reasons that FFB's love baalei teshuva so much is that the BT confirms for them that they are living the right kind of life. In the back of every FFB's mind there are always some niggling doubts haunting his thoughts: Am I really sure that we are so right believing what we do? Do I really have a better life with all these restrictions? How can I be certain that Judaism is the more logical path to follow if I never really investigated the alternatives? The BT's decision to adopt a frum lifestyle lays to rest all these troublesome questions. After all, thinks the FFB, if this guy who had a chance to live on the outside chose to give it up for Torah, then obviously it's right! All those questions that supposedly challenge the truth of Yiddishkeit don't have to concern him anymore, because if this formerly secular guy - who doesn't have the bias of being born frum and who most probably looked into Judaism very thoroughly - feels that Torah stands up to scrutiny, then clearly Mr. FFB doesn't have to worry that they are of any consequence!

But if you listen closely, and look a bit more carefully at how FFB's interact with BT's and speak about them when they are in private company, one can sense more than a little ambivalence and skepticism mixed in among all the adulation. BT's are admired... but still thought of as a bit odd. They are welcomed... but still kept at a distance. Their devotion to god and truth earns them endless praise... but no one really wants to be too much like them.

I think that if one examines the reasons for this conflicted relationship, it reveals a number of very interesting things about how Orthodox Jews look at their Judaism.

One of the explanations sometimes pointed to for the ambivalence towards BT's is the atypical zeal that BT's often bring to their religious life. It's not uncommon to find in newcomers to religion an enthusiasm for religious practices that is almost entirely absent in those who were raised frum. For the FFB, some of this religious lassitude can obviously be explained as the result of a lifetime of habituation combined with the sad reality that many frum people never really think much about their frumkeit in the first place, but the undeniable fact is that the passion that the BT brings to his religious service often makes the FFB very uneasy.

This is actually highly ironic because it is often this almost childlike eagerness to serve god that earns them such high accolades in religious society. But when the FFB sees the BT davening with such fervor, and being super meticulous in his halachic observance, it raises all sorts of awkward and uncomfortable questions in his mind: On the one hand, he acknowledges that the excitement with which the BT is performing his duties is admirable, even in some way ideal, yet at the back of his mind, he can't help wondering, do I really want to be like that? Is it normal to really be so medakdek about serving hashem and halacha?

When I was learning in Israel, there was this one BT in the yeshiva who I was friendly with. He was a very sweet guy, but he had the habit of treating every single minor religious rule with the most extreme attentiveness. His benching was like a yom kippur neila. He was fastidious about lashon hara. He would never walk in front of someone davening shemone esrei, even if it meant he was trapped in his seat for an extra 30 minutes. And I was told by the fellow who would go around the rooms in the morning to wake up the bochurim for shachris, that when he woke this guy up, as soon as his eyes opened, he would immediately leap out of his bed, because he wanted to follow the halacha that said "one should arise in the morning like a lion to serve god."

Now, on the one hand, such people are usually dismissed as odd or out of touch, but on the other hand, aren't these people living up to the ideals that all torah true Jews supposedly aspire to? Don't chazal teach that one should treat every halacha, no matter how seemingly trivial, as if it is of the utmost importance? Don't they impress upon people not to care about how people may look at you as 'weird' for keeping halacha? This fellow might be a bit unusual, but only because everyone else's standards have fallen so low! In god's eyes, there's nothing at all wrong with him. It's everyone else who has the problem!

So I think that when the FFB witnesses the BT recite asher yatzar with such devout sincerity, even as he admires the fresh faced eagerness, he is also a bit unnerved. Both by how this new adherent's worship highlights the inadequacy of his own divine service, and also by the fact that despite his professed admiration for the BT's devotion, the FFB doesn't really want to be as frum (read: weird) as the BT is. He likes his communally accepted religious standards where he can practice halacha in a way that isn't overly burdensome to his lifestyle and that doesn't make him seem fanatical or out of place. He doesn't want this version of Judaism that the BT keeps holding up to his face and reminding him is how he should be living.

Aside from the atypical religious excitement of the newly religious, I think there's another significant reason why FFB's are uncomfortable with BT's. I've always suspected that despite the professed admiration for the BT, there is actually an unspoken suspicion that the FFB always harbors to the BT. This mistrust is rooted in the very nature of the journey that brought the BT to religion, a nature which directly conflicts with the accepted thinking in the chareidi world of how a Torah Jew's mind should work.

You see, according to the chareidi perspective, a proper Torah Jew serves god by putting aside one's own ideas of what's best and commits himself to only following what god has deemed proper, as expressed in halacha. And by unequivocally embracing this philosophy, the BT (and even more so the convert) has proven how committed he is to this ideal.

Now, generally this aspect of the BT's life is greatly admired by frum people. That someone came to this conclusion on his own is incredibly inspiring to them. Invariably, they find the decision to voluntarily reject the more permissive life of general society and instead take on the responsibilities of Orthodoxy to be a far more impressive type of religious allegiance than the FFB who was raised with this lifestyle being the norm. But despite that admiration, there's a subtle implication of the BT's act of social defiance which troubles many chareidi people. Because unlike the FFB who has always shown that he is loyal to what his society tells him to do, the BT has revealed a dangerous streak of independence.

So on the one hand, by fully accepting halacha, and demonstrating that he is fully committed to the idea that god's word is more important than his own judgment, the BT has earned his stripes in frum society. But on the other hand, the undeniable fact is that the BT only came to this approach by following his own mind and making his own choice to join this lifestyle. So if his dedication to Torah and mitzvos is really rooted, not in a status quo devotion to god, but in his own mind's judgment that this is the correct path, then what's to stop him from coming to a different conclusion about what's right sometime later down the line? How can we really be certain of his absolute loyalty?! Maybe five years down the line, the same independent thinking that made him realize that Judaism is true, might make him think that Islam is true?

While probably most are unaware of this thought process, I think it's part of what underlies the FFB's uneasiness about the BT. And I think this sentiment actually leaks out a bit at times, such as when FFB's express disapproval at BT's who retain some of their unique character and don't entirely conform to the social expectations of the chareidi community that they live in.

Of course, there are also more prosaic reasons that BT's are often treated as second-class citizens by FFB's. It could simply be the same as any close-knit social group that has to deal with newcomers to their community. Outsiders are rarely granted the same legitimacy as a true-blue member who was raised in the club from his very youth.

I actually think that all these issues are simply part of human nature, and it's understandable that the community is not truly as welcoming as they profess to be. But it's quite sad that a society that prides itself upon its devotion to god's word, has no problem with such a widespread and systemic violation of the biblical commandment to wholeheartedly welcome the stranger without any prejudice (Exodus 22:20).

I wonder how many baalei teshuva would actually decide to be frum if they knew that they would forever be held at arms length by the people they so much want to become like?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Better Know a Kofer - Abandoning Eden

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!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Freely Enslaved

The other day, a rabbinical acquaintance and I were having a discussion about a young fellow we knew who was having trouble in yeshiva. It was clear to both of us that the kid was reasonably bright, yet no matter what enticements were offered to him, he didn't seem to have much success in the part of the curriculum that was devoted to torah studies. I kept trying to explain to my well-meaning friend that he should stop trying to force the poor kid to do something he wasn't interested in, but the guy was determined not to give up, insisting that if only the kid was made to appreciate the beauty of what he was missing, he would have a change of heart. As the conversation wore on, getting ever more argumentative, I could feel anger and resentment bubbling to the surface of my emotions. This exchange was starting to sound all too familiar. I knew it was taking me to a place I shouldn't go, but at the same time a part of me was eager to step into the fray, desperately wanting to tell this person something he needed to hear.

But the conversation ended unexpectedly, he had to leave abruptly, and I lost the opportunity to express something that I had wanted to say to someone like him for a very long time.

Unfortunately, I missed the chance to tell him what it's like to be kept trapped in a box where your mind, body and all your energy is supposed to be devoted to something that doesn't interest you in the slightest.

To make him understand what it must be like for that kid, what it was like for me, to be stuck in a shiur for three consecutive hours, granted only a 15 minute reprieve in the middle; to have to sit silently, doing nothing, not understanding a word; imagine how much I try to keep my mind occupied in some way, but of course the rebbe keeps pulling me back from my mental excursions, figuratively putting his hand on my neck and forcing me to look into the gemara, to pay attention to something which I find utterly incomprehensible. And even when I manage to escape to my own world, what good does it really do me? How much tic-tac-toe and daydreaming can a person distract themselves with already? I can't sneak anything into the class to keep busy with. Although at times I was indeed tempted to smuggle in some such contraband, it always brought with it an attendant risk. If I was unlucky enough to have my rebbe catch me with such a thing, not only would it be summarily confiscated (never to be seen again in my lifetime), but he would always make sure to accompany the inevitable spectacle created specifically to highlight the infraction with an accompanying moral lesson in how terribly disappointing it was that a yeshiva bochur such as myself would consider such a meaningless diversion more worth his attention than the lofty words of Rashi and Tosfos. So I just sit there, frustrated and bored, hour after hour, day after day after day.

There are some moments when I actually do attempt the occasional escape. I take every bathroom break I can possibly get away with. Yet, upon gaining my freedom, I am faced with the disappointing reality that life on the outside is hardly more exciting than what I've just left behind. Usually there's nothing much for me to do other than wander the halls, reading the bulletins on the boards, the losts, the founds, noting the suits, shtenders, and sefarim for sale, hunting for something that even remotely piques my interest. Typically, nothing of any consequence. Still, I relish the fleeting sensation of being unshackled. Until my time runs out and I must return to my taskmaster. Eventually, after carelessly over-utilizing this tactic of gastrointestinal subterfuge, my rebbe catches on to my deception and decides to not allow me out of my cage even for that. Trapped again.

But it's not just shiur that is so wearying for me. Outside of class, among my peers, the day's sugya continues to be the primary focus of what the rest of them are preoccupied with, into the afternoon seder, and inexorably continuing into night seder too. And so I wander the halls of the yeshiva trying to find something, anything! to distract me and provide some entertainment. But of course, in the hallowed environs of the yeshiva they make every effort to ensure that there is nothing distracting you from Torah - no magazines, no Internet, no secular studies, nothing. Despite my ambivalence, I have to admit that the beis medrash is usually the best option there is to keep me preoccupied.

At times, I recall how, despite their best efforts, there are still some distractions the hanhalah is unable to eliminate from the environment, however dull they may be - there is still the daily goings-on of any large institution, the steady hum of its workers and staff persistently going about their daily routines. So I head to the kitchen to see if they need any help, maybe I could peel some vegetables, or watch the giant mixer in action. Or I'll stop off at the administrative office, hoping they have a mailing which they need help with. I'll even look out for the maintenance workers, curious to see if they're busy fixing anything interesting today. This is how pathetically desperate I am. I would rather find any sort of menial tasks to keep my mind focused than to have to dazedly sit through another minute of that mind-numbing gemara. But when they find out that I am doing this - and they inevitably do, because after all, how long can I keep up this charade? - my overseers sternly remind me: "This is not for you. You belong in the beis medrash." They do their best to impress upon me again, making sure I fully understand, just how wrong it is for me to prefer wallowing in the trivialities of olam hazeh than to be swimming in the heavenly waters of nitzchius. I understand. The pitiful looks of my classmates remind me how thoughtlessly I have behaved.

And I believe them. I understand how right they are. How I have to work harder to correct this flaw in my character - that I would rather choose playing with worthless trinkets than to be involved in the greatest undertaking a person could ever participate in! What is wrong with me? Why am I such a lowlife?! I'm being given the opportunity of a lifetime! And I would rather squander it to watch the janitor mop the floors! I disgust myself!

This is what I would like to make my friend understand. To hopefully make him recognize what being in yeshiva is like for those not fortunate to have the desire to spend their time buried in a gemara. To make him appreciate the awful self-loathing that being in such an environment creates in such a person. To make him realize the harm he is doing by forcing this kid to sit through another gemara shiur.

But would it even matter?

"Ain Ben Chorin Ela Mi She'osek Batorah" (Avos 6:2)
"There is no greater ‘free person’ than one who is involved in Torah study."