Monday, December 06, 2010

Some fun Chanuka stuff

I know I haven't written anything in quite a while, so here's a roundup of various Chanuka related stuff for your enjoyment.

The Maccabeats - Candelight

Miracle - Matisyahu Hanukkah Song Music Video

NCSY 2010 Chanuka Musical Remix

Stewart & Colbert - Can I interest you in Hannukah?

The Original Adam Sandler Hannuka song (sequels here and here)

Dreidel, Dreidel - The South Park version!

Darlene Love - Christmas for the Jews (SNL)

Friends - The Holiday Armadillo episode.

And why not enjoy an original Chanuka story I posted last year?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Devorah

Photo Credit: Flickr User Ben
Just in time for your holiday enjoyment, I'm very pleased to present another great interview by a wonderfully meyuchasdike kofer, Devorah. Devorah is a 44-year-old divorced mom living in Jerusalem with her two kids, having made aliya recently from the US. She left the frum community twenty five years ago when she went off to study in university at the age of nineteen. Now, I know what you're all thinking: "You see! The gedolim were right! College is treif!" Well, I would never be so bold as to argue with that, but before you jump to conclusions, take a few minutes and read through her interview to find out the whole story.


Hello Devorah, and thank you for participating in the series. To get us started, can you tell us a bit about the religious environment in which you were raised? 

I grew up in a litvish, extremely meyuchisdik, family. Both my parents came from very choshev lineage. I’m a direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon. My more immediate ancestors were highly renowned roshei yeshivas, rabbonim, etc. My grandfather was an Av Bais Din and my father a communal rav.

There was a very strong focus on Torah learning and we all did family parsha study on Friday nights. I also did a lot of self-study and by the time I was nine years old it had become my habit to learn through the following week’s parsha together with Rashi by mincha time of the previous Shabbos. During the week I fleshed out my learning with other meforshim. I did my learning for fun and out of a deep desire to absorb as much kedushas hatorah as I could.

In general we were very makpid in the keeping of halochos and somewhat chumradik. Although we lived in a more right wing MO community where my father was rav, we led a moderate Charedi lifestyle. We were allowed to listen to talk radio and occasionally saw a PG movie.

By the time I was around six years old I was wearing at least elbow length sleeves and knee socks. After my bas mitzva I started wearing tights exclusively, high necklines and skirts to well below my knees.

I think that paints a pretty clear picture for us, but is there a specific experience you can share which captures the religious tone in your home? 

Sitting at the seder table and listening to long dry discussions about hilchos karban pesach and thinking to myself, "Hey, isn't this meant to be a discussion of yetzias mitzraim?" Our shabbos and yom tov tables were always focused on halochic issues and my father often discussed interesting questions that he had paskened on. It was very intellectually orientated, but I’ve got to admit, that with the exception of that seder, I did often enjoy it.

Believe me, I know very well how frustrating the seder can be. But can you highlight an example of an idea you encountered that actually made you question your upbringing? 

The sudden realization that the distinction I’d been taught between ‘medaber’ and ‘yehudi’ was just a cultural imposition and not a species barrier. When I started to realize that goyim were full fledged human beings, I started to think a lot about why such intelligent, even genius goyim weren’t converting to Judaism if yiddishkeit was as patently true as I was being told.

Also, despite learning about the crusades and the holocaust, I just could never buy the whole Eisav soneh es Yaakov business. I was very sure that Goyim were all individuals and not pre-programmed semi-automatons. The few Goyim I knew did not seem the least bit dangerous or evil to me.

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

Wholly intellectual! I was very keen on science and took out a lot of library books, and my reading led me to understand that creationism was a mere myth, Noah’s Ark was improbable in the extreme, and the exodus and desert travels had no archaeological foundation. There was also no evidence for a God at all!

Did you ever discuss these issues with anyone?

Around the time I was experiencing my theological breakdown, there was a BT student who would often eat Shabbos and yom-tov meals at my cousins and I’d met him through them. He was a physics student, so when I happened to meet him at the library we got chatting and I bounced a lot of my questions off him. Basically, after trying to prove lack of contradiction, all he could ultimately answer was that faith sustained his belief. But I was finding that all my faith had deserted me.

Over the next few years, I also spoke to several other frum scientists and got no better basis for belief from them.

Despite being a misnagid, I even wrote in desperation to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (this being twenty-seven years ago) for chizuk in my emunah, since I thought that with his science background he might have some real answers for me. But I never received a response.

If there was a moment for you when it all suddenly fell apart, how did it feel when you realized that it all wasn't true? 

When I realized I did not believe in God any more I was emotionally devastated and wished that I could just put away my thoughts and get on with my frum life. I was around 15 at the time, and I held on without discussing my apikorsus openly, even going on to sem and teaching in a day school. I finally left when my father started putting pressure on me to go on shidduchim and refused to let me study in university.

But it was all hollow for me and pretty soon I stopped my self-study of parsha and stopped davening except for Shabbos at shul. After a while I stopped saying brochos and krias shema al hamita. However, I was still ostensibly the nice frum girl acing all the limudei kodesh tests and never scoring less than 100% in Halocha.

It was actually rather easy for me to toe the line since I was fairly physically and emotionally immature and had no interest in boys and also did not care at all for pop music. Those were always the chief issues bugging my classmates and getting them into trouble.

Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line and how you felt about it? 

After I left my family home to study in university, although I did not light candles or make Kiddush I was not mechallel Shabbos and I became a vegetarian. The first time I broke Shabbos was when traveling as a passenger. I had to leave the car after the onset of Shabbos and we had traveled outside the tchum.

It took me a while to act outside the normative Halachic bounds of kashrus and Shabbos, because I was very keen that people should not view me as having left my upbringing for self-indulgent reasons, and I did not want to shame my family.

For many years, for at least a decade after I stopped keeping Shabbos, every time I was in some way mechallel Shabbos I would think about which av or toldah I was being oiver. However, it was wholly intellectual, just something I was cognizant of, and I never suffered any guilt from it.

How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now? 

For almost two decades I never discussed my different world view with my family, but also rarely returned to visit them. When I did go back I would wear appropriately long tznius clothing. A few years ago I told my father I was atheist and he accepted that it was a thoughtfully arrived at conclusion for me. We have never discussed it since, and in fact our relationship has been warmer than ever.

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

I feel ethnically Jewish, and chose to make aliya a year and a half ago. I now live in a secular/MO section of Jerusalem. I very occasionally attend a reform shul to give my kids some comprehension of what shul is about, and they recently started going to the Israeli version of RSY (Reform Synagogue Youth) to learn a bit about Judaism. Today, my nine year old asked me what a sin is, since she heard the madrich talking about sin in a discussion about Yom Kippur. Charmingly, my daughter first heard about God when aged five. A kid she met told her that God is a superhero whose powers never get used up! Yup! I told her, I’ve heard of that superhero. She thought I was a really cool mom!

How do you you approach the Jewish holidays with your kids?

Since we now live in Israel my kids are starting to absorb the notion of being Jewish and have certainly absorbed some knowledge about Chagim and Shabbat from their surroundings, school, the youth group, reform shul and my frum relatives. The reality is that even secular Israeli schools teach quite a lot about religion – at least in Jerusalem.

I’m actually rather pleased that my kids are getting to know about Judaism because I feel it might insulate them more from zealous evangelists like Chabad when they get older and go to college. When we lived in America my kids had no exposure to Judaism at all and had they continued that way they would have been prime BT targets.

However, even in Jerusalem there are certainly secular ways of celebrating Chagim. For instance, Yom Kippur to my kids is Bike Day, when they spend all day out on the deserted roads enjoying their bikes and scooters.

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

Absolutely nothing that I can think of. Sometimes, I visit frum relatives and although I enjoy spending time with them, I’m acutely aware of how limited their lives are.

Whatever minor benefits might accrue from living such a cloistered, rule laden lifestyle, the downside is a huge sapping of curiousity, creativity and even ethical consciousness.

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

There must be, but I really think individual personality is most dominant, and I don’t know whether my perspective has been formed via my upbringing or personality.

Do you have any strong feelings towards the religious community you came from?

I do not feel in the least bit connected to the Charedi community, but do feel a bond to others who are ex-Charedi.

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

I am a convinced atheist. I cannot even comprehend how supposedly intelligent adults can persist in believing in such an irrational notion as God. It literally boggles my mind. However, when asked directly and I don’t want to be offensive, I sometimes adopt Golda Meir’s answer. “I believe in the Jewish people and the Jewish people believe in God.”

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

The only drawback was the loss of financial support which my father extended to his other children. But the reality is that I’ve managed very well by myself. Otherwise, it was an inevitable transition since I could not live a bogus life forever. I have no guilt since I did not have faith from well before I left. I now live a quiet, highly caring, loving family life.

I have never regretted making the break – not even for a second!

Were there any particular struggles or challenges that you found especially difficult in the transition? 

I made the decision even as a non-believer to pay my ex-husband for a get. He was a secular Jew but so angry that I was leaving him that he decided he would extort money from me for the get. He got the idea after idiot people told him how important a get was to my family. He hard balled for a very lot of money. He knew the get was meaningless to me, but he knew I would never want to bring disgrace upon my family.

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? 

I’ve traveled to more than 80 countries, climbed Aconcagua, camped in Denali, traveled through Amazonia, been on a whiskey sampling tour in the Scottish Highlands, stayed with a Borneo tribe and taken an Antarctic voyage. I’ve also hung out with many incredible and smart people. I can’t imagine doing that as a frum girl.

It is a continuous much appreciated joy for me that I can now genuinely be myself and express myself, and search for true meaning in life and about life through science. Although if I’d stayed frum I could always have snuck into Borders to buy science texts, the ongoing conflict between science and frum hashkofa would have been a daily irritant.

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

One of my greatest hopes now is to facilitate my children’s development according to their talents and aspirations. One of my daughters is a fantastic singer and dancer and the other a budding gymnast. They have the prospects of going far with their skills and taking part in contests and public performances. I’m pleased that my daughters aren’t restricted in showcasing their talents as frum girls routinely are.

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

How universities (science departments) are all about critical thinking and searching for real answers in contrast with the sophistry that passes for learning in yeshivas.

Also, the fact that people are much kinder and more accepting in the general community than I had ever expected. I’ve been looked after and helped by total strangers whilst traveling, merely because I’m a fellow human.

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

Many of the best and brightest are leaving the frum world, not the dregs as popularly depicted. Most ex-frum people I associate with are intellectually very smart and kind warm people.

It’s also not hard for an ex-frum person to pursue a successful new life in the general community and in fact marriage prospects are enhanced. Once divorced, I found it to be no difficulty to find high quality men to date in the wider community.

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

It is much more honest, broader in scope and more fulfilling.

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

I now respect people much more for just being a person. I also have shrugged off warped frum thinking such as respecting people for yichus or money, both of which my family was blessed with.

What’s the best thing about not being frum? 

I can be intellectually honest and think about serious and important things from an open perspective.

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

Lavish kiddushim with cholent and potato kugel.

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

Hmmmm, I liked the Bnos Zelofchod for their excellent legal reasoning!

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

Not to be snotty!

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

Accept a rational naturalist way of thinking about the world, but then that would rule out God!

If a child of yours chose to become religious, how would you react? 

I would be a little amazed, but hey it’s her life!

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

I never openly acknowledged being atheist until 1996 when I met Richard Dawkins at an event in Oxford and it broke the discomfort barrier in admitting I was atheist. I actually enjoyed a rather nice chat with him, and he told me that acknowledging one’s atheism was a big deal to many people not just ex-frummers. He made me feel so much more normal about my concern about that.

Like many other thoughtful people I suffer from depression from time to time. However, because I no longer believe in an afterlife I realize that suicide cannot be an option. I have only this one life to live and no other. In this way my atheism helps me pull through my bouts of depression. In contrast, when I first suffered depression in my early teens I seriously contemplated suicide and believed that Hashem would understand my reasons for taking my life.

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

All parents are entitled to educate their children as they see fit. However, if your child upon attaining adulthood, and after having absorbed at least eighteen years of your values and frumkeit, decides to choose a different philosophy in life, then accept it!


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Saturday, September 18, 2010

More Jewish Links

These past few weeks I've noticed quite a few articles in the mainstream press about issues related to Jews and Judaism (and amazingly, they don't have any connection to criminal activities of any sort). Here's a roundup of some that I thought would be of interest:
  • Starting tonight, Union Square in NYC will be hosting a sukka exhibit for two days, after which it will be on display at The Center for Architecture. - NY Times, NY Magazine
  • Christopher Hitches waxes philosophical about anti-Semitism. - The Atlantic
  • A holocaust detective story about a lampshade found in the ruins of Katrina and the search to determine if it was made from the skin of a concentration camp victim. - NY Magazine
  • The old standby of identifying a Jewish home by the mezuza affixed to the front door may no longer hold true. - NY Times
  • The reality show "America's Next Top Model" has a Modern Orthodox contestant, and she's supposedly let down the faithful! - Tablet
  • The New York Times takes an interest in a new Conservative machzor. - NY Times
  • One shul's collection of those embarrassing satin yarmulkas that were given out at weddings and bar-mitzvahs is testament to a forgotten era. - NY Times
  • On why the musical character of the Jewish liturgy seems resistant to contemporary innovations. (Duh. Hasn't the New York Times heard of "chadash assur min hatorah"?) - NY Times
  • A Maine lobsterman reflects on the meaning of Yom Kippur and its relationship to his work. (I wonder if that's as bad as being a Jewish pig farmer.) - NY Times
Photo Credit: Flickr user ..Catherine..

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Random Scribblings

I don't have much to say lately, but I thought I'd drop by and mention some recent articles related to my usual topics that you may find interesting.

  • The blogger known as Hasidic Feminist is working on a memoir of her journey and has just been featured in two different sources. An interview she conducted with the BBC can be heard here (jump ahead to the 12:15 minute mark). And she also wrote up a brief chronicle of her journey in The Observer series "Once Upon A Life". It's an enlightening and interesting read, although I do wonder how she can claim that, "I like to think that I am a little different from the others, who sneak out so they can partake in all that is sleazy and salacious." and then later say about herself, "I was consumed by an obsession with everything I had previously known to be sinful." Doesn't really sound so different to me.
  • Ynet printed a well circulated article that highlights the growing trend of secretly-not-frum chareidim: Living in the Ultra Orthodox Closet. Nothing very surprising there, if your head is not as deeply buried in the sand as some chareidim prefer it to be.
  • Ynet reports on an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that a child of a divorced couple whose secular mother has custody must receive a religious education. How come? Because otherwise his prestigious chareidi grandparents would be so ashamed of him that they would sever all ties with the child. First question: I thought the Israeli Supreme Court were all a bunch of chareidi haters, how is this possible? Much more important question: Why the hell is the Supreme Court supporting the prejudices of some bigoted, small-minded chareidim?! If they want to act so horribly, let them suffer the consequences of their choices. Anyway, that kid is probably better off not being around grandparents who can act so callously to their own grandchild.
  • An anxious mom writes in Salon about her struggle to come to terms with giving her son a bris. She expresses really well much of the ambivalence that I also have to the issue. Unfortunately, she does a really lame job of trying to reconcile her difficulties. I'd love to hear a better answer, if you have one.
  • And now for something completely different: A music video about shlugging kaparos - inspired by an actual visit to Crown Heights. (Frummie warning: there's a few brief scenes of scantily-clad women. Try not to look!)
Photo Credit: Flickr user sosij.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Sam

I know it's been a long time since I posted a kofer interview. I had thought about letting the project wind down, but recently I met someone who told me how helpful he felt these stories were to him and how much he looked forward to reading more of them. Well, after hearing that, how could I possibly refuse? So I've whipped up another kofer interview for my dear readers. You'll be getting to know Sam, who comes from one of the most insular chassidic communities ever. Sam left the frum world only a few years ago and now has almost completed his bachelors degree in chemistry. Please enjoy the interview.


Hello Sam. To start off, tell us a bit about the religious environment that you grew up in.

It was literally a shtetal, and a small one. My community is known to be close minded even in the chasidic world. We have a "heilege rebbe" who many people believe can perform miracles, and the entire community revolves around him. When it comes to isolation from the real world, we score a perfect 12 in a 1-10 scale.

Can you give an example?

Ok, so until I was about 12 there was no such a thing as swimming in my community. But when I was about that age they decided that we should be allowed to swim. So we went out swimming, but to be modest all the boys had to wear the long sleeved shirts and long pants. No kidding, we all went swimming dressed up like we were going to a wedding.

Can you highlight an idea you encountered that made you question your upbringing?

When I discovered married people have sex, which was quite late I might add, I was really confused. I couldn't believe that even the most tuma (impure) thing ever was even done by the HOLY REBBE, holy shit!

What was the impetus for your transition away from frumkeit?

It was a combination of intellectual and emotional issues. Let me elaborate. The one major factor that drove me was the emptiness I felt there. Since as far back as I can remember about myself, I always had something in life to look forward to. Be it graduating from class by the end of the year, or my bar mitzvah, etc. Although today, these goals look really silly, it was very real to me back then. However when I got a little older, around 16-17, I found myself not really looking forward to anything. At the time when my peers were dying to get married, for some reason I was able to look past it. I saw marriage as a short cut to death. Because marriage was going to be the last major achievement or change for the rest of my life. And while my children are going to do the same that I did, I figured there is no way to be happy for kids since their life will be as empty as mine. On the other hand, I was really afraid of God and hell so I didn't really think of leaving. I just surrendered to the idea that my life is going to suck real bad. However, at the time, maybe a year later, I began questioning (real questioning) the validity of the existence of God. Some would say my questioning was a result of my unhappiness. I really don't care why I was questioning. The fact is that I had questions and stopped believing. And these questions were real and they are still real. The second I stopped believing the decision was made.

Did anything happen once that decision was made in your mind? How did things change at that point?

I stopped keeping Halacha, I would refuse to go meet people about shiduchim, etc. About a half a year later I heard about Footsteps and I went to them.

How did Footsteps help you?

When I first left I didn't know a single other person who left. I had no idea what to do or where to turn. I was totally lost. If I hadn't felt that I could go to Footsteps when I left, I probably would never have left at all. I'd probably still be there, totally miserable with my life and very likely divorced. Footsteps was my lifeline. They helped me find a place to live, they helped me find a job, they helped me with preparing for and getting into college. They helped me with everything.

What was one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line?

I turned on a radio on Shabbus to listen to a hockey game. I switched it on, and wow! I am still alive. So I thought maybe god didn't realize what just happened. So I switched it off and on again. I repeated that quite a few times and from that point on I never had any real problem to do any sins ("Aviros," not a virus). And I am doing everything now.

How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now?

I have over 10 siblings. Right at this moment when I am writing this I am staying in my brothers house. But on the other hand I have other siblings that I haven't talked to since I left. My parents do talk to me on the phone and I visit them occasionally, but I have to lie to them about my beliefs. For a recent family wedding, my sister told me that she didn't want me to be there.

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

Religion zero, some aspects of the culture I really like. I consider Judaism a tribe in which I am a part off.

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

The fact that I didn't have any pressure and second thoughts about anything I did. I knew exactly what and when to do everything, which is not the case today.

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

I kinda really like the food and some music. Also I can sway back and forth, like I used to do studying the Talmud, when I study my textbooks.

How do you currently view the religious community you came from?

Mostly nostalgia. On the one hand, I think they are unbelievably wrong. I'm an atheist, so I don't agree with anything they do. Even keeping shabbos seems crazy to me. On the other hand, I do miss that place. So in my fantasy I wish I can change them to not be as extreme.

What exactly do you miss?

The strong community life. For us, even minor details about each others lives were familiar to each others families, like how many sleds my neighbor owns. Even the little things I remember, like the way we played in the snow. I don't know why I feel that way - maybe it's just the fact that you miss the life you had as a child. But I don't hate it. I think they're wrong, but I do still miss it in some ways.

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

Not that I can think of.

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

Regrets? Hardly any. Of course there are drawbacks. You have to rebuild your life. In my old life I considered myself one of the top students in my class, and as a result, respected myself a lot and was convinced of my superiority. Now I don't have that same feeling of confidence.

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

The fact that I am able to look back and remember how difficult my life used to be. Anytime I find myself feeling frustrated with my life now, I remember how bad it was for me back when I was frum, and realize that my situation would not have been any better had I remained in the community. I don't just think about it though. I actually visualize the experience of being in that world and how bad the experience was and it helps me realize how it's not so bad now.

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?

A major factor for my leaving was due my desire to go to college. Back then, my fantasy was to graduate, go to medical school and find a cure for cancer. But even then I knew that my goals would evolve. And they did. Now I am much more interested in math and physics than I am in biology. But my goals are still evolving. However the fact that my fantasy of my careers are constantly evolving is something that I am very satisfied with. In short, I am in college studying science, which was very difficult for me to do before I left (if not impossible). In addition, I am enjoying my life, something that rarely happened before I left. And I am actually surprised by how good life is on the outside. I get up every morning and do what I think is right. I don't have to regret half the things I did the previous day. The only regretting going on today is not enough studying.  

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

That people are as nice, and as bad, as in the Chasidic world. All I knew (or thought I knew) about gentiles was that they are a bunch of criminals and drug addicts. Also I couldn't get over the fact that most non-Jews don't bother focusing on Jews anywhere nearly as much as I was told they do. They could hardly care less about what we do.

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

That we are lost souls drifting around a contaminated world confused as shit, only interested in sex, and not worth taking seriously.

Are there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?

99.9% of it isn't true.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

The best thing... hmmm... maybe that you don't have to take everything so seriously. Every choice and action isn't considered such a major issue that you always need to be absolutely confident is the exact right thing to do. In my old world, everything had such huge consequences, both now, and for your future olam haba. I always had to be sure I was doing the right thing. Every change a person did, no matter how slight, had ramifications in how they were perceived in the community. People don't judge me that way anymore. Also, now I'm free to consider the possibility that what I'm doing is wrong. Making a mistake is not the end of the world. It's an amazing freedom.

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

Winning debates about the Talmud over the Rosh Yeshiva. Even when I knew I was right, he never conceded my victories, but all the other rabbis that were around to hear the discussion agreed that I had beaten him.

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

Disallowing such young marriages. I believe that many of my friends would have make different choices if they hadn't found themselves having to support a family. It's used to trap people into staying.

If you could go back in time, and speak to your teenage chassidish self, what would you tell him?

Use your leverage. I understand now that the adults in my life wanted so badly for me to be properly frum that I could have used that to my advantage and gotten all sorts of benefits for myself. If I would have said, "Let me do x,y, z, or else I'm cutting off my payos!" I think they would have given me what I wanted. But back then, I was so obedient and such a believer that it never crossed my mind to do that. But I think I could have pulled it off.

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

Wake up and consider the fact that other people might have their own real views about life. You don't have a monopoly on reality.


Photo Credit: Flickr user andre_guerette.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where's the line?

I was at a meal on Shavuos at some religious friends of mine, the kind that are open-minded enough to not really care that I'm not religious; the kind of people for whom I don't ever have to pretend to be something I'm not. Unlike some of my ex-frum compatriots, I don't have any problem hanging around religious environments (well, certain religious environments), and I really don't think less of people just because they subscribe to religious ideas which I disagree with (again, certain religious ideas). But at the meal, something happened which prompted me to look a bit more closely at that fine line between what I consider normal religious behavior and the kind which I think is just short of crazy.

This particular group of people were a typically varied crowd of single men and women from the Upper West Side, most of whom were Modern Orthodox, some only nominally frum, some - like myself - not religious at all. At one point one of them launched into a classic Shavous dvar torah, and began expounding on the tradition of why people stay up learning on Shavuos night.

When it comes to shabbos meal divrei torah, my typical reaction is to just tune out entirely, as in most cases, such divrei torah usually fall into one of two categories, both of which I find utterly mind-numbing: There's the sort where some obscure textual inconsistency is reconciled by dredging up some even more obscure textual reference. And there's the kind where the inconsistency is reconciled by anachronistically inserting the persons ideological worldview into the text. Neither of which I (and to my cynical eye, anyone else at the table) have any interest in really listening to.

But this dvar torah was of a different sort. The guy was not content with simply reconciling an inconsistency, but he chose to invent a new one out of whole cloth, just so he could make his point when trying to address it. Ok, so I've seen this style too, it wasn't really new to me, but what started to grate on my nerves was that he was solving the problem he created by imposing some new-agey pop-psychology ideas onto the mental state of the Jewish People at Sinai. And it was at this point that I started to get annoyed at what I was hearing. Things only got worse when the rest of the table - people who I thought were of a more sophisticated intellectual bent regarding Jewish tradition - started seriously debating the merits of applying Gladwellian quasi-scientific ideas onto the midrashic narrative.

The same feelings surfaced when the conversation turned to why dairy products are traditionally eaten on Shavuos. As I heard supposedly intelligent people seriously explaining how the reason we don't eat meat is due to the dearth of kosher dishes after the giving of the torah, I found myself looking around in amazement, and thinking to myself, "Am I the only sane person here?"

But upon further reflection, I couldn't help wondering, why was hearing these ideas so particularly infuriating to me? I wasn't troubled by other things going on around me. It didn't bother me that they were commemorating the most dubious of historical events - that a nomadic tribe received a set of laws from a heavenly deity who transcribed them to a man who spoke to the being on a mountaintop for 40 days. It didn't vex me that they felt it necessary to make a blessing over a cup of wine before eating the meal or that they found turning on a light switch to be deserving of death. So many of the behaviors and beliefs of the frum person don't bother me at all, yet in this case, and in so many others, when I look at what's happening in front of me, or what's being said by seemingly intelligent people, I can't help wondering, "What the hell is wrong with these people?!"

Where is the line? Why do some things seem acceptable, normal, even possibly healthy, and others seem preposterous, foolish, and naïve?


Photo Credit: Flickr user Norah M

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Rachmanim Bnei Rachmanim


Once again, the chareidi world is up in arms, stalwartly defending a member of their community. And once again, the person is a convicted criminal.

How many times are they going to do this? First we saw them campaign on behalf of the drug smuggling yeshiva bochurim. Then they rioted in support of a woman who tortured her own child. Then they moved heaven and earth to try to help a convicted cop killer. And now they're pulling out all the stops on behalf of a convicted fraudster. (Even though they're equally despicable, I'm not counting the instances where they also came to the defense of child molesters, since those were on a much smaller scale than these campaigns.)

Like I said regarding the Grossman case, regardless of how you think about the man's guilt or innocence (and in this case, his guilt is not even what's at issue, it's his sentence), the question remains: What sort of screwed up moral compass is directing this community that they continuously demonstrate greater concern for the criminals in their community than the victims of the crimes?

When are we going to see such a community-wide campaign - with tehillim, and kinuses (kinusim?), and political lobbying, and angry protests, and email chain-letters, and slick video productions - addressing the need to report child molesters and those who protect them?

Yes, they truly are a compassionate people. As the Midrash says, "He who is compassionate to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the compassionate.” (Tanhuma, Parashat Mezora,1; Yalkut Shimoni, I Samuel, Chapter 121.)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Holiday Insights

Over the recent holiday I spent some time with my relatives. Like most ex-chareidi people, amongst my decent sized family, I have some relatives which are the kind of frum that I find incredibly annoying, but others are really not so bad. This particular family is really quite easygoing, and so I tend to enjoy my visits with them. That being said, they are still pretty strictly frum, probably placed somewhere in the moderate-chareidi camp, and consequently there arises all sorts of situations with them that remind me just how different my worldview is to theirs. (As an aside, when I spend time with any of my family, I maintain an outwardly respectfully frum demeanor, even though most of them are aware that I'm not at all frum.)

One such incident occurred pretty soon into my visit. I arrived wearing dress pants and a blue dress shirt, which I planned on wearing when yom tov started. While I was well aware that a blue shirt is not the accepted style in their community, I was pretty sure that they'd find it to still be respectful enough that it wouldn't pose a problem. And it didn't, at least for the adults. But the kids... they just didn't know how to handle it! Here's how the conversation went as yom tov was approaching, and they were hanging out with me:
Kids (aged 8 - 10): When are you going to get dressed for yuntif?
Me: I am dressed.
Kids: Very funny!
Me (laughing at their incredulity): Seriously, this is what I'm going to wear.
Kid: Stop it. I know you're not serious. You're not going to wear a blue shirt to shul.
Me: Ok, you don't have to believe me if you don't want to. It doesn't really matter.
Kids: But, but... how could you...? It's a blue shirt…!

What could I possibly say to help them understand? To their minds, it was just totally inconceivable that someone would do something so outrageous as wearing a blue shirt on shabbos. Impossible! It reminded me of the incident when I was still frum where my Israeli 8-year-old nephew saw me for the first time wearing a kipa sruga (a knitted yarmulke, of the style that are typically worn by those affiliated with the Religious-Zionist community). His reaction? "Why would you wear that? Rak chilonim lovshim kipot k'eilu!" ("Only non-religious people wear those kinds of yarmulkes!")

(By the way, the next day, my cousin told me that her 7-year-old wanted to wear a blue shirt too. It's amazing what a corrupting influence I am!)

Another incident: I was sitting in the kitchen, and my uncle was about to have a bite of some pesach cake. He turned to his wife and asked her if he should make a mezonos or shahakol before eating it. (On pesach, some baked goods are made with ingredients that require a shehakol bracha, so the baker (my aunt) would know what bracha it required). She thought for a moment, and then replied, "I'm not sure. I can't remember how I made that one." My uncle immediately declared, "You don't know? Then how can it be eaten?! We have to throw it out!"

As soon as he said that, my aunt seemed to have a very sudden recollection of what ingredients went into the cake, so the crisis was averted, but I was just struck how incredibly absurd his reaction was. To be honest, I'm not really sure how serious he was when suggesting that it be trashed, since it really doesn't take much halachic imagination to figure out ways to eat an item even when you aren't sure what bracha to make on it (e.g. have it after motzi, have it 'in mind' when making a mezonos and shehakol on something else, or he even could have simply asked her to check her recipe!), but just hearing his first instinctive response to some tiny halachic quandary to be such an extreme black-and-white overreaction really highlighted for me the craziness of how halacha makes some people see the world.

Another moment of contrast: At dinner, during some point in the conversation I was telling them about some of my experiences at school, and some of the friends I've made there. I mentioned how I got to know some Iranian students, and how interesting it was to hear their perspectives on current events, and their interaction with American society. When I remarked how I was surprised to learn that they, as loyal Iranians, still find Ahmadinejad to be an absolute nutjob, I was quite amazed when my relatives nodded in agreement. "Of course!" they responded. Wow, I thought to myself. That's not the reaction I was expecting. Have my chareidi relatives really developed the subtlety to not paint all Muslims with the same brush? "Of course," my uncle explained. "He's made life terrible for the Jews there. They can't stand him!"

I was unsure how to respond to his remark, momentarily confused by what he meant, but then it dawned on me what had just transpired: When I spoke about befriending Iranian students, they had automatically assumed that I was talking about Iranian Jews! Realizing this, I just sat there in utter disbelief at what I was hearing. My family were all frum professionals, some of them even having attended college (one even a doctorate), and most having worked in the secular world for decades. How in the world does someone who has all those years of interaction, however tangential it may be to their primary frum life, maintain such a narrow ethnocentric worldview?! Honestly, I was just flabbergasted.

At another point, the inevitable political topic arose, and like every other situation where I've heard chareidim comment on current events, the right-wing tirade against how Obama is such a terrible person, a socialist who is destroying the country, how he's overtaxing them and giving away their money to the poor shvartzes on welfare, etc., blah, blah, was expressed. This wasn't surprising to me at all, but what was amazing was the total lack of awareness of how hypocritical they were in their position. In other conversations, these same relatives had absolutely no qualms expressing exactly the opposite opinion when it came to how the Israeli government is so terrible for always trying to cut back on the welfare allowances that they give chareidi families. I know, it's totally not the same thing at all.

I'm very appreciative of my family. They're all very kind and wonderful, and I'm most grateful that, for the most part, they've never at any time given me a hard time about my decision to stop being frum. But I never cease to be reminded that no matter how 'normal' and accepting a chareidi person is, there will always be a vast and seemingly insurmountable gulf between the worldview of the committed chareidi and my own personal outlook on the world.


Photo Credit: Flickr user barb

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Friday, March 26, 2010


These past few years, the chareidi community and its leadership have been providing innumerable lessons to the world about the way a Torah-True Jew lives his life. Let us be grateful to them for all the many things they have taught us all!
  • If they had only been wise enough to ban music that has electric guitars, but had not boycotted a store that had a sheitel advertisement in the window, it would have been enough to show us their greatness!
  • If they had only protested against a store that had a sheitel advertisement in the window, but had not felt it was inappropriate for a magazine to carry an ad for an eyebrow-shaping service, it would have been enough to prove their wisdom!
  • If they had only felt it was inappropriate to advertise eyebrow-shaping, but had not publicly revealed that they were ignorant of basic facts about reality, it would have been enough to demonstrate their brilliance!
  • If they had only publicly revealed that that were ignorant of basic facts, but had not referred to drug smuggling yeshiva bochurim as holy, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only referred to drug smuggling yeshiva bochurim as kedoshim, but did not feel it necessary to restrict men and women to different sides of the streets, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only felt it necessary to restrict men and women to different sides of the streets, but not demand that women sit at the back of buses, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only demanded that women sit at the back of buses, but not beat them when they didn't, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only beat the women when they didn't sit at the back of the bus, but they didn't stone or throw acid at them when they didn't meet the extremist standards of modesty, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only thrown acid at women who weren't dressed to their satisfaction, but didn't break into peoples homes and violently attack innocent women, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only attacked innocent women, but didn't nod and wink at all the financial indiscretion they knew was going on in their community, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only nodded and winked at all the financial indiscretionss they knew about, but had not confessed to finding Bernie Madoff a more inspiring individual than Captain Sully, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only praised Madoff, but not publicly admitted that it was halachically ok to cheat on one's taxes as long as you don't get caught, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only admitted that it was ok to cheat on one's taxes, but refrained from holding an event dedicated to business ethics where the tax cheating Spinka Rav was given a place of honor, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only given kavod to the Spinka Rav, but had not also at that event honored a man who unjustly caused a charity to lose half a million dollars, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only honored a man who unjustly caused a charity to lose half a million dollars, but were not involved in granting special treatment to chassidic prisoners, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only been granting special favors to Jewish prisoners, but had not tried to destroy an innocent persons reputation and livelihood, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only destroyed an innocent persons reputation, but had not banned a book that tells the truthful history of their gedolim it would have been enough!
  • If they only had banned a book that tells the truthful history of their gedolim, but had not covered up decades of child molestation in their community, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only covered up decades of child molestation, but not fought against a bill that would help bring justice to victims of molestation, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only fought against a bill helping abuse victims, but had not issued a psak beis din admitting to witness tampering in an effort to help an accused molester, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only been guilty of witness tampering and obstruction of justice, but had not demonstrated utter disregard for a victim of molestation while showing overwhelming support for his molester, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only shown overwhelming support for a convicted molester, but not chosen to vociferously advocate on behalf of a cold-blooded killer, it would have been enough.
  • If they had only chosen to vociferously advocate on behalf of a cold-blooded killer, but not been virtually silent when a most prominent rabbinic figure was caught in a scandalous adulterous relationship, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only stood by silently when one of their most prominent rabbinic figures was caught in an scandalous adulterous relationship, but had not been frozen with inaction as a rabbi who made efforts to combat the rampant child abuse was bullied into silence, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only done nothing as a rabbi who made efforts to combat the child abuse was threatened into silence, but had not been silent about their chief rabbi's involvement in having a teenager kidnapped and beaten, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only been silent about the chief rabbi's involvement in kidnapping a teenager, but did not support rabbis who fraudulently manipulate hundreds of thousands of dollars from emotionally vulnerable devotees, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only extorted money from emotionally vulnerable devotees but had not laundered money through their yeshivas, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only laundered money through their yeshivas, but didn't operate a kosher meatpacking company that was found guily of fraud and child labor abuses, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only supported the convicted head of a scammy shechita company, but did not also operate an underground organ trafficking operation, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only operated an underground organ trafficking operation, but had not had a prominent rabbi caught extorting millions of dollars from a hedge fund, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only extorted millions of dollars, but had not allowed their constituents to violently riot because of a parking lot open on shabbos, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only allowed their constituents to violently riot on behalf of a parking lot, but not to riot on behalf of a woman who starved her own child, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only rioted on behalf of a woman who starved her own child, but not staunchly proclaimed the innocence of a man who murdered his own baby, it would have been enough!
  • If they had only proclaimed the innocence of a man who murdered his own child, but did not defend one of the worst child abusers in recent history, it would have been enough!
Dai-dai-yeniu… dai-dai-yeniu… dai-dai-yeniu… daiyeinu, DAYEINU!!!

(PS: If you want to pass this on to friends, I made a handy, easy to remember shortened URL for you to use:

Update: Added the part about R' Dovid Cohen saying it was ok to cheat on one's taxes.
Update 2: Added the witness tampering psak and the show of support for a convicted molester.
Photo credit: flickr user mhaithaca.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The High Price of Religious Defection

Here's a brief profile of two Israelis who left their ultra-orthodox lifestyle behind, and the price they had to pay for it: The High Price of Religious Defection.
Over the 19 years it has been operating, only around 2,000 defectors have turned to Hillel. "There are tens of thousands who have doubts and want out," Paneth says. But only a small number are ready and willing to make the sacrifices that defection demands. For example, most families completely break off contact with defectors. "Some even hold wakes," Paneth says, "as if the daughter or son has actually died."
I guess Der Spiegel can be forgiven for mixing up a wake with sitting shiva. I really wonder though about her numbers. Are there really tens of thousands who want out? How can she be sure about that?

One of the protagonists shares the picture she was painted of what would happen if she left:
"We were contantly told that the secular world was only waiting to turn us into prostitutes or slaves," Mayan explains, "that there was nothing but drug addiction waiting for us out in the modern world."
Sound familiar?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chareidi Leadership

Amazing! Just a few days ago I wrote in a post about how the entire reaction to the Grossman debacle demonstrated just how much of a bald faced lie it is when the chareidi community defends its inaction on issues with the excuse that they don’t get involved in something that has nothing to do with their community. Now, only a few days later, they decide to step up and show the world just how much of a lie another one of their common excuses really is! What is going on?!

Today, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah Of America issued a statement condemning Rabbis Avi Weiss, a left-leaning Modern Orthodox rabbi for his recent activity of ordaining a woman rabbi. Now, just like with the Grossman issue, I’m not going to go into the merits of their position vis-à-vis the issue at hand. It’s really not germane to my point. I rather want to focus on the simple fact that they did issue this statement, and how it compares with other situations where there was noticeable silence on their part.

This past year, with so many scandals being frequently revealed in the chareidi world, it was not uncommon to hear the faithful lament (and the not-so-faithful accuse), “Why haven’t the rabbonim spoken out about these problems?! Where’s their condemnation?!” The issues are too numerous to even get through: molestation accusations, financial improprieties, corruption, sexual dalliances, embezzlement, drug smuggling, violence against women, rioting, worker mistreatment. The list goes on and on. And every time people ask why the rabbonim aren’t speaking up (not to mention, actually taking action), the response is always some lame excuse about how it’s not their job to comment on every issue that crops up.

And yet, here we have an issue – one which does not involve their community in any manner, one which does not actually hurt anyone or involve a crime of any sort; indeed, the issue at hand is one in which a woman is acting in a more spiritual and refined manner! - and yet they feel this is the sort of thing they need to speak up about and unequivocally voice their condemnation!

What the hell is wrong with these people? On issues of dire importance which are literally ripping apart their community, they provide zero leadership, repeatedly offering pathetic excuses for their silence and inaction! Just a few days ago, a leading Brooklyn rabbi who heads one of the most prominent chareidi girls schools in Brooklyn was charged with extorting four million dollars! Yet, when it comes to something relatively harmless, and which has absolutely no bearing on the life of anyone in their community, these chareidi rabbis loudly proclaim to the world their grave concerns on the matter!

Seriously, can someone please explain to me how these people have the slightest shred of credibility anymore?


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Monday, February 22, 2010

Someone's listening

A new book has recently been released that I'd like to recommend. The book is titled, "The Jewish High School: A Complete Management Guide," and it's written by Paul Shaviv, the Director of Education at TanenbaumCHAT (Toronto's largest Jewish day school). Full disclosure: I have not actually read the book. But I have no doubt that it's a most excellent work, full of wise advice for those involved in Jewish education. How can I be so sure? Well, if you turn to page 123, you'll find a section where he quotes an anonymous "blogger" which may sound familiar. In fact, the quote is a reproduction of an old post of mine, "Leaving It Behind" (the author was granted full permission). You can see it by clicking on "Search inside this book" and searching for the word "journey"; it's the second result.

I have to say, it's extremely gratifying to know that there are some Jewish educators out there who don't simply reject out of hand anything that comes from the mouths (pens? keyboards?) of bloggers as so often seems to be the case.

Here's a scan of the pages:

Friday, February 19, 2010

What We Can Learn From Grossman

As I'm sure you know, all of the Orthodox media outlets have been buzzing this week about the Grossman story. I don't have too much to say about the issue that hasn't already been said by others. I think the best analysis of the frum community's reaction, both leading up to the execution and it's aftermath, was summed up on Orthonomics. (If you have no idea what I'm referring to, update yourself here.)

However, I do want to highlight one aspect of this episode that I haven't yet heard anyone touch on so far. Regardless of how one feels about Grossman, the death penalty, or his supposed teshuva, this week's activities have laid bare another lie that the chareidi world frequently promotes in its defense.

How often have we heard, in response to calls for action on the issue of sexual abuse, whether from the community, its leaders, or its institutions, the tired old excuses - "What can we do about it? It's not in our hands!", "It doesn't matter what I say. It won't have any effect anyway.", "This isn't something that we get involved in.", "What can I really do anyway? I'm just an average Joe!", "We don't address issues that our outside of our organizations concerns." There's always some excuse given, explaining how the person's inaction, or the organizations avoidance of the issue, is simply the more pragmatic and practical response.

If there's anything this weeks events have demonstrated, it's that the frum world - from its highest organizations, to the average layman, to its various media outlets - can and will act when they care about an issue. It doesn't matter how unlikely their efforts are to succeed; it doesn't matter how questionable the object of their efforts really is; it doesn't matter how distant the person - or even the cause! - is to their community. They will speak up; they will take action; they will rally; they will pray; they will do everything they can, from sending out petitions, to making phone calls, to applying political pressure, to writing editorials; even speaking about the issue in children's schools, and appealing to Heads of State to intervene!

What all this shows is just how hollow all their excuses are when they avoid taking action on other issues, issues far more pressing and dire than the fate of an admitted cop-killer.

What does it say about an institution like Agudah, which repeatedly sidesteps taking action against child molesters, yet willingly stands up to help out a cold-blooded killer?

What does it say about a community that is willing to go to bat for a convicted murderer who, until just two weeks prior, most people had never even heard of, but isn't willing to even speak up for innocent victims in their own community?

What does it say about people who speak with reverence and love about someone who bashed in a womans head with a flashlight, simply because "he's a Jew", yet when it comes to helping out a Jew who was raped by someone in their community, they will treat him like a pariah?

What does it say about rabbis who spoke to their congregations, encouraging them to call the Governor, to say tehillim, and to spread the word about this righteous cause, yet these same Rabbis are virtually silent when it comes to taking action against the pedophiles residing in their communities?

What does it say about a community that is up in arms in a matter of days about someone and something so distant to their own lives, yet even after years of poking and prodding by activists about an issue that affects the very safety of their own children, they choose to avoid any concrete action?

It seems that the chareidi community is patting themselves on the back now, so proud of the "…shtadlonus and achdus that was demonstrated by our tzibbur over recent days," as Chaim Dovid Zweibel, in a statement as a representative of Agudah, said. "Your reaction to the impending tragedy was remarkable."

Yes, it truly is remarkable. How can you not be utterly ashamed of yourselves?

Photo credit: flickr user Angelica Nicole.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Tova

Continuing our series of kofer profiles, today I have a chance to present the author of the blog "The Righteous Rasha". Coming from a most fascinating background, Tova is a 21-year-old, undergraduate student from the Midwest, majoring in Economics (and minoring in Hebrew/Near East Studies). I thank Tova for giving us such a comprehensive picture of her fascinating life journey.

To start things off, can you describe the religious environment that you came from? 

Yes, in just one word: "unique". I'll elaborate, though. My mother, raised as a Protestant, finalized her Orthodox conversion in 1979 when she was pregnant with my older sister. And my father, who was raised as a Conservative Jew, became more observant during his college years. (In the '50s and '60s, Conservative Judaism resembled Orthodoxy, so it's not as though the changes my Abba made were huge.)

My parents, who had in a sense 'rebelled' from their own upbringings, expected an intellectual and questioning form of Judaism from me and my siblings. Chareidi we were not; our frumkeit was backed up by logic and sometimes self-challenged with skepticism or outright mockery. My immediate family would make jokes about 'frummies' and 'black-hatters', even though our home kept "The Big 3" of Orthodoxy.

From my parents, there was always an encouragement to ask questions of our teachers, who were frequently stricter than we were. When one teacher of mine - who publicly insulted me for my leniency (despite her former tendency to eat ham sandwiches) - did something emotionally abusive to me at school, Abba swore at her. And Mom always wanted me to be reading or writing or listening to something. She would encourage me to read the classics instead of those trashy frum novels, and played Neil Young or DYB on the stereo instead of what she called "Ay-ay-ay music".

That definitely is quite a unique environment. And what stream of Orthodoxy was the school you attended?

It depends on which school you're talking about. From kindergarten through fourth grade, I attended Akiva, a Modern Orthodox/religious Zionist/Young Israel-affiliated sort of school. This worked well, because my family was what you might call Modern Orthodox. (And we were certainly Zionists - my father knew Rav Kahane!) And the only shul I ever daven at is a Young Israel, incidentally.

From fifth grade through my high school graduation, however, I attended Bais Yaakov, which was a lot stricter and more forbidding. This was difficult because my parents didn't agree with a lot of the Chareidi ideas that I was being taught. At the same time, though, they didn't want to create a parent-school conflict. I didn't manage to create a 'niche' for myself at Bais Yaakov until my parents divorced in 2001-2002 and I began to write seriously. By that time, I had developed a few close friendships with more accepting classmates.

Is there any incident, idea, or experience that you can relate which captures the religious tone of your upbringing? 

Until my parents divorced when I was 13, our family would go camping each summer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We would set up camp while some classic rock or Grateful Dead played on our car stereo, and my mother would bake challa on Fridays in a collapsible Coleman oven.

This unusual and esoteric yearly activity epitomizes my upbringing: We were "the black sheep" of our neighborhood (which was and is chareidi) and everywhere else we went. We were out in the wilderness, literally and figuratively, maintaining (sometimes unconventional) ties to Judaism while forging strong identities in other realms.

Can you highlight an example of an incident, experience, or idea you encountered that made you question your upbringing? 

There are many of these, but I'll delve into one. Unlike many converts to Orthodox Judaism, Mom has a strong connection with her blood relatives. I had been told at Bais Yaakov that "Esav sonei es Yaakov", that goyim should be stayed away from. We were warned that Jewish people had to stay separate from the 'outside world' in order to avoid persecution and bad influences.

But I loved my Christian relatives, and I still do. They are wonderful people, and in many ways they are better than the frummies I spent so much time with. Knowing that many of my classmates would chastise me if they knew that I ate meals (on kosher dishes) with goyim regularly made me strangely satisfied, but also confused: Why was I being told to stay away from people who loved me, who understood my personality and desires better than most frummies did?

I concluded that my teachers had been lying to me, or were at the very least misinformed. That those in authority were wrong on such a core issue made an indelible impression on me.

Would you say that the impetus for your transition was primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor? 

I'd like to think my rebellion was a result of all the factors you suggested, but the primary ones in that list are intellect and emotion. It did not seem logical to me that God would care if I ate a cheeseburger, and the cruelty that Jews often displayed toward me and my family made me realize that religion didn't necessarily make people kind or good.

I often wondered, "So what if the Hebrews accepted the Torah? Did I? My mother converted, but I didn't. Why am I required to follow these rules if I never personally accepted them?" Eventually, I came to believe that the God of the TaNaCh was an evil being due to his repeated commands of slavery, genocide, sexism, racism and rape. I refused to worship or obey the commands of such a deity.

My views are strongly libertarian, and I value freedom above all. The idea that everything I ate, wore, read and discussed should be subject to ancient rules did not make sense to a woman who is committed to personal liberty and independence.

As for the emotional aspect, I hated the way that frummies made me feel: Not religious enough, not smart enough, not good enough. I was emotionally penalized throughout junior high and high school due to the fact that I was not chareidi, and I believe that the lack of support given me was a major contributor to the severe depression I experienced until my first year of college.

Did you ever share these thoughts with your parents, and if so, how did they respond? From your description of them, it sounds like they'd welcome these challenges.

I was very open about the way I felt, and my parents often agreed with me in this regard. The trouble was that they felt that Bais Yaakov was the best option out there for me (when compared with public school and the other Jewish day schools in Detroit), and they thought that their hands were tied. Mom and Abba always encouraged intellectualism, questioning, serious thought - but they knew that if pushed too hard, I would get into serious trouble at school.

These days, my parents are fully aware that I'm "off the derech" (a term I think is highly inaccurate, as I am very much on my own derech), but they don't like hearing about it. My father, for example, knows that I eat treif, but he doesn't want to hear about my favorite Chinese restaurant. My mother knows that I date goyim, but doesn't (usually) want to hear about how my dates with these men go. (There was an exception to this rule in 2007, when I dated a wonderful guy who my mom said she'd be happy to see me marry.) So I suppose my parents don't approve of my lifestyle, but they also do not disown me as a result of it.

Was there a moment for you when it all suddenly fell apart?

There was no singular moment for me; rather, it was an evolution. I do remember my senior year of high school thinking about where I was religiously, though, and it felt beautiful, thrilling and terrifying all at once.

Can you elaborate on those very different emotions? What was beautiful? Terrifying?

It was beautiful to me that I was able to make my own choices in life, that I could live properly without being frum. It was also terrifying, because this realization destroyed a lot of what I had been taught. And it was thrilling because I discovered so many new, 'forbidden' things that made my life more fulfilling and productive. I felt that I had been born anew and was just beginning to truly experience life. The thought of it still excites me.

What was one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line? How did you feel about it?

One of my closest friends, who rebelled from his Lubavitch upbringing, took me to Taco Bell sometime when I was 17 or 18. I remember ducking down in the seat so that no one would see me at the drive-through. It was an exciting experience, but the emotional upheaval made me ill afterward. To this day, I will not eat at Taco Bell because of the way its food made me sick… though that might be more an indictment of my own memories than of fast food itself.

Subsequent trips to buy cheeseburgers made me ill at first, but I think that's because my body wasn't used to digesting meat and dairy products at the same time.

Did you find yourself thinking at all, "oh yeah, just like they said would happen, god's punishing me for what I just did…"?

Sure, but I did so in a joking manner. I would eat treif with my other formerly frum friends and say, "See? God's striking me down with diarrhea for eating at McDonald's!" We would all burst out laughing, but once in a while I did think that I was truly being punished - not only with sickness from fast food, but with an inquisitive mind that left me unsatisfied with frum life. I would often ask why God punished me with the brain that I had, why he couldn't make me a person who was happy with the answers that Judaism had to offer. It would be so much easier just to believe in this religion and not doubt it.

How did you family react to your leaving? What is your relationship like with them now? 

Some of them still don't know the extent to which I have rebelled. Those who do know, get along with me pretty well. My sister's prior "going off" had gotten many of my relatives used to the idea that not all of us were going to be frum.

I usually get along very well with my father and mother. Since I'll live with Mom until I graduate college, though, I try to keep most of the rules while at home: I don't bring treif food into the house, I don't break Shabbos in her presence, et cetera. This is an issue of respect for me. My Bubbie promises to disown me if I marry a goy, though she herself is not Orthodox.

There is an intense love I have for my family, both Jewish and Christian. I've heard that most OTDers have been rejected by their families, and that makes me terribly sad.

Does the fact that your parents themselves had periods where they "rebelled" from their family's traditions contribute in any way to the dynamic with them?

Absolutely. From what I've read and observed, they aren't as harsh as some frum parents of 'rebels' can be. When I make jokes about frummies, they laugh, and when I express doubts, they will often share a few of their own. I don't think somebody who hasn't 'rebelled' religiously would behave this way toward a child; this is why so many frum parents shun their formerly frum kids - because they haven't been there.

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

I firmly believe that Judaism is more a nationality than it is a religion, and express my personal identity in those terms. I am very pro-Israel and enjoy doing some Jewish things. Shul can be fun, if there's singing. I find nationalistic significance in many of our holidays. And there are several aspects of our culture that are simply delightful: klezmer music, Jackie Mason, cholent.

Is there anything from your religious past that you miss in your life now? 

It's hard for me to miss anything, really, since I still live in the same frum neighborhood I grew up in. I suppose, after rejecting frumkeit, I'm missing out on a few things, but none of these activities are inaccessible to me currently. If I want to daven, I go to shul and nobody questions it. If I want to help cook for Shabbos, Mom is happy that she has a less stressful Thursday. If I want to read something Jewish, I do so and analyze the writing. There isn't anything to miss because I haven't physically abandoned anything.

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

Definitely. The importance of communal support is more obvious to me than it is to some friends from other backgrounds. And the desire to pick things apart logically and analyze them is something that I think comes from my 'Litvak' ancestry.

How do you currently view the religious community you came from? 

I feel sad for many of them, because they are willfully ignorant about 'the outside world' and don't know what they're missing. On the other hand, if they truly think that they 'have it', it is not my right to intervene. They have tried to intervene with my life, though, and that makes me angry.

My next-door neighbor once told me to go back into the house and change my outfit from jeans to a skirt because my clothing somehow marred the "beautiful neighborhood". I told her that she wasn't my mother, and that her eleven children dumping garbage onto their lawn did more harm to our street's beauty than my blue jeans did. Well… I told her the first part. The second part is what I imagined. My father called her up and yelled at her, and she waited 3 months to apologize to me. Chutzpa!

On the other hand, I have some frum friends who I absolutely adore. One of my closest buddies, for example, is a Lubavitch newlywed who commutes from school with me. She and I have a lot of great conversations about life and theology, and she often likes to say that "Tova is not off the derech; Tova is on her own, perfectly good derech!"

It would be wrong of me to pass judgment on all frum Jews; the majority of them are fine people who treat me nicely (and I, of course, reciprocate). But the people who are nasty magnify themselves to their own detriment.

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

I am a Jewish nationalist, but I don't believe in the biblical deity. There have been some events in my life that I consider miracles, so I do think that there is 'something' out there. But I don't believe in HaShem specifically. He's way too petulant and bigoted to deserve my worship, and there is no sense in limiting our lives for the sake of a being whose existence we have no proof of.

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

I do not regret "going off", but there have been some difficulties. Some people are horrified to learn that I am no longer Orthodox, and it's difficult for them to understand why I do not want their 'perfect' lifestyle.

Anything in particular that is difficult? 

I have a hard time attending weddings of classmates, especially when people at these events say "Im yirtzeh HaShem by you!" to me (yes, even to me!). More acutely, it is extremely painful to watch high school girlfriends marry men they don't love.

When you meet such people, acquaintances that don't know how you've changed, do you tell them about it? How do you handle those situations where you're not sure how people will react?

Sometimes I tell a person about the way I live, and sometimes I don't. If I don't know him (usually her, because women tend to be more narrow-minded in my experience) well enough, I probably won't tell. But really, do I need to? It's pretty obvious, if you ask me: I am not a frummie - just look at the way I dress and talk and behave!

If I'm not certain how a person will react, I can test the waters with a question about music or fashion (or something else). This can give me clues as to what a person's viewpoint of non-frum Jews is; although no one follows a set "list of beliefs", it's more likely for a classic rock fan (for example) than an Avraham Fried listener to tolerate people who aren't frum.

Then there are complete strangers who, upon finding out my story (or even a tiny bit of it), decide to make incredibly funny accusations against me. Jacob Stein, for example, has said that I prostitute myself to Detroit's black men, that I shoot heroin into my arm, and that I have had abortions. None of these things are true, but I did have to file a complaint against Stein with my local police department after he began harassing my family with phone calls and emails.

Other people have written me hate mail claiming that I think I'm smarter and better than frum people, even though this is not the case. I love frum Jews; in many cases, they have been the kindest and brightest people I've ever had the pleasure of interacting with. If I thought I was superior to them, why would I live with them and do business with them and be friends with them? Why would I hang out with them, eat at their homes, have conversations with them, call them up on the phone? The fact that I disagree with them theologically doesn't diminish their humanity or goodness. People are people. So it's pretty clear that anyone who calls me a whore, a drug addict, or a frum-hater has never met me.

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

After years of being told that we were to make ourselves unattractive to men, and that men were not interested in listening to us or making us happy, I had an interesting time my first two semesters of college: My first sexual experience was shocking in that it demonstrated to me that men did find me attractive and wanted to give me pleasure. This made me happy; I finally felt like a woman after being infantilized for so many years by my teachers at Bais Yaakov. I also had my first (and best) boyfriend, a wonderful guy who I'm still friends with.

These experiences were extremely informative, almost revelations. I experienced sexual confusion and heartache as every young woman does, albeit at a delayed stage…but the things that happened were so outside the realm of what my teachers had wanted for me that even the break-ups and upset were, in a way, enjoyable.

Can you point to something which you are currently doing in your life which would have been difficult, if not impossible, when still frum? 

Blogging, for one. I would never be able to say such controversial things if I were still frum - without a pseudonym, anyway. And despite your insistence that OTDers don't just eat cheeseburgers all day, Hedyot, I have to say that my ability to eat what I like when I like is extremely fulfilling. And cheeseburgers are delicious! I often make kosher versions of them for my mother. The fact that I can walk down the street wearing a pair of jeans is a great feeling, too.

Is there anything that you hope to achieve now which wouldn't have been possible when you were frum? Were there aspirations or goals that you had which were unable to be realized due to being frum? 

I would like to move to the Upper Peninsula and marry an American Indian (I'm only half-joking about these). I want to go to graduate school, teach my field (economics) to others, and continue to write and possibly get published.

When I was frum, I did not even think it would be possible to go to college to study a field other than the ubiquitous 'therapies' that so many frum girls seem to take courses for.

Even with the open-minded and questioning upbringing of your family, you were expected to follow the standard frum route?

It depends on what one considers 'standard'. Honestly, I think my parents would be satisfied if I kept kosher, observed Shabbos and went to the mikva before my wedding (to a Jew, of course). They would be happy if I followed the basics. But they also think that if parents push their kids too much, the kids will be completely turned off from religion - and they're right.

My question was actually referring to the academic "route". It sounds like your parents would encourage you to explore any paths that appealed to your interests, and not just those typical professions.

I didn't even know that frum girls were 'supposed' to become OTs, et cetera until I was in high school. My parents told me to study whatever interested me, though. They both liked the idea of me becoming a professional writer.

So if your parents were ok with pursuing any route, then why would you have thought that only OT, PT, etc. were legitimate options for you?

Although my parents told me I should do what I wanted, I didn't think that this was what a truly 'frum' person did. I agreed with my folks that I should do what I wanted, but I also felt that the frum community would never find any of the 'non-mainstream' career paths acceptable.

When you left frumkeit, what surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy? 

This still surprises me, actually: The ignorance that so many white Christians have about Judaism, and the relative knowledge that black Christians have about it. I suppose this can be attributed to the black Christian community's emphasis on the Old Testament and learning Hebrew. Why so many people are so misinformed about Jesus' religious background is still a mystery to me, though.

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

We are not inherently irresponsible, and we don't all engage in stereotypical "OTD" behavior: We do not all use drugs or drink, some of us (me!) have not had sex yet, we go to college, we work, we're productive. In fact, I think leaving frumkeit forces one to take on a level of unprecedented responsibility. To suggest that adults who are making their own choices are irresponsible is backward.

Are there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?

My parents didn't really raise me with stereotypes about 'the outside world', and their influence on me was greater than school's. So there was no revelatory moment where I said, "Aha! The frummies were right!"

But there were a few things I saw that reinforced what I had been told in Bais Yaakov: General society takes sex too casually, in my view. And people are not as intellectual as they could be (though this is something I found in the frum world, too).

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

I rarely get depressed anymore, and I am more productive than I once was. I am vastly happier as a non-frum Jew.

That's really nice to hear. Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left? 

It is no longer so scary to try new things, and challenges often seem exciting instead of daunting.

Any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?

There have been many formative influences/experiences on my life. These include: Grateful Dead concerts, Rush (the band), economist/philosopher Thomas Sowell, Ayn Rand, camping in the North, and visiting with my Christian grandparents.

What is it about a Grateful Dead concert that can affect one in such a meaningful way? 

Ask any Deadhead about what Dead shows were like, and they'll inevitably describe these as warm, spiritual experiences. When the band was still around, it had a way of communicating with the audience in such a way that the air crackled with energy at most shows. The way that most 'heads interact with one another - through commerce, drum circles, dancing, and conversation - opened my eyes at a young age to the down-to-earth kindness that people can exhibit.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

The best thing about leaving frumkeit is one's new possession of liberty and its promise. I've written quite a bit about this theme on my site because freedom is the most important value to me.

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

The network and the support it often gave to people who needed it: G'machs, meals when babies were born, people who would daven for the sick or needy.

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

I wouldn't have a fraction of the Jewish knowledge I currently possess if I hadn't been raised frum. I know who the Rishonim were, I can speak Hebrew, I can study TaNaCh and I discuss kashrus issues. Most Jews in this country can't do that, and I am proud of the information that I have.

Do you have a favorite character from the Bible?

I can't pick just one! My three favorites are Yael, Yehudis and Devora: This triad represents the epitome of strong femininity. Devora is the Jewish Joan of Arc, a woman with brains and wile. Yael is a warrior, driving a stake through the head of the Jewish people's enemy.

Yehudis, though? This lady takes the cake, in my book. She uses her sexuality to take advantage of an enemy general, inducing a drunken slumber. Then she severs his head and places it at the gates of Jerusalem to rally the Jewish troops.

All 3 women have balls, as far as I'm concerned. I would be happy to name a daughter after any one of these heroines. I can't relate much to the men of TaNaCh, though, as most of them were polygamists on power trips.

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

I wish I could bring an end to their willful ignorance. So many frum Jews have a desire to not know things, and it's an infuriating characteristic. On the other hand, they must be given the right to live the way they want, even if doing so limits their intellectual exploration.

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

No, because I don't think that Orthodox Judaism is the correct way for me to live. Even if the frum lifestyle were more tolerable or pleasant, this wouldn't have changed the cognitive dissonance I felt when doing things that, while frum, were illogical or downright immoral.

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

Some random facts for you: I love to read, particularly books on economic theory and polygamous cults. I write a lot and run a blog. I work for a Chaldean-owned business, and my (majority black) customers consider me an honorary "sista". My family has a rescued greyhound for a pet. I find American Indian and Asian men extremely attractive. My favorite bands are the Grateful Dead, Rush, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. I like to wear jewelry and perfume, though in most respects I consider myself a tomboy. My closest friends are male, and I can't stand JAPs. I am 21 years old, with a 25-year-old brother and a 30-year-old sister. I go to school in Detroit. My major is in Economics, and my minor is in Hebrew/Near East Studies. There is a strong penchant on my part to buy things on and watch YouTube videos.

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

Live a life that you take pleasure in. Live a life that allows you to be productive, fulfilled and intelligent. Do not judge others based on superficial characteristics. Encourage those you know to achieve their dreams. Do not shun children from "broken" homes. Stop the shidduch system. Finally, thank you for raising me.

Photo credit: flickr user encouragement.

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