Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Derech Acheret (Part I)

After a long hiatus, I'm pleased to once again present another interview with a formerly religious member of the tribe. Our newest interviewee, Derech Acheret, hails from Jerusalem, where she divides her time between teaching Torah and mentoring professionals, helping them accomplish more in their working lives. She also works with a lot of non-Orthodox rabbinic students and has learnt a whole lot about the outsiders view of Orthodoxy from them. Due to its length, I'll be splitting this interview up into multiple posts. Here is part one.

Hello Ms. Acheret, and thank you for participating in this series. To get us started, could you please describe to the readers the religious environment that you came from? 

I grew up in a frum Bnei Akiva family. My late mother wore a sheitl. Apart from that our home was totally Modern Orthodox in the Soloveitchik model. People would describe my mother as the Lonely Woman of Faith.

We didn't live in a particularly Jewish area (although there was an Orthodox Synagogue 15 minutes walk from our house) and I went to the only Jewish (non-chareidi) school there was where all the students were Jewish but mostly secular. I was the frummest person in a mixed gender school that had non-Jewish chol teachers, chareidi kodesh teachers and secular Israelis teaching Hebrew.

Sounds like quite a diverse environment.

It was, but I was quite involved with Bnei Akiva and my clique was referred to as the 'God Squad', as we were the shomer negia, skirt wearing kids, from frummer homes than everyone else.

In my early twenties I was involved in Kiruv for a few years. I was the cool, soft face of frumkeit. FFB, davened three times a day, skirt wearing, parents fairly well known, up-standing members of the community with a bit of yichus from previous generations, mother gave a ladies parsha shiur once a week, but I also went to university and had a career that I took very seriously.

What was your home environment like, religiously? 

We were the only home in the area where the community rabbi would eat and, once he left town, our home was the place frum yiden visiting would spend Shabbat. Some really well known Rabbis would spend Shabbat at our house and talk Torah with my mother at the table.

There are hundreds of people across the world who attribute their Halachic observance today to having spent their first Halachic Shabbat in our house. (That’s why the kiruv world felt quite natural to me. I had watched my mother be mekarev everyone she met, in a very natural, non-coercive way.)

When I was about 11 the Rabbi of our shul retired and my mother became the first point of call for halachic questions. She would always answer saying, "Of course I’m not a rabbi but it seems to me that…" and then she’d give her answer. By the time I was 12 or 13 she was known as the spiritual leader of our community being posed all sorts of shailes.

It seems that your mother was a more respected torah scholar than your father. Was that odd for you?

It’s what I grew up with which is why I was so devastated to discover that our family was such an exception and that in the rest of the frum world, women's learning, if ever given any regard, is definitely the stupider side-lined sister.

It sounds like you were raised in an exceptionally open and accepting environment (relative to some other frum homes). Were there things, even in this environment, that made you question your upbringing? 

There were. I was extremely interested in Feminism from a very early age. It always seemed outrageous to me that the boys got such different attention from the girls. It also seemed weird that so many men who were clearly not as bright as my mother got to be Rabbis and she didn’t.

At our Shabbat table people would always initially turn to my father with questions and chidushim. He would often answer with something like, "My wife was just talking about that the other day," and then he'd turn to my mother, and ask her to tell the guest her thoughts on the issue. My father was always quite proud of my mother’s learning, but for me it was so irritating that the presumption was that the man is the lamdan.

I would sit with my mother in shul and she’d correct the leining or nusach whenever anyone got it wrong. I really couldn't understand why they never asked her to lein or daven from the amud as she could definitely do it. A slightly less couth friend explained that it was because she had the wrong type of genitalia. I must have been about 12 at the time and I was devastated to realize how shallow the exclusion of women from law-making and the public sphere was.

How did you react to this conflict?

I spent years searching for answers about women’s exclusion and total dependence on men, not just financially, as in the broader world, but legally too. For a long while I bought the apologetics, but finally the whole chochmat bina thing lost its shine. How could it possibly be that women have an extra intelligence but are allowed no access to Jewish academic life? I know that today a few women learn gemara, but their voices aren’t really heard in the same way. Our ‘chochma’ really isn’t being sought in legal matters.

What were some other experiences that challenged your understanding of Judaism?

A few rabbis at my high school also left an impression on me. They were what I can only describe as disgusting letches. They would peer down the blouses of the non-frum girls, although not mine, as I was frum, as they would tell me when I’d say something about the way they spoke to the non-frum kids.

Also I constantly felt that I had to curtail my personality for tznius purposes. It felt as though anything I did that was vaguely interesting or expressive was deemed untznius.

Another experience that affected me occurred when I was 16. I had met a boy in Bnei Akiva. At first we were, of course, shomer negia, but after three months together we decided it would be ok to hold hands and after six months we kissed. It was a huge, arduous decision that we both took very seriously and understood to be taking us out of the realm of halacha. Finally after much trepidation and heart searching we kissed and it felt amazing and so right that I couldn’t imagine why I wouldn't be allowed to do that there and then.

That experience made you question why halacha would forbid something that felt perfectly right?

Totally! It just seemed like the Rabbis must have misunderstood women. I wasn't going to jump my boyfriend; it wasn't going to, chas veshalom, lead to anything serious (like mixed dancing). All those HaTzne HaLechet and HaIsha VeHaMitzvot halachot just seemed SO uninteresting and off the point. And I truly believe that my boyfriend knew that nothing more than making out was going to happen between us.

Also at this point in my life, I was listening to pop music on the radio very quietly in my room with the door closed. I got really into one band and it turned out that their lead singer was openly gay. I was, of course, disgusted, knowing it was a toeva. But when I heard an interview with him, he sounded so normal and was so much calmer about his preference for his own gender than those interviewing him. He just seemed to like men and said that being with men probably involved the same emotions as being with women.

This seemed sensible to me and so not a big deal. I like the other gender and some people like the same gender and love and kissing was brilliant as I had discovered. It seemed to me preposterous that Judaism would want to deprive people of this great feeling just because they happen to want to do it with their own gender.

Aside from the challenges these early experiences presented to you, was the impetus for your actual transition primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor?

It was a mixture of all. I made Aliya at the age of 29, when I was still frum, and I looked around for a community to join. I never found a frum one that fit me ideologically, intellectually or socially. I wanted to be part of a diverse community where people looked and thought differently and were from different parts of the world. I found that amongst my secular friends and neighbors.

Intellectually speaking, by my mid-twenties I felt that if chazal had got it so wrong about women and gay people, they must have got it wrong in most other places too. It was a devastating idea that I mourned for many years.

What do you mean exactly that you “mourned the idea”?

I was mourning the idea that Chazal were wrong. I grew up in a home where Chazal were living contributors to conversations with my mother and around our table, e.g. when we would find Rabbi Meir in a daf of gemara my mother would smile and say, "Clever Rabbi Meir, he does say some very wise things," and we would mull over him for ages, asking questions, thinking about what Bruria might say. Or when we would come across Rabbi Eliezer my mother would get irritated and then laugh and say, "Well, we never like Rabbi Eliezer, he's always so harsh." The Amoraim especially were very significant for me. I have feelings about them as people! So the idea that they might have got it wrong was really hard to consider. The faith thing never really bothered me as much.

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

What is the 'Halachic line'?

I held my boyfriend's hand at 16. I kissed him too, and like I said earlier, I thought it was absolutely wonderful.

At 21 I stopped davening, a huge step away from Halacha, but as women don't really have a chiyuv to daven maybe that wasn't a line?

I started wearing pants at 25, but is that asur? For me it was a huge decision that took a few years to get used to.

When I was thirty I went to my first night club and danced. It was amazing and terrifying at the same time!

I suppose I really started crossing the halachic line when I was about 32 and got cable TV. At first I'd leave it on over Shabbat but then I started changing channels on Shabbat and then I'd turn it off during the night. Within about a month I was turning it on again during Shabbat day. Then came lights and I did think that the electricity might blow out when I switched them on. But, shockingly, it didn't! After about a month of Shabbat TV watching it felt totally normal and not a big deal.

The following erev rosh hashana about six months after I'd started using electricity on shabbat I went to a club, by car, with some friends. I had a terrible night. Later I realized it was because I didn't like the music or the people I'd gone with or the drinks and food served. But at the time I honestly thought it was punishment for what I'd done and a sign that no joy can come from being mechalel shabbat/yom tov.

A few weeks later, on erev Simchat Torah, I went to a different club with different people and had the best time. As we walked back home, sun coming up, people walking to shul, I felt like I had discovered a fabulous new world that I was ready to embrace.

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

When I started using electricity on Shabbat I phoned my mother to tell her. She said that she understood that this was what I wanted to do for now but that in time I would realize that the only true way for a Jew to live is within the Halacha. I explained that I may never keep halacha again to which she told me not to say that as I can make new choices every day.

How come you decided to tell her about it, and not just keep it to yourself, as so many other people choose to do?

It was very important to me to be honest with my mother. Now that she is no longer here I feel it would be devastating to think that she died not accepting me for who I really am but was just proud of me because of some fantasy she imagined my life to be. I'm very grateful that I was able to share with her who I really was before it was too late.

My mother never actually witnessed me being mechalel shabbat as I wouldn't openly violate anything while in her home. When my parents came to Israel I would drive to see them, but would park around the corner and although they presumably knew how I'd arrived there, the issue was never raised. By the time my mother passed away she had made her own form of peace with my transition. In what ended up being our last conversation (my mother was completely well to her last day; she died of a heart attack in the middle of the night) my mother told me how she had been at a wedding with all the chareidi relatives (we're the only non-chareidi branch of my mother's family) and had told them how proud she is of what I'm doing and what a wonderful, deep life I've made for myself.

My brother was, and still is, an idiot about me leaving. While my mother was still alive he would frequently point out to my parents how non-observant I was. I stopped talking to him for a bit because he was so self-righteous, judgmental and difficult about the whole thing.

My sister is a bit of a tzadekeste and accepts everyone for who they are, where they are. She married a Merkaz Harav boy at 22 and they have six children. They live in a chareidi neighborhood but are chareidi leumi, meaning that they are deeply Zionistic and believe in their children serving in the military or doing some sort of national service. During the week I would wear pants at her house and that was kind of ok. The children all knew they weren't allowed to dress like that but as a beloved aunty they accepted me as I was. When I visited them on Shabbat I always put on a skirt and sleeves that came somewhere near my elbow, parked around the corner and never discussed how I got there.

My father is over 80 (til 120!) and until very recently lived in the house I grew up in. I would go back there at least once a month (the airlines loved me!) for a long weekend so that on Shabbat he wouldn't be alone. Since spending all that time with my father we have developed a lovely, patient relationship.

I would cook for Shabbat and eat with him both meals and learn parsha and bench with him.

After the meals I would drive his car, with his permission, to wherever I wanted to go, sometimes shopping, sometimes to see friends and when I'd get home we'd talk about what we each did over Shabbat when we weren't together.

At first it was hard for him but I think that he soon realized that this life choice is so much better for me that he accepts it almost completely. Someone told him that he shouldn't stand for my way of life in his home to which he replied that his home is mine and he has his way of living and I mine.

Don't you think it's a bit insensitive to do that to your father? To be in his home and act in a way that he is uncomfortable with? 

I did worry that I was being insensitive to him or making him feel uncomfortable in his own home but I think that that's really what changed for him after my mother died. Just having me at home was such a comfort for him and he was so grateful to me for giving up so much time for him that the other stuff came to be less important.

For me, being real with my mother was such an important lesson that I was, and still am, determined to be real with my father too.

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

When I was 25, while finishing my Masters, I found out about a non-Orthodox congregation that was looking to hire someone to teach some subjects. Being financially strapped, I applied. They took me in immediately. My boss would sit with me for hours and review and critique my teaching: Was I allowing the young people to connect to the text as much as I was? How could I help them feel the love for Judaism that I had without scaring them or judging them for their lack of knowledge? She encouraged me to develop courses and for the first time in my life my Jewish learning was taken seriously. Within a year I had the status of 'chief educator' and after a while I became unofficial rabbi to the under-25s.

To this day, I'm still very close to this congregation. I call it my emotional home. I never overlapped with it ideologically. When I was still frum I believed things that they didn't, and when I stopped being Halachic I didn't keep what they did. But emotionally I was there. The people were so bright and accepting and just lovely.

When my mother died I said kaddish with that stream of Judaism. I will never daven with a minyan that doesn't count me in it and when my mother first died I had a compulsion to get up each day to say kaddish, so that was where I went. For me it was a comfort at first, but eventually became a tirche so I stopped after about four months.

I live in Israel which for me is about putting my lot in with the Jewish people (whatever that means). I don't know if I'd have dared leave (go OTD) if I was still in the Diaspora. (I hate the phrase 'OTD' by the way. I am not 'off' and there isn't only one 'derech' in the world)

Why do you think you wouldn't have done it if you didn't live in Israel?

It's difficult to imagine what my life outside Israel might have looked like but I think that had I not come to Israel I wouldn't have had the guts to stop being frum. All my friends there were frum, I worked in Jewish education, my parents were there, also I don't think I'd have known how to retain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora without Halacha.

This concludes the first part of the interview. Part II can be read here.

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G*3 said...

You're very lucky to have such understanding parents. They sound like really wonderful people.

Undercover Kofer said...

Please keep those articles coming! It is a great consolation being closet OTD (undercover kofer as i call it) and a source of inspiration.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy this series. My parents have no idea who I really am. I wish they could be as understanding. It's tough crossing over into another world, and these interviews with people who have already made the transition are fascinating - and comforting to know it can be done. Wish people could simply live and let live.

fred said...

Something I've often wondered about such people is, did they have any aspirations and goals that they couldn't pursue when they were still frum? And if yes, have they pursued them once they stopped being frum?

Lily'n'Mimi said...

Thanks so much for continuing this series. Each post is a tremendous source of strength for all of us. I especially enjoy your interviews of women who, like myself, have left frumkeit. Keep up the great work!

Samuel Katz said...

Great to have the series back.

And great job DA, can't wait for part II

Baal Habos said...

Nice interview.

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind said...

Great post. I've actually recently wondered if going off the derech is easier in Israel because of the increased awareness among all, the secular and the religious, of the process of unfrumming.

BrishkerKup said...

Do you still learn gemara like you did with your mother? What's your favorite sugya?

Jewish Atheist said...

Great interview!

Anonymous said...

This was a fascinating interview. Of course, it makes me sad, but an important voice for me to hear--even if it is difficult. Derech Acheret's mother sounds absolutely fascinating/special/extraordinary. My heart breaks for her, though. I have mixed feelings about Derech Acheret though and how she disrespects her dad's lifestyle in his own home. I mean, he is a vulnerable (probably lonely)old man. Her reply did not resonate with me at all. In terms of her saying being in Israel made it possible for her to make the change, also very sad. But I can see why. From the interview sounds like DA is single, and being there untethered, without family and that kind of family mooring and healthy intimite infrastructure--i think it all contributes.

e said...

anon: yep, bring on the old you-left-because-you-life-wasn't-going-well-in-other-areas business.

laura said...

E, I think you misunderstood anon. To me, it sounded as if she was saying that her freedom of connections that would "tether" her to a lifestyle made it easy for her to leave, not that her alleged misery was a *cause* of her leaving.

e said...

I stand corrected.

JB said...

To Shiptzle: Your blog is missed.
We (Mrs Flexidox) have made a decision,many years ago ro remain in the "frum world" as the education we gave our kids parrelled that Orthodox line of thought. Today, in our 60's, our lives are a bit more carefree as we only need to watch our backs when the kids with their families are around. It's small price to pay for having the privlige of a son, daugter or grandchild eat in your home even though they read the ingredients on everything.. The thought that lingers most on my mind these days it that I am a the end of my life.

Derech Acheret said...

Fred said,
'Something I've often wondered about such people is...'

Surely what Hedyot's series teaches us before anything else is that there are no 'such people'. We are all different and unique. Each of us approaches leaving in a different way and we each have different and individual and diverse dreams.

Derech Acheret said...

Thank you for everyone's kind words about my mother (especially G*3). She was exceptional (and I miss her intensely) as is my father. As anyone with exceptional parents knows their gifts lead us to both fantastic and very complicated places.

Derech Acheret said...

Shpitzle Shtrimpkind, in a way it is easier to leave here in Israel, but it remains all around you and that can be quite difficult. I think leaving is really hard wherever you are which is why I think that those of us who have dared make the journey are so compelling. Leaving takes great courage and hard work wherever you came from and wherever you go to.

Derech Acheret said...

BrishkerKup said...
'Do you still learn gemara like you did with your mother? What's your favorite sugya?'

Its funny you should ask, I never learnt without my mother (I would do chazara with her even when we were in different countries - high high phone bills!) and haven’t picked up a gmara since she died. Actually, I’ve hardly picked up a sefer since she died. I think I don’t care anymore… Quite a sombre answer to a fun question, sorry!
As for my favorite sugya, I am a good Orthodox girl, even if MO, my learning is in no way extensive or good enough for me to have a favorite (but if you push me I could think of one!)

Derech Acheret said...

Anonymous 2, you raise an important question about my life in my father's house.
For me it is too painful to pretend about my life to those I love. I feel that the pretence, and the anger it would evoke in me, would ultimately be too painful for me and would be damaging to the relationship with my father.
I want to talk to him about my life because I want him as part of my life. I value what he has to tell me, all of it, the parts I do heed and the parts I don't. By dint of him saying it, it is interesting to me.

More than that, parents choose to bring children into the world forever, there is no time limit on parenting, and if my father wants me to be at home in his home then he must allow me to be 'at home'.

I feel sorry for anyone who puts any rule system ahead of loving those around them. I have always found that my most satisfying relationships are those based on who a person actually is, and not on who they or I would wish them to be.

Derech Acheret said...

Anonymous said, ‘From the interview sounds like DA is single, and being there untethered, without family and that kind of family mooring and healthy intimite infrastructure--i think it all contributes.’

I am so privileged to have been able to make live choices without taking anyone else into account. It is amazing to me that, alone, I have been able to find my voice and my most capable self. I cannot imagine what damage I might have done to a man (and to myself) and our children had I made this journey when married.

And that's why I advice (and beg) the frum world to allow people to grow up, travel and learn about themselves before they marry.

I don't know what the words 'healthy intimite (sic) infrastructure--i think it all contributes' mean to you.

It is not my unmarriedness that made me not frum. I didn't marry as I knew that it would have been terrible to marry when still frum. I went out with lovely men when I was frum, with whom I had some great times. With each one as it approached the time to get engaged I knew that it would be terrible for my (and their) mental health to commit to them.

We all know miserable people who married because they felt compelled to, who felt it would solve something, who felt it would 'be ok', who now find it solves nothing and makes nothing better. It only leaves them self-loathing with a distressed partner wondering what they're doing wrong.

What made me not frum is the sexism, homophobia, close-mindedness, cowardice, lack of innovation, xenophobia, lack of real intellectual rigour, dismissiveness of the new, fear, lack of humour and so much more. My marriage would not have changed any of that as it wouldn't have prevented me from noticing the huge flaws in our tradition that I just mentioned.

The Hedyot said...

As I have written many times before - DO NOT leave comments without an identifying name. Make one up if you prefer to remain anonymous. If you don't I will either erase it, or if I'm in a good mood, will repost it with a name of my choosing.

SingleGirl said...

DA: Thanks for taking the time to respond. First of all, in terms of not learning since your dear mom passed away, it sounds like learning Torah with her was a very strong emotional bond that the two of you shared. I wonder if that is why you are no longer interested in studying, rather than not caring. Perhaps it is caring too much because of the deep connection and glue this medium was for the two of you, and now it is a very real silent(almost mocking) symbol of loss and pain?

Second of all, in no way was I judging you, or at all suggesting marraige as a way of coping with questions toward orthodoxy or as a solution to anything, for that matter.( I am single myself). I was trying to say something different, but too complicated or extensive for a comment on a blog. Either way, based on your response, it sounds like it would be irrelevant to you and your decision to leave.

In terms of your father. It sounds like you were, and are blessed with exceptional parents. When I was reading your descriptions of your mom, I felt like I really wish *I* had known her and had the opportunity to speak with her and learn with her. I,too, love the tanaaim and aggadata, and feel close to them as people.

I see what you are saying about being real with the people you love and want to have an authentic relationship with, but I suppose I still disagree. I am not judging at all. I guess I just feel like not being everything you are to everyone all the time is not inauthentic. I don't think needing to put it out there all the time(even if/when it will hurt a parent) is what authentic is or means.

It's not like you are living a deception and your father does not know who you are. He does. Being respectful toward your father and the tradition he cherishes in his own home, to me, does not negate authenticity. Also, even when it comes to authenticity, I personally think some things supersede that(especially when it is situational)such as honoring and respecting shabbat in your parents home.

Additionally,I don't know if this applies to your father or not, but it sounds like you are willing to be close with him only on your terms, which you define as needing authenticity with the ones you love and involves you doing what you want in his home even when it violates his lifestyle. It sounds like it is about you and your needs of how you want to/can have relationships with loved ones. Maybe for him the definition or way of being close to the ones he loves may be defined precisely in the opposite way as it is for you. Which might be children respecting his way of life and the life he raised them/you with, and believes in. Sounds like tough decisions to negotiate that are more nuianced than how they were presented in the interview and your response.

I sense you are a strong minded and outspoken woman. Perhaps your father does not want to lose you or alienate you, so he capitualtes and does what you request. It also sounds like he is vulnerable now and needs you, and so he is not in the position f strength to assert what he really wishes. I could be totally wrong. I don't know you from a hill of beans. And the truth is your parents sound very unconventional in their thinking-decision making, in general.So again, I could very well be and probably am, wrong. And again,I am not judging. I am simply sharing my reaction/perspective to the interview and your response.

I genuinely hope you find some healing and strength in the face of dealing with the enormous loss of your beloved mother.

single girl said...

I just noticed "lack of humor", is this a joke?