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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