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 Amazon.com 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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