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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rebecca said...

awesome interview. thanks for posting.

Jewish Atheist said...

Great interview, great series. Definitely keep it up!

Sam, I'm so happy for you that you got out early before you got trapped! Enjoy your life!

The Hedyot said...

As the rules state, please do not post anonymously.

Additionally, any comments that would suggest the identity of the interviewee will be promptly removed.

On Her Own said...

This is awesome! Do more of these, for sure!!

Shalmo said...

Thanks for the heartwarming story Sam. What fine opposites we are. For me happiness in the community is the main reason I stayed therein so long, even after I realized how false the proofs and denials of biblical criticism were.

Wish you happiness in all your days!

jewish philosopher said...

"That people are as nice, and as bad, as in the Chasidic world."

So why don't you live with them instead of with your brother? Where are your new atheist friends when you need them?

Suzanne said...

Sam, I enjoyed reading your interview as well. At first I didn't understand what you meant that you felt like there was nothing to look forward to after marriage, but by the end of the interview I realized that what was missing was looking forward to intellectual challenges and achievements. I expect you will one day be a great mathematician or scientist. I wish you all the best!

M8 said...

"because of the emptiness of it".

I had exactely the same reasoning after I completed my BA as an mandoline teacher:

What will I do from now on? I will try and find children who want to learn to play the mandoline, teach them.

In the best case, they will be very talented and make it to music academy. And then? They will be in the same shitty position as I am now. (Kind of a snowball system, isn't it).

So I left the mandoline and did something else...

Aaron said...

Good job Sam!!! I hope you do well! This is your boy from Brooklyn!

Yoily said...

>So why don't you live with them instead of with your brother? Where are your new atheist friends when you need them?

This makes no sense. His brother didn't take him in because he's a Chassid. He took him in because he's his brother.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. I love the series. Glad to see it is still ongoing.

Natalie said...

I'm really glad to see a continuation of this series. Great interview, I wish there could be one every day until there were so many that the frum world could no longer claim that those of us who have left were traumatized by some incident in our childhoods or are sex-crazed drug addicts.

Sam, congratulations on having the courage and strength to pursue your fullest life. Good luck in your studies, I'm sure you're going to do really well!