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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