Thursday, January 28, 2010

Silent Prayers

"Lechu neranena ladonai, nariah letzur yeshainu…"

The loud voice of the chazan startles me just as I step into the shul; all around me, the bustling, erev-shabbos crowd of boys and men break off from their mingling and make their way to their seats as the davening slowly commences. As I awkwardly find myself an empty seat along the wall, I survey the crowd, pleasantly surprised at the makeup of this congregation. There seems to be faint expressions of what passes for diversity in this group. Although the overwhelming majority of the congregants are decked out in the typical yeshivish shabbos dress – dark suit, large black hat – I can still spot a fair number of them standing out in their distinctiveness: a leather kipa here, a light grey suit there, a colored shirt in the back. Impressive, I think to myself. Maybe things have gotten a bit more open-minded since I’ve left.

As I sit at the table, siddur open in front of me, I stare blankly at the words on the page, refusing to grant my lips permission to participate. Next to me, a heavyset fellow is earnestly swaying back and forth to the chazan’s rendition of kabalas shabbos. It’s been a while since I heard them, but the tunes and prayers are all familiar to me; the words instinctively form in my mind, eager to be granted expression. Yet I stubbornly refuse to give them life. As it often does when I find myself in these situations, irrational paranoia starts to kick in, and I imagine that my blasphemy is being noticed by everyone around me. I feel their stares, their disapproving gaze burning into my back. Why aren’t you davening? I hear them ask accusingly. Would it hurt you to shuckle a little bit? 

Why do I insist on doing this, I wonder. Is it so hard for me to pretend for just a few minutes? What difference would it make if I just said the words like everyone else? Still, I refuse to comply. For some inexplicable reason, I can’t bring myself to do it. I remind myself - it’s all a lie, that I don’t believe in what these words mean, and that I’m not willing to participate in something that I don’t believe in.

But somewhere in the back of my mind, I know I’m deceiving myself. I pretend all the time. The mere fact that I’m in this shul, looking for the most part like one of them, is indicative of that. So why can’t I just bring myself to answer “amein yehei sh'mei raba” like everyone else? What’s the big deal if I just go along with it and let them think that I’m one of them?

And then it dawns on me - that is the reason. That’s why I can’t pretend. I don’t want them to think I’m one of them.

That’s the real truth. I don’t want to be thought of as part of their group. I don’t want them to consider me as one of their own. If I play along with this theatrical performance, it means that I care enough to want them to accept me. And I don’t. I don’t want them, for a second, to think that I am like them, in their thoughts, their practices, their lifestyles, their goals, their relationships, or their values. I refuse to play along with their game because I don’t want to ever be mistaken as one of them.

And so I sit there, silently.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Derech Acheret (Part II)

Continuing where we left off on the interview with Derech Acheret from a few days ago, here is Part II of her story.

Is there anything from your religious past that you miss in your life now?

I miss having answers and knowing that I am 'right'. The complexity that comes with living in modernity and being governed above all else by Western Liberalism, acceptance and openness and my own sense of right and wrong is sometimes confusing. I am never totally 'right'. And I don't have a whole community and GOD backing me in my rightness.

I miss community and I miss the company of women and only women, knowing that men are not allowed in.

Can you highlight an example of something in life that confuses you now without your religious structure?

What to do when with guys is still confusing. Carrie (from Sex and the City) always says how confused she is by men but I sometimes feel that I have a whole additional few layers of confusion.

I'm confused about how to keep Israel Jewish while not giving into Hareidi stricture, especially in Jerusalem. For example, I really want parking lots to be open on Shabbat so that tourists can come here and enjoy the city but I don't want to be inundated by huge numbers of outsiders taking photos, clogging up the roads and making loads of noise on Shabbat.

Are there any perspectives from your past religious life that are still dominant in your life now?

Tsnius modes of thinking still inform much of my self-image. For instance, flirting with a guy is still very hard for me to do. Often, I'll think I've been totally demonstrative, and everyone around me, including the guy I was trying to flirt with, will tell me I was totally coy.

I'm still self-conscious showing cleavage.

I try really hard to be cool in a bikini but usually put on a sarong the minute I get out of the water.

I am still overly analytical and earnest. Although I feel so much more chilled out than I used to be, when I meet new people they say that I'm pretty intense.

Yes, well, from your answers so far, I can understand why they think that. How about behaviors? Are there any religious activities you still engage in?

I still don't eat non-Hechshered meat yet, I have no idea why not. It must be emotional because I definitely can't think of an ideological reason! I live in Jerusalem though, so it doesn't often come up. If I lived in most other places I'd have to face the issue a bit more.

It took me a long time to stop saying brachot on food and asher yatzer. It was so Pavlovian that I'd just start reciting them automatically, and would have to remind myself, "No, I don't do that anymore".

Why did you feel a need to make yourself stop these behaviors? If it didn’t bother you, then why not just let it be?

Because it did bother me. I no longer believed in the male god of the brachot or the system that wrote them and would have me say them. Saying them felt not true to who I now was.

How do you currently view the religious community you came from?

When my mother was alive I didn't bother thinking about it much. I was grateful to where I had come from but I was concentrating on growing into the person I still wanted to become. Any time I would get irritated by something, my mother would remind me that I had made my choice that was good for me and other people make their choices that are good for them.

Now, without my mother's reasonable voice, I oscillate between feeling sorry for people who are still frum, feeling furious with them and feeling love, warmth and pride for where I came from.

When frum people patronize me and imagine that my leaving was in any way easy or not thought out I hate them and want to shake them. One of my aunts told me that I should be frum now "because that's what my mother would have wanted". I wanted to punch her in the face!

When I hear about random acts of chessed performed by Bnei Akiva I am proud to have been part of something good.

However, I think it is an inherently immoral system because a legal system written by men, in which men are the primary beneficiaries, and which, by the system's very nature, relegate women to a second-class status in which they have no real recourse for their voice to be heard, is immoral. (I know Avi Weiss has recently set up a program for women but he's hardly mainstream Orthodoxy!)

Of course the Western system has problems too but it is reexamining and developing them everyday. If my choice is Kiryat Sefer or Beverly Hills, I pick Kiryat Sefer; if my choice is Miley Cyrus or eshet chayil, I pick eshet chayil - but I want neither. I want to live in a system that allows me to pick something else, something bigger and more self actualized than both.

Do you still believe in some form of God or in some version of Judaism?

Yes, but I'm very upset with Her at the moment for taking my mother away from me. Yup, there is a part of me that still believes in an immanent God. I feel a godliness in the world, but I can't explain it. My mother's death was utterly and overwhelmingly devastating for me and the only vocabulary I have to describe the devastation is in terms of god being an utter bastard for making it happen.

If I were to have children I would probably send them to the Masorati (Conservative) school system in Israel and maybe even start going to one of the Masorati shuls so that they could have some sort of knowledge of how some Jewish things work. I think I'd also want them to learn gemara and Torah, so that they could access their culture and history. But as I have none presently and apparently it all changes when you actually have them, the answer is yes to the god question and no to the version of Judaism part.

What are some of the drawbacks of your decision to leave? Do you regret it at all? Is there any guilt?

I don't really have much of a community. I have amazing friends and everything in my world is within a half hour walk, but I don't have an extended community and thus don't know that many people any more. Also I have to make my own rules, I wasn't trained for a life of infinite choice.

But no regret or guilt for a minute.

Are there any particular struggles or challenges that you find especially difficult in the transition?

Making new friends. I don't really know what one talks about, secular small talk is different from religious small talk and I haven't quite figured it out.

And the guy thing?? I find myself even now confused and overwhelmed by the guy thing, I was trained to constantly repress my sexuality. It is amazing to live in a world where sexuality is viewed as a good, exciting thing, to be enjoyed and cherished, learnt about and relished. I don't understand basic cues yet that come instinctively to others.

What are some things that helped you get through those difficult times?

Knowing that ultimately my life is more authentic on this new path I've taken than on the frum one dictated to me by others.

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?

Self actualization, and erring. Self actualization simply isn't valued in the frum world, even in the MO world. Totally leaving your home and community in search of something entirely different is not encouraged.

I always felt that making mistakes in the frum world was so dangerous. There were so many people watching with so much to say about it. In the world I live in today if I make a mistake its no big deal, people are so much less judgmental and I am of myself too, its a mechaye.

I now teach Torah as history and culture in the secular world. I teach it only as literature and am able to appreciate it on a whole new level from how I did when I was religious.

So once you left, what surprised you most about the world outside orthodoxy?

That there's not just one 'world' once you leave Orthodoxy. There's loads of people and communities out there to pick from. Some parts are open and giving and nurturing and full of chilled out, intelligent, committed, deep thinking people who are interested in making the world a better place yet not confined or hysterical about it. Some are awful and mean, and some people really do value their possessions above all else.

What is one misconception or stereotype about ex-frum people that you'd like to correct?

This was not some impulsive, immature, hedonistic phase that I went through as a kid. I stopped davening at age 21 and stopped keeping Shabbat at 32. It was a long, long, extremely well thought out ideological process. I came from a loving, warm home and nothing terrible happened to me to make me frei out. I asked every possible question from every possible source during the eleven years between not davening and not keeping Shabbat. Some issues simply cannot be resolved by Torah.

Also, I wish frum people wouldn’t think the outside world is so horrible. When I told one friend I had decided to become sexually freer she was horrified and said to me, "You mustn't! You'll be raped! I've heard what happens to untznius girls!" I think people who believe that are pathetic. I have had a lovely, safe, exhilarating, educational and, of course at times, frustrating time. But raped? Dangerous? Regretful? Never. (Now why do I suddenly want to add kneine horo to that?! That superstitious claptrap, just never leaves me!).

Are there any stereotypes about general society that you found to be true?

There's no inbuilt community, I had to build it myself. Some men are revolting (but then again, some frum ones are too).

How does your life now compare to when you were frum?

I'm much more relaxed, more focused, calmer, happier, softer, less judgmental, more fun to be around, less intense. On the down side, I don't eat as well as I did. Now that I can eat most things, I do.

Are there any societal and/or cultural experiences which have significantly shaped your worldview?

Dancing is brilliant and fun. Trance and dance music really do sound great!

Sex is brilliant and lovely and nice and disappointing both in a relationship and outside of one. Choosing to have it and not to have it are both good and right choices. Knowing when to make which choice takes wisdom. Having the opportunity to make the choice is a gift.

What's the best thing about not being frum?

Not being judged by everyone, being able to wear comfortable clothes, being able to be who I am and engage in the challenges of everyday life from an authentic place inside me.

Being able to go dancing with friends, being able to talk about many intimate aspects of my life with other women who I know can relate to what I'm talking about and guide me without personal agenda.

I understand why people become ba'alei teshuva. The frum world is great, warm, kind, inviting. The secular world is not inherently warm nor inviting because it is not cohesive or homogenous. But for me the diversity of the world I now inhabit is fantastic! Even just seeing people dressed so differently from each other gives me a kick. The range of ideas and opinions of the people I mix with is lovely. The freedom of ideas and expression is amazing.

What's the best thing that you recall about being frum?

Community, friends, a sense that however difficult an act was, I was doing the right thing and it would be alright; random acts of chesed, the g’mach system, being right.

If you could change one thing about the community you left, what would it be?

The sexism and homophobia. The xenephobia, the angst, I could go on but you said one.

Do you think there's anything that the frum world could have done to keep you "on the derech"?

There are so many things that would have needed to be different it feels disingenuous to name any specific one as it must be the system in itself that is repellent to me and not products of it.

So many frum people are so judgmental, accusatory, self-righteous and bigoted it seems to be part of being frum. People have said such mean things to me since I stopped being frum. It seems to me that frumkeit compels the person to say something when they see a yid living a life they consider sheker.

Do you really feel that frum people are compelled to act that way? After all, your mother never stopped being entirely loving towards you.

That's about our relationship though. I do think that inherent in the system is bigotry and judgmentalism. Sometimes people who love us are able to put those aside, allow themselves to be overcome by love, but that is a bediavad not lehatchila, I think...

Oh, that's another thing I love about not being frum - no one's looking at what I'm doing and telling me how I should be doing it differently or better.

Maybe if I'd been brought up in an environment where my learning was valued, or where I was taught gemara like my brother, or in a Minyan like Shira Chadasha, where I could lein and be shatz for tefillot that don't need a minyan, I wouldn't have realized quite so early on how much women get excluded from leadership and law making roles. (I was told that it was egotistical for wanting to be shatz, yet my brother was a rising star for wanting the very same thing!)

But I'm not sure that would have helped as ultimately women are excluded from those roles and it is that exclusion that distances me from Orthodoxy.

Are there any parting words you'd like to tell the frum world?

We are all individuals with individual stories. Of course some people leave because they are troubled and some people become frum because they are troubled; some leave because it is better for their souls and some become frum because it is better for their souls. People leave for all sorts of reasons and I'm sure some are furious, miserable and frivolous because that is humanity. Mostly people are multi-layered and complex. There are a myriad of reasons to leave the frum world and if the frum world dared explore just five or six of them it would become healthier and calmer.

My reason for leaving in the first place was feminism but now I have a host of reasons never to return.

The world is ok, once you learn how to navigate it. It is as dangerous and as safe as the frum world and you need to work out who and what is bad for you just as you do in the frum world, but there’s no need to be so afraid of it.

Unlike the frum world you don't have to second guess yourself. If something makes you feel uncomfortable there is no one telling you that it is good and you are bad for not realizing it is good.

Or maybe that's just the world I have had the fortune to create for myself.

Actually, after all is said and done, all I really want to say to the frum world is - calm down!

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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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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Biased Perspectives

I'm pleased to present, for the first time ever, a guest post from a loyal reader, and most talented writer, Bethany Berger. The following post is in response to a comment thread generated on a different blog, one that is definitely worth your time to check out - the new collaborative chassidic writing venture known as 'Unpious'.


It's easy to utter blanket generalizations about ethnic/religious/racial groups. (Not because they are true - stereotypes are often complicated - but because they ring true.) What is difficult, however, is pinpointing the finer points of that generality, taking it beyond the general, opening it up, unpacking it, fleshing it out, so that we uncover the complete scope of that sweeping statement.

I was reminded of this when reading Bar Maravashi’s post, "Pious Encounters." The subject of race is always provocative, and I silently applauded Bar’s daring in choosing it as his topic. As I read the post and accompanying excellent (some!) comments, it struck me that nobody found it important to analyze the issue of hasidim’s alleged racism by separating thoughts and speech from action. Since the big evil of racism is the actions it leads to - namely, discrimination and hate crimes - it is, I believe, reasonable to expect a discussion of this matter to segue into, or at the very least, touch upon, hasidim’s discriminatory acts or lack thereof.

Actually, it’s lack thereof. Hasidim, as a rule, do not discriminate against Blacks. Well, not more than they discriminate against other non-Jews, and to a lesser degree, against anyone non-heimish. They may talk the shvartzes-are-cursed talk in the mikvahs and shuls (and for the record, I am not condoning it), but they won’t not hire someone because he’s black. If the guy works cheap, he will be hired. If the neighbors used a black painter and said he did a nice job, that painter has it made. If a black family applies as a tenant to a hasidic landlord, as long as the hasid perceives the family to be "bessere," people who are likely to pay the rent and not ruin the apartment, that black family will get a lease.

Sure, the talk about cursed races is horrible. But it’s not much worse than what an uneducated, unsophisticated person (at least 65% of the U.S. population, in my opinion) says about hasidim. So there’s an ironic, unintended tit for tat in the equation. I’m not trying to say that "two wrongs make a right"; rather, I want to show that while one is condemning hasidim for racism, she/he should simultaneously praise them for their dearth of discriminatory practices.

I anticipate two arguments against my statements and will address them before they can be made. The first is that ideology and action are intertwined, one impacting the other; consequently, we shouldn’t separate thoughts and speech from action. The second is that talk of the type quoted in Bar’s article is evil in its own right.

To the first, I can only hold up history as an example. Although hasidim (in general; I know there are countless exceptions, myself included) have been speaking derogatorily about Blacks for years, they have generally not discriminated against them and certainly have never, as far as I know, committed hate crimes against them. (As an aside, this linked ideology/action theory is a pet peeve of mine, specifically in the case of women’s place in Hasidism, and I intend to post about this in the future.)

To the second, I somewhat agree. Yet the difference between talk and action is too vast to be placed on a level of parity. Think about it: if the Nazis had left it at hateful talk, would the world have remembered them at all?


Photo credit: flickr user PhiNAPHantaSY

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

True Devotion

If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you probably know a bit about my past. But in case you're new here, I'll share with you something personal: When I was in high school, I was a pretty unhappy fellow. Why was I unhappy? Well, I'll get to that in a moment, but first, check out this video that a friend recently showed me. It was put out by one of the kiruv organization that exists to help "at risk kids." To be honest, I was actually surprised at how impressive the production quality of the video was. Not that I agree with its message, but these sort of frum productions are usually lacking a bit in their professionalism, and this one seemed to not suffer from the typical overuse of chassidish music, cheesy effects, and truly awful acting (the acting on this isn't what I'd call great, but it's nowhere nearly as bad as some of the other frum stuff out there).

However, once I saw the very first frame of the clip, I knew I wasn't going to like it. The entire piece was basically a dramatization of the stereotypical view that the frum world loves to tell about people who aren't frum: That the inevitable result of leaving frumkeit is a descent into a lonely life of depression, drugs, and alcohol. (I'm sure they would have also liked to show the drugs and sex, but I suppose that wasn't suitable for their intended audience.) And of course, it also showed that all it takes to turn around those who left is a friendly smile from a patient, "down to earth" rabbi (this particular one knew how to hit a baseball) who, with enough persistence (and love, of course), knows how to show them the beauty of Yiddishkeit. There were also other classic stereotypes throughout - the way that the characters connect in a video store (what else does a shaigetz have to do in his life but watch movies all day?), the directionless lifestyle of the characters, and other all-too-familiar characterizations. (I also found it funny how they showed the cluelessness of some of the frum characters, such as the father suggesting to his son that he put on a hat and jacket when lighting candles. Not sure if that was meant as an intentional joke or not.) It's because of the widespread prevalence of these stereotypes that I decided to start my "Better Know a Kofer" series. (See the sidebar for the full list of interviews.)

Of course, the truth is that, sadly, some people do end up on such a path. But one can't help but wonder if that would continue to be the case as much if the frum world didn't tell such people that that would be the inevitable result of such a decision. I've always felt that the frum world prefers to see a religious dropout burn and crash than succeed in his or her life, as it corroborates the messages the faithful have been told all along.

And that's what I find to be most troubling about these kinds of organizations: despite their professed concern for the troubled young man, it seems to me that when all is said and done, they care more about the persons adherence to halacha than they do about the person's emotional and physical well-being. I know they talk all the time about helping, but how willing are they to continue helping if the person has no interest whatsoever in being frum? Not very much, I'm afraid. I have a friend whose parents offered him an all-expense paid trip to Israel for a month. He was thrilled. Until he found out that it was contingent on him spending some time at Aish Hatorah when he was there. Needless to say, when he declined to accept the stipulation, the offer was off the table.

Let me be clear here, I don't blame anyone, or any group, for having strings attached to their beneficence. People are entitled to devote their resources to whatever causes they value, and the frum world is entitled to promote kiruv as much as they want. But to claim that your kindness stems purely out of a love for a fellow Jew is simply not true. Far too often, the generosity to that Jew is directly proportional to how receptive he or she is to the message of halachic observance.

From what I've heard, there are a large number of these kinds of organizations: Areivim, Eizer Bochurim, B'Derech, Priority-1, Project YES, Aishel, Tzofiah, Home Sweet Home, Eitzah, Rachel's Place, and more. And honestly, I think these groups do a lot of good work. Even if their assistance is driven by religious motivations, these groups are still deserving of much praise. It just bothers me that they aren't truly honest about their real motivations. It's disingenuous to act like you care nothing more than to just give a troubled soul a helping hand, when really your ulterior motive is primarily to give them a hand back onto the derech.

Which brings me back to my original point of my unhappy adolescence. So why was I so unhappy throughout my high school days? Well, there were probably a number of reasons for that, but one very significant one was that I was being raised in a world that valued torah learning above all else, and I knew very well that I was a thoroughly abysmal torah learner. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I shvitzed over that daf, no matter how hard I pleaded with god - "v'sein chelkeinu b'sorasecha!" - I never really understood what the hell was going on in that damn gemara shiur. I was a failure. I knew it, and everyone who spent 5 minutes talking the sugya with me knew it too. And I hated myself for this.

Now, I was fortunate that I had many caring, kind people around me then - my family, my rabbeim, etc. - and they all did their best to help me overcome this obstacle. They set up extra sedarim for me. They paid tutors to go over the shiur with me. They took out extra time from their schedule to learn with me. They even moved around the class chavrusas in the vain hope that someone would be able to help me understand what was going on. Like I'm sure the dedicated staff of these various kiruv institutions do for the people they are helping, my rabbeim went above and beyond the call of duty to help me overcome the source of my frustrations. They did everything they could.

Except the one thing that would have really helped me.

They didn't do the one thing that would have solved my problem forever. The one thing that would have eased my constant guilt, and erased the shame that I was living with every single day: They didn't tell me that it was ok that I wasn't a good learner. If they had only told me that, and made me understand that my value to god was not contingent on how well I could make a leining, all that inner torment would have dissipated in an instant.

But they chose not to. They had no choice, really. Because they believed it did matter. And despite their concern for my suffering, they couldn't compromise their principles.

Looking back, I don't doubt for a second that those rabbis genuinely cared about me. And of course, the same goes for my family. But because they cared about the religious ideal of torah learning more than they did about my emotional well being, I ended up suffering through a large chunk of my life.

So you can see why I don't trust frum people when I hear they are doing everything they can to help out a troubled yeshiva bochur. I'm sure they do indeed love their fellow Jews. And indeed, they will do everything they can to help the person. Everything they can... up to a point. Because while their love for their troubled brethren might truly be sincere, their devotion to halacha is even greater, and if forced to choose, they will proudly sacrifice the happiness and well being of their loved ones on the altar of their religion.

Photo credit: flickr user Onironauta...

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Be My Friend

I recently heard about this trendy new thing to do on the intertubes called twittering and facebookering. Sounds dirty, I know, but supposedly, all the kids are doing it these days. Well, if there's anything I know how to do well, it's being a follower of the latest and greatest fads. Plus, I could use the friends. As I'm sure you know, us kofrim lead very sad, lonely lives. So go ahead and add me as a friend. Or follow me. I'll be using the sites solely to alert people about my new posts and possibly related topics.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Meet My Baby

"Well, I understand your reaction," she said to me, clearly sympathetic. "But why did you have to go as far as you did?"

I smiled to myself. As if I hadn't heard that before.

"Why shouldn't I go as far as I did?" I replied. "For what possible reason should I retain ideas and practices which no longer have any meaning for me?"

Once again, I was rehashing the well-worn conversation of why I chose the path I did, of discarding the religious practices of my family. And as so often occurred in these situations, the person was earnestly trying to show me how misguided my choice was.

"Yes, but it isn't all bad," she explained. "You need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater."

Ahhhh, there we go. The baby and the bathwater. That time honored and irresistible analogy which frum people love to pull out of their copious collection of kiruv arguments. I doubt I've had a single discussion on the topic of my disenfranchisement where someone didn't remind me not to throw out that damn baby.

It's not that I blame them. I think they're right, actually. I wholeheartedly agree that it's vitally important not to discard the wheat with the chaff. But when it's all been mixed up into that one big chulent that's referred to as Yiddishkeit, it's hard to know what's worth keeping and what's not.

As those who've followed this blog know well, the sources of my religious disillusionment consist of a wide variety of factors, from unpleasant experiences in yeshiva, to being exposed to various eye-opening ideas, to meeting new kinds of people, to experiencing stifling religious dogmatism, to seeing religious corruption, to enduring religious extremism, to so many other formative, and unfortunately, often negative, experiences.

And so, when they finish hearing the story of my long and twisted journey, they invariably let out a long sigh of disappointment, and say something like, "I understand how so many of those things turned you off. But that's not what real Yiddishkeit is about. Just because you don't want those undesirable elements, doesn't mean you have to get rid of everything."

The baby and the bathwater.

In the past, the way I typically responded to this rejoinder was by explaining that although to them having to wear certain clothes, and not having a secular education, and maintaining all sorts of other extremist positions might not seem to be part of Torah True Authentic Yiddishkeit™, why should their particular vision of Judaism be any more authoritative than those who maintained that those practices were essential to proper Jewish living? In the yeshivas I went through those were the very things that distinguished us from those "other" Jews who were clearly not living as a proper Torah Jew should! Why should I trust their version of Yiddishkeit over the one I was raised with?

But as I was having this conversation the other day, something suddenly occurred to me that I had never realized before. There's a better way to look at the issue. They're absolutely right that I shouldn't be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And I actually think that I didn't! The only difference between me and my interlocutors is that we just have very different definitions of what constitutes "the baby" and what to consider "the bathwater".

Yes, they're open-minded enough to admit that being pressured to conform to outrageous chumras is not really an essential part of Judaism. That they can accept is the bathwater which can be discarded. However, to them, keeping kosher, being shomer shabbos, and keeping the basics of halacha is clearly "the baby" that needs to be retained. Well, guess what? I think those things are actually the bathwater too!

To me, keeping kosher is as much an unnecessary practice as wearing a black hat is to them. I agree that it's something that has value, and serves to maintain a group cohesion and identity, but it's no more an essential part of being a good person, or a good Jew, than wearing pinstripes is to being a Yankee fan. If you want to do it, that's fine with me, but when the practice stops contributing to my life in any significant way, and even starts becoming an imposition, then it has, at that instant, earned itself the appellation of 'bathwater', and can henceforth be discarded. (Yeah, that's right. I used the word 'henceforth'.)

What they fail to appreciate is that their baby is my bathwater. Yes, I know they feel that shabbos is absolutely precious, but I simply don't find anything worthwhile in all the work required to observe the day of rest. I don't care if my girlfriend is not Jewish. It doesn't matter to me a whit if the packaging of my lunch has a lovely rabbinic seal of approval on it. The myriad laws and rituals of an observant Jew just don't really concern me in any meaningful way. It's all bathwater to me.

"Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater" truly is a wise maxim. That's why I try my hardest not to lose hold of those things from my Jewish upbringing which really matter. The values that truly mean something to me, like cultivating deep and lasting relationships, and honesty, and family, and a devotion to lifelong learning, and kindness, and pursuing truth at all costs, and standing up for the oppressed, and challenging corruption, and appreciation for all the goodness in my life, and constantly working to better myself.

That's the pristine Jewish baby that I hope will emerge when the murky waters of my religious past are allowed to finally drain away forever.



Photo credit: flickr user Vinnie W.