Sunday, February 28, 2010

The High Price of Religious Defection

Here's a brief profile of two Israelis who left their ultra-orthodox lifestyle behind, and the price they had to pay for it: The High Price of Religious Defection.
Over the 19 years it has been operating, only around 2,000 defectors have turned to Hillel. "There are tens of thousands who have doubts and want out," Paneth says. But only a small number are ready and willing to make the sacrifices that defection demands. For example, most families completely break off contact with defectors. "Some even hold wakes," Paneth says, "as if the daughter or son has actually died."
I guess Der Spiegel can be forgiven for mixing up a wake with sitting shiva. I really wonder though about her numbers. Are there really tens of thousands who want out? How can she be sure about that?

One of the protagonists shares the picture she was painted of what would happen if she left:
"We were contantly told that the secular world was only waiting to turn us into prostitutes or slaves," Mayan explains, "that there was nothing but drug addiction waiting for us out in the modern world."
Sound familiar?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Chareidi Leadership

Amazing! Just a few days ago I wrote in a post about how the entire reaction to the Grossman debacle demonstrated just how much of a bald faced lie it is when the chareidi community defends its inaction on issues with the excuse that they don’t get involved in something that has nothing to do with their community. Now, only a few days later, they decide to step up and show the world just how much of a lie another one of their common excuses really is! What is going on?!

Today, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah Of America issued a statement condemning Rabbis Avi Weiss, a left-leaning Modern Orthodox rabbi for his recent activity of ordaining a woman rabbi. Now, just like with the Grossman issue, I’m not going to go into the merits of their position vis-à-vis the issue at hand. It’s really not germane to my point. I rather want to focus on the simple fact that they did issue this statement, and how it compares with other situations where there was noticeable silence on their part.

This past year, with so many scandals being frequently revealed in the chareidi world, it was not uncommon to hear the faithful lament (and the not-so-faithful accuse), “Why haven’t the rabbonim spoken out about these problems?! Where’s their condemnation?!” The issues are too numerous to even get through: molestation accusations, financial improprieties, corruption, sexual dalliances, embezzlement, drug smuggling, violence against women, rioting, worker mistreatment. The list goes on and on. And every time people ask why the rabbonim aren’t speaking up (not to mention, actually taking action), the response is always some lame excuse about how it’s not their job to comment on every issue that crops up.

And yet, here we have an issue – one which does not involve their community in any manner, one which does not actually hurt anyone or involve a crime of any sort; indeed, the issue at hand is one in which a woman is acting in a more spiritual and refined manner! - and yet they feel this is the sort of thing they need to speak up about and unequivocally voice their condemnation!

What the hell is wrong with these people? On issues of dire importance which are literally ripping apart their community, they provide zero leadership, repeatedly offering pathetic excuses for their silence and inaction! Just a few days ago, a leading Brooklyn rabbi who heads one of the most prominent chareidi girls schools in Brooklyn was charged with extorting four million dollars! Yet, when it comes to something relatively harmless, and which has absolutely no bearing on the life of anyone in their community, these chareidi rabbis loudly proclaim to the world their grave concerns on the matter!

Seriously, can someone please explain to me how these people have the slightest shred of credibility anymore?


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Monday, February 22, 2010

Someone's listening

A new book has recently been released that I'd like to recommend. The book is titled, "The Jewish High School: A Complete Management Guide," and it's written by Paul Shaviv, the Director of Education at TanenbaumCHAT (Toronto's largest Jewish day school). Full disclosure: I have not actually read the book. But I have no doubt that it's a most excellent work, full of wise advice for those involved in Jewish education. How can I be so sure? Well, if you turn to page 123, you'll find a section where he quotes an anonymous "blogger" which may sound familiar. In fact, the quote is a reproduction of an old post of mine, "Leaving It Behind" (the author was granted full permission). You can see it by clicking on "Search inside this book" and searching for the word "journey"; it's the second result.

I have to say, it's extremely gratifying to know that there are some Jewish educators out there who don't simply reject out of hand anything that comes from the mouths (pens? keyboards?) of bloggers as so often seems to be the case.

Here's a scan of the pages:

Friday, February 19, 2010

What We Can Learn From Grossman

As I'm sure you know, all of the Orthodox media outlets have been buzzing this week about the Grossman story. I don't have too much to say about the issue that hasn't already been said by others. I think the best analysis of the frum community's reaction, both leading up to the execution and it's aftermath, was summed up on Orthonomics. (If you have no idea what I'm referring to, update yourself here.)

However, I do want to highlight one aspect of this episode that I haven't yet heard anyone touch on so far. Regardless of how one feels about Grossman, the death penalty, or his supposed teshuva, this week's activities have laid bare another lie that the chareidi world frequently promotes in its defense.

How often have we heard, in response to calls for action on the issue of sexual abuse, whether from the community, its leaders, or its institutions, the tired old excuses - "What can we do about it? It's not in our hands!", "It doesn't matter what I say. It won't have any effect anyway.", "This isn't something that we get involved in.", "What can I really do anyway? I'm just an average Joe!", "We don't address issues that our outside of our organizations concerns." There's always some excuse given, explaining how the person's inaction, or the organizations avoidance of the issue, is simply the more pragmatic and practical response.

If there's anything this weeks events have demonstrated, it's that the frum world - from its highest organizations, to the average layman, to its various media outlets - can and will act when they care about an issue. It doesn't matter how unlikely their efforts are to succeed; it doesn't matter how questionable the object of their efforts really is; it doesn't matter how distant the person - or even the cause! - is to their community. They will speak up; they will take action; they will rally; they will pray; they will do everything they can, from sending out petitions, to making phone calls, to applying political pressure, to writing editorials; even speaking about the issue in children's schools, and appealing to Heads of State to intervene!

What all this shows is just how hollow all their excuses are when they avoid taking action on other issues, issues far more pressing and dire than the fate of an admitted cop-killer.

What does it say about an institution like Agudah, which repeatedly sidesteps taking action against child molesters, yet willingly stands up to help out a cold-blooded killer?

What does it say about a community that is willing to go to bat for a convicted murderer who, until just two weeks prior, most people had never even heard of, but isn't willing to even speak up for innocent victims in their own community?

What does it say about people who speak with reverence and love about someone who bashed in a womans head with a flashlight, simply because "he's a Jew", yet when it comes to helping out a Jew who was raped by someone in their community, they will treat him like a pariah?

What does it say about rabbis who spoke to their congregations, encouraging them to call the Governor, to say tehillim, and to spread the word about this righteous cause, yet these same Rabbis are virtually silent when it comes to taking action against the pedophiles residing in their communities?

What does it say about a community that is up in arms in a matter of days about someone and something so distant to their own lives, yet even after years of poking and prodding by activists about an issue that affects the very safety of their own children, they choose to avoid any concrete action?

It seems that the chareidi community is patting themselves on the back now, so proud of the "…shtadlonus and achdus that was demonstrated by our tzibbur over recent days," as Chaim Dovid Zweibel, in a statement as a representative of Agudah, said. "Your reaction to the impending tragedy was remarkable."

Yes, it truly is remarkable. How can you not be utterly ashamed of yourselves?

Photo credit: flickr user Angelica Nicole.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Tova

Continuing our series of kofer profiles, today I have a chance to present the author of the blog "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 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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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cultural Literacy

If you're one of those people who came from a very sheltered community, how did you get yourself up to speed on all the general knowledge which you were missing out on?

For everyone in the world, there will always be chunks of cultural literacy which are missing from their lexicon, and it can take quite a bit of work to plug those holes. But for people from insular, ethnocentric societies, the problem tends to be far worse. Depending on what kind of community one comes from, the lack of familiarity with commonly accepted knowledge can be a formidable challenge to overcome.

For myself, the realization that I had so much to learn came about as I gradually expanded my social circle from the close-knit group of fellow chareidi yeshiva people to more modern-orthodox groups and then to secular and even non-Jewish circles. When I was chareidi, I knew pretty much everything that I needed to in regards to being able to be socially and culturally conversant. Our interactions tended to stay focused on the goings-on of our world (yeshivish politics, halachic issues, simcha developments, chulent recipes, etc.). When it occasionally ventured into other arenas, such as in regards to political or scientific issues, even though I might not have been too familiar with it, I knew I could quickly figure out what page I was expected to be on by simply listening carefully to my peers. When issues arose that were outside our purview, the general attitude was one of dismissiveness - "Why should we worry about such narishkeit?" - and so it never concerned me very much that I was wholly ignorant about so much that the rest of the world found important.

When I first started to mingle with non-chareidim, there were often moments of utter confusion for me. On one occasion, a coworker mentioned how someone at work looked like Jennifer Aniston, and seeing the blank look on my face, she said "You know, from Friends." I innocently replied, "I don't know her. She's not one of my friends." Ignorance about pop cultural icons was often a source of mild embarrassment for me, but I recognized that being unfamiliar with celebrities and TV shows was really not that important in the grand scheme of things, and other than having to put up with the surprised reactions of my friends, it didn't really bother me too much.

Also a frequent source of discomfort to me was my lack of familiarity with established cultural institutions, both the real kind and the figurative. Admitting to not having a college degree might elicit a merely condescending glance, but revealing that you don't even know that Yale and Harvard are the foremost American universities is a special kind of faux pas. During a discussion where a friend was lambasting a certain newspaper's tendency to editorialize news reporting, I innocently remarked that I didn't see what the problem was. After all, what was wrong with a newspaper reflecting the owners views? Indeed, in the world I came from, that was the very point of publishing anything - to promote one's ideology. The concept of journalistic objectivity was entirely foreign to me. Over time I stumbled upon many other commonly used cultural terms of which I was not just unfamiliar, but some that I hadn't even heard uttered before: GOP, baby-boomer, Bohemian, filibuster, post-modernism, transsexual, Nietzsche, racism, separation of powers, imperialism, Kafkaesque, genetics. All these words were coming up in conversations and the things I was reading, but what did they really mean, and how in the world was I supposed to find out? (This was before Wikipedia was as good as it is now.) The truth is, probably most of the other people around me were as unfamiliar with this stuff as I was, but at the time, I was too intimidated by my own ignorance to even consider this.

Even when it came to areas of Jewish knowledge I was falling short. Although I had never been one of the powerhouses of the beis medrash, I was still fluent enough in the ideas, personas, and foundations of that intellectual sphere to move within it comfortably. But I was quickly discovering once I stepped out of my chareidi comfort zone that the range of my Jewish knowledge was extremely narrow, and so many of the things that I had assumed were universally accepted were actually far from that. Ok, I didn't expect MO communities to accept Rav Elyashuv as the godol hador, but do you really mean to tell me that there are sources to justify not believing in a global flood or that Noach miraculously saved all the animals in the teiva? How can any frum person ever say such a thing?!

However, even with all that, what was most disconcerting of all was the increasingly frequent revelations of just how abysmally ignorant I was in regards to the many significant contemporary and historical issues that were relevant to my life. For the first time in my life, I started really participating in discussions about issues, and I quickly realized that I didn't know squat about the most fundamental elements of any issue. When it came to politics, I didn't have even a basic understanding of how the government worked, or what the different parties stood for. When discussing historical events, I was forced to acknowledge that my views were usually nothing more than superficial rehashings of what my teachers had told me, and that I didn't really know much about the issues at all. Once, in the middle of a heated debate about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I suddenly realized that I couldn't even name the different Arab-Israeli wars, what they were fought over, and what their outcomes were. Over and over I found myself facing the sad realization that I barely ever knew enough about a topic to converse about it with the barest minimum of familiarity. In so many areas - history, science, Jewish thought, world affairs, basic geography, notable figures and events, and so many more topics that I was finding myself exposed to - I was horrifically, abysmally, ignorant. The realization was both humbling and terrifying.

And so I set about trying to learn about everything I was missing. I started downloading Billboard top hits of the 90's and 80's to find out about popular music (Napster was just taking off then). I started watching the famous shows and the classic movies that everyone always brought up in conversation. (The West Wing was a great introduction to politics). I went to the library and when I couldn't find any beginners books on the topics I wanted to learn, I went to the children section and took out books from there. (I highly recommend this series for learning US History.) I visited museums (and spoke to the curators when I could). I read newspapers as much as possible. I participated in online discussion groups devoted to certain topics. I looked things up online whenever possible. I found smart people who liked to talk a lot and listened to them. Slowly and gradually I managed to slightly fill up the gaping holes in my cultural literacy so I could converse with the average educated person without sounding like a total fool. I became more adept at assessing what was actually common knowledge and what was more specialized information and by doing so, became more confident with saying, "I'm not familiar with this topic. Can you give me some background about it?" The more I learned, the more I discovered how much I was ignorant of. And the more ideas I became exposed to, the more I came to realize just how inadequate my critical thinking faculties had been until then.

Naturally, there are still vast swaths of cluelessness in my mind. But my life now is such that I'm no longer as urgently concerned with turning those desolate patches into vibrant meadows of intellectual ferment. Knowing about what everyone else considers essential is not as important to me as simply learning interesting things that catch my fancy. However, I can't help wondering, if one were to make a list of all the areas of knowledge which are important for an engaged and informed person of the western world to be familiar with, what should go on that list? And what did you focus on when you decided to become a more educated person?

Photo credit: flickr user James Yeung

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Better Know A Kofer - Adrienne

I'm pleased to now present another Kofer interview, for your reading enjoyment. Today's participant goes by the name Adrienne, and for those of you who complained that my prior posts were too long, you'll be happy to know that Adrienne is a master of succinctness. Let's dive right in.

Adrienne, can you start off by telling us about the religious environment that you came from?

My community was modern orthodox-Sephardi. You don't see many Sephard kids going of the derech, because the majority of us are really, really modern. I think OTD is a mainly Ashkenaz phenomenon.

Whats was something you encountered growing up that made you question your upbringing?

My mom got very sick, she has multiple illnesses, despite all this, she became more religious, she got more friends who were absurdly religious. I lost faith, thinking why should I worship one who keeps such bad stuff happening? Also, I was never accepted to a yeshiva high school due to my ADHD and mental illness. What the hell ever happened to us helping each other?

Was the impetus for your transition primarily intellectual, emotional, social, cultural, or some other factor?

Definitely emotional. I was tired of having stuff shoved down my throat. I called this "Because I said so Judaism".

How old were you at this time?

When I was a kid, I did not know what OTD was, but some form always looked good to me. I would say 14.

If there was a period, or moment, for you, when it all suddenly fell apart, how did it feel when you realized that it all wasn't true?

It did not exactly fall apart, it just gradually happened. I felt like I had been lied to, and the community togetherness was false. I found that if your family did not have the right last name or a ton of cash, you were nothing. This is especially true in the Sephardic community - The Peoples Republic of Midwood.

Can you highlight one of the very first ways you crossed the halachic line and how you felt about it?

I started sneaking around as a 9th grader, I would go for non kosher food in far, far away neighborhoods. At first I felt like I was weak, but I stopped caring.

Did you ever admit this to anyone? How long was it that you lived this double life?

No I didn't. For a long time, I did not tell my family but I finally came out to my family about being Reform 3 weeks ago. My mom took it well, but she says she can't accept it, but she loves me anyway.

Do you currently have any connection to Jewish identity, religion, or culture?

I chose to go Reform. Ever notice that the Frum community claims Reform folks are not even Jewish? I met people who are far less hypocritical here. I would say I am more spiritual now that I left. It feels good. I, being bisexual, my husband and I joined the gay synagogue...what an open, warm service.

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

Being open with my family.

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

Loyalty and charity. I truly give, and not to crazy people who bug you at your door. We don't have those here. I give a few dollars to worthy causes, I volunteer when I do not have the cash. Not to see my name in lights, like so many people in the old community did.

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

With both fondness and hostility. There were many good parts on the surface, but way too much ugly underneath.

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

Yes, I like to think there is someone. God, Allah, goddess, whatever you call them, there may be several "someones". I don't know. As I said, I am Reform, but I like to throw in some Wicca and some Buddhism and see what sticks. Perhaps I am "universally religious".

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

Not being closer to my family; having to lie. But I don't regret it. Who regrets freedom?

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

I still feel a little evil when I "break" a law.

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

My husband. I love him so much. I did marry him early on to get away from them though. My mom had us under her thumb. My older siblings still live there in some odd limbo.

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 could never have been a frum Drag King.

You're a Drag King now? Can you tell me a little bit about what that's like? How did you get into that?

Yes I am. It is fun to be someone else for a while, so much fun to be onstage. I have a ton of LGBTQ friends, I saw one show and I was hooked.

What surprised you most about the world outside ultra-orthodoxy?

That they were not a bunch of anti-Semites or sex-possessed heathens.

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

Trust me, we are not all about the sex/drugs/rock n roll/cheeseburgers, even though those sure are tasty. We are not addicts, we are not weak.

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

When I was frum, everything that looked like fun was "Not For Us". Now I do all sorts of "Not For Us" things - march in the Pride parade, see burlesque, roller derby, enjoy as many holidays as possible.

Can you give an example of something that has completely changed in your way of thinking since you left?

That it is not a sin or a sickness to live an alternate lifestyle.

What's the best thing about not being frum?


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

Hypocrisy. We only do good if it makes us look good.

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

I seriously do not know. Maybe there needs to be some sort of Rumspringa like the Amish have. The vast majority of Amish who do that tend to return. Taste the freedom, but know you can return.

Thank you very much Adrienne.

Photo credit: flickr user Emuishere Peliculas

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