Some time ago, I met a man named Avremel. Avremel was a Satmar Hasid, and when I told him that I too was once Hasidic but am now no longer religious, he did not know what to make of it.
“What do you mean, you are no longer religious?” he asked, shaking his head as if it was all some newfangled bit of nonsense, like naked yoga or a juice fast.
We had met at the Chulent, an underground weekly event in New York City for the non-conformist among the Orthodox: Hippie ex-Hasids mingling with weed-smoking, Lakewood yeshiva guys; Breslov Na-nach-nikim chatting up artsy young women from Borough Park or Monsey. An extra large crockpot sat uncovered in a corner, previously filled with cholent, but now only a thin layer of brown sludge. Avremel had heard me speak Yiddish to a friend, and sidled over to inquire about the incongruity: a bareheaded man who looked like a shaygetz, yet speaking a language so haymish.
“But you still keep kosher, yes?” Avremel asked, when I explained that no longer religious meant exactly what it sounded like. “You still keep Shabbos?”
I told Avremel that I did not, in fact, keep any of those things, and he grew visibly agitated.
“But you still believe in God, of course,” he said, not a question but an insistence, daring me to say otherwise. When I told him that, in fact, I was an atheist, he bit his lower lip hard and walked away.
Five minutes later, he was back.
“Tell me,” he said. “How did it happen?”
He looked troubled, shaken that he needed to understand it more fully. And so I began to share a bit of my story. I told him that before I left the Hasidic world in December of 2007, at the age of 33, I had lived among the Skverers, one of the most insular Hasidic groups in New York, based in their Rockland County shtetl of New Square. I told him how I had spent much of my adolescence and adult life studying Hasidic texts and being a devout follower of my rebbe, once the center of my life and with whom I consulted on everything from baby names to tooth extractions to job offers. I shared with Avremel how fastidiously I once adhered to our customs: taking haircuts only six times a year, keeping ten feet from my wife when we walked on the street, and taking pride in the peasant boots I wore on Shabbat.
All of this was merely by way of background, but for Avremel it was enough.
“Well, of course!” he cried, spreading his arms wide and holding out his open palms. He knew of the Skverers and their ways. “Such meshugaas! Such fanaticism!” He wagged a bony finger in the air. “That’s what happens when you live among people so sheltered. You become an atheist.” He shook his head mournfully. “So sad.”
I’d barely started, though; I hadn’t gotten close to telling him how it all eventually unraveled, but Avremel was no longer interested in what I, a declared apikorus had to say. He now understood it all, and stood up to go. Just as he was about to leave, however, he turned back and swung his thumb as if studying a page of Talmud.
“One thing I don’t understand,” he said. “Why’d you have to go all the way to atheism? You could’ve become normal! You could’ve become Satmar!”
The irony in Avremel’s question, of course, is that Satmar is considered by many — even, proudly, by themselves — to epitomize Jewish fanaticism. Even this Satmar man, however, when confronted with fanaticism a degree higher than his own, believed that fanaticism, too, could be dangerous: His own brand was fine; that which exceeded it was not.
The incident with Avremel has been on my mind a lot recently, as the stories of those who’ve left the Haredi world become more widely told. Books, articles, and television broadcasts have been highlighting a remarkably robust exodus from the Haredi world, which seems to be only increasing. Footsteps, a NYC organization that provides assistance and support to former Haredim and has over 800 members, reports a 27% average increase in new memberships for each year over the past three years.
In reaction to all this, a question very similar to Avremel’s has been coming up frequently. “If the Haredi life didn’t suit you,” some have been asking, “why did you choose secularism? Why didn’t you become Modern Orthodox?”
This is asked, of course, by the Modern Orthodox. Conservatives ask why I am not Conservative, and the Reform ask why I am not Reform. So too the Reconstructionists, or followers of Jewish Renewal or neo-Hasidism or any other stream or denomination that I have not chosen. One very polite Christian even asked me: “Why, if a Jewish religion did not suit you, did you not explore the teachings of Jesus Christ?”
What these questions have in common is that they all seem to be saying: We get it. Your past religious life was crazy and extreme, fundamentalist and kooky. But you could’ve just become normal! You could’ve become one of us!
And of course, the tiring old refrain: Why throw out the baby with the bathwater?!
In the narratives of those who escape the fundamentalist world of Harediism, we often hear stories of young people yearning for things that can seem rather tame: college degrees, careers, the desire for love and romance instead of being paired off with a stranger in an arranged marriage, outlets for artistic expression — writing, acting, painting, music.
“But if that’s all you wanted,” the cries of a thousand liberal Jews ripple across the comments sections of the Jewish blogosphere, “then why’d you have to give it all up! Our movement allows those things!”
The stories of ex-Haredim often fall into what we might describe as made-for-TV narratives, tales of displacement and alienation and genuine struggle and, increasingly, ultimate triumph. We hear of oppressive upbringings and severely restricted lives followed by attempts to break free followed, as often as not, by ostracization and abandonment by former loved ones. These elements provide the dramatic tension necessary for a good tale, but they ignore the inner struggle that has led to it all: crises of faith, of conscience, of deep inner turmoil, aspects of a journey that fit less neatly into the easy storytelling.
To truly understand these journeys, however, to go beyond the 7-minute TV segment or the 1,200-word newspaper article, we need to be willing to listen to the rest of it, which reveals something far deeper — and truer — if less immediately dramatic. In conversation after conversation with friends, peers, colleagues within the ex-Haredi community, what I often hear is not a rejection of religion itself but the erosion of a basic trust. Trust in those who claim the mantle of authority to deliver timeless truths. Trust in rabbis and ancient texts and traditions. Trust that anyone but we as individuals can determine our own truths and values.
Several years ago, when my son was around six, he turned to me one day before Purim, and asked: “Was Achashveirosh a real person?”
Achashveirosh was, as recounted in the Book of Esther, the ancient king of Persia, whose decree for all Jews to be exterminated, a plan hatched by his vizier Haman, was foiled by Esther, all of which Purim commemorates. I did not at that time believe that the biblical tale had firm basis in historical fact, but I also knew that telling my son that the ancient king was not a historical figure would directly contradict his teachers at his Hasidic cheder. Seeking to shelter him from the dissonance of opposing viewpoints, I thought it best to keep things simple.
“Yes,” I said. “Achashveirosh was real.”
My son thought for a moment, then turned to me again: “Haman,” he asked, “was he real, too?”
Again, believing it best, I said that yes, Haman, too, was real.
My son thought another moment, then turned to me again. “And did Vashti really grow a tail?”
Like every Hasidic second-grader, my son had been taught the midrash that when Vashti the Queen of Shushan was summoned to appear naked before the king and his guests, God caused her to grow a tail, and so, fearing humiliation, Vashti defied the king and was subsequently put to death, clearing the way for Esther’s ascendance to the throne. But I could no longer lie to my son, pretend to believe a midrash so fanciful, and so I told my son that no, I did not believe that Vashti grew a tail.
But I had lied to him about the rest. My son had trusted me to faithfully convey to him my beliefs, but I had not done so.
Rabbi Meir ben Isaac Arama, the 15th-century Spanish-Jewish philosopher, notes one of the most important and oft-cited bases for Jewish faith: “A man does not bequeath falsehood to his sons.” We do not transmit lies to our children, Rabbi Meir ben Isaac says, and so we can accept the integrity of our beliefs and traditions as conveyed through the chain of mesorah, father to son, throughout the generations.
But I had transmitted a lie. I told my son I believed something I did not. In order to avoid confusing him, I had betrayed his trust, even if in a minor way, and it made me think about the integrity of our traditions. It made me think about how, in order to safeguard our children from confusion, to avoid grappling with our own doubts, to contrive synthesis and to gloss over paradox and contradictions, we simplify narratives and conceal complexities and break the very essential bonds of trust between father and son, teacher and student.
The concept of emunah, of faith, is integral to any religious worldview. We often think of faith as “belief,” but perhaps a truer meaning is “faithfulness,” a form of trust. Emunah is the placing of trust in a higher authority, in the Torah, in ancient sages, in your present-day rabbis, trusting they know something you don’t, that they have access to wisdom and knowledge and truths they can faithfully impart.
Many of us ex-Haredim are those very 6-year-old children like my son, lied to for our own protection, now grown up and aware of the many and varied fictions we were fed. Intentionally or not, those who claimed to speak in the name of God or tradition had betrayed the trust we placed in them. They distorted truths, claimed to know the word of God when they had no authority to do so. They distorted essential laws with excessive restrictions, emphasizing its letter over its spirit; they distorted tradition by falsely claiming that what is now has always been; they have distorted history, even, rewriting past events and recasting historical figures to align with current ideologies.
What many of us now reject are, yes, rules and restrictions, but also, any worldview or philosophy that demands we act and behave in specific ways even when not personally meaningful; any dogma or doctrine that demands, without needing to justify it, that an individual respect authority — of tradition, of scholarship, of the great minds behind old ideas—simply because they declared: Trust us, this is good for you.
What many ex-Haredim are saying, then, to religious leaders and religious communities and religious lifestyles of all kinds: We have lost the trust necessary to embrace your religious views, however moderate they might be. We have lost faith in your ability to convey truths, just as we have lost faith in the Haredi worldview with which we were raised. We have rejected that which demands trust but does not recognize the need to earn it; dogmas and assertions simply declared as truths, be they Satmar or Modern Orthodox, Chabad or Renewal.
There is, however, one thing that ex-Haredim, as a group, as a community, as a nascent movement, have not rejected, and it relates to another question we get asked a lot, the corollary to the questions above: “Do you still consider yourself Jewish?”
Whenever I hear this question, I am reminded of the scene with Tevye and his wife, Golda, in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Do you love me?” Tevye asks his wife. In response, she gives him an incredulous look, then lists the things she has done for him over 25 years — washed his clothes, cooked his meals, cleaned his house, given him children, lived with him, fought with him, starved with him — and asks: “If that’s not love, what is?”
Do ex-Haredim still consider themselves Jewish?
Over the past two years alone, ex-Haredim have been organizing in support of Haredi victims of sexual abuse, held protests against misplaced Haredi priorities, spoken out regarding inadequate general studies education in Hasidic boys schools, raised awareness about the plight of gay people within the Orthodox community, founded organizations to assist those trapped in arranged marriages, organized panel discussions on the relationship between Haredi and progressive Jewish communities.
At Footsteps, one is nearly as likely to hear Yiddish conversations as English. Ex-Haredim come together to celebrate every major Jewish holiday in one form or another. We may not adhere to tradition, but we engage with tradition in ways that remain relevant to us. We have reappropriated festivals to celebrate that which we find personally meaningful. On Rosh Hashanah, many of us celebrate a “new beginnings” event, and on Passover we celebrate freedom from meaningless restriction and oppressive values. A group of my own friends gathers each year around Passover for a “Chaos” celebration, instead of a “Seder” — Hebrew for “order” — to celebrate the messiness and confusion that our lives bring us, challenging us to enrich our lives even in the midst of challenge and frustration.
Members of the ex-Haredi community are engaged with Jewishness with as much vigor and dedication as nearly any other Jewish demographic. They care deeply about issues of social justice and about building community and advancing the deep values and convictions they embraced for themselves. They may not do it within a religious context, but their lives and passions are richly informed by their heritage and their traditions and their own pasts, however messy and complicated.
To paraphrase Golda: If that’s not Jewish, what is?
Shulem Deen is the founder and editor of Unpious.com, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe.
More articles in
ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com