The Post-Ultra-Orthodox Death Prophecy

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October 7, 2013

On Friday, September 27, Deb Tambor, a young mother with bright eyes and deep dimples, killed herself. Deb was a member of the same circle of former ultra-Orthodox Jews that I belong to. Her death, at 33, is sending shockwaves through my community, a sharp reminder of the suffering some of us must endure. Deb went through a brutal custody battle because she rejected ultra-Orthodoxy. Her former community banded together to destroy her children’s relationships with her, using legal muscle, bullying, and religiously fueled indoctrination to reduce her contact with her three children to only one supervised visit a month.

Shira Mechanic, "Encaged," mixed media

Many have already responded eloquently to Deb’s death with an outcry against the abominably corrupt custody processes that so many former ultra-Orthodox Jews are trapped in, something I care about deeply. Today, though, I’m moved to talk about something else, something more personal for me.

My deepest reaction to this tragedy is not as an activist, but as a fellow former ultra-Orthodox Jew, reminded that so many of us, while moving forward in our lives, are pulled back by a siren call of death. A call that triumphed over Deb and a string of others who have killed themselves in recent years, and an even larger group of us who have unsuccessfully attempted to make the same choice. According to Footsteps, an organization providing support to those leaving insular Jewish communities, as many as 80% of its members have contemplated suicide.

Members of my community learn about this pull to self-destruction at a young age. We are taught — in stories, teachings, songs and gossip — that anyone who leaves ultra-Orthodoxy is ultimately defeated by the depressing misery of “sin.” As children, we witnessed men and women slinking back to religious life, attempting to bury the indiscretions of a rebellious adolescence with intensified fervency. Even more pervasive were stories of prostitutes, heroin addicts and the psychologically imbalanced who, we were told, made up the community of former ultra-Orthodox Jews. When many of us left ultra-Orthodoxy to become “former ultra-Orthodox Jews,” we were scarred by the belief that our fate had already been written, and that our story could have only one possible outcome: misery.

We leave, and even when we reject Sabbath, ignore rabbis and forget prayers, this prophesy of inevitable devastation continues to haunt many of us. Rituals can be left behind in the old world, but as many of us move away from faith, we can see with our own eyes that this prophesy is often true. Empirically. The leavers of ultra-Orthodoxy are, in fact, frequently broken. Of course it is not the cheeseburgers and the Spinoza and the sex that break us. It is the religious community harpooning our tender bodies as we struggle out of the shell of our protective upbringing, leaving us pierced and deformed as we attempt to navigate forward. What a powerfully clairvoyant prophecy this is, painstakingly fulfilled by the very people who predict it.

The prophecy also has stickiness because of the nature of darkness. With just one awful night of desperate thoughts, a person can be forever changed. Suicidality is a place, and once you know it exists, however far you travel from it, you cannot scrub it from your reality. No matter how far we advance, many former ultra-Orthodox Jews maintain a muscle memory of this journey, having rehearsed it in our heads so many times as religious children, parroting back the prophecy of doom for those who leave. The unfamiliar route to college or a progressive relationship is a trail of breadcrumbs in comparison with the channel imprinted by this conviction.

I am one of those who struggle to advance beyond an internalized prophecy that my life will end in destruction because I reject ultra-Orthodoxy. At the age of 31, I’ve accumulated enough narratives of success to become something of a poster child for a thriving post-ultra-Orthodox life: a graduate degree from Harvard, a loving life partner, a happy child, my own home, ease moving in secular society. But these are not evidence of my distance from this prophesy of doom. On the contrary, these facts are evidence of its closeness. I am Scheherazade spinning ever larger and longer stories of success in a frantic attempt to keep that death prediction at bay.

I don’t know why Deb made the choice she did, but I have spoken to others in our community and heard echoed back the same struggles against self-destruction that I face. Speaking for myself, I can say that I am a confident and happy woman. I am delighted with my supportive community, I adore the family I have made, and I relish my meaningful work and pleasures. Despite all of that, I still have moments when it seems like every cell in my body is vibrating with hurt, aching for a rest with no awakening. In these moments, to choose to continue to live another day seems a Herculean task. For all I have learned and gained in the 15 years since I took my first steps out of ultra-Orthodoxy, I still, shockingly often, ache for death.

Some ultra-Orthodox may say that this pain is my tormented soul calling me back to God. I don’t disagree. But the calls are a noxious tick tock, and the thing they label “soul” in me is a dirty bomb, begging for my destruction.

Leah Vincent: “I am one of those who struggle to advance beyond an internalized prophecy that my life will end in destruction because I reject ultra-Orthodoxy,” she writes.

Adult knowledge can only seep so deep. I don’t know how to extricate and eradicate these embryonic cells that keep me always in a state of civil war, my current self striving for life while the remnants of my childhood self insist on death, because that is the defining fate of the heretic’s existence.

Some will point to my confession of struggle like they will point to Deb’s death — as proof that we are broken people. And I will respond: You are right; we are often broken. The terror we have ingested, frequently reinforced and nurtured by the threats and punishments of former family and friends, destroys us from within. There is no need to wield knives to keep rebels in line, when instead our spirits can be curdled so it is our own hands that drip with blood. It is a much cleaner crime.

The progressive woman I am today brings no joy to my mother and my father. It seems the only happiness I could give them would be in my failure. If I would stop popping up on televisionand in gossip, if they could be satisfied that a secular life — my secular life — can only result in miserable devastation, it would reinforce everything they have devoted their lives to, making everything make sense, making them feel so secure. And for Deb, the same. She could offer no nachas with a happy secular life.

I do not know if those of us who struggle after leaving can ever escape the dichotomous choice of falling prey to doom or racing after success with destruction panting at our heels.

I do not know if the whole dynamic can be rejected for a peaceful life that turns away from this insistence that the heretic cannot thrive in peace.

I only know that I am afraid for my friends, and I have been afraid for myself, and that my defense against my fear is to speak out and name the fear.

I am speaking to my friends, to Becky and to Sarah and to Moshe, confessing that I have this urge, and telling those outsiders who are shaken by Deb’s death that Deb is not an anomaly. To be a former ultra-Orthodox Jew too often means to exist in a tug-of-war with destruction. Deb lost that war.

I understand Deb. And I see you, my friend, who has struggled or is struggling. May the victim’s blood be avenged. May we say good-bye to Deb — and to the prophesy that took her life.

Leah Vincent is a writer and activist. A graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, she has written for the Huffington Post, Unpious and the Jewish Daily Forward and is an advocate for the empowerment of former ultra-Orthodox Jews seeking a self-determined life. Her memoir, “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” will be published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in January 2014.

With original artwork by Shira Mechanic.

Shira Mechanic, "Encaged," mixed media

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