The school was on a residential street in North West London. From the outside it was unremarkable, but the atmosphere as I crossed the threshold for the first time for an interview to become an English teacher, was astonishing. The Catholic convent school I’d just left was a seething cauldron of energy and chaos. The noise of ringing school bells and yelling teenagers formed the backdrop to a relentless melodrama of flunked exams and teenage pregnancies. After twelve years teaching in the comprehensive system, I was burnt out.
The advert in the TLS described the school as a girls’ grammar, but I guessed from the Jewish name that it would be quite religious, so I was dressed appropriately – long skirt, long sleeves and a neckline high enough to cover my collarbone. I’m a secular Jew, but I had no inkling what I was letting myself in for. The school wasn’t just a bit religious; it was a Charedi school, the most theologically conservative stream of Orthodox Judaism. In the UK, they are known for their black sable ‘shtreimel’ hats and curled side-locks, and little else, since they are notoriously insular. According to Jewish Policy Research, there are currently 53,400 Charedi Jews in Britain, a group that is growing fast. Membership of Charedi synagogues has doubled since 1990, and they now account for three out of every four British Jewish births. Continue reading
When a former ultra-Orthodox Jew publicly reveals her story, she often faces ferocious attacks from her community of origin who will claim that she is “crazy” and a liar. As a former ultra-Orthodox writer and activist, I’ve experienced some of this backlash on blogs and online chatrooms, but I received my most public dose of it when I appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show last spring to share a bit about my life and promote the work of Footsteps, an organization that empowers former ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The Katie producer called me the day before the taping, frantic. She had contacted my father for a counter-statement to my recounting of my parents’ abandonment and the difficult years I went through after that. “It is clear to us” my father’s statement said, “that she (Leah) does not (or perhaps is not always able to) separate her imaginings from the facts. The allegations contained in your email are simply false, every single one … Come what may, we will continue to love her always.” (His love, of course, moving him to issue this statement, but not to contacting me after the birth of my child two years ago, or since.)
The producer was afraid that perhaps, despite my extensive prep with her, I was, in fact, a delusional liar. I directed her to my brother, who confirmed my account and shared the story of his own, similar, experiences.
Many of my friends who leave ultra-Orthodoxy have faced this type of personal attack from family, former friends, former rabbis, and internet trolls. With the publication of my memoir, I expect a fresh and heated batch of claims that I am crazy and that I am a liar. There is a grain of truth in these accusations. If “crazy” means experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists, I have, as my memoir recounts, spent time on a psych ward. I don’t lie, in my memoir, but I do, as I note in the book, work within the conventions of the genre. My book is not a multi-volume investigative journalism essay on my entire existence; it explores one narrative thread from a vibrant life. As I state in the opening pages, “[s]ome events have been compressed or rearranged in time to more concisely convey my experience” and “[n]ames and identifying details have been altered.”
I’m weary of the insults that will come, but more than that, I am bitterly disappointed by this de facto reaction. It’s a letdown to see that the community that I cherished for so long seems too often to have no more substantial engagement with the concerns of those of us who chose to leave beyond ad hominem attacks.
The community I knew was a community that prided itself both on deep immersion in complex philosophical studies and generous investment in charity and support. The community that I grew up in was a community that strived to follow a Godly path, that constantly issued exhortations to personal improvement, that engaged in intense recruitment of outsiders to what they claimed was a more elevated life. I would expect more depth, more compassion, more pensiveness, in their engagement with these issues. The cognitive dissonance is unsettling.
My hope for my memoir, and others that will surely be coming in the next few years, is that the ultra-Orthodox community will reject the tired script of “you’re crazy, you’re a liar” and instead enter the conversation with valuable ideas about how to make the ultra-Orthodox community more tolerant of those who choose a self-determined life and more embracing of personal expression. Both for my peers and for those I left behind.
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No American Jew could have experienced a more inspiring introduction to Israel that I did upon arriving in darkness aboard the first plane from London after the start of the Six-Day War. Within hours I was in Jerusalem watching the Battle for the Old City from the terrace of the King David Hotel. In the morning we drove a rented Volkswagen along the tank tracks to avoid mines and soon came upon soldiers celebrating their historic conquest by praying at the Western Wall. Never observant, I joined in prayers with this elite brigade of Jewish paratroopers, recruited mainly from secular kibbutzim. Their tribune was no less than Israel’s chief rabbi blowing the shofar—a ram’s horn blast that stirred Jewish souls around the world.
I remained for several weeks to report on the problems facing the victorious nation, most notably the unforeseen conquest of the West Bank from Jordan. It was during that assignment that I first met and befriended Yuval Elizur, then the Jerusalem correspondent of The Washington Post and now the co-author of our book, The War Within. I endured the baleful stares in the Mea Shearim, a dozen blocks set aside for ultra-Orthodox, then a tourist curiosity because it was widely believed that this anachronistic sect would wither away in modern Israel. How wrong we were. Years later, they have become a powerful minority determined to set the tone for society in the Holy City, and the leaders of American Jewry have tread carefully to avoid antagonizing them.
Although the majority of American Jews belong to Reform and Conservative congregations, the American Jewish establishment has maintained connections with the Israeli parties representing the Orthodox, which until now were an essential part of the nation’s coalition governments. For example, within days of the military conquest of the holiest place of worship for all Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate took control of the Western Wall, banned Reformist devotions, and literally walled off women who came to pray. Even when the women were given access to a small sector, there was no serious criticism by major American Jewish organizations lest it be seen as an attack on the government that would give comfort to Israel’s enemies.
American defenders of the Orthodox argue that there are “many shades of black.” But the deepest shade have long had the most political influence and in consequence enjoy the most egregious privileges, the largest subsidies, and the greatest isolation from Israeli society. No American Jew outside the Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn and around New York City—sects with respected elders recently convicted of fraud and sexual abuses—would agree to a public subsidy of sixty per cent of ultra-Orthodox males who are unemployed, or almost one hundred thousand able-bodied and subsidized yeshiva students who escape military service while they study nothing but sacred texts and learned commentary.
Jews have thrived and won acceptance as both Jews and Americans by adapting our religious observance and culture to the customs of the country. Whenever permitted by local rulers, Jews have always done so. That is a fundamental theme of the Talmud: how does a Jew in a strange land live as a Jew? Of course it is easier in a country of religious tolerance like ours, but surely Jewish survival does not depend on literal adherence to 613 biblical commandments dating back several thousand years: it depends on adapting those rules to modern life—and certainly not on re-creating the Jewish ghettoes that we have spent centuries trying to escape. That is a formula for alienation, irrelevance, rejection, and eventually the disappearance of all Jews, and it applies with equal force to the embattled nation of Israel, which has succeeded against all odds by adopting modernity as its culture
It is an axiom of warfare that the longer one faces an enemy, the more each side has to adopt the other’s tactics to survive and thus willy-nilly start to resemble the other. Israel will not be strengthened by falling into the same fundamentalist trap as proponents of Muslim sharia in their own countries; on the contrary, both sides risk falling back into the past by refusing to embrace the present.