The Ultra-Orthodox Backlash

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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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