I first heard about Unorthodox, by Devorah Feldman, a week before its release, over dinner at Our Place. Someone there shared a link to the post article, and it intrigued me. I’ve always been naturally curious and interested in other ways of life and how other cultures and societies function, so I saw her book as an opportunity to get a glimpse of what the life of a no-longer-Orthodox, former Hassidic woman was like.
It may seem from what I just said that I routinely entertain the possibility of leaving Judaism in favor of something, as the secular world would see it, less constricting and restrictive than society perceives out way of life to be, and while that was almost true at one point in my life, it is no longer. I, having experienced what I have and coming out intact, know how the other side feels, and how to overcome its draw. When my life first started falling apart I began to reject Judaism and God, not because I didn’t believe in Him any longer, but because I almost hated Him. There were days when I would look up and yell “WHY ME?! WHY DO YOU HATE ME SO MUCH?!”
But although I no longer loved God, I knew that the Torah was true and that, for whatever reason, I had to adhere to it (perhaps it was fear of punishment, perhaps it was because I couldn’t imagine life without the Torah and its lifestyle), so my life and religious identity became about proving to myself the validity of God’s existence, logically defending the Torah, and constantly reconciling in my mind the question of why the good have it bad, and the bad have it good. It became a constant debate in my head, picturing myself sitting up on stage battling some nameless, faceless opponent. I was spending all of my time on the internet, skipping school because I didn’t feel like going, talking to non-Jews all day rather than associating with religious Jews.
I’ve always liked debating, I suppose it comes from my stubborn streak, and the internet is perfect for people like me; there are always people who want to debate you about anything. So that became my life: defending Judaism against non-Jews on the internet, and, ultimately, to myself. With every argument I won, every person I got to concede, my sense of Faith grew. But it wasn’t true Faith, it was simply haughtiness, my ego telling me that because I was a better debater than the non-Jews online, my Faith must be unflappable.
I was going out of my mind, and it wasn’t pleasant. I blasted music, read compulsively, watched movie after movie, anything to silence the debate in my mind, anything to give me a few minutes rest. I saw it everywhere, every book I read, every conversation I had, everything I saw people doing in the street. Everything had become a debate. Life…had become a debate.
And my life just kept getting worse. My mother beat me often, the look on her face something out of a slasher movie. My grandmother was in her own little world, incapable of doing anything except sitting there on her recliner in her dazed little world of catatonic depression. I had no money. No access to any. It was all locked up with my grandmother. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t go on school trips, I couldn’t buy food for my paralyzed uncle when the home health aides asked me to. My mother was abusing everyone in the house and seemed incapable of doing anything else, so that responsibility fell to me. But I couldn’t; I had no money.
Every time I needed something, for myself or the rest of the family, I would have to go into her room and beg, for over an hour. I had to beg her to write a check for the grocery, or the drug store. I had to plead, I had to scream, I had to cry just to get her to look up in my general direction, though she never looked right at me. To get her to write me a check I had to get her coherent enough to talk, and to do that I needed to get her to open up to me emotionally. I wasn’t prepared for it.
I’ve been reading psychology books since I was eight, and I knew a few tricks. So I would sit down, after all the yelling, crying, and pleading, and give my grandmother a therapy session. Me. Giving my grandmother a therapy session. It felt so wrong, as though I were operating on her soul, trespassing on a place where no grandson should ever tread. I needed her to open up so I could take care of the rest of the family, but the role I was playing was torturing me—It was killing me inside. But we made progress and I was getting what I needed, so I kept going despite the pain. Then one day she opened up to me and told me what I had been trying to find out for weeks with those sessions. I wasn’t prepared for it, not even remotely equipped to handle my grandmother’s fragility or the burden she had just placed on me by telling me why she was so broken.
It broke me. I myself became depressed. I would walk in the streets, crying, looking down at the floor, never making eye contact with anyone. I skipped school more often, and left early when I bothered to show up. I would go to synagogue every morning, put on Tefillin, mouth the words, but feel nothing inside. My soul was dead. Everything I had experienced, everything I had locked away in that “to be reviewed at a later date” recess of my mind and heart had come crashing down on me, engulfing me in a maelstrom of pain that just wouldn’t let me go. For a month I couldn’t function at all.
And then, thank God, I came out of it. Something, I still don’t know what, pushed me out of my melancholy, back into normal life. I looked back on my self-destructive patters over the preceding few months, and realized that something had to change. I didn’t have it in me to see a therapist, although I should have, but I needed my secret to be secret no longer. I needed the world to know my story; I needed the world to accept me for who I was and acknowledge my struggle. So I wrote a brief, condensed version of my life story and had it published in Ami magazine under a pseudonym, but after a month it wasn’t enough; I had only just begun the healing process.
By that time I had already reconciled my Faith, and come to the conclusion that Simple Faith is the only real Faith. By that I mean that no matter how far you go, how deep you dig for some kind of empirical proof, some kind of definitive sign, some logic or philosophy to explain why a person should believe in God, you will never find it—the pursuit is pointless. All a person can have is simple faith and believe in the existence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence of God; that must be the core of your belief.
But that was fine as far as I was concerned; my beliefs were independent from my feelings about the community and what I felt they had done, or not done, to harm me. You cannot possibly fathom the anger I felt against the rest of the world, from the Rabbinic leaders, to my family, and everyone in between. Every week I was coming up with someone else to blame for my life and my suffering. I would write long winded, scathing op-ed pieces of exactly what was wrong with our communities, and who was to blame for the decline of our society. Rabbis not caring enough, outreach organizations who weren’t tough enough on their kids, people who were rejecting Orthodoxy for having made the decision so easily, whereas for me it was never really an option; I had fought bravely to hold on to my faith, how dare they just spit on it.
And I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, diatribe after diatribe, condemning anything and everything about the community that I possibly could to whoever would listen. I gave fiery homilies against every institution I could think of, trying to get my vitriol into every publication I could email. My anger consumed me to the point where I started drinking, preferring to drown my emotions in Vodka rather than face them. I cherished those few hours when I could lay numb in my bed, feeling nothing but heady lightness and detachment.
And then, one day, I stopped. I had been attending Ohr Yitzchok, and had an excellent study partner, and it just occurred to me one day that I was wasting my breath; no one likes that guy; no one likes to be preached at; no one likes the fire and brimstone. If I wanted to actually effect change on my community, then I needed to stop talking and start acting. I needed to take charge and lead by example.
For me that meant writing a book about my experiences, one that would have my name on it, that would tell my story, that would hopefully galvanize others to take the issues I cared about seriously enough to demand change at all costs. I wrote the book in two weeks. Fifty thousand words in two weeks, and when I was finished, I expected to feel joy, satisfaction, elation at having completed my memoir! Instead I felt dead and sad and useless, as though I no longer had a purpose in life; that book WAS my purpose. What had kept me going every day was knowing that I was writing a book which would change the world, and now that I was no longer, now that those five hours a day were no longer dedicated to something of monumental importance, now that I knew that my life was once again meaningless and worthless, and that my existence was utterly inconsequential, I wasn’t quite sure whether to get on with my life or jump in front of a bus.
And then I got an email from someone who had read my story and had finally felt, for the first time in her life, that there was someone she could connect with, someone who could give her the strength to live another day, and seek treatment for her problems. Her mother, like mine, was an abusive person suffering from Bipolar Disorder. She thanked me for my courage in coming out with my story and assured me that in doing so I was saving lives. The truth is—she saved mine. That night I posted a thread Yeshiva World asking for ideas on how to spend my five free hours a day meaningfully. Someone suggested that I check out Our Place, that my personal experiences would make me uniquely suited for the task.
My first day there I was interviewed, both formally and informally, by everyone I came across. I found myself telling my story several times that night to many different people. I tried to fit in, I really did, but I just couldn’t connect with the kids there. I couldn’t accept how they just seemed to be throwing life away, with no regard for its potential and value. I tried not to judge, I knew that judging wasn’t allowed there, but I couldn’t help myself. I forced myself to smile at the kids as they walked past me without their yarmulkes, cigarettes in their mouths, their pants down below their bottoms. Surely I was better than that rabble.
One day I was sitting at the table, working on a post for the Our Place blog, when a conversation started next to me between one of the staff and a kid. The kid was saying how he had dropped out of school, wasn’t religious, and was getting high to dull the “emotional pain” caused by his father. As I was listening to him talk about his family, his life, and how disconnected he feels from everyone else, watching as the staff member was firm with him, impressing upon him how important it was to take responsibility for his life, I began to feel a connection with the kid. His life story wasn’t that different from mine, the only difference, in fact, was the outcome. I was a volunteer, having overcome life’s struggles, and he was still floundering. He mentioned that he needed someone to teach him English for the GED, and I volunteered.
For a little more than a week we worked at it, me trying to teach as best I could, him trying to learn despite being high. And as we spoke more and more about his life and his situation—I would insert it into the lessons—I began to understand how close I had come to where he was at that point—how easily the roles could have been reversed. I became extremely involved in his case, even losing sleep over it, staying up all night thinking of ways to help him. I spent hours on the phone with social workers and researching online, anything I could do to help him. I even called his father, which turned out to be a mistake. Eventually he found himself in Madison High School, and I breathed a sigh of relief. A public school is no place for a Jewish 15 year old, but it is a definite step up from living on the street, being picked up every other night and brought home by the cops.
He’s doing a lot better now that he’s cleaned himself up and attending school regularly. I take no credit for any of it, but it makes me happy when I see people turn their lives around. It gives me hope for myself and for the future. Where I work, our primary focus is on providing a kid with a safe environment, a place where, for four hours a day, he need not fear whatever is outside our walls. We try to clean kids up, we encourage rehab and counseling, and we try to find kids jobs. In short: we enable resilience. I see it as a huge accomplishment on our part and the kid’s part when one of our guys decides to stop smoking up, get a job, and finish high school or get his GED. We want people on their feet; we want them to feel like people again. Once we get that, we can focus on their Judaism.
Two weeks ago, a kid I play ping-pong and ride home with told a fellow volunteer that he’s trying to go clean, put on Tefillin, pray more, and study more. You cannot imagine what it feels like to see him praying evening services with us at night, and when my friend told me that he studied some Talmud with this kid, my heart almost exploded with joy. I know the strength required to turn your life around. I know the anger that many feel after their whole world seems to betray them. I know what it feels like to want to hurt everyone who you believe hurt you, whether directly or indirectly. I know what it feels like to be an outcast. I experienced all of it.
And now people are asking me why I’m seemingly taking Devorah Feldman’s side of the issue. Let me make something VERY, unequivocally clear. I detest what her book does; I hate what it did to us as Jews, turning us against each other. But I cannot hate her. I have not the ability to despise her. I know her; not personally, but by shared circumstance. She is my sister; not familially, but by a shared bond of common ancestry and nationality. I understand her and what she went through, and I cannot hate someone like that. I can only feel sadness that I couldn’t do anything for her, and hope that one day she realizes that the world is not the dark place she imagined it. I can pray that one day she is able to set aside the tainted lens through which she views Judaism, and finally see the beauty I see, but no. I can’t judge her. I can’t hate her. I can’t wish her ill. I see too much of my past in her.