Vidui 5780

On this Day of Atonement,
I ask forgiveness
for nothing.

I have been deceptive
smiling when I ached inside
pretending all was well and I felt joy
when I felt despair
when I felt depression
when I felt the world had gone mad.

I regret this.
But I do not ask your forgiveness.

I have been selfish
snatching joy for myself
wherever and however I could
in the face of despair
in the face of depression
in the face of a world gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have been greedy
hoarding my joy
stockpiling moments of peace and serenity
for times of despair
for times of depression
for times when the world has gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have been stubborn
insisting that joy can be found
despite overwhelming evidence
of despair
of depression
of a world gone mad.

I do not regret this.

I have caused others to be selfish, to be greedy, to be stubborn,
and I regret none of it
because we are coming soon
we selfish, greedy, stubborn hordes.

We claim joy for the world.
We claim peace
and beauty
and serenity
and we do not regret this.


The Frum Community: An Ideology of Guidance and Dependence

In One of Us, the 2017 documentary that follows three people who broke free of their Hasidic upbringing, at least three people on three separate occasions talk about the way the frum community’s networks of chesed help and hinder.

Chani Getter, Program Manager of Footsteps, mentions the networks in positive terms. These are constructs of community that are hard to give up, she says. In the community, whenever anyone is in crisis – or even just needs some extra help – the community is there to help out.

Look at any Bais Yaakov chesed program, and you can see this is true. [in-line image of chesed updates page] The myriad of programs, from Help-A-Mom to Adopt-A-Bubby, are designed to make sure that no one is ever left alone with no one to depend on.

Beyond Bais Yaakov’s chesed programs, the community’s organizations (some of which are depicted in the image at the head of this post) are a safety net and an assurance that if you belong to this community, you will never be left to fend for yourself.

That sounds wonderful. But it’s not uncomplicatedly so. That dependence on systems and networks can be very harmful to anyone who doesn’t choose to live that life. It makes leaving that much harder.

Etty and Luzer both talk about how it’s difficult to make it “on the outside” because of how living in the community affected them. Luzer focuses on his lack of marketable skills due to the lack of secular education in Hasidic yeshivas, and Etty talks about how the loss of chesed networks – both formal and informal – is difficult.

“It’s designed to make it hard to leave,” they say (paraphrased). Now, while I wouldn’t say it’s designed because that presupposes a designer (watch and watchmaker, anyone?), it is certainly true that the design of the community as it has developed over time does make it hard to leave. The essential structures of the community condition us to expect help and support, and therefore make it difficult to transition away from these supportive structures.

In fact, one of the things I heard most often as I contemplated leaving – most often from my mother – was this:

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish. Here, they’ll take care of you and support you because you’re Jewish. Out there, no one cares about anyone else because there’s nothing binding them. Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.”

There are a few things wrong with this statement, so I’ll take them one at a time.

“Here in the frum community, everyone cares about you for no reason other than that you’re Jewish.” It may be true that everyone takes an interest in you simply because you’re Jewish, but it’s “caring al t’nai” – it comes with conditions. Conform to all the rules, and you’re a valued member of the community. Violate any of the rules – religious or communal – and you’re an outsider on the inside, worthy not of care but of suspicion, of polite distance, and maybe even of kiruv.

“Here, they’ll care of you and support you because you’re Jewish.” True. Even those who violate rules will be taken care of if in crisis. Of course, when the crisis is caused by the community’s ostracism, the community will not take care of them then. But in terms of chesed when hospital visits or doctor referrals or chevra Kadisha is needed – yes, they will take care of you simply because you’re Jewish. What’s wrong with that? Well, it breeds insularity, racism, and xenophobia.

“Out there, no one care about anyone else…” Demonstrably false, but when the only environment you know intimately is the one telling you this, you can’t even begin to argue against this horrible statement.

“…because there’s nothing binding them.” It may be true that in the secular world, there are no ties (or fewer, weaker ties) based on religion. And yet that does not mean that there is nothing binding people to each other. In my life at the moment, I have communities bound together based on our identities as: ex-Orthodox; literature scholars; medievalists; LGBTQ; femme-identified; pagan; writers; teachers; activists of various causes. In all of these communities (yes, communities), members take care of each other when necessary. Just this morning, someone posted in Queer Exchange asking for urgent help because there was a mouse in their apartment and they’re terrified of mice. Someone (a stranger to this person except for Facebook) immediately volunteered to come over and get rid of the mouse and help clear up. Mi k’amcha?

“Out there, you’ll be alone, forced to take care of yourself.” I already disproved this in the previous point, but there’s something even more insidious about this statement than the suggestion that no one outside of Orthodox Judaism cares about other people: It assumes that being forced to take care of yourself is a bad thing. Now, okay, being forced to do anything is bad. But taking care of yourself, not always relying on others taking care of things for you, is not a bad thing.

A couple of years ago, about two years after I left the frum community, I had some intense medical issues. I needed to find doctors but had no idea how to do it. Until I was 25 years old, anytime I needed a doctor – or any service, really – there were structures in place to tell me which one to go to.

No, the rabbis didn’t order me to go to one doctor or another! But the Bikur Cholim could guide me as to which doctor to go to; Relief Resources could guide me on mental health professionals; whisper networks and word-of-mouth “I used that doctor for my baby, don’t take your baby there” – these are all built into the structure of the community.

And don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing that people can rely on community organizations that guide them through tough times. But the absolute reliance and the lack of necessity to think things through on one’s own sets us up for failure if we reject this community and, of necessity, its structures of help and guidance.

This is not accidental. It has nothing to do with the actual religion of Judaism, of course, but it is not incidental or superfluous to the ideology of the frum Jewish world, either. Guidance and support are essential components of this community’s worldview.

An example that starkly highlights this:

In the months leading up to my decision to move out of my parents’ home and leave religion, I gave other religious Jewish communities a trial run. I had some conversations with my mother about moving out – all strictly in an abstract sense, because whenever I brought up the real possibility of my moving out, she turned the conversation from logistics about the move to reasoning with me about why I should stay.

We talked about the “singles communities” on the Upper West Side and in Washington Heights, and she made this point:

In Washington Heights, the singles community exists alongside the structures and institutions of Yeshiva University and Breuers. On the Upper West Side, the singles community exists alongside young couples, but with no central guiding institution. Therefore, she concluded, the Washington Heights singles community was better grounded in Jewish tradition, and I should try them out and ignore the Upper West Side.

(Ironically, I did follow her wishes and visit Washington Heights for a few shabbosim and Yom Kippur, but ultimately I moved to the neighborhood above the Upper West Side.)

The idea of mesorah (tradition) and hadracha (guidance) is a firmly set ideology. Young people cannot decide things for themselves. Young people need guidance from older people. Older people need guidance from wiser people. No one should be left to fend for themselves – whether they want to or not.

So is the community designed to limit our ability to function once we leave? Like I said, I wouldn’t go that far and imply that it’s a conscious and directed goal of the community structures. But the ideology that propels these structures does indeed point to a goal of dependence, a denial of independence – independence of thought or of action.

“I Feel Like Esav”

On my second Purim “out,” in 2015, I taught in the morning, and then went to Brooklyn to be with my family.

The year before that, when I hadn’t yet told my parents I wasn’t frum, I lied and told them I was spending Purim with friends on the Upper West Side. In reality, I stayed home and did nothing.

By 2017, they knew I wasn’t frum, and they cajoled me into spending Purim with them instead.

Everyone in the extended family within traveling distance was expected to visit my grandmother on Purim. By the time I got to Brooklyn, though, my parents had already gone and come back home.

I was kind of relieved to have missed this year’s visit.

It had been months since I’d visited my grandmother. There was a reason for that, of course. It had always been difficult for me to visit her, even before I left Yiddishkeit (Judaism).

I’d visited her regularly before I moved out of my parents’ home, but always steeled myself beforehand, ready for her interrogation about why I wasn’t married yet, for her comments and brachos about shidduchim, for her gentle admonition and horror stories about how it’s not a good idea to be working with non-Jews…

I never knew if my parents told her that I had moved out of their home – to this day, I don’t know if she ever knew that. But she did know that I hadn’t been around for a while.

My relief about missing the family trip to Bobby was short-lived, though, when my sister bustled in with her husband and infant. They were joining us for the Purim seudah, but they planned to visit my grandmother first, and they offered me a ride.

I figured it wouldn’t be too bad with an infant along. My grandmother would focus all her attention on the baby, and I would be able to slide into the background.

No such luck, however. She grilled me on shidduchim, chided me about working with goyim, made a comment about my weight.

Oh, she did focus on the baby – but she had plenty of time to zero in on all my faults too. She was sick and home-bound, and her mind had been fading for a while, and she was often bone-tired.

But when she took me to task for being single, fat, and working with goyim, her mind was laser-sharp.

(Do I sound bitter here? sorrynotsorry.)

When we left, after I said “amen” to all her brachos, my sister and I went back to the car and waited for my brother-in-law to finish his conversation with one of the male cousins who was visiting at the same time.

As soon as we got to the car, I burst into tears. My sister didn’t say anything, just busied herself with strapping her baby into the car seat and let me sob in the back seat.

My cries subsided from sobs to a little hiccuping trickle of tears eventually, and I said, “I feel like Esav. I’m waiting for my grandparent to die so that I can fully and publicly and openly declare my evilness.”

My sister still said nothing. She looked at me sympathetically and offered me a box of tissues.

I dried my eyes and blew my nose and was back to smiling and cooing at my nephew by the time my brother-in-law got into the car to drive us back to my parents and the Purim seudah.

Assembly in My Honor

Originally published on Tales Out Of Bais Yaakov

By the time I hit eleventh grade, I had the system down pat. My friends and I were really good at having clandestine conversations during class and somehow still having teachers believe we were listening attentively at all times.

My friends were (and still are) the most Bais Yaakov of Bais Yaakov girls in terms of frumkeit, but we all knew how to play the game of convincing the hanhala we were perfect students while really doing our own thing.

In our Mishlei class, Rebetzin Hoffman’s modus operandi was to lecture about one posuk at a time, and every three months, whatever we had covered up to that point would be on the exam. Which meant that traditional high school stalling tactics were out in full force in her class.

And I was one of the creative kids called on every so often to slow down the pace. One memorable incident is one I still laugh about today.

We were in the section of Aishes Chayil and hit the posuk ותקם בעוד לילה ותתן טרף לביתה – she wakes up when it’s still nighttime and prepares food for her household. According to Rebetzin Hoffman, that meant that a good mother prepares a good, hot breakfast for her children and doesn’t serve them a “chap-lap,” ie haphazard, breakfast of cold cereal. Cold cereal is not nourishing enough for her kinderlach to have a day of avodas Hashem.

From my vantage spot in the back corner of the room, my ears perked up. I abandoned my conversation and raised my hand.

“I never had hot breakfasts growing up, and I turned out fine!” (Ok, not such a sophisticated retort. I was young and stupid. Very stupid.)

Well, my classmates were really happy with that one. It turned into a volley of arguments, it was amusing, and it wasted plenty of time. I wasn’t taking it seriously. No one was, really.

I mean, I don’t think Shlomo HaMelech meant that serving cold cereal, or sugary cereals as the conversation went on to berate, makes someone a bad mother. Even taking the posuk for pshat and not looking for drash, somehow none of my classmates thought he meant that.

It became a running joke for years – whenever I messed up or did something ridiculous, it was blamed on the fact that my mother hadn’t woken up early to prepare hot breakfasts for me.

The other incident I remember vividly was not so amusing.

I don’t remember which posuk we were learning at that moment, because honestly I wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention. A classmate leaned over and whispered desperately, “Esther Shaindel, we’re going way too fast! Start a discussion!”

We had covered about 7 or 8 psukim in the past hour – far too much. So I tuned in. Rebetzin Hoffman was expounding on the evils of videos.

“But not all videos are bad,” I said innocently (I always marveled at how my innocent act could possibly be effective). “What about classical videos?”

That was the era when I was constantly mixing up classical and classic as terms. I meant my favorite kid movies, the classics – The Secret Garden, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Peter Pan, etc. Again, I honestly didn’t care about this whole conversation at all, I was just pushing things as far as they could go in order to oblige my classmates and waste time. She obviously thought I meant movies of Shakespeare plays.

And I know this because the next week we had a grade-wide assembly.

The principal began the assembly by speaking about how terrible cell phones are. She described how she saw a student go into a shop once, and went in after the student had left, and found she had returned a cell phone, and the principal looked at the phone and saw texts between this girl and a boy, and look what dangers lurk – first it’s a cell phone, then it’s a boyfriend.

(Some questions: why was she following her? Why would the clerk give her the girl’s phone? And why did I not go out then and get a cell phone once I found out that you could actually do that without your parents knowing?)

Then she went on to her next topic – videos. (Side note: I get a kick out of the way they were called videos and not movies.)

She started off saying that girls think it’s ok to watch certain videos just because we are reading those plays in school. But it’s not exactly ideal that we read those anyway, we’re required to by the state, and it’s even worse if we see them – remember that any image you see is engraved on your mind and can come up in your memory at the most inopportune moments.

And some girls use the excuse that they’re “classical videos” – here she leaned her head back a bit and changed her tone so it was obvious she was quoting someone else’s words. My entire class, sitting among the audience of the whole grade, turned around in their chairs and looked at me with huge grins.

I shrunk down in my chair and hissed “turn around!”

Well that taught me to ask dumb questions in class to stall the teacher. From then on, before I raised my hand, I had to think: is this going to get reported to the principal for a possible assembly? Assemblies wasted class time, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to rack up a count of assemblies called just to address my frumkeit issues.

The funny thing is that at graduation, I got the school’s only award with a plaque praising me as a “true exemplar of Bais Yaakov.” My innocent act must have been at least a little effective. How I did it I’ll never know.

More Shidduchim Escapades

In an earlier post I talked about my first shidduch date. Here’s some more…

2010, age 22

After my mother finally told the shadchan I wasn’t interested in a third date with “Moshe,” a year went by with no dates. Idly, one day I signed up for eHarmony and filled out a profile. The questions were certainly different than the kinds of things we wrote on shidduch resumes…

Every night, I would see the matches delivered to my inbox, and scroll through the guys’ profiles. It was fun, and a bit of a thrill, to imagine that based on the answers I’d given, these men would be compatible with me! These men, who looked handsome (okay, some of them) and definitely looked nothing like most of the frum boys I’d been considering (or more accurately, that my parents had been considering for me).

But it was all in fun. I hadn’t paid the fee that would allow me to actually chat with them or contact them, although I did request that my matches all be Jewish. (Even fantasies can be scary when the envelope is pushed too far, I guess.)

And then one day Emmanuel showed up in my inbox. He was good-looking and cool-looking.

And he requested to chat with me.

I thrilled, and spent a good few hours considering paying the fee to be able to talk with him. I read through his profile obsessively and saw he was Modern Orthodox, and thought “hey, that’s not so bad,” and he sounded fun and smart and snarky and like a guy I would want to talk to, and he wanted to talk to me! 

I texted a friend from high school excitedly, and she got excited for me (she pushed boundaries more than I did in high school, but she’s still frum), and then I admitted that I was never going to actually go through with this, and I deleted my eHarmony account.

2011, age 23

It had been a year and a half since my first shidduch date. I’d heard of a few boys who my mother had thought might be good for me, but the boys’ mothers invariably turned us down. My mother stopped telling me about any shidduchim before she got an answer from the boy’s side.

In January, during winter break from college, a shidduch went through.

Avi (name changed) was smart – he was in law school. His references checked out and everyone said he was a “mensch.”

By this point, I had shidduch-appropriate clothes, and the prep for the date wasn’t as anxiety-inducing as my previous shidduch – a year and a half before.

The date followed the same format – my father sat him down at the dining room table and they chatted while I looked on silently, and then Avi drove us to a hotel.

We stayed in Brooklyn, and we sat in a lounge across from the Brooklyn courthouses. He talked about his brother, who was a judge – but not in this courthouse.

I asked him about his interest in law, and sat up straighter in my chair – I was on a date, and we were acting like adults, and I was enjoying a mature conversation with a man!

And then he launched into his current interest in law, which was laws involving [abortion], but though he wouldn’t say the word abortion (was he being considerate of my feminine sensibilities? was he being super-ehrlich and not saying “unclean” words?), he did use the word “fetuses” quite a lot.

I sipped my water and nodded along as he passionately lectured about legal twists and turns involving these fetuses. I knew virtually nothing about these laws, and I tried to interject at one point with my interest in the topic, which was the feelings and emotions of the various parties involved. He dismissively waved a hand at that and continued lecturing.

I sat back and decided to enjoy the lecture, though unless things changed very much in the next couple of hours, I was pretty sure I did not like this guy.

Luckily, the shadchan called to tell my mother he had said no before I even had a chance to talk to my parents, so I was spared the “give him one more chance” spiel this time.

I spoke to my mother about what had bothered me about this date, and she said, “Ah well, it seems when a shadchan hears you want someone smart, they forget you also want a mensch. We list both on your resume, so onward we forge, and make it clearer to shadchanim from now on!”

2012, age 24

The stream of calls from family and friends and amateur shadchanim had dried to a trickle. When there was silence for a while, my mother suggested I go to some of the shadchanim agencies. They have more shadchanim working with larger databases than just your run-of-the-mill amateur shadchan, after all.

At the first agency I went to, Invei Hagefen, I was interviewed by three sheiteled women, all furiously taking notes and speaking in shorthand amongst themselves as I spoke.

They had filed me in the “younger” division, but when they discovered my birthday was in three months and I’d be turning 25, they decided that I would be better off starting in the “senior” division so I wouldn’t have to be transferred when I “graduated” so soon.

The second professional shadchante I went to sat me down in her living room and interviewed me on her own.

When I told her that my plans for the future included a PhD in English literature, and also that I wanted someone who thought about his Yiddishkeit and didn’t do things by rote, she exclaimed, “interesting combination, I don’t usually see those together! We’ll have to think outside the box for you.”

I bristled, but only internally. On the outside, I smiled demurely and agreed that no, I don’t fit most of the molds or boxes this community conceives of.

2013, age 25

I spoke to a seminary friend about how hopeless I thought shidduchim were, how I must be worthless and totally undesirable to go so long with no dates. She said it’s normal for girls to feel that way, and she knows girls who hadn’t been on dates for as long as six or seven months at a time.

“It’s been two years!!” I nearly screamed into her poor ears.

My older sister, married for two years by this point, spoke to me on the phone about these boxes I didn’t fit into, about my feeling of desperation that if I don’t fit neatly enough into a box, even if someone exists who doesn’t-fit in the exact same ways I do, shadchanim would never bring us together because we don’t match their algorithms and calculations.

She calmed me down, she asked me to answer some typical questions like “what do you want you shabbos table to look like,” she coached me through how to deal with shadchanim in the future.

I shuddered at the thought that I would still need these skills in the future to deal with shadchanim.

I decided to start seriously thinking about Modern Orthodox shidduchim. My parents weren’t too happy, but they were okay as long as I made sure the boys were “right-wing YU-type,” nothing too modern.

I signed up for YUConnects, an online shadchan system, and spoke to a few of the shadchanim there. I started making trips up to Washington Heights for shabbos to get a feel for Modern Orthodox (right-wing only) life.

And then another shidduch went through. I barely listened when my mother described him to me.

Yitzchak (name changed) showed up at our door, and I knew immediately this date was over already. My parents glanced at me sideways, and I knew they knew it too. He was short, though not that much shorter than me (we had known this beforehand and I was not wearing heels for this very reason).

But he held his head high so he was looking down his nose at us, even with his short stature, and he walked with an arrogant swagger. Compensating much?

Regardless, my father sat him down at the dining room table and chatted with him before ushering us out the door. As I left, I turned back to look pleadingly at my parents, and my mother shot a sympathetic look at me. But what was there to do?

Almost from the moment we got in the car, I realized he was also so over this date, but for different reasons. He seemed to have decided (based on what, I couldn’t tell) that I was terribly stupid, and he mocked me throughout the date in subtle, snarky ways that he apparently thought I would be unable to detect.

He didn’t take me to a hotel lounge, but to a Starbucks inside the Brooklyn Barnes and Noble store. He bought a coffee, and I grabbed a bottle of water from the display. We sat at a table and his eyes roved around the room, and he pointed out the couple across the room who was obviously on a fourth or fifth date. He watched and commented on them until they got up and left.

And then he told stories that disgusted me – like the way he would never move seats on a flight if someone asked him to, because he reserved the seat he wanted and they should have done the same and since they were too slow to do that why should he suffer and give up his chosen seat, and of course fat people should be required to pay for two tickets.

I didn’t bother smiling politely anymore. He already thought I was stupid, and I didn’t want to condone this horrendous opinion, even though I knew I would never be seeing this… person again. So I sat stony-faced.

He got bored or something, and had finished his coffee, so he suggested we walk around the bookstore. It’s a good technique for getting to know your date, I’d been told – you can discuss the books that catch your respective interests.

He scoffed at every book I pointed out, and condescendingly told me just how and why those books were simple and stupid.

By the time he dropped me off at home, I was ready to explode. I went up to my parents’ bedroom and knocked on their door. I opened the door, closed it behind me, and collapsed against it.

“That bad?”

I held up my water bottle, still half full. “Well, at least I got this out of it!” I said.

My parents laughed. I scowled. I didn’t find this remotely funny.

“You knew from the second he walked in that I’d hate this date, didn’t you?”

They admitted they had. But what can you do? Once he was here, we couldn’t just turn him away. Why not, I demanded. He’s an arrogant, stuck up, self-important, pompous –

My parents cut me off before I could go any further.

“So it’s a no, I take it?”

“NO! It’s a no! It’s a – errrrrr! It’s a NO!”

I stomped to my room and ripped off my dress, then called my sister and cried to her.

“Is this the only kind of guy I’m actually worthy of?”

She calmed me down again.

I resigned myself to never knowing what it’s like to actually enjoy a date or have a decent personal conversation with a guy.

A few months later, I went out with another guy. The date was unremarkable and I don’t remember anything other than that it happened.

And then a few moths after that, I realized perhaps the problem didn’t lie with shadchanim not being able to hear what I wanted in a spouse and deliver that to me.

Perhaps the problem lay in me trying to present an image and desire for the future that was not actually true.

2014, age 25

I moved out of my parents’ house and told them I needed a break from shidduchim. I deleted my YUConnects account, but still got matches sent to my inbox every so often, along with reminders that if I don’t respond within 24 hours, the matches would disappear.

I sent a nasty email to the administrator saying I don’t need this system, it sucks and I’m better off without any shidduch, and please delete my account for real this time. They responded nicely, to their credit, and deleted my account for real this time.

When my parents found out I wasn’t frum a few months later, they started telling shadchanim that I was “busy.” Why tell them the truth, they reasoned, when in all likelihood I’ll be back soon? If they told anyone the truth of why I wasn’t interested in shidduchim now, it would be a constant stain on my record even after I returned.

This backfired on them because they continued to get calls as the months wore on, and my mother emailed me while I was on a summer trip to England to tell me this. And that led to a whole other kind of escapade…

Shidduchim Escapades

shidduch (plural shidduchim) = match / arranged date
shadchan (plural shadchanim) = matchmaker
shadchante (plural shadchantes) = female matchmaker (though often she’s referred to simply as a shadchan)

2007, age 19:
I returned from seminary. My parents started getting calls from friends and neighbors with shidduch suggestions. But we “weren’t listening” for me because my older sister was still single. I was okay with this. I didn’t feel ready to start a marriage and a family, and I was already fighting the niggling thought that I didn’t even want children.

2008, age 20:
Sara, the youngest of my group of friends, got engaged over Pesach, and married in June. She seemed somehow more mature now, although we did one last sleepover in her parents’ basement the shabbos before her wedding, and acted just as silly and foolish as we always did. I tried to hug her when we said goodbye after shabbos, but she stepped back, scandalized, and said “not in the street.” I felt chastised and certain that I was obviously not ready for the seriousness of marriage.

2009, age 21:
I wanted to start dating. It wasn’t so much that I felt ready for marriage. I still didn’t. But I trusted people who said no one ever feels ready, and I wanted to experience dating sooner rather than later. Although I could not imagine that shidduch dating could possibly be fun, I wanted to meet guys and this was the only way open to me. My mother spoke to my older sister, now an “older single” at age 25, and she agreed that I could start dating.

It took some time before people realized that my parents would now listen if they called with suggestions, but soon enough I got my own pages in my mother’s black marble shidduch notebook. We worked on my shidduch resume, which listed my school and summer history, my parents’ work and shul affiliations, each of my siblings and their ages and which schools or yeshivas they went to.

At first, shadchanim and friends called with suggestions of “learning boys,” which my sister was looking for. But as little as I knew about what kind of husband I wanted, I knew I didn’t want a learning boy.

Eventually, a shidduch came up that seemed “nogei’ah” (fitting / applicable). My mother did some research, called his references, and deemed it a go. She told me about him, and I listened and approved it – mostly because I could find no reason to say no before even meeting him. Plus, he played violin, and that was something I had wanted to do for a long time and had given up hope of ever having the chance to learn, so it excited me that he did play.

We told the shadchan to go ahead with setting up the date, and after a little back and forth between my mother and the boy’s mother, she set the date for two nights later. Moshe (name changed) would pick me up at 7pm.

On the day of the date, I got home from teaching at 4:30, as usual. My mother asked me what I planned to wear. I showed her the brown pleated skirt and light pink sweater I planned to wear. I loved the combination of colors, and I loved how the pink looked next to my skin. She shook her head and almost cried. My sister looked over and chimed in.

“You can’t go on a date looking like a seminary girl.”

I didn’t have any appropriate date clothes, as it turned out. My sister lent me her shabbos suit for this time, with promises from my mother that we would go shopping for date clothes the next day.

I ate supper, I showered, I meticulously put on makeup, I dressed in my sister’s suit. It was 7pm. I came downstairs to wait in the living room with my mother. My date arrived at 7:15. My father opened the door for him, and I stood up from the couch and smiled at him as he followed my father to the dining room table. My father sat at the head of the table, Moshe sat to his right, and my mother and I sat to his left. Moshe and my father chatted (my father knew someone at the yeshiva Moshe had gone to, so they reminisced a bit), and I looked back and forth from my father to my date as the conversation went on.

And then we were off. My parents walked us to the door, Moshe opened the car door for me, I settled in, and he drove us into Manhattan for our date.

He attempted to start conversation a few times in the car. His opening lines were so obviously prepared, so obviously what people say are “good conversation starters on dates,” that I didn’t feel very bad when I answered his questions and let conversation die – and also let him concentrate on driving, because he was so desperately trying to be polite and talk but very obviously needed full concentration and kept interrupting me to mutter about the GPS and then apologizing to me…

After a bit of heart-stopping confusion with the GPS (it doesn’t update that fast on Manhattan streets, apparently, and he got lost and then almost hit a pedestrian while he was trying to look at the GPS and keep moving with the flow of traffic at the same time), we got to the hotel he had chosen. (No, we weren’t checking in.)

The lounge, where shidduch dates usually take place so the couple can sit and chat while sipping water or soda, was full. Moshe went to the bar and asked the bartender if we could sit there for a bit even though we weren’t buying. No, the bartender said. But there’s another lounge a few floors up, you could try that.

We went up to the other lounge, and found it just as full, this time with people in glittering evening dresses and fancy suits. He suggested that we stroll around the lounge for a bit and look at the displays and artwork while we waited for a spot to open up. We walked, and I tried not to pay too much attention to my heels.

We talked about his violin-playing (he got coy and said he didn’t want to talk about it because he had just started learning the viola, and that’s all I could get from him), and then we mostly talked about Harry Potter and Eragon.

Don’t get me wrong – I love chatting YA. But when it was someone I was considering as a marriage partner, the discussion felt … childish. Throughout our date, he seemed childish. Cute, but far too immature for me. I didn’t hold it against him. After all, he was 21, the same age as me, but according to ultra-Orthodox lore (where boys start dating later than girls) boys are always far less mature than girls of the same age.

He dropped me off at home at 11pm, walked me to my door and said he’d had a great time. I politely said the same. I went inside and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door.

“Not for me,” I said. “He’s pretty much still a baby. He’s nice enough, and sweet and gentle and kind. But not for me.”

“Okay,” my mother said. “I’ll call the shadchan in the morning.”

And that was that. My first shidduch was over.

Except it wasn’t.

I was still teaching eighth-grade English at Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, but I had started college in the Spring 2009 semester. In order to do both, I had to wake up at 6 and make the 6:30 train. I would head off to my 8am class, have a fifteen-minute break between classes, finish at 10:45, hop back on the train, drop off my college bag at home and grab my teaching bag, and run off to start teaching at 1pm.

(As I write this now, I realize this means I had already stopped davening shacharis and mincha by this point. I know I didn’t daven on the train…)

So the morning after my first-ever shidduch date, I woke up before anyone else in the house was up and left without talking to anyone. It was a normal day for me. The date hadn’t been especially exciting, it was behind me now, and I had no real feelings about it to process.

I had almost forgotten about it when I began my speed-walk to the train at 10:45, when I saw a missed call from my mother and a text asking me to call her as soon as I was out of class.

“Would you consider giving him a second chance?”

“A second chance at what,” I asked. “It’s not like I think he’s a bad person and has to redeem himself, it’s not like he was boring or nervous or whatever (he was nervous, but that was endearing, not off-putting). He was fine to talk to, I didn’t hate the date, but I cannot imagine marrying him or taking him seriously.”

“The shadchan says he really likes you. Just give him one more date, and if you still think it’s a no, we’ll tell the shadchan then.”

“So you didn’t tell the shadchan I already said no?!”

“I told her you weren’t very excited, but she said that he really likes you. Just give him one more chance.”

“I really don’t want to. I mean, you know I can fangirl about Harry Potter forever, but I’m convinced he has nothing more intelligent to say about it than what he’s already said to me, which is childish – and again, nothing wrong with being childish, but I need someone with at least the capability of turning off the childishness sometimes.”

“Well, maybe you could start a conversation about something else. If you think ‘fangirling’ over Harry Potter is childish, you could change the conversation. And he really likes you! You could just give him another chance.”

I was quiet for a moment. I had reached the train station and stood above-ground so I wouldn’t lose service.

“Fine. Make another date. But I really don’t expect it to be any different.”

Delighted, my mother hung up and I rode the train home lost in thought.

On the way home from teaching, I stopped at the Brooklyn Public Library and picked up a copy of Eragon.

A few days later, Moshe picked me up again at 7:30. This time my father just shook his hand at the door – no need for the sit-down chat like they had the first time. He drove us to another hotel, this time with a lounge up on the tenth floor with big windows overlooking the crowded Manhattan streets.

I followed my mother’s advice and tried to turn the conversation to things other than Harry Potter. It didn’t work.

He asked if I had had a chance to read Eragon. It felt terrible to look at his eager, puppy-dog eyes and tell him I had given it a chance but couldn’t get past the first ten pages because I found the writing terrible.

His face fell. I launched into an analysis of why the writing of Harry Potter is so much better than Eragon. His response consisted of protestations about the magic, and the joy – and while I’m never opposed to enjoying books for that, I couldn’t quite respect someone who wouldn’t be willing to take a step back from that for a moment and at least acknowledge that someone else (ie, me) needs good writing in addition to magic.

And after all, wasn’t the point of dating to find someone to marry, someone to be the father of my children, someone whose decisions I would respect and who I could see as an equal, if not as superior to me?

He started gushing about this new Harry Potter cookbook that was going to be released soon, and I tuned him out. I spent most of the rest of the date smiling and nodding politely while I kept one eye on the big digital clock on the building across from us right outside the window.

I was upset when I got home.

“I told you I didn’t want to go out with him again,” I told my parents. “Of course he likes me! I’m not a horrible person, if he wants to keep gushing about Harry Potter and magic, I’ll let him, I’ll be nice, but he’s not someone I want to spend time with, let alone my whole life! This was a pointless night.”

My mother laughed. “Oy, mamaleh, if you only knew the amount of pointless dates I went on…”

“But this one was avoidable. I already knew before you set it up that it would be pointless.”

“Sometimes, shefelah, it takes more than one date to realize you might like someone. Obviously it wasn’t the case here. But it’s worth a second date to see if your first impression might change.”

I didn’t agree, but I let the point rest and went to bed, wondering if tomorrow I’d be asked to give him “one more chance” again because he liked me so much. Was it that I owed it to him because he liked me? Was it that I should jump at anyone who liked me because they’re few and far between? Who knew.

But that was the end of this shidduch, thank goodness.

Kosher Water

As I refilled my water bottle from my school’s water fountain today, I remembered this incident:

When I started college, I realized I needed to carry water with me or else I would waste money buying drinks every day. I carried a thermos, filled with water from home, and refilled it from the school’s water fountains throughout the day.

A few weeks into the semester, I was chatting with my older sister and happened to mention this practice.

“But the water fountains aren’t filtered, are they?” she asked.

This was just a few years after the whole “bugs-in-the-water” debacle. A filter in the reservoir had broken (so the story went – I’ve never verified this) and the city hadn’t bothered to fix it because the tiny organisms that would wind up in New York drinking water were harmless.

To ultra-Orthodox Jews, though, these tiny organisms were more religiously lethal than pig meat.

And so every Jewish household invested in all kinds of filters, and a booming business in “kosher filters” began, including a sophisticated device which screwed onto the faucet and was safe to use on shabbos, when filtering is forbidden.

Of course the fountains in City College of New York weren’t filtered.

A heated debate ensued between my siblings about whether the reservoir whose filter had broken feeds both Brooklyn and Harlem. I sat in silence and watched as the inevitable conclusion was reached: we don’t know, so it’s best to just not drink City College’s water.

I started buying coffee. That led to me drinking chalav stam and eventually eating donuts from a Dunkin Donuts with no hechsher, but at least I wasn’t drinking tiny microscopic bugs, I guess.

That Time I Almost Ate Non-Kosher Food But a Goy Stopped Me

For three years of my City College experience, I worked as a tutor in the college’s writing center. I was still frum then. A few months later, during my “gap year” between college and grad school, I had trouble finding a job. I was thinking ahead to moving out of my parents’ home, and although I didn’t need the money just then, I did need to start saving. So I went back to my job at the writing center.

I hadn’t officially made any decisions about leaving religion yet. In fact, after a summer at Neve seminary, I had come back resolved to make more of an effort to believe and to follow the rules. I even went to Ohr Naava a few times and to Rebetzin Leah Kohn’s speeches a few times.

It didn’t work.

I still felt like I had no idea why I was trying so hard to make this work.

But I still lived in my parents’ home. It was still way too monumental a move to say “I don’t keep shabbos” or “I don’t keep kosher.” So I kept shabbos, and I kept kosher, except that I didn’t – I just said I did, and conveniently didn’t dwell too long or hard on all the little rules I would break.

I would tear toilet paper on shabbos because I hated the shabbos paper, and would still say I kept shabbos. I would buy candy at the drugstore that didn’t have a hechsher, and would still say that I kept kosher. I would get food from Dunkin Donuts stores that had no mashgiach, and would still say that I kept kosher.

My colleagues at the writing center had no idea about this internal struggle. I continued to present myself as a demure, fervently religious Jewish girl. (They tell me now that my demure act never fooled them, which gives me mixed feelings…)

We had staff meetings every month. We would gather in the workshop room, and each month we would focus on another aspect of tutoring, with handouts, presentations, group work, role  play, etc. Lunch was provided at these meetings – usually a spread of sandwiches and wraps from the school cafeteria.

Our supervisor always ordered a kosher sandwich for me. It would come in its own little double-sealed box, sitting next to the trays all by its lonesome. I appreciated it, of course. Otherwise I would have had to bring my own lunch, or not eat. (Never mind that the hechsher on the meat of the school’s sandwiches was totally not okay for my family. I gave up on that chumra during my first year in college.)

Now, when I was on the verge of giving up all religious observance (though I’m not sure I knew it at the time), I resented having to get special treatment. I resented not being able to eat with everyone else – even though of course I would eat with them, I just wouldn’t join them in choosing sandwiches and wraps, would just nab my package and sit down to eat.

For one meeting, though, our supervisor forgot to order the kosher sandwich.

When I realized there was no kosher sandwich, I was delighted. I plotted how I was going to casually join my colleagues at the trays and deliberate over the tuna or egg or veggie sandwiches (I would stay away from the non-kosher meat), and I would be normal. I wouldn’t point out the oversight to anybody, and I would blend in. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of something I felt obligated to do but really had no interest in. I would try it out – see what it feels like not to have every step of the way determined by laws I saw no sense in.

And then our supervisor realized he’d forgotten to get a kosher sandwich.

He began apologizing profusely, and I tried to interrupt him, to tell him it’s okay, I can eat some of these sandwiches (no need to explain that’s not technically okay according to my family’s kosher rules, he doesn’t need to know the crazy internal struggle and triumph going on right now) – but he felt so terrible at having forgotten that he rushed right out and ran to the cafeteria to buy me a kosher sandwich.

I didn’t get to eat non-kosher egg sandwiches that day.

Dunkin Donuts

I was still religious in college. At least, that’s what I told myself.

I like to think that the first time I had non-kosher food was December 2011, when a group of classmates from my French class went out to celebrate the end of the semester. We had planned to go to a kosher place, but the restaurant we’d picked out turned out to be a tiny (and dirty) pizza place, so we went for sushi at a nearby non-kosher place instead.

But the truth is, I ate non-kosher food before that.

I took the train for an hour and a half each morning to City College in Harlem, and then again for an hour and a half to get home to Brooklyn. I mostly slept on the ride to school, and needed a coffee on my way to class. I also liked to get a coffee on the way home, so that I didn’t sleep on the ride home. Luckily, there’s a Dunkin Donuts right near the 145th Street station.

For two years, I would get a coffee, and nothing else. After all, there was no kosher sign in the store window. I knew that some Dunkin Donuts were kosher, but I had never seen a kosher store. The coffee, though, is always kosher. I relied on Rav Moshe Feinstein’s psak that there is no such thing as chalav akum in the US because the FDA makes sure anything that is marketed as cow’s milk is in fact cow’s milk…

One evening, I was starving. I wanted to get a few donuts to tide me over on the train ride until I got home.

So I asked the cashier if the donuts were kosher.

She had no idea what I meant, and called her manager. He knew what kosher meant, but was unsure what I was asking.

He went to the back room and got the box that the donuts come in, and showed me the kosher symbol on the side of the box.

I knew that wasn’t enough. If there’s no kosher certification in the store itself, if a rabbi hasn’t observed the store’s process and determined no food comes in contact with non-kosher ingredients, just the certification on the box is not enough.

But I had already made a big to-do, and the manager was so satisfied and triumphant with having found an answer to my strange question, that I felt bad and just ordered two donuts.

And once I had them, I just ate them. And continued buying donuts from that store after that.

It wasn’t too long before I realized that Dunkin Donuts donuts are not very filling. A short while after I had started buying what I knew were only semi-kosher (and therefore fully non-kosher) donuts, I decided to buy a sandwich.

I observed the process in the store – they toast the bagels in a machine which is not used to cook the meat, so there’s no issue of contamination there. And I thought it was safe to assume that the bagels are baked in an oven which is also not used for meat. So again, while this wasn’t strictly kosher, it also wasn’t strictly not kosher…

I ordered tuna sandwiches for a while. The tuna salad was obviously not bishul yisroel – it was definitely bishul akum. In seminary, there had been a whole upset when some girls found out that the tuna salad we were being served was bishul akum. But for now, getting a Dunkin Donuts tuna salad sandwich, I decided it was okay.

After all, I’d been drinking chalav stam for quite a while now, and isn’t that the same thing? Wasn’t it a frum institution which had served us bishul akum tuna, and only the very-frum girls had a problem with it? Rabbi Neustadt had even told us it’s okay, and we don’t need to be so machmir.

And then came the day the Dunkin Donuts cashier mixed up my order and gave me a chicken salad sandwich instead.

Now, this was definitely not kosher. The chicken was definitely not slaughtered according to Jewish law, and there was no way I could explain this away.

I discovered the mistake when I was already standing on the train platform, waiting to go home. And I was starving. I was getting ready for an hour-and-a-half train ride with no food, only a big coffee. Except for this very non-kosher chicken salad sandwich.

I ate it.

And yet, I somehow managed to convince myself for at least a year after this that I was frum. How? I think it was survival tactics. I knew what horrors lay ahead for me if I made a conscious decision to leave behind religious practice. I also knew that I thought it was all bullshit. My mental gymnastics and circular rationale for why I wasn’t doing anything “so bad” were based on rabbinic circular reasoning, and I knew that in my mind, I was mocking it all. That I was basing my decisions on a decision-making process I found ludicrous.

When I told a new friend recently about my foray into the world of higher education while still maintaining a facade of being frum, she said something that resonated with me:

You were doing something so radical, and you didn’t even realize how radical it was.

Yes. I think that acknowledging how radical all these things were, both my decision to pursue a PhD in English and my discarding kashrus, would have been too terrifying. I wasn’t ready to face the hugeness and catastrophic fallout from my decisions, so I ignored how radical they were.

I don’t feel bad about that, either. (Well, not most of the time, anyway.) It was one of my coping mechanisms as I dealt with major life changes, and it got me to where I am now – with a life fully changed.

Force Fields

I grew up with the idea that some spaces are off-limits. Of course, places like government buildings and construction sites are off-limits to everyone. But there was an additional sense of emptiness and a sort of void, a blank space, that hung around churches. We weren’t allowed inside places of avoda zara, after all.

On a trip to Boston with friends in the summer of 2010, we took a walking tour of the historical sites. When the tour guide led us to a church, we asked him where the group would exit after they were done inside, and we met them afterwards. There was never any question of us going inside the church, of course. And I imagined it as surrounded by a force field that repels frum Jews. Breaking that barrier and entering would be a struggle.

On a trip to Haifa during my month in Israel in summer of 2012, the tour guide led us to the Baha’i gardens. After some of our tour companions entered the beautiful gardens, the tour guide happened to mention that the layout of the gardens is significant to an idolatrous religion, and my friend and I stayed outside, horrified that the guide had let poor, innocent Lakewood girls enter a place of avoda zara.

So when I started traveling with no restrictions, the cities’ landscape subtly shifted. Although I was traveling to new cities, places I had never been before, I could feel the difference. There were no force fields around certain places. Sure, there was security to get into some building. And sure, there were some buildings I couldn’t get into.

But standing outside Buckingham Palace, grasping the iron bars of the fence and craning my neck to get a good look at as much as I could see – it’s a completely different experience than walking by a church and knowing I could never go in there. There is no force field around Buckingham Palace pushing me back and keeping me out.

This hit me most when I visited Edinburgh. I passed by the cathedral every day as I walked from the city center to my hostel. And I went in almost every time, even if just for a moment. It mattered to me more than I could express at the time.

The force field had fallen away, and now the world is bigger and more open. There are less restrictions and more opportunities, less tension and worry about going places I shouldn’t and more wonder about all the places I could go.