I need to preface this blog post with a bit of an explanation as well as an apology. I have been toying with an idea for a while now. I did not know how to begin until today when I was struck by the love and understanding I have for the ultra-Orthodox world my husband and I left in stages over the past four years. During our process, we searched for anything relating to what we were going through and found that our situation seemed to be different than most.
Firstly, we had been raised Orthodox and had, because of different issues with abuse and an anger I can only classify as rage, acted out in extreme behaviors. Our adolescent years were spent rejecting religion, but also rejecting social norm while indulging in irrational and destructive habits. When we grew up enough to marry and start a family, we shed ourselves of the emotional burdens we had accumulated and embraced religion wholeheartedly. Our 20s brought reflection and philosophy so that when we decided to leave Orthodoxy, it was with thought and quite a lot of cautious compartmentalizing. We had to constantly check in with our emotions to ensure that our decisions were not tied up in feelings. When we did finally make our exit, we did so with an understanding of where our emotions lay and where our conscious led us. How that felt is the subject for a different post.
The second difference we saw was that we were making this choice with children old enough to understand. It was so difficult to factor them in. We looked for other families and could not find anyone open to talk or write about it. We spent an entire year weighing every factor carefully and included our children’s thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, they were given a vote before we took any action.
I really wanted to document the different struggles we went through as a family and individually. I feel that there are other families out there who are in a similar boat we were in and are searching, as we did, for someone to share their experience. I didn’t want to write another OTD blog full of resentment and I also didn’t want to write a theological blog sourcing every move with the research we did and intellectualizing our experience.
In one five-minute walk to the bus stop, I found the tone I would like to take. The breadth of emotion I felt as I walked through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood at my doorstep floored me. I have so many conflicting feelings and they played a huge part in everything we went through. I’d like my voice to come from my heart and remain personal. If someone can relate to it, I hope that it will help them find expression and in no way influence the decisions they are grappling with.
Before I begin, I would like to publicly apologize to those who will be hurt by my story. I love so much of what I left behind and would never want to destroy the relationships we’ve worked hard to rebuild. Hearts and souls were put into creating us. If you had any hand in teaching us, loving us or lifting us up out of the mud, know that we understand you have every right to be disappointed that we rejected your beliefs and traditions. We love and respect you. We needed to do this for us and as much as it hurts, we understand that there is a part of you that can never accept that. I know the idea of publicizing what you believe to be intimate is difficult for you. I respect that, although I wish you would look past your discomfort and try to understand my point of view. I try to keep an open mind when I encounter your thoughts and feelings and wish only for you to do the same. I wish this didn’t hurt you and I am sorry it is at my hand. Thank you for loving me despite this.
With all that said, here is the beginning of a reflection that may never end.
Today I need to take the bus to the other side of the city.
It is a five-minute walk from my house to the bus stop.
I turn right at the corner and walk into the crack between my timeline and the one I left behind.
I pass a school and hear the recorded voices of little girls set to the beat of a solitary drum. It is the camp theme song. They must have recorded a few and multiplied each voice so it sounds like a choir of hundreds.
I am reminded that it is now the three weeks. The girls will make sure to keep the mood somber even as they skip and play. No one will attempt to travel or jump from a too high rock into too shallow water. Everyone knows someone who had an accident during this time.
The girls are wearing blue skirts I can feel against my legs as I adjust my jeans. My pleats never managed to stay down and my hems liked to droop. I can feel the zipper, stuck again, and the pin that always opened and pricked my side. My throat constricts a little and I glance at the collars of the crisp button-down opaque white shirts. The top button closes against my neck. I will wait until I am alone to defy it and expose the bone it conceals.
I steal one more glance at the girls milling about the schoolyard. There is longing in my gaze.
My hand reaches to feel my bare neck. I trace the outline of my loose cotton t-shirt. I am relieved to feel my skin as I inhale and move on.
Now I hear the sounds of boys learning in unison. I find my lips turning up in a gentle smile. I know the beauty of this singsong. My eyes have welled at the sight of torch-bearing children leading a canopy swarmed with joyous men down a street lined with women and girls. Sitting with my legs dangling, my fingers sticky sweet, I’ve watched the dancing blur circle over and over again. The pride when someone I knew held the sacred scroll jolts me forward on my two-minute walk towards the bus.
A woman scurries past me pushing a stroller. She is wearing a black scarf and a black blouse with a pleated black skirt. Her stockings are three shades darker than the color of her skin and her shoes are sensible and comfortable. I see the little flash of pink in her ears and the small floral pin fastened to her collar. I smile as our eyes meet. She turns her head away and quickens her pace. She doesn’t seem to see the recognition in my eyes. She doesn’t see me as familiar because I look like a stranger to them now.
I have less than a minute left on my walk. I notice the men looking down and the wide eyes of passing children. I see the garbage in the streets. I smell the heat wafting up from the layers of clothing.
But the songs are still stuck in my head.
My heart sees this world as I pass through. It feels it’s beat. It hears the sounds and can taste the comfort. My heart sometimes sees this world more objectively than I do.
My mind reminds my heart to settle.
I will always see the beauty. I will always feel the love and warmth of that world.
The further away I go, the fewer details I see. I am not the little boy cowering from his teacher. I am not the little girl pulling up her socks in resentment. I am not getting touched in the classroom or in the basement. I am not standing before judgment at all times. I am not hiding in an alley with a cigarette and then going back to shul for the blessing over endless whiskey. I am not sitting with a man who calls himself rabbi as he is telling me that he is sexually attracted to me because all men are sexually attracted to girls, even if they are fifteen years old. I am not defiant and angry because my dreams were denied me. I am not holding on to what could have been. I am not the details anymore.
The crack between the worlds closes up behind me as the doors of the bus open and I climb on board.
I sit down wearily.
Five minutes takes a lifetime.