Davidman - Research Success Technologies

Lynn Davidman
Institute for Advanced Studies
Edmond G. Safra Campus
Givat Ram
Jerusalem, 91904 ISRAEL
e-mail: [email protected]
Program in Judaic Studies
Box 1826
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912 USA
My research focuses on women and men who grow up Orthodox and at some
point in their lives leave the Orthodox community in which they were raised.
Obviously, as we in this group know well, not all kinds of Orthodoxy are the same in
terms of their "greediness" as institutions, the strictness of their communities, the
particularities of the religious behavior they practice, and their attitudes toward
modernity. Therefore the dynamics involved in leaving them and what is required of
individuals who exit in order to integrate the norms of secular society are widely
different. In this study I am trying to interview and compare individuals who leave all
kinds of Orthodox communities—centrist, Haredi and Hasidic—and to see whether
there are systematic differences in the processes of exiting and where they end up in
their journey. I am leaving open the meaning of "leaving Orthodoxy" so that my
respondents can range from those who continue many or some traditional practices to
those who become entirely secular. In other words, I am letting the definition of what
it means to leave Orthodox evolve from the ground up; from the self-definitions of my
interviewees. I'll say a bit more on how I find interviewees in a bit.
There are several conceptual frames that I can use to help me think about this
data. One very broad way of conceptualizing this study is to think about this process
of exiting a community-- within which a person had a fairly clearly defined identity—
and emerging into a situation of having to redefine and recreate self and identity, as a
process of biographical disruption and repair. Whereas we all experience many
biographical disruptions in our lives, such as entering kindergarten or graduating from
medical school or college, or moving households, etc., I argue that there is
a difference between those disruptions that are experienced by many people as typical
aspects of human life, and other disruptions that take their lives in unanticipated,
entirely new directions. One example of these kinds of major biographical
disruptions would be taking on an entirely new religious world view and set of
practices, a process I described in my first book, TRADITION IN A ROOTLESS
WORLD, which was about Jewish women who grew up secular, or with minimal
knowledge and practices, who became Orthodox as adults. A different example of
this process can be the death of a parent, an experience I represented in my book
MOTHERLOSS, which focused on adults who had lost their mothers when they were
adolescents. In both these works and in the present one as well, I am working with
narratives of biographical disruption and repair. I work within the framework of
contemporary critical ethnography (Becker 1997; Behar 1993; Ellis 1995; Marcus and
Fisher 1986), a stance that questions the authority of the author to claim to know the
"truth" about others' lives. I present this work with a full consciousness that since all I
have to work with in my research is individuals' reconstructed narratives {I am not
talking to them in the very moment in which these experiences occur but rather am
receiving retrospective accounts} I do not aim to make claims about the truth value
of these narratives and instead acknowledge that as author I am selecting and
representing the representations my respondents and I create together during the
interview process.
Contemporary ethnographic thought shares with Max Weber the idea that
none of us are "neutral observers" who simply interpret social reality from an
objective point of view. Anthropologists and sociologists who work within the
framework of critical ethnography argue that in order for readers to best understand
researchers' choices of frameworks and the interpretations we bring to our narratives,
we need to situate ourselves in relation to our project. As in the two books I wrote
previously, this book comes out of my own experiences of biographical disruption
and repair. MOTHERLOSS arose out of my own tragic loss of my mother when I
was 13 and she was 36. As I described in the book, the experience of a mother’s
death was typically silenced in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, the decades most common
in my interviewees’ loss of their mothers. The older family members insisted that the
mother's death was not to be discussed during her illness, at the moment of her death,
and thereafter. My own experiences of silence were the same as those of my
interviewees. I undertook the project when I was 40 years old (ironically, the age at
which a Jewish man is supposed to be mature enough to handle the dangerous
intricacies of learning Kabbalah)—I had a tenured job and a house of my own. At
that point I felt I had enough grounding to withstand the depths of emotional pain that
were likely to arise from in-depth interviewing of people whose mothers had died and
from my constant movement back and forth between their and my own experiences, a
process which I wrote into the book. At the end of this process (which I experienced
as going deeply into a dark tunnel with no road maps) I emerged—not only with an
understanding of the common elements experienced by many of us who struggled as
young children with our mothers' premature deaths and a critique of the social
division of gendered labor that makes this experience particularly traumatic, but much
more importantly, with a sense of my mother’s (heretofore deeply repressed) presence
in my life, a loving presence which I now cultivate in many ways.
TRADITION IN A ROOTLESS WORLD came out of my desire to
understand why young women would make the exact opposite choice from the one I
had made in my own life. I had left Orthodoxy (emotionally and cognitively) at the
age of 13 and over the ensuing five years both behaviorally and socially, until by age
19 I was forced to “choose” to leave my father’s house at great personal cost. Writing
this book, like writing MOTHERLOSS, helped me to repair a rupture in my
biography and to reintegrate my life narrative in a new way. Instead of feeling bitter
and angry about all those elements of Orthodox life I had found difficult (such as its
strict limitations on individual choice and “freedom” and its delineation of what felt to
me to be very limited roles for women), I emerged from this process with a
sympathetic account of how women found and created meaning within this context,
even though I personally had been unable to.
This current project, on those who leave Orthodoxy, takes me full circle back
to my first book and provides an interesting contrast and sequel. In this work, as in
MOTHERLOSS, I am again close to my own life experiences, studying those who
chose paths similar to mine, in order to understand my own experiences in a larger
social and analytic context.
These narratives of biographical disruption and repair can often occur in the
course of what sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh has termed "role exit." She uses this
concept to refer to exiting a wide variety of roles such as becoming an ex-nun, which
was her own particular experience. Her book, like mine, is concerned with shedding
light on the unanticipated, often abrupt, and sometimes extreme disconuities in roles
that arise when one leaves a known role and embarks upon learning a new one
(1988:xi). Her goal is to find develop a conceptual model that encompasses the
dynamics experienced by people who leave all kind of roles (both ones they find
positive and those they find negative) from ex-nun to widows, transsexuals, retirees,
mothers without custody, ex-convicts, among others. Her observation that “what
makes 'exes' different from others entering new roles is the fact that exes are
unlearning normative expectations of previous roles at the same time that they are
learning new ones (p. 4) is highly relevant to my study. One of my more interesting
findings and arguments is that the process of exiting Orthodoxy and moving into a
different world does not evolve in a linear process, but that in order to even begin to
think about leaving, one already has to learn something about other possibilities, thus
making the process more dynamic and complex. And because Orthodox Judaism no
longer exists anywhere within entirely enclosed enclaves, it always engages with the
outside world in at least some ways; it thus has built right into it places where the
sacred canopy might crack.
As we will see, there is a constant movement back and forth between
learning new ideas and behaviors, returning to the community, stepping out again, a
continuously revolving process involving pushes and pulls, exiting and
resocialization. I argue here that the process is not separable into those two stages—
leaving and resocialization but both are simultaneous processes
For this current paper, however, I feel that the best way to frame this research
is in terms of Ann Swidler’s dynamic conception of culture and its uses, which allows
us to explore how some people, here, those who leave Orthodox Judaism, experience
a movement from what she calls “settled lives” to “unsettled lives.” Swidler is known
for her idea (1986) that cultures can be thought of as “tool kits” or repertoires of
meanings upon which people draw in constructing lines of action. Cultures inculcate
diverse skills and capacities, shaping people as social actors, by providing them tools
for constructing lines of action. “Culture is a repertoire… that cultivates skills and
habits in its users, so that one can be more or less good at the cultural repertoire one
performs.” (2003: 24-25)
Culture, which interacts in a dialectical way with major social institutions such
as religion, family, the state, is used differently by people in various situations. This
study helps us examine how people select among parts of a repertoire—such as those
pertaining to their religious tradition and their choice to leave it-- by picking up and
putting aside cultural themes. Here, I use her concepts to explore the dynamics
through which people shift from one an institution—Orthodox Judaism--that provides
a basis for their world view, set of practices, and cultural tool kit for maintaining
settled lives, to an experience of unsettled lives, in a back and forth fashion until they
might find an other, perhaps entirely new one (such as a different variety of Judaism,
or secularism). I am interested in the circumstances and linguistic tools that anchor or
invoke the varied scripts they use. Particularly important here is the way different
parts of people’s life organization—core situations or problems—provide contexts
within which particular pieces of culture make sense.
The way culture influences action—and the way people use culture—differ in
people who live settled and unsettled lives.(Swidler 2003: 89) In settled lives,
meaning lives in which people live comfortably within the key norms, values and
behaviors of their culture, culture is intimately integrated with action. Culture is
ubiquitous, yet it is in some ways invisible—it is difficult to disentangle what is
uniquely “cultural” since culture and life experience seem to reinforce each other. It
is in referring to a settled culture-such as a relatively stable religious community—
that a theorist such as Clifford Geertz (1973) can write so persuasively: culture is a
“model of” and a “model for” reality; culture fits with and expresses (“materializes”)
a sensibility and a way of life; cultural symbols reinforce an ethos, a worldview and a
system of practices so that each seems to validate the other(p. 94). Religion thus
provides a good exemplar of a framework within which people can live entirely
settled lives. Intensive religious communities provide a unifying belief system that
members attempt to apply to all aspects of their daily lives. For example, Orthodox
Judaism provides a clear set of guidelines, ideals and practices for the social
organization of sexuality, an intense part of life that can be extremely disruptive
should it get "out of order": it should take place only within a rabbinically sanctioned
marriage between a man and a woman and only during certain parts of the month.
Life provides many opportunities to remind religious group members of the demands
their religion places on them. Thus they are frequently aware of their religious
convictions as a guide to day-to-day action (Swidler 2003: 63). People living
squarely within an intensive religious community thus can be said to have “settled
Given that each aspect of religious life and culture validates the others—the
ethos, world view, and set of practices-- once people begin to question some aspect of
the religious world view or ethos, or begin to change their practices, however slightly,
the taken for granted culture that was the foundation for their settled lives can begin to
crack. Questioning any aspect of the culture can lead to people questioning many
aspects of the culture, thus producing “unsettled” lives. Unsettled lives is a term
Swidler uses to refer to those periods in a person's life when they find that within their
worlds, (or communities) the values, norms, cultural explanations and practices no
longer make sense to them or do not appear to them as able to address the particular
dilemmas that they face. I have learned from my interviewees that there are many
paths through which the certitudes of Orthodox institutions and their culture can be
questioned (such as reading books—either by Bertrand Russell or Henrik Ibsen's A
DOLL'S HOUSE; or discovering feminism—all of which involve new learning). If
the institutional culture is unable to provide satisfactory answers—legitimations, of
which Orthodoxy typically has many for all kinds of situations—to these questions,
the crack in the "sacred canopy" will not be repaired but rather will widen and the
questioners will find themselves in such an unsettled situation that they will seek out
new ways of being. They will turn to other institutional repertoires, looking for
approaches, ideas, and behaviors. Thus in unsettled lives, culture is more visible in
two ways—one, the individual begins to see heretofore invisible and taken for granted
aspects of culture, and two, as people actively seek to use culture to learn new ways of
being, it appears that there is “more” culture (Swidler 2003: 89).
When people’s lives become unsettled, the taken for granted aspects of their
culture—here, Orthodox Judaism-- become more visible to the person as she or he
ultimately makes decisions about the various elements they want8 to keep and which
ones they reject. In addition, culture becomes visible here because as these same
individuals leave, they are also looking for new ways in which to think of themselves
and a new context and set of cultural tools that will help them redefine and locate their
identities. Thus as they become "unsettled" by the issues that lead them to become
conscious of previously unnoticed elements of the culture within which they "swam,"
(like fish in water), they are attempting to locate, see and enact other cultural
practices whose norms provide them with alternative ways of being in the world. The
new visibility of culture is part of the process in which people actively use culture and
a new consciousness of it to learn new ways of being.
People who leave intensive religious communities and have not yet formed a
new self squarely within a culture whose norms and practices guide their lives,
resemble, in some ways, children and adolescents. As Swidler tells us, young people
are intensive consumers of culture because they are still trying on the possible selves
they might become. In their process of forming and reforming strategies of action,
they seek to develop the repertoire of cultured capacities out of which they will
construct the patterns of their adult lives. People who leave orthodoxy are in a very
similar situation. They seek out the shaping, and the shaping up, culture can offer. The
frequency, variety and intensity of the multiple cultural involvements of adolescents,
in which they try out multiple styles, tell us something important about how culture
works in unsettled lives, in the lives of people who are in the process of constructing
or reconstructing strategies of action. In order to reconstruct one’s life, culture is used
in an intensified way (2003: 90)
In the processes of resocialization cultural work is more active and its
influence more visible because the new patterns are in tension with previous modes of
action and experience. When people’s lives become unsettled, they try to learn new
routines, new habits, new skills, rather than simply exercising those one already have.
They use culture to retool themselves, to integrate within themselves the equipment
for new patterns of action. Their new culture has not yet been made comfortable by
being lived in, and it carries the burden of building, rather than simply supporting, a
new style of action. This can lead to worldviews and activities that seem a bit
exaggerated (here think of adolescents), as when trying on a new lifestyle one often
swings to extremes till one finds a balanced place (Swidler 2003: 101).
It is important to note that the contrast between settled and unsettled lives is
not, of course, absolute. Even in settled lives people do active work to maintain and
refine their cultural capacities. There are, nonetheless, more and less settled lives and
unsettled lives. Individuals in certain phases of their lives, such as leaving behind
previously settled lives that were organized in an intensive religious community are
involved in constructing new strategies of action. Also, although people may
experience a crack in part of their old world view they do not necessarily withdraw.
A world view that can be shattered by a single setback or contradiction would be a
very fragile one. The strength of the religious culture and community thus helps us
see why most of the narratives I heard reveal a back and forth movement, a push and
pull, a process of “passing” back and forth between worlds, and also why beginning to
leave is so painful and produces such strong feelings of homelessness. Because
Swidler’s framework allows us to think of the fluidity of culture, and the strong
feelings of dislocation involved in the process of transitioning between settled and
unsettled lives, this model enables us to see aspects of the experience of leaving
Orthodoxy that are invisible in studies that look for distinct causes and generalized
patterns of the process of role exit.
In order to do this study I have interviewed individuals who identified
themselves as having left Orthodox Judaism. Although at first I thought that my
respondents would all be people who had become secular, the people who showed up
for the interviews and who self-identified defined themselves as having left
Orthodoxy sometimes were still fairly observant. For example, one man arrived in
my office wearing a kippah and I wondered whether there had been some
miscommunication, but when I inquired, he suggested that when I listen to his story I
will understand that there are many various ways in which people can think of
themselves as having left Orthodoxy. Thus I realized that I could not impose my own
definition on what it meant to leave Orthodoxy, but in grounded theory fashion, the
meaning of this process would emerge from how the narratives of my respondents.
This project ultimately will involve comparisons between Israeli and
Americans who "left the fold," a term I am using for its ease and convenience. I began
this research late in the summer of 2003 and so far have interviewed nearly 25
Americans and 10 Israelis. In the U.S. I located my respondents in several ways:
word of mouth, snowball sampling, advertisements in Providence RI and Boston, MA
newspapers, and postings on the web site H-Judaic. Half of the Israelis with whom I
have spoken so far are from Anglo backgrounds, although one of these arrived in this
country at the age of three. I found most of my Israeli interviewees by word of mouth
and snowballs sampling; one had responded to my original posting on H-Judaic. The
sample contains roughly equal numbers of men and women. My interviewees range in
age from nineteen to their and almost all are all college-educated and are currently
employed, or are graduate students. It has been fascinating for me to find that even
among those respondents who became entirely secular (by which I mean eating bread
on Passover, not observing Yom Kippur, and those sorts of things) nevertheless some
continued to be involved in something having to do with Judaism. Several, for
example, work in areas of Judaic Studies scholarship (I am an example of that) and,
one fascinating, brilliant man I interviewed, who is a high level administrator at a
Catholic University in the Northeast, nevertheless occasionally finds time in his busy
schedule to write essays that involve deep and learned examinations of Talmudic
texts. This, however, is likely to reflect at least something of a sampling bias, due to
my seeking people through H-Judaic postings; in Israel, however, where only one of
my ten respondents was located through my H-Judaic posting, I am still finding that
many of my post-Orthodox respondents are nevertheless still professionally involved
in the study of Jewish subjects.
Within this brief section, I attempt to place my study in the context of the
available literature. By now, there have been many studies that attempt to outline the
process of religious disaffiliation. Mauss (1969) Roozen (1980) Bromley (1997) and
others have all developed typologies for abandoning religious groups that arose out
of their studies of Christian groups, or new religious movements. These studies of
disaffiliation generally concentrate on the specific characteristics of the "exiters"—
age, education, socioeconomic status, political orientation and religious affiliation
(Shaffir1997: 207). In addition to these studies, there is a literature that examines how
the disengagement is conceptualized from the vantage point of role theory, and the
various attempts at causal modeling (Bar-Lev et al 1997) and scholars have attempted
to create causal models that identify a sequence of stages or progressive levels of
withdrawal. Stuart Wright 1987's review of the lit on religious disengagement
contrasts the activist vs. passive image of the adherent and the conceptual distinction
between sudden and gradual disaffiliation.
Bar Lev, Leslau and Ne'emans article titled, "Culture-Specific Factors which
Cause Jews in Israel to Abandon Religious Practice," argues that there are specific
factors in Israeli culture that make leaving haredi society in Israel different from other
experiences of those who leave religious groups. Their findings indicate that the role
of the family in religious life and influence of the military are particularly significant.
Their article offers us a typological framework of the particular factors involved in
leaving haredi society: intellectual and cognitive; emotional; familial; social and
cultural; educational and pedagogical; and materialistic and hedonistic.
They argue that their typology is more extensive than other models of religious
abandonment and that their typology demonstrates that the Israeli institutional and
cultural context engenders differences between those who leave Orthodoxy in Israel
and those who abandon religiosity in other religious groups. Nevertheless, although
they are convinced that their typology is important and points to "causal" factors, they
do acknowledge that “In reality there is often ambiguity regarding the dominant
factor, and some factors are mixed" (p. 187).
Although Bar Lev et. al.,include in their title a reference to causality, I believe
that the dynamic involved in exiting any community cannot be studied by qualitative
sociologists in terms of "motivations," which are more psychological and static in
nature, but rather must be understood as a process. In this way, Swidler's work is
helpful because she allows us to see fluidity in culture and the process of the
backwards and forward movement of push and pull. In order to present my findings
in a way that reveals the complex nature of the pathways individuals traverse in
leaving Orthodoxy and integrating into secular society, I have chosen to tell narratives
that illustrate the fluidity of cultural processes and show that exiting and
resocialization are not distinct, readily separable stages but rather are "blurry,"
interwoven processes.
In using Swidler’s concepts to talk about how the lives of the formerly
Orthodox move from settled to unsettled, I will discuss several key processes that are
involved in this transformation (some of which resemble those mentioned by Bar Lev
et. al): changes on the cognitive and intellectual level, emotional transitions,
behavioral modifications and the reorganization and restructuring of their social lives.
Although I have described these processes as if they are readily separable, in
respondents' narratives, these categories are really interwoven. In most cases the
process of exiting involves a combination of at least two of these factors, if not all
four. So as I present my findings here, I will show how these categories are not so
distinctive, but rather, the factors involved in people's exiting Orthodoxy involve a
combination of these factors that have been seen as discrete by other authors. Also, as
the narratives illustrate, the stages of role exit and resocialization, which have
heretofore generally been seen as distinct, are in reality simultaneous processes. As I
know from my own experience the processes of role exit and learning a new culture
are totally intertwined. They cannot be artificially separated. The process does not
follow a linear, scripted transition but rather is created as it is enacted and thought out.
It is a long, slow process to question your taken-for-granted assumptions and integrate
some new ones and people do not enter into an entire new world in one fell swoop!
Before you can see a new world, you have to have some knowledge of its existence
and somewhere a tiny crack appears in the canopy and some light comes in and even a
tiny bit of exposure can begin to shift the way we think about the culture in which we
exist and begin the potentially very slow, (sometimes taking years), process of both
questioning and shedding it, as one learns how to exist in what in many ways seems
like another world.
Here I will introduce Leah, whose narrative will help us gain a concrete sense
of these processes I have been describing in the abstract. Although she is only one
respondent among many, I believe that in many ways her story exemplifies many of
the elements I heard in the other narratives in the course of my research.
Leah grew up in a prominent Hasidic family in Brooklyn. Her family's
eminence in the community led her to be quite reluctant to be interviewed and it took
her several months to agree. Even then, she only told me a pseudonym for her first
name (and no family name at all) and disguised certain aspects of her biography so
she would remain totally anonymous even to me.
Leah's father was Hasidic, although she noted that he loved America. He
fought on the American side in WW II and "he was very interested in American
ways." Perhaps his love for America already provided a bit more openness for her to
see beyond the Hasidic world than might otherwise have been possible for girls in her
community. In addition, he married a woman from a more secular background—"I
guess he was intrigued with the other," Leah said, resulting in a family structure in
which the mother was not able to teach the children to make sure they were saying
brachot [blessings] and she did not know the songs, so she did not teach them to sing
zmirot [songs] around the table. Leah feels that perhaps if the family Shabbat had
been more spiritual and fun, she might have received the proper "brainwashing" that
would have kept her in the community. In contrast, she talked about her married
sister's household with its five children and claimed that her sister would be more
successful than their parents had been in socializing all her children to remain in the
community, because there is great love and warmth that surround the Shabbat meals
and they all happily sing zmirot together. [Clearly the singing of zmirot is not
necessarily the most important factor because her sister, who grew up in the same
household, did remain in the community. My guess is that Leah has a more
questioning and rebellious nature than does her sister.]
The first major cracks in the sacred canopy of the community in which Leah
was raised and educated, (she was obviously sent to all girls' schools) came early,
when she figured out that her gender was an impediment for her in the Orthodox way
of life. Her brothers were sent to schools in which they received a very intensive,
serious education and although she had the intellectual capacities to be challenged in
her classrooms, she describes what she was taught as "Judaism light"—for example,
they "learned the Torah over and over and over and over again. There was no Talmud
at all. And, they taught only the interpretation of the Torah, not the real thing, I think
when I finally read the story of Tamar or something, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't
believe this! They can make up as many excuses as they want, with Rashi [a famous
Biblical commentator] or whatever, but the story is still the story and it is pretty
outrageous. Within these comments we see a combination of intellectual and
emotional dynamics which contributed to her questioning the taken for granted
aspects of the culture in which she grew up.
As part of her representation of her life history, she acknowledged explicitly
that she was narrating this story from a "very female feminist point of view." She told
me she thinks "that they way they treat women is wrong, sinful and at some point they
will wake up and realize it and I hope women flee from their midst." Here we see an
interesting dynamic regarding the way Swidler described how people move back and
forth fluidly between two worlds. Although at the time of our conversation she was
clearly far removed from the Orthodox structures and culture in which she grew up,
the culture still had a remaining influence on her in several ways, as we can see from
her use of the language of "sinful."
Feminist objections to Orthodox institutions, norms, values and behaviors are
the most prominent theme in her narrative, and the issue that kept leading her to see
holes in the social structure and culture. She described, for example, how at age
seven or eight she was told she could no longer go with her father to the little
shtieblach they both loved. "I loved it there. It was fun. The guys would give us
candy and the Rebbetzin would give us food…And so once I was not allowed to go
with my father, I did not go at all. My mother would make me set the table or just do
kind of stuff in the house and it was boring and stupid."
As she narrated this story, she explained that at that point there was no more
participatory religion for her, "it was over for me, basically." Despite her early ability
to see serious problems with the Orthodox world and her place in it, she nevertheless
clung on to it. Obviously, partly it was her youth and her not having any other place
to go. But part of it as well had to do with her deep fear of God. "I was very filled
with fear… the famous thing that they would tell you is that all your sins go to your
father until you are twelve years of age and I loved my father and I thought, 'Oh my
God. All my sins are going to him and he's going to die.' So I was really worried at
the time about his health, although he wasn't unhealthy at all."
She was also concerned that she was committing sins against her mother
because they didn't get along. Her problems with her mother related to Leah's early
and strong feminist sensibility—"She felt that the boys were more important. She
was more proud to have them… And I don't blame her personally, because she does
not know how she's been screwed by society… But I just felt like she should have
stood up for me. Like at some point, maybe I sat next to my father on Shabbat but
then when my brothers were getting bigger, they sat next to him. And all of a sudden
the focus became getting them to shul [synagogue] on time, them davening [praying],
their education. And although I did well in school, it did not matter. It just wasn't of
concern." Social concerns—those related to her immediate family, thus came into
play here along with her cognitive and emotional reactions. She felt that she could no
longer rely on the culture that surrounded her because she felt that she was "alone"
and she "couldn't find [her] place at that time." As she said, "well, let's see. I'm a
woman but I don't want to do that role. I don't want to be like my mother and not go to
shul and stay home so I can cook… I just did not feel that there was a place for me in
the religious world. There was nobody else like me."
This notion became especially clear to her at the time of her brothers' bar
mitzvah's when the obvious excitement about their lives revealed the ordinariness of
hers as a girl. And so by that point, "I just knew that I was just not going to enter the
world." When she started to question, hoping, I think, to get answers that would
satisfy her and help her stay in the community, thus avoiding the pain of anomie and
homelessness a radical departure would cause, the rabbi at her school complimented
her even as he condescended to her and asked, "You're such a nice girl, such a sweet
girl. Why are you going crazy asking all these questions?' And so she felt
confused… even as she felt pushed away from Orthodoxy (in these intellectual and
emotional ways) she also was drawn to the compliments and, as she said, "you know,
you would get confused. He would say complimentary things. So I thought, 'Oh, he's
saying nice things to you.' So you would forget for a minute that he is not answering
your questions and you would feel that perhaps I am the one who is at fault; I just
have to try harder." In an effort to reach out to her and help her become convinced to
stay in the fold, some of the teachers invited her to their homes for Shabbat. Leah
was touched by their open generosity but felt unable to express what was going on for
her: "And I would say something completely indecipherable and I'd cry or something
because I had no idea of all this stuff and how to make sense of it and they did not say
much that helped."
Even as she questioned and seriously challenged the ideas and norms and
behavioral expectations of her culture, she was also pulled back into it, by other,
compelling aspects of that culture. She worried about her sins. She also lacked a
language with which to speak her new reality. "I did not know even how to speak
it…I would be…I would be crazed... and it was so frightening." Her fright was born
out of the glimpse of anomie and homelessness she saw coming out of her
questioning. She describes how, although still immersed in her culture, she was
seeing enough of another culture (a secular world where feminism was a legitimate
option) to lead her to question her own. And yet she was speechless. Such a radical
transformation of self and world provided no scripts; whereas the culture in which she
was immersed provided scripts for every aspect of her life. The cultural tool kit of
Orthodoxy, to which at the time she kept being pulled back, had a ready made
language and legitimation for every aspect of the cultural life. Thus, out of her fear of
the homelessness that would arise if she truly followed her dissatisfactions, the
Orthodox world also provided a serious threat to those who might "sin"—Leah was
afraid her parents would die and then she would have nowhere to go.
Another dimension of her cognitive awareness (that was part of her exiting
and resocialization at once) was that that her school (in a seemingly contradictory
fashion) gave the students A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen to read. "I remember
reading it then and I would be like I love that book. I found it so unbelievable that I
had found MY book! I was crazed, but you know, in school they just spoke about its
literary dimensions and they did not get how deeply profound a book like that could
be to someone like me. Nobody took it personally there; it was just a book and la de
dah on to the next one…" Perhaps the gatekeepers (teachers) in her school felt so
strongly that the gates would hold, that they offered the young girls a taste of another
culture without even thinking about the possible consequences.
The rituals in her household were not fulfilling, either. Not only did they not
sing Zmirot on Shabbat (singing often leads to a strong sense of belonging and
individual transcendence) but she felt that "Shabbos was kind of a wash in general.
My father was tired. My mother was tired. They were fighting. To me, Shabbat
seemed to be just for eating candy and sleeping." Several times during our
conversation she referred to Shabbat in terms of "candy," signifying that the
observance of this law set of rituals was something she did not take seriously. This
particular language provides evidence of the reconstruction of biographies in
narratives; I do not imagine that as a child she would have frequently complained that
Shabbat was "all about candy."
Emotionally and physically (behaviorally) she was quite frustrated about her
lack of knowledge and experience with boys. This issue, too, figures prominently in
her narrative. "From the sexuality point of view you are completely repressed. There
is just nothing happening. I mean, like even, your vagina is not given a name… like
nothing, you're just like you don't have anything and the boys have something and that
is it." A person's sense of her embodiment is an important factor in her sense of
identity; being denied any acknowledgement or information of her body and its
processes, further alienated her from her cultural surroundings. She kept wanting to
meet boys (puberty had begun and what in the outside society was considered a
normal process) was forbidden in her Orthodox world. If she were to follow the
dictates of her community, she would have had to deny essential aspects of her
being—"something gets screwed up if you don't meet boys till you're past 16"-- but to
act on her own desires would have put her in the desperate situation of being a young
woman with nowhere to go. Thus she described a constant sense of push and pull; a
temptation to leave even as she felt pulled back. Nevertheless, behaviorally, she
continued to bring in ideas and behaviors she saw in the wider society back into the
Orthodox world. She pushed at the boundaries by wearing short skirts, but she did not
succeed in getting suspended.
Another source of her exposure to the secular world and her movement back
and forth between worlds, was the time she spent with her secular cousins. "They
were introduced in a positive way to us—they're your cousins and you're supposed to
love them" and they were just normal, suburban kids who did drugs and had sex and
age 13 or so and by 18 they were bored. We did not know they were the world. Not
only did they had more money than we did and did many exciting things, like skiing
and going to the Grand Canyon, it was so interesting to see that they were living with
sin but without dying or something. They seemed to be doing all this stuff and
not…there was no sign of illness or death. So we thought that maybe what we had
been told is a little wrong or something, or maybe that there is just a delay in the
punishment." Here again we see Leah caught between the two worlds: on the one
hand she sees that what she was told within her tightly-knit, strict community was not
actually happening, but she did not feel steady enough in a new world to entirely
question the validity of the world view she had been taught. Instead, she tried to find
a rationalization that would resolve the seeming contradiction—they would indeed get
punished {her original cultural norms, ideas and practices are correct} and she simply
needed to revise her ideas of the immediacy of the certain punishment.
Just as reading the Doll's House in school had a major impact on her, her
access to the library opened worlds that led her to question her own even while still
remaining in it. She remembers being amazed at finding sex books and delighted that
she could learn these hidden delicious secrets, but still thought of what she was seeing
and reading as potential violations of the norms of modesty. This movement back and
forth, the constant push and pull, is visible everywhere in her narrative.
Going to college was her first experience of daily existence in a social
structure and culture that differed from the cocoon in which she had grown up.
Although she first started at Brooklyn college (the only school to which her high
school would send her transcripts, because there were many religious students at
Brooklyn) she hated it because it resembled a "yeshiva" [institute for advanced Jewish
learning] too much and she arranged her own transfer to Hunter College. Part of the
"yeshivish" feeling at Brooklyn was that there was a great deal of social pressure from
her Orthodox family and from other Orthodox students to get fixed up and to meet her
mate as soon as possible. She felt that although some of the girls in her community
were allowed to attend college, "it was basically killing time before you get
[whispering] chosen to be married to some guy."
At some point during these years (ages 17-19) she was questioning a great
deal and expressed radical ideas concerning women's freedom of choice. "I was
talking, you know, liberation. They wanted girls to just shut up, look pretty, and get
married. And I was saying stuff like, 'but why? Why should we do the dishes?' And
this talk became very disturbing to everybody. But I did not know if I meant it, still.
I still felt compelled. I felt like I was…you know, that I wanted to belong, and I didn't
know and I had no other place to belong. So even though I was saying what I didn't
want, I did not know what I wanted"
At around this time, her cognitive, social and emotional questions led to a
radical change in her behavior: she stopped observing Sabbath altogether. "It just
became claustrophobic and I could not stand it anymore. I just hated, you know, from
the countdown, and when it started. I did really bad things… like, I lived in Boro
Park [an ultra-Orthodox section of Brooklyn] and on the edge of Boro Park there were
these bars. And at some point, I just needed to go to a bar. I’d smoke cigarettes; there
were all these low lifes there. I would just sit there and feel like an international
adventuress or something…. Like in the movies, Bette Davis or something. That is
who I was. Lauren Bacall or Katherine Hepburn. And they would walk into a bar and
say, ‘Give me a drink.’ And so I was trying to be a woman of assertion. I could just
do that and I don’t care if anyone says anything to me. I would tuck some money into
a pocket and I would sneak out of my house on a Friday night with pants under my
skirt, remove my skirt as I approached the bar, and then there would be all these
drunken Irishmen or something. Luckily no one ever talked to me because I would
have been so dumbfounded. And after I had my drink and paid for it, I left the bar,
put my skirt back on, and returned to my house, crept into bed and went to sleep.”
Leah began to meet some “cool” people at college who introduced her to rock
music, marijuana, and the ideas of radical individualism. She began dating a man she
met at Hunter, and “he was from Brooklyn. And he was also leaving from the
Orthodox world, but you know, cheating. [I think of this in terms of “passing.”] He
could be god. He could do all the things that you imagine you could do, like coming
to my house with a yarmulke on and look appropriate and say ‘Good Shabbos”, but
he was very closeted about not being very religious. At that time I got a job; I was
really interested in research and so I married this guy.”
A very strong example of how hard it is to completely leave the social cocoon
that is Orthodoxy is Leah's description that her way out was with a young man from
the same background. And as she told me, although they themselves were not
practicing Jewish traditions and rituals, they remained connected with their families.
“We moved to a place in Brooklyn that was far enough from our parents that they
could not walk on Shabbos. And that was a key thing. But we could walk there on a
Shabbos, which we did sometimes.”
Leah acknowledged that he was her “exit ticket” out of the intensely closed
Orthodox world. “When I look back at the stuff I wrote at that time, it was clear it
was never going to work out but at the time it was good for both of us… You know,
on my own I wouldn’t have known where to go…like, it is so hard to make sense of
the world.” Despite her living a secular life, she still found it difficult to understand
what ordinary people were doing on the weekend and how they spent time in their
houses. “I felt I had no commonality; no idea what to say to them.” And not only was
it still difficult to enter into new social relations, she still felt unsure of her footing in
terms of daily life: “ I think that the hardest thing to believe is that you have to make
up each day as it goes along; there is simply no routine of davening in the morning,
and you wash your hands or whatever, and then you say this bracha [blessing] and
then that bracha and you have to keep track of all the brachas and the bathroom and
and did you eat bread? So did you wash your hands? Did you eat fleishig [meat] or
did you eat milchig [dairy} and how long to wait between them…so you’re just so
busy all day with all these rules that it fills your day and it gives a great structure,
which is very comforting to many people, though not to me. But this life is not easy
After a few years, when Leah was in her mid-twenties her marriage failed
which led her to feel really free and on her own. She began traveling around in
Europe: “I wanted the world!" and in this context she began to feel more
sophisticated and more comfortable in speaking to others. And what is fascinating
about these journeys is that they helped her put the Orthodox world of her
background—one she had felt as superbly stifling—into a larger context. Although
she had intensely disliked the conformity Orthodoxy required, she found that
everywhere she went conformity was the norm. In France, everyone had to be "sexy,"
in Spain, Catholicism reigned. Every society had its own culture and its own
repertoire of values, norms and behaviors that it expected of its members. This freed
her from seeing Orthodoxy only as a strange, narrow set of social and cultural
dynamics, but to see that its modes of being were more widespread. "It was
therapeutic for me to be there, because it helped me to not be so angry about
Orthodoxy and it helped me explain things. It helped me to forgive them because I
thought, okay, they're just like these crazy people, meaning who are automatically
Roman Catholic or automatically, you know, have to eat cheese or whatever they
have to do it. So they're all so conformist." So as Leah traveled far from Orthodoxy,
geographically, emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally, it was in Europe that she
gained an understanding that helped her better understand the Orthodox world and
that eventually led her to reconcile somewhat with her family.
A this point in her life she has a young daughter and it is important for her,
and to her family, that they have a relationship with her daughter. Although she has
found a place in the "outside world" (outside from the point of view of Orthodoxy)—
she has a significant and successful career, satisfying marriage with a non-Jewish
European man, and does not observe any commandments. Nevertheless, cultural
elements from her former life continue to influence who she is in this life. She
occasionally takes her daughter "shul shopping," for example. Since she knows she
will never provide for her daughter a tightly knit social structure and coherent set of
cultural values that would lead her into Orthodoxy, she nevertheless still feels enough
of a pull, and enough of a sense of the fluidity of the boundaries between worlds
(something she had not seen as a child) that she happily maintains contact with her
parents, "passing" every time she enters their world. She also continues to seek a
good context in which her daughter might develop a strong sense of herself as a
Jewish woman.
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