The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life

Source: The New York Times

On Thursdays, the nonprofit organization Footsteps hosts a drop-in group for its membership of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who mostly refer to themselves as “off the derech.” “Derech” means “path” in Hebrew, and “off the derech,” or O.T.D. for short, is how their ultra-Orthodox families and friends refer to them when they break away from these tight-knit, impermeable communities, as in: “Did you hear that Shaindel’s daughter Rivkie is off the derech? I heard she has a smartphone and has been going to museums.” So even though the term is burdened with the yoke of the very thing they are trying to flee, members remain huddled together under “O.T.D.” on their blogs and in their Facebook groups, where their favored hashtag is #itgetsbesser — besser meaning “better” in Yiddish. Sometimes someone will pop up on a message board or in an email group and say, “Shouldn’t we decide to call ourselves something else?” But it never takes. Reclamations are messy.

At the drop-in session I attended, 10 men and women in their 20s and 30s sat around a coffee table. Some of them were dressed like me, in jeans and American casualwear, and others wore the clothing of their upbringings: long skirts and high-collared shirts for women; black velvet skullcaps and long, virgin beards and payot (untrimmed side locks) for men. Half of them had extricated themselves from their communities and were navigating new, secular lives. But half still lived among their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox sects in areas of New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and were secretly dipping their toes into the secular world — attending these meetings, but also doing things as simple as walking down the street without head coverings, or trying on pants in a clothing store, or eating a nonkosher doughnut, or using the internet. They had families at home who believed they were in evening Torah learning sessions, or out for a walk, or at synagogue for evening prayers. On the coffee table were two pizzas, one kosher, one nonkosher. The kosher pizza tasted better, but only a couple of people ate it.

The group was facilitated by a Footsteps social worker, Jesse Pietroniro, soft-spoken and kind, who had told me that he had his own conflicted religious upbringing. He allowed the attendees to democratically settle on a loose theme for the evening. One woman in her early 20s brought up sexuality. She had started to date and wasn’t quite sure what the norms were. A young man talked about how hard it was for him to interact with women casually outside his community, since he was taught that sexual desire outside the intent to procreate means that one is a sexual predator, so anytime he was attracted to someone, he worried he was going to do something untoward, or that he was a kind of monster. The young woman who had suggested the theme said she didn’t know when exactly to submit to kissing — the first date? The second? Is she a slut if she kisses at all? Is it still bad nowadays to be a slut? She’d heard girls talking on the subway and calling each other sluts, and they were laughing. Are there rules for this? A few of them made sex jokes. The O.T.D.ers, newly alive in a world of puns and innuendo, love a junior-high-grade sex joke. The social worker narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips and tapped a finger to his chin and nodded and opened the question up to the group. (I was allowed to document the meeting on the condition that I wouldn’t publish anyone’s name or descriptive information.)

Another woman in her early 20s, sitting on the sofa in jeans with one leg slung over its arm, told us she had spent most of her life being molested by her father. She told the group that recently she had taken to advertising online, saying she followed the laws of family purity — going to a ritual bath after menstruation, not having sex during her “unclean” week — and that she was available for sex in exchange for money. Ultra-Orthodox men visited her at all hours, and they cheated on their wives, having sex with this ritually pure young woman in her apartment. When the men finished, they told her what a shame it was that she was off the derech, that she seemed nice, that she should try again at a religious life.

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