Rebels within a religion
I had a Hasidic friend in 2011 named Jason. He was the “black sheep” of his family – he was single and 30 (much too old to be considered for marriage), kept his beard and payot (hair curls) short, and secretly wore jeans and tees on weekend nights. We met at a bar randomly.
“I’m a rebel,” Jason told me.
“Why don’t you just leave?” I asked.
“I’d be ostracized,” he said. He explained that almost no one leaves the Hasidic community.
Our friendship quickly expired after a photo of President Obama and his national security team was tampered with in the Orthodox Hasidic broadsheet Der Tzitung. In the original photo, the group is huddled around a conference table in the White House Situation Room, watching CIA director Leon Panetta narrate the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The mood is clearly tense as Hillary Clinton had her right hand clasped over her mouth in astonishment.
The Brooklyn publication perceived Clinton’s posture as sexually suggestive. And so they photoshopped her out, along with the only other woman who could be seen in the room, Audrey Tomason, the national director of counterterrorism.
The editors of Der Tzitung apologized to the White House and made a public comment clarifying their position: “In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention.”
Jason harmonized this view; we stopped talking.
I retold this story during book club on Thursday night. We discussed the memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots.”
As a member of the strictly religious Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, author Deborah Feldman talks about growing up under a code of relentlessly enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear and to whom she could speak, to what she was allowed to read. Of one orthodox celebration, women were allowed to dance, but it was clearly a secondary thing. Instead they usually stood around and watched the men dance. Women’s joy, she says, was more centered in the experiences around food and family.
A few of my fellow “Bookies” are Jewish. One is atheist, and the rest are Christian, one devoutly so. We discussed the book heatedly until 1 in the morning. The question we had difficulty agreeing on: “Why do women stay?”
Another book has been recently published called “Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Woman in Extreme Religions.” It’s an anthology collecting essays by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu women.
Editors Susan Tive (a former Orthodox Jew) and Cami Ostman (a de-converted fundamentalist born-again Christian) said they wanted to illustrate why religion might be attractive. At beyondbeliefanthology.com, there is a spot called “Talk Amongst Yourselves” where people can discuss their experiences with extreme religions.
The authors say that they noticed patterns in the contributions. For example, so many women were searching for community, structure, purpose and connection with the divine. Unfortunately, as they looked for joy, many women found that it was restricted.
“I think there are connections between women inside a lot of these faiths that are harder to forge outside of them,” Ostman said. “You have the freedom to be a wife and/or a mother and to focus on those things, whereas outside the choice is often more complicated in our modern age.”
All three women – Feldman, Tive and Ostman – have left their faith communities and found a different way. But none of them feel less religious because of their decision to leave. Instead they have taken their rituals, beliefs and knowledge, and applied them to their new lives. Hopefully these books will reach other orthodox women so that they too can consider: “Why do I stay?”
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com