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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

May 13, 2020 by

On Unorthodox: The Hasidim Are Not An Anomaly

Not long ago, I saw a young woman in Hasidic garb on the plaza outside Lincoln Center. She was sitting at the top of the steps with a cup and a cardboard sign, her long skirt spread around her. She wore a look of abject shame, her eyes trained on the ground.  

I pictured her as I watched the recent series Unorthodox. Television is aspirational, director Maria Schrader said in an accompanying documentary. Aspirational stories have a simple shape—the heroine escapes a monster and finds her way to freedom. At the end of Unorthodox, Esty fingers a compass given to her as a gift and smiles.

When my memoir about leaving Hasidic life first came out, it was held up as a banner in a number of secret online groups of Hasidic rebels. I am a Texan who joined the Hasidim as an idealistic teen and a lesbian, but no matter—some among them saw in my book something of themselves. Most of them had grown up in schools that denied them secular knowledge yet claimed to be accredited and drew government funds. They could be barely literate, and as culturally ignorant as a new immigrant. The group is sadly marked with addiction, depression, suicide. They share information, hold successes up and cheer one another—who learned to read, who got into college, who got to see their children. 

Some of them feel lost, unsure of who they are now, or if they even exist. Theirs is a communal self—leaving can mean losing one’s entire identity, like a death. In Unorthodox, Moishie gives Esty a gun and suggests she use it on herself. Just last week, I heard of another suicide.

The Hasidic world is divided between those who occupy a sort of bridge space—they read carefully-chosen secular books, carry cellphones, even work in the world—and the others, the majority, who eschew all things secular. This describes the Houston Lubavitch community in which I once lived. In Unorthodox, the insular Satmar community provides dramatic contrast for this story of escape into the light.

Among my ex-Hasidic friends, those who suffer the most are stuck in a different bridge space too messy or static to be at the center of uplifting stories: They remain in the Hasidic world burdened with secrets. Or they rebel and lose their children to the community, upheld by courts that are in lockstep with the powerful Hasidim (Esty’s mother). Or they leave their hearts behind with angry fathers and mothers afraid to connect (Esty’s grandmother hangs up in terror). Or they move on, as I did, but they can struggle for years to adjust to life in this, their own, country. 

To them, truth is monolithic. Truth is in a book, a finality found outside of oneself. And it is never relative. When I finally understood otherwise, it was as if my adult mind popped into three dimensions, like that cartoon character flattened by a falling piano who then attempts to waddle away.

In a way, the Hasidic yeshiva system assists in assuring the whole community is not allowed an adolescence. The rabbi and the Law remain parents for them all.  Look at the character of Yanky, unwitting, sensitive, boy/man who adores his mother. Yanky did not get an adolescence—that time of grandiose dreams, sexual exploration, and breaking rules. Intentional or not, the yeshivas repress budding sexuality by exhausting the boys, who have to study until evening and then return for night classes. If caught speaking to a girl, or touching a boy, the student is expelled, and the whole community will know, which can cripple the future for the boy and his family. Yanky hasn’t grown up. At the wedding, he and Esty are put in a room alone. Yanky stretches his soft hand across the table to touch a girl for the first time in his life, but he can’t break what was always a rule. His hand stops. Instead, Esty places her hand on top of his. 

And there’s Moishie, a rebel who craves the rabbi’s parental attention. He, too, is a product of that education. Now an adult, there is no holy place to put his hunger. In his frustration, adult Moishie has no trouble breaking the rules to make people follow the rules. He will force them if necessary, where he cannot force himself. “There is always a Moishie,” Esty’s mother tells her frightened daughter.

Hasidic yeshivas often require families to sign a contract promising there will be no contact with the internet, a potent cultural crippling of the students and a way to keep them dependent, and close. In Berlin, Yanky follows Moishie around like a child. To both young men, the phone is a font of forbidden wisdom. Yanky grabs the phone from Moishie and yells into it, “Where is Esty, telephone??”

As new Hasidim, my husband and I wanted to give our children an education both secular and Jewish. Luckily, post-Holocaust the Lubavitchers had turned to outreach in an effort to replenish world Jewry; they had outposts for people like us. Their school provided (carefully controlled, censored) secular knowledge. But when our children were ready for high school, we were pushed to send them away to “real” yeshivas. I remember the first time we received a call from a yeshiva office in New York asking us to sign an application for a Pell Grant. The school had gotten accredited as a college preparatory. “Just sign a blank form,” the rabbi said. “We’ll fill out the rest.”  He didn’t ask for our financial information. We wouldn’t have qualified, but that didn’t seem to matter.

In those years, many times I heard friends in Brooklyn chuckle about stories their kids brought home from school: The day the Board of Education came for a site visit, they had their one class a season with an “English” teacher. The kids had been coached in advance to sit still and say nothing. 

Esty of Unorthodox would have attended an all-girls yeshiva where she learned basic English from books with no pictures of females in them, books that could have lines blacked out, and whole pages removed. She would be taught to be quiet around men and given to a man chosen for her by seventeen. With birth control forbidden, she would soon be too busy to dream. It is in that atmosphere, and before she has a child, that Esty takes secret piano lessons. 

Yanky’s unpaid “career” will be Torah study. Newlywed couples like Esty and Yanky typically apply for government assistance right after the wedding. Which is why Hasidic Rockland County has the highest welfare rates in the nation.

After I left the Hasidim, I found The Truman Show and wept for children raised in Hasidic communities, as if they are kidnapped at birth and formed in a controlled, fictional universe. 

And yet, the very same freedom of religion that allowed me to take off the wig allows people to choose a religious life that limits their freedom—there are ultra-strict communities of various religions all over the country. You could say their very existence is a mark of democracy. 

But what of the children? 

Esty, Yanky, and Moishie depict grown American children held outside of laws meant to protect and guide them. Now they are adults who have been robbed of their adulthood. 

The Hasidim are not foreigners, not a quaint or irrelevant anomaly. To me, their communities are an important mirror on shoddy supervision of government funds, on politicians and judges who bend the law to curry support, on secular authorities afraid to be accused of trodding on religious freedom. And it’s all at the expense of the children. 

Then there are those of my own grandchildren growing up in yeshivas similar to the ones that formed Esty and Yanky and Moishie. They are not learning to read and write in English. 

In Unorthodox, Esty grew up being told her absent mother was crazy. Esty’s mother wasn’t crazy. She was a lesbian who fled a community that erased her, who lost her child to the community. Like Esty’s mother, I, too, wait for a knock from any of those grown children trying to find their way. I will open the door. I will open it wide.

Leah Lax is the author of the only gay Hasidic memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, now an Amazon bestseller and soon to be an opera created with composer Lori Laitman and opera director Beth Greenberg.

  • Heidi Schloss

    A wonderful article! I would also recommend watching One of Us, a documentary about 3 people trying to leave the community & what they go through.
    I am not Chasid or even Orthodox. It was a long process for me, raised reform, with an atheist father, to Reconstructist, where women have equal rights & Tikkun Olam is Social Justice. Now I belong to an unaffiliated shul, with a Recon female Rabbi & a large proportion of LGBTQ members. However, I live in my grandparents’ house in a neighborhood rapidly increasingly “frum”. I have some friends in the community, mostly seniors, & I see how insulated they are. It is frustrating these days of COVID to diligently wear my mask, while they do not. I could go on. Sigh…