The girl on the steps apparently had no such compass.
When my memoir about leaving hasidic life first came out, the only gay memoir from that world, it was held up as a banner in a number of secret online groups of ex-orthodox rebels. I am a Texan who joined the hasidim as an idealistic teen, and I’m a lesbian, but no matter—some among them saw in my book something of themselves. Most of them had grown up in yeshiva schools that denied them secular knowledge. I presumed the same of the girl on the steps. Their schools often claimed to meet government required standards and drew public funds.
In New York, the ultra-orthodox constitute a solid and powerful voting bloc. There has been extensive documentation of government officials blocking and delaying investigations into this.
Some saw the series Unorthodox as a moving peek into a quaint and separate world. But to me, the hasidim are not an anomaly, and not an irrelevant world apart. They are Americans. Their children are Americans. Us. And every day, their yeshivas immerse many thousands of American children in fulltime religious studies of ancient texts without providing the most basic English literacy, math, science, literature, or cultural knowledge.
Some of my secret online friends can barely read English, and they an be as culturally ignorant as new immigrants. Online, they share trials and successes. They cheer one another—who learned to read, started to learn real math, who got into college, who got to see their children. They share tips for navigating their strange new world. But, now alone, some flounder, and yearn for the support of family and community they once had. The group is sadly marked with addiction, depression, and suicide.
Theirs is in large part a communal self; leaving home can be like losing one’s entire identity, almost 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 (like the particular Lubavitch community in which I once lived)—and the others, the majority, who eschew all things secular. Of my friends online, those who suffer the most are stuck in a different bridge space too messy or static for uplifting stories: They remain among the hasidim burdened with secrets. Or they rebel and lose their children to the community, upheld by the courts in lockstep with the hasidim (Esty’s mother). Or they leave, but not really, because they leave their hearts behind with angry fathers and mothers afraid to connect (Esty’s grandmother hangs up in terror). Or they move on, like Esty’s mother, and, lacking skills, they struggle for years to adjust to life in this, their own, country.
As hasidim, we were taught to think of truth as monolithic. Truth is in a book, a finality found outside of oneself. Truth 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 Unorthodox, Yanky is an unwitting, sensitive, boy/man who adores his mother. In a way, he never got an adolescence—that time of grandiose dreams, of sexual exploration, and breaking rules. Intentionally or not, their yeshivas repress budding sexuality by exhausting the boys; older students study six days a week until dinner and then return for night classes. If caught speaking to a girl, or touching a boy, a boy can be expelled, which can cripple the future for the student and his family.
At the wedding, Yanky 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, like a child who can’t bring himself to violate what until now has been a rule, his hand stops. But Esty understands. She reaches across the table and puts her hand on his.
After the wedding, Yanky’s unpaid “career” will be Torah study. Newlywed couples like Esty and Yanky typically apply for government assistance right after marriage. Which is why, as of 2018, hasidic Rockland County had the highest welfare rate in the nation.
When Esti flees to Berlin, like the girl on the steps she becomes homeless. Esty would have attended a girls’ yeshiva, taught basic English from books that had no pictures of females in them, books with offensive lines blacked out and whole pages removed. She would have been given to Yanky, a boy chosen for her, at seventeen. With birth control forbidden, she would soon be too busy to dream.
Now in Berlin and pregnant, in her naivete, her ignorance of the world, Esty dreams of becoming a fine musician. She attempts to audition for a respected music conservatory.
The character Moishie is a different product of that education, a rebel who still craves the rabbi’s parental attention. There is no holy place to put his hunger. In his anger, he 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, and a way to keep students dependent on parents and rabbis for knowledge. In Berlin without a phone as they search for Esty, Yanky follows Moishie around like a child. To both Yanky and Moishie, the phone is a font of forbidden wisdom. Yanky grabs Moishie’s phone from him 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. Lucky for us, post-Holocaust the Lubavitch movement 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 was officially accredited as college preparatory, although my son would have no secular classes. “Just sign a blank form,” the rabbi said. “We’ll fill out the rest.” We wouldn’t have qualified, but then he didn’t ask our financial information. That didn’t seem to be relevant.
After I left the hasidim, I found The Truman Show and wept for children raised in those communities. To me, it was if they are kidnapped at birth, then formed in a controlled and fictional universe.
That is, hasidic communities are not a quaint anomaly. They are indeed relevant—as a mirror on shoddy supervision of government funds, or on politicians and judges who bend the law to curry votes, or on secular authorities who avoid forcing yeshivas into compliance, afraid to be accused of trodding on religious freedom.
In Unorthodox, Esty was told that her absent mother was crazy. Esty’s mother wasn’t crazy. She was a lesbian who fled a community that erased her. Like Esty’s mother, I, too, wait for a knock from any of those 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, an Amazon bestseller and soon to be an opera with composer Lori Laitman and director Beth Greenberg.