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After Growing Up in a Orthodox World:

Raising My Voice

Austin

I stand with my back pressed against the cold glass of the sliding door, heart pounding, wishing to disappear. Uncle Ben towers above me, asking questions about school in his booming voice. I try to answer but it’s no good. I can barely whisper.

“Is something wrong with you?” he asks. I press harder into the door, unable to take my eyes off of the bagel crumb on the floor next to his polished black loafer.

“What’s wrong with her?” Ben bellows to my mother and father. “She won’t talk to me. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever heard Esther’s voice.” I feel queasy. My cheeks are hot. My mother tells Ben to leave me alone and, as they quarrel, I open the sliding door a crack and slip through it into the backyard, avoiding contact with the relatives for the rest of the afternoon.

On the way home, my mother continuously complains to my father, “She’s shy. Why should she talk to him anyway?… Plenty of children are shy… . How dare he!” Nobody asks how I feel. I sit silently staring out the subway-train window.I swallow hard but the painful lump in my throat won’t go away. At home, I go directly to the basement, sharpen my #2 pencil and take my diary out of hiding. My letters are wavy and uneven as I pour my feelings along with my tears onto its pink pages. Then, with a thin silver key, I lock the day’s embarrassment in along with my dreams and fantasies, fictional stories and drawings, musings and random thoughts. I hold the book to my heart for a few seconds before returning it to its hiding place.

Fast-forward 30 years. I am an outspoken attorney and nobody believes that I am shy. I have a family and many friends. My colleagues marvel at my effortless ability to write a convincing brief. Yet nobody knows about my other writings — the ones that continue to bubble up inside me and spill out into my journal and laptop.

I have just turned 40, my interest in legal work has faded, and my desire to write has become urgent. I have come to understand that my voice was silenced in the Orthodox, male-centered, Syrian- Jewish community where I grew up. It is only in my hidden writings that I feel safe to explore my true, authentic self.

I quit my legal job and sign up for Creative Writing I at the University of Texas, University Extension. There, I encounter a diverse group of 15 strangers who view my writing as “exotic.” They question me about being Jewish, about being a mother, about being 40. They don’t “get” me, and that gives me comfort. I feel safe because they are far removed from my “real life.” The classroom becomes my grown-up basement; my classmates extensions of my pink diary. Several of us sign up for Creative Writing II and III, and then III again. Before I am ready to stop taking classes, I run out of classes to take.

I continue to write on my own and tell almost no one. When friends ask, “What do you do all day when the kids are at school?” I blush and quickly change the subject. When pushed, I apologetically confess to writing and feel as though I’ve revealed a shameful secret. Somehow Leila, an acquaintance, finds out and asks me to join a writing group. The women in the group are in my “real” life — they are my age and they have children. They are members of my temple.

My heart pounds. Part of me wants to disappear. “No,” is what I intend to say to the invitation because the thought of her — or anyone — seeing my work is unbearable. Instead, I hear my voice responding loudly. “Thank you. I would love to.”

As I drive to the first meeting, I feel like I am about to shed a mask that has kept me safely hidden my whole life. Having been raised in a culture where women did not have permission to express themselves, I am sure my writings are insignificant and insufficient, at best. In revealing those writings — and with them, the most inti mate parts of myself — I wonder if I am about to expose something grotesque.

The first meeting is agony. The group discusses my work and I force a smile as I try to shake off the feeling that a band of strangers has entered my bedroom and is scrutinizing my naked body. The discomfort extends through many meetings, but I force myself to take notes dutifully on the group’s feedback, and go home to rework my manuscripts. At some point, I come to understand — and actually believe — that the group is not judging me. They care about what my writing means to me. They want to help me dig deeper. They want me to share my truth.

As a group, we go through several incarnations; members come and go. Leila and I are together for the duration. In the end, four of us settle into a cozy sisterhood — Andrea, Kit, Leila and me. This incarnation feels right, like the cylinders of a lock clicking into place. It is warmer and more intimate than earlier combinations of people in the group. We never get right to work in a business-like fashion, but customarily hug hello and spend the first 20 minutes catching up.

We did not intend to be a homogeneous group — each of us believes in the value of diversity — but we are all in our mid 40s to early 50s. We each have two kids; they attend the same middle school and high school. Three of us are born Jewish and Kit is as good as Jewish — married to a Jewish man, living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children.

Our writing is diverse with the only common thread being Judaism. Andrea often writes about Jewish food and traditions — her family’s experiences with pressing olive oil in Israel at Chanukah; her quest to find the perfect challah recipe for Shabbat. Kit is writing a youngadult novel about a girl in post-Holocaust Germany who finds a diary in her attic and learns that her house had been taken from a Jewish family during the war. Leila is working on a memoir about growing up mate parts of myself — I wonder if I am about to expose something grotesque. The first meeting is agony. The group discusses my work and I force a smile as I try to shake off the feeling that a band of strangers has entered my bedroom and is scrutinizing my naked body. The discomfort extends through many meetings, but I force myself to take notes dutifully on the group’s feedback, and go home to rework my manuscripts. At some point, I come to understand — and actually believe — that the group is not judging me. They care about what my writing means to me. They want to help me dig deeper. They want me to share my truth. As a group, we go through several incarnations; members come and go. Leila and I are together for the duration. In the end, four of us settle into a cozy sisterhood — Andrea, Kit, Leila and me. This incarnation feels right, like the cylinders of a lock clicking into place. It is warmer and more intimate than earlier combinations of people in the group. We never get right to work in a business-like fashion, but customarily hug hello and spend the first 20 minutes catching up. We did not intend to be a homogeneous group — each of us believes in the value of diversity — but we are all in our mid 40s to early 50s. We each have two kids; they attend the same middle school and high school. Three of us are born Jewish and Kit is as good as Jewish — married to a Jewish man, living a Jewish life and raising Jewish children. Our writing is diverse with the only common thread being Judaism. Andrea often writes about Jewish food and traditions — her family’s experiences with pressing olive oil in Israel at Chanukah; her quest to find the perfect challah recipe for Shabbat. Kit is writing a youngadult novel about a girl in post-Holocaust Germany who finds a diary in her attic and learns that her house had been taken from a Jewish family during the war. Leila is working on a memoir about growing upwith an emotionally detached father whose touchstone experience was liberating concentration camps. My fiction inevitably takes me back to my Orthodox upbringing in Brooklyn: an Orthodox woman secretly befriends a gentile, lesbian neighbor; an elderly woman rejoices in her freedom when her husband — a former stand-up comic in the borscht-belt — is near death.

We give loving attention to each of our works, one by one. First what we appreciate: Andrea’s note that challah dough should feel like a baby’s pulke when properly kneaded; Leila’s poignant description of the elderly World War II veteran who broke down crying.

Pretty quickly, we turn to our questions and to pointing out inconsistencies: “Kit, Steffie seems older than seven, her conversations with her grandfather are too sophisticated.” “Leila, do you have any childhood memories of warm, loving times with your father? You write only about his detachment.” We welcome the difficult questions; we have unshakable respect for one another’s intelligence and emotional insight. And we all have the same goal.

At the beginning, I share only fiction with the group. Many of my characters are women not quite satisfied with their lives. They are searching — always searching — for meaning, for some unknown something. The group probes and prods for emotional details. “How does Reva feel when she discovers Lucy is lesbian?” “What does Emma really long for?”

“Well, um, I’m not sure,” I often respond.

“Free-write on it,” Leila advises over and over again.

So I free-write in my characters’ voices and I discover that they are deeper and more alive than I imagined. I discover that their choices and their desires are their own, channeled through me but not controlled by me. I begin to cherish my characters. They are wonderfully flawed and irresistible in their vulnerability. My writing sisters embrace my characters, too, loving and nurturing them with all of their imperfections. They do not judge Reva’s dissatisfaction nor do they begrudge Emma her freedom after all the years.

And then, something amazing happens. My fiction goes on hold and I begin to write about my own life, my own emotions, my own search. I don’t make a conscious decision to do this, but it is what pours out onto the page. I reveal deeply personal thoughts and feelings that, in the past, I would have hidden away between the covers of my journal. But here I am, willing — even eager — to explore my innermost emotions with my writing sisters. With their encouragement, I send my essays out, seeking publication — eager to open my heart to all. Something has shifted. I trust my readers. I trust myself.

Our group solidifies and becomes a unit. We begin to do more than “critique” each other’s writing — we work together as a creative team, brainstorming ideas, coming up with connections that spill over between our writings. Like Leila’s terrifying dream, vividly described in the middle of her memoir. She is peacefully swimming until she comes upon a lifeless, waterlogged woman sitting at the bottom of the lake. The woman reaches out a white wrinkled hand to grab her. Leila awakens, terrified, heart pounding. The dream comes often, haunting her and causing her sleepless nights.

I point out to Leila how significant the lake dream is to her story. “Early in your memoir you talk about learning to swim in a lake in upstate New York at summer camp,” I say. “Then the lake lady comes in the middle. I think you need a water scene at the end, too.” She looks at me, interested but puzzled. We are all silent — contemplating.

“The mikveh!” I say, finally. “Water as purification — that would be a perfect ending.”

“Yes, yes,” Leila nods, smiles and quickly scribbles some notes. “Burke went to the mikveh when he converted to Judaism. And then there is my swim in upstate New York last summer — right after I came home from Germany…” Her eyes are shining, her cheeks, flushed. Five, maybe six months later, I write an essay about my one experience at the mikveh, a purification that led me away from a life of lies. Leila reads it and calls me before our meeting. “Wow, you have a mikveh story, too!” she exclaims. “What are you talking about?” I don’t remember until she reminds me that I helped her make a mikveh connection in her work. “It must have been sitting in your unconscious this whole time, Esther,” she says, “just waiting.”

Sometimes, as we sit together over warm mugs of tea, the group tells me that my voice is not loud enough — that my words are not coming through. They tell me lovingly, in compassionate tones that encourage me to try again. They wait patiently until I bring in another draft. But they are fierce, too. Their questions delve deep and refuse to let me go silent. In their support, they will not let me disappear.

And I do the same for each of them. Together, we come out of hiding. We speak.

Esther Mizrachi Moritz grew up in Brooklyn. She is at work on a novel about Reva, a strong Orthodox woman searching for her voice.