For the first five years of our marriage, my husband and I were hippies in Berkeley, California. Devotees of an Indonesian religious sect that talked in tongues, Steve union-organized university workers, while I batiked and strung jewelry for a living. Our house was a crashpad for ultra-left-wing politicos; our kitchen was heavy on granolas.
When my sister Joycie married a Sufi, it sparked an identity crisis for both me and Steve. I found myself grieved that Joycie wasn’t marrying a Jew, and boy, did my reaction surprise me. Suddenly I was reading The Last of the Just, and Steve and I were struggling to remember what little bits and pieces of Judaism we could. Steve started an Israeli stamp collection. We ran around Berkeley desperately seeking pastrami, bagels and half-sours; Telegraph Avenue was hardly a center for high-cholesterol, bubbe-and-zayde food staples.
Michael was born in ’67 and David in ’69, and by then our community had begun disintegrating into drugs, political fanaticism and meaningless, even callous, sex. Steve and I found ourselves saying, “The children should know their grandparents.” Soon we had repatriated to Boston.
That next year, living with my in-laws, was a nightmare. Steve had no job, and I was more or less entirely responsible for an infant and a toddler. Steve, by this time, had become obsessed with Judaism. He sat by himself in the den for hours at a shot reading Maimonides and Spinoza, while fressing on Italian ham submarines from nearby Revere.
He shared nothing with me—his quest was not only inward and exclusive, but almost hostile. After twelve months he surfaced from the den, and we moved into our own house which we glatt-kashered. The children started attending a yeshiva, and Steve became a disciple of the chassidic Bostoner rebbe. I was in shock, alone, confused, trapped, depressed, terrified at giving up on my marriage. Both sets of parents had stopped talking to us because of our religious extremism, Michael and David were now Yerachmiel and Reuven; Steve worked selling restaurant equipment during the day and studied at the rebbe’s shiur at night.
Like a “good” wife and mother, I tried to adjust to everything. I went to my own women’s study groups, but I hated the Orthodox women. I felt they were blind and passive (not like me— right!); I vented all my fury on them. Only on the Sabbath was I happy. I would lie in bed thinking about God (that was at least a relationship of my own), and then fall into the only restorative sleep of the week.
One day, after three years of this, I went to a lecture on “women’s religious needs,” given by an Australian Lubavitch woman. I asked her a question, and for the first time in literally years, someone actually heard the torment behind my words. “You feel torn in half as a baalas teshuvah (a newly religious Jew),” Atara answered me acceptingly. Finally someone was giving me permission to doubt and to seek. It was a turning point—the first time I was able to stop reacting to Steve’s domination, and to consider the challenge of ultra- Orthodoxy on my own.
One day, Steve came home and announced that our family was moving to Brooklyn’s Crown Heights; he’d taken a job in New York. Again, I worked hard to adapt. Like the old Berkeley days, our home again became a “crashpad”—but this time it was for mekareving (bringing people into ultra-Orthodox Judaism). I became a shadchan (matchmaker), arranging 22 marriages. My work was officially notarized and blessed by the Lubavitcher rebbe. To this day it amazes me that Steve and I projected an image of a vivacious marriage. People know so little! Our home seemed to exude such warmth. On the Sabbath, people gathered contentedly, singing, eating, talking. It strikes me as bitterly ironic that as a trustworthy and popular shadchan, I knew unbelievably intimate things about everyone else, yet who knew the first thing about my seemingly ideal marriage—that it was a devastated, empty husk?
It was in the fifteenth year of our marriage (our eighth in Crown Heights) that everything crumbled. Steve stopped coming home six nights a week, and would appear only on the Sabbath (apparently, he couldn’t stomach adultery on Shabbos). I eked through six months in a daze, took up chain-smoking, experienced panic attacks during which I couldn’t breathe. Soon Steve stopped coming home altogether. For the next three years (we divorced in 1980), I was a single parent in an emotionally destroyed household. And we were suddenly financially impoverished.
Reuven and Yerachmiel were grief-stricken and angry. At ages 11 and 13, they started smoking, avoiding school and turning to drugs. Before entering the house, I used to pray that I wouldn’t find anything terrible there. The boys stole money from me and watched T.V. on Shabbos, which, given my Lubavitch life, was a sickening blow. One day, home alone, the eleven year old drank everything in the liquor cabinet and ended up hospitalized.
Steve left not only us—he left his entire life. He shaved his beard, cut off his payess (earlocks), and threw out his regulation black suits. Wearing leisure suits, driving a BMW and living on Long Island, his business prospering more than ever, he set out to seduce the boys with new-found freedoms and riches. And it wasn’t hard.
Life with Mom was impoverished, full of restrictions, drab. At Dad’s, the boys ate non-kosher Chinese dinners, smoked, partied with non-Jewish friends. At the ages of 13 and 15, they asked to live full-time with their father and his then-current girlfriend. (He had a series.) With unspeakable pain, and a feeling that fighting their wishes would be a profound mistake, I caved in to their request. I believed that I might best win them back by letting them go.
For the next few years, I actually functioned decently during the week. But on Shabbos, I felt strong enough to fall apart. I would light the candles and forget to say the blessing. I would cry to the candles; cry out my rage. I would walk into the boys’ rooms and weep into their pillows. I couldn’t sit in a chair or eat, I’d walk in and out of the house, in and out, go to shul, come back from shul, in and out. Only on the Sabbath was there a presence strong enough— was it God? angels in my sleep? the neshama (oversoul) that accompanies us on the seventh day?—to give me the fortitude that grieving requires, to hold my hand through the searing loneliness.
For six years, I saw David and Michael (those were their names again) for only the briefest of moments. I would go to their house—they weren’t there. I would call—they would hang up on me. It was an extraordinary tribulation, and one that I shared with no one.
Indeed, I learned the meaning of faith. Faith is the ability to continue doing mitzvahs (righteous acts) when you’re alone, angry, broke. Faith is realizing that coming back to your empty house on the Sabbath and crying is not the worst thing in the world. My model became the young King David, all by himself in the fields, an outcast, nobody liking him, abandoned by his family. He had to have cried a lot, I told myself, like me. My extended family (including my twin sister, and another set of twin siblings) had continued, since the first days of my ultra-Orthodoxy, to shun me.
The mirror terrified me. Who was I? A matchmaker? A hippie who tie-dyed shirts? I wasn’t a wife or even a mother anymore. Who had I been for the past twenty years? The scariest part was realizing fully for the first time that I’d never really chosen my life.
Gradually, I got on with living. I found a niche for myself in the modern Orthodox (not ultra-Orthodox) world. I took off my shaytle (wig) that I’d worn for eight years, and practiced a more lenient Judaism. I went to the beach and indulged in “mixed swimming”—men and women at the same beach—for the first time in ages. It felt fabulous.
I got an M.S. in special education, dated men, and started my first full-time job, teaching for the Board of Education. Before, I’d always worked part-time within the ultra-Orthodox community, thinking of myself as Steve’s helpmate, not as a professional in my own right. Before, I always used to turn my check immediately over to Steve.
Slowly I discovered who I was: an opinionated, honest, private, fearful, fun-loving, loyal, generous-hearted, dependent and off-beat person. I realized that I am an intensely spiritual person after all, ever grateful to God who has been my rock throughout. Slowly, I became fiercely independent.
A year and a half ago—eight years after Steve walked out on me—-my ex-husband got divorced yet again. Right after that Michael called me, and, as if we had spoken the day before, said, “Ma, can you help me with my English paper?”
“Sure,” I said.
He came with his books on Shabbos, and we talked and talked.
A few weeks later my younger son, David, called to talk about his father’s divorce. He mentioned that he had written about his Lubavitch childhood for a college course. The professor—probably shocked that this all-American kid had once been ultra-Orthodox—wrote back comments in Yiddish. David was very touched. It was his first successful reconnection to his childhood.
If a Gypsy fortuneteller had told me thirty years ago that this was the life I would lead, I would’ve laughed at her and refused to pay until she stopped screwing around and told me the truth.
My story could never have been a man’s story, only a woman’s: lost for 25 years in a concoction of other people’s needs and in my own fears and in dissimulation.
Sometimes one’s own life takes forever to begin.
Miriam Weiss-Katz works as a language coordinator for special education classes in Queens, NY.