An immigrant to the wider world adjusts her compass

Four years ago I celebrated my first Thanksgiving. I remember sitting on a metal park bench outside of my grandmother’s apartment building trying to find the right words to describe how thankful I was for her generosity. It was a windy day and fallen leaves were spinning in circles on the surface of the white stone pavement. I thought about what a challenge the wind must have been for the Pilgrims, and I knew that while the wind wasn’t creating challenges in my life I had in fact just landed on new territory. It had been only a few days since I had traveled across the ocean that separated the insular Lubavitch community in Crown Heights from the secular world outside of it.

My pilgrimage began only a month earlier—on Simhat Torah, when Jews around the world were dancing with the Torah.

I made sure every lock on the front door was bolted. I climbed down the stairs to my room in the basement. It was dark down there, but switching on a light just wasn’t an option; this was a holy day. I needed every minute I could buy to hide what I was doing. I left my door half open, open enough for me to hear someone opening the locks of my house, and closed enough to prevent anyone from hearing me in case they walked in unnoticed. I sat down on my bed. I was alone. Yet, I seemed to be in the unwanted presence of multitudes of thoughts and fears. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do this. I had consciously decided that I would pick up the phone, but I couldn’t picture doing it. I couldn’t picture myself breaking a contract that I knew I had signed and was lucky to have signed, as a soul without a body thousands of years ago. I couldn’t see myself disobeying God’s law, one so important to Him that during the times of the Temple a desecrator would be deserving of death. I couldn’t imagine what life would be without the Torah, without Shabbos, without knowing what God wanted from me, without knowing the purpose of my creation and the creation of the entire universe. I feared that I was doing something terribly wrong, something that would haunt me forever, something that would deem me tainted; and something I would always regret.

My parents had taken tremendous pride in my observance of Judaism; how could I disappoint them? They had devoted the last 19 years of their lives raising my eight siblings and me to be Lubavitch. They davened with us, and trained us to practice all the rituals, teaching and following all the laws pertaining to holidays, daily routines, dress, diet and more. Besides, for my parents this lifestyle was an exciting discovery; they themselves were not bom into the community. They had joined Lubavitch before they got married. I could not explain to myself why I was preparing myself to hurt my parents and My hand moved towards the telephone. At that moment, the casual action had become an action filled with deep meanings, of loss, of fear, of freedom, of individuality. The gray plastic telephone felt cold. I crouched over it, lifted the receiver and held it to my ear. There was a dial tone. It sounded louder than it did during the week. I had sinned just by touching the phone on a holy day, and by causing the device to spring into action, but relief was the only lightning that struck. All of a sudden, an entire year of thought materialized into action. The phone company now had my feelings on record.

The days following Simhat Torah were rather frightening. I walked among my family and friends afraid to reveal to them what I had done. Within the community I was a stranger in my own disguise. Fortunately, my father’s family lived in Manhattan, and with no one else to call, I reached out to them. As soon as I contacted them, they offered me support. My grandmother invited me to live with her as I began to attend Hunter College. Even after being diagnosed with cancer two months later, she made herself available to me for late-hour discussions and weekend walks. She gave me a safe place to confront my own confusion and pain. She was a constant, loving and most valuable source of support up until her death in December 2002.

One of the breakthrough moments she saw me through was when I bought my first pair of pants. I really can’t say how I brought myself to swing open the glass doors of the Ann Taylor store on Forty-Second Street and Lexington Avenue. It had been six weeks since I left Crown Heights and I had never even thought about buying a pair of pants. But, there I was watching as my hand reached out and grabbed a pair of black velvet pants.

I kept thinking to myself “But you can’t buy them without trying them on. No, don’t try them on. If you try them on you are going to be too scared to take them home. Buy them and leave, Malkie, leave. If they are that awful you’ll return them later.”

I raced towards the counter. I watched as the cashier carefully folded them, wrapped them in pink paper and placed them into a clear Ann Taylor bag. I didn’t think they should be treated with any less care. They were my pants, my first pair of pants. I wanted to tell everyone in the store; I thought they should know that this was no ordinary shopping excursion. Instead, I paid and raced toward the door, afraid that if I stayed any longer I’d give them back.

I walked into my grandmother’s house and told her about my purchase. She smiled and eagerly asked to see them. I put them on for her but refused to look down at my lower body. I could feel them on my hips and I knew they were probably seemed ridiculous. I couldn’t believe how selfish I was, bringing my own worries into my grandmother’s death. Either way, it was clear that while I was trying not to think about my clothes, I couldn’t avoid it.

I let go of my grandmother’s hand and, as quietly as I could, walked out of the room. I ran towards my closet and pulled the first skirt I saw off its hanger. It was long and khaki. I took off my pants, slid on the skirt and buried the sacrifice my relationship with my Creator to live a selfish life governed by temptations. Would movies and fun parks now become my spiritual peaks?

I was 19 years old and I’d been rather comfortable in my role as the oldest of nine siblings. For years I shared the dream of many of my peers: I’d get married, have children, raise them to be Lubavitchers and work with my future husband as emissaries of the Rebbe. I was certain that the only way I could attain happiness was by maintaining the purity of that way of life. The Torah, I was told, was a God given shield, protecting me from the dangerous possibility of entering a corrupt society, I was constantly reminded how lucky I was to have the words of God guiding my every move, I blessed God numerous times a day for giving me the opportunity to be His servant. I thanked Him for giving me the privilege of keeping His commandments.

The Torah was the centerpiece of my life. I was always happy doing what God wanted me to do, dressing in what God wanted me to wear, eating what God wanted me to eat, behaving the way God wanted me to behave.

I wished I could somehow make it disappear, the prescribed path my life was expected to follow. I could not feel blessed or privileged to have that book to call my own. I wanted to go to school and learn. I wanted to find out how other people led their lives. I wanted to know if the only true way to live was the way I knew it. I questioned the authority of the Torah. I found myself choosing between two totally different lives. I either thought the Torah was divine and therefore committed my life to it, or I would recognize it as text that a select few considered to be divine, a precept that would no longer obligate me to the Hasidic lifestyle. For a year already, I had examined and reexamined which one I should choose. I battled between the powerful sense of purpose supplied by my community and a life that was unknown to me.

Perhaps I was jumping into an ocean filled with deadly sharks. I felt as though I was separating myself from a species I had grown to love, from people who had the secret recipe for life. They were blessed with brilliant scholars, smarter than I by far. They surely knew what I could do to reconnect with God. They were my celebrities, my role models, my inspiration to live; how could I trust my young desire to leave? Would I ever be able to forgive myself later? too big. Maybe sizing was different for pants. My grandmother confirmed that they were too big on me but insisted that they were beautiful anyway and recommended that I “take them for a walk” around the block. First, I thought, I should try sitting in them. So I turned on the television and sat with my legs folded just stared at the screen. About a half an hour later, once it was already dark, I stood up ready to take a walk around the corner. Occasionally, I’d sneak a peak at my legs and then lift my face up in shock. Putting on a pair of pants was essentially letting everyone know that I took the plunge into a life that left me isolated from the community in which I was raised.

I had stepped out into a world where everything seemed strange, but now I couldn’t even recognize myself during the previous six weeks, I had managed to maintain a connection to my past by adhering to their dress code. It meant that there was still a possibility of reentering the community if I wanted to. I was afraid of falling; I was afraid to find out that I might not be able to stand up and live without their support. But now, I was ready. I was ready for the opportunity to go to college, to meet people from other backgrounds, to eat different foods, to wear what I wanted to wear and to construct my own value system. I was ready to fall away from my past and embrace the life the fall would bring. I no longer felt the need to hide behind what was familiar.

In my Hasidic elementary school, my teacher would often tell the story of a religious girl who was sentenced to death in Russia. Her death sentence was unusually cruel. Her long hair would be tied to the back of a horse drawn wagon and she would be dragged through the streets so that everyone could see what would happen to them if they broke the Russian law. Being the righteous woman she was, she took pins, similar to safety pins, and sewed her clothing to her skin in order to keep it from being exposed as she was dragged through the streets of the Russian town. I have no idea whether or not this incident actually took place. However, growing up this woman was my role model, as she is for thousands of Hasidic girls. She put herself through additional pain so that she would be modest while she was being killed.

I realized that I admired this woman for refusing to transgress a principle that was important to her. Yes, she sacrificed her wellbeing for modesty, but perhaps it is enough to say that she sacrificed her wellbeing for a principle. Although my principle seemingly contradicted hers, and upholding it was not going to be as torturous, I was doing something that was important to me.

From then on, every time I put on a skirt it reminded me of my past—that is until December 23, 2002, the day my grandmother died. I was sitting opposite Debbie, my aunt, holding the hand of my grandmother. But all I could think about was that my father was on his way, and I was wearing pants. Although I had been wearing pants for over a year now, he had never seen me without a skirt. I couldn’t imagine standing in front of him wearing a pair of pants. I knew it would disappoint him, not as badly as his mother’s impending death… but still. I couldn’t do it to him. But then, I also couldn’t leave my grandmother’s side to change into a skirt. That seemed ridiculous.  I couldn’t believe how selfish I was, bringing my own worries into my grandmother’s death.  Either way, it was clear that while I was trying not to think about my clothes, I couldn’t avoid it.  I let go of my grandmother’s hand and, as quietly as I could, walked out of the room.  I ran towards my closet and pulled the first I saw off its hanger.  It was long and khaki.  I took off my pants, slid on the skirt and buried the pants under a pile of junk, just in case my father would open the closet door. Was I really afraid, or was I eager to give him the respect he deserved? Perhaps I was embracing who I was, a young woman with the possibility of wearing both skirts and pants.

Malkie Schwartz is the founder and director of Footsetps. She studied Creative Writing and Philosophy at Hunter College and UMAss Amherst.

Now she helps other questioners

Two months before my grandmother passed away I became aware that there are other young people from various Hasidic communities who need, as I did, resources to help them think about what direction they want to pursue in their lives. I’d had my grandmother for the basic support that allowed me to go to college, but I know that this was an unusual circumstance.

The focus of a Hasidic education is to prepare a youngster to fulfill his or her religious responsibilities, and it does not prepare people to seek opportunities outside of the community Ultra-Orthodox communities shut their members off from the contemporary secular world in order to keep outside influences from challenging their basic beliefs or affecting their highly structured way of life. Education is carefully controlled; for boys it consists almost entirely of religious subjects. Girls are given a limited practical education. Exposure to radio, television, movies, secular newspapers and literature of any kind is officially prohibited. For many this is a satisfying life, one that offers security and comfort. But there is no alternative for those who question the community’s values or who want to get an education.

Choosing one’s own path or questioning the community’s usually means suffering a wrenching break from family members, who are at best critical and, at worst, reject them completely Friends and community institutions often withdraw their support, and people leaving this ultra-Orthodox world enter mainstream America as new immigrants in every sense.

This profound sense of cultural disorientation and isolation, coupled with a lack of practical, marketable skills, makes it both extremely difficult and absolutely essential to acquire educational credentials and professional skills while coping with devastating loneliness. The stress can lead people to engage in extreme formerly prohibited behavior, such as drug and alcohol abuse, unsafe sex and criminal activity the new organization Footsteps enables people to access resources that help them adjust to the larger society.

Footsteps helps people who approach on their own initiative. Assistance is available to any member or former member of an ultra-Orthodox religious community whether that person has chosen to leave the community or to remain a part of it. Footsteps is not anti-religious, and does not attempt to persuade anyone to leave the ultra- Orthodox world. The fundamental principle that guides Footsteps is the right of the individual to choose his or her own way of life. If an individual does decide to explore the outside world. Footsteps offers the kinds of basic support needed to enable this quest: classes in preparing for a high-school equivalency certificate, basic information about the outside world, discussion about the emotional difficulties one may experience. While I try to provide people with the resources I received, I continue to base a lot of Footsteps programming on what I see were and are my own needs.

Every individual who seeks a life outside of the community has a different experience. I have begun explaining my own sense of loss with a parable that makes it easier to understand, Say you spend twenty years of your life thinking chocolate is the best food for you in every way good for your body as well as your soul. You can count on the fact that God and your entire support system of parents and friends will applaud each time you take a bite of chocolate. You eat chocolate and God smiles. You wake up at a certain time because if you wake up any later there will be no chocolate left. And when you get dressed, you dress according to the way people who eat chocolate should get dressed, perhaps in all brown clothes. And then, you can only go to school where they serve chocolate. What would it be like if you were to spend time with people who weren’t stocked up on chocolate? Too risky.

Now, entertain the possibility that there are other flavors, vanilla to name just one, and it is just as good for you. Most important, imagine what it would be like to live a life different from the “truth” that the “The Torah is Divine.” How does someone maneuver in a world of vanilla after stepping out of a world that was sterilized and protected from any vanilla influence? The challenges that the vanilla world presents me with leaves me with a unique taste for vanilla—one that is bittersweet.