“Yearning to Breathe Free”

Refugees from the hasidic world

The women are doing all they can to make me feel welcome (plying me with food, complimenting my sweater, producing photos of children), though I am sure this is just as awkward for them as it is for me. All of them are members of the extremely insular Satmar Hasidic sect, and mingling with a secular Jew like me—let alone having one in their home for a meal—is something most would do only under very unusual circumstances, if at all. But despite their hair coverings (monochromatic cloth turbans) and modest dress (long sleeved, high-necked sweaters, skirts well below the knee, thick stockings), there is something about these women that seems familiar, and soon I begin to feel more at ease.

As we eat, the women pepper me with questions: What exactly is a dissertation, and a Ph.D., for that matter? Is there any money in this line of work? Will I publish a book, and will they be in it? These women are hardly meek or shy, as those who would equate their tradition-bound role with submissiveness might expect. Their profound lack of familiarity with the ways of the outside culture is striking, certainly. Contemporary Hasidic ideology dictates that they be raised to avoid almost all exposure to what the community understands to be the corrupt secular society; as such they (as well as men) are not supposed to watch television, see movies, read secular newspapers, magazines, or books, use the Internet, or go to college. However, this does not stop them from being curious, and from trying to get a clear picture of who I am and what it is I want from them.

I try to explain that I am interested in them because, to an outsider at least, it seems their lives might be quite difficult. Responsible for bearing and raising as many as 10 or 12 children (to husbands they have met only once or twice before marriage), they are not permitted to engage in the kind of religious study men do, and are instead expected to focus on maintaining a Jewish home and family. How do they handle so many children? Do they ever get time for themselves? Do they sometimes wish they could sit and learn as the men do?

The women immediately jump in to correct my “misimpression.” They know all about feminism, they assure me, but the feminists are wrong. They are happy and fulfilled by what they do—bringing Jewish children into the world and raising them in a Jewish home and community is the most important work there is. Yes, of course they have their challenges; this life is not always easy but, then again, it is hard to be a Jew, and we all must make sacrifices to live as God’s “chosen.”

As I listen, I try to imagine myself in their place. This is impossible.

It is getting late and, one by one, the women excuse themselves, citing children who need bathing and bedtime stories. Several mention that it is rare for them to have a night out like this, an occasion to reflect on and talk about their lives; those who were relatively quiet throughout the evening explain that their community’s emphasis on female modesty sometimes makes it hard for them to talk about themselves at all.

All the guests have left, and Gitty, the hostess, motions for me to sit down. I do, and she pulls her chair next to mine. “So, what did you think?” she asks, somewhat conspiratorially.

Just then, Gitty’s daughter, Chanie, arrives at the apartment with her 3-year-old son in tow. Wearing a pretty wig (no turban) and a fashionable suede skirt, Chanie introduces herself to me and smiles. “So what did you think?” she asks, echoing her mother’s words and tone precisely. She has a mischevious glint in her eye.

I tell Chanie and Gitty that I found the women impressive— lively and somehow tough, despite their obvious modesty. I say that I am very interested in spending more time among them. Though I may not be able to muster their conviction, or to reconcile what they believe with other things I know about the world and how it works, I am hoping that these women will help me see things from their perspective. Chanie smiles politely, waits a minute, then replies, “Well, that’s all very well and good, but do you want to hear the real story, the truth? The truth?” she asks again, her eyebrows raised with intent. 1 am stunned and say nothing.

Chanie makes it clear that she is profoundly religious, that she loves Judaism and the Hasidic way of life. She and her husband keep all the commandments and they are raising their son to do the same. But then she looks at her mother and says, “1 bet they talked all about their children and how wonderful their lives are, didn’t they?” Her mother nods and suppresses a laugh.

“These women are very secretive,” Chanie continues. “Look, there is negativity and then there is the truth, and the truth includes positive and negative. These women are not able to be honest, especially in a group. There is a lot of hypocrisy here among the Satmar women, and a high rate of suicide. They don’t know how to go any deeper than their shirt. They may know the truth subconsciously, but they are not even aware of it.”

I don’t know how to respond. Is this true about the suicide rate? I have heard from doctors about high rates of anxiety and depression among the Hasidim (not just the Satmarers), as well as spousal abuse, but it is not yet clear to me whether this is a result of the lifestyle, or other factors. And suicide? This is news to me. There isn’t anything published about suicide that I have seen, though I have been in close contact with a psychiatrist who treats many Satmar patients and has told mc that a large percentage of his patients suffer from anxiety, panic, and depressive disorders. However, the fear of exposure (related to the belief that mental illness is a punishment from God for religious laxity) prevents the community from openly acknowledging these issues, and doctors who treat the Hasidim tend to keep this information quiet, out of respect for the community. This psychiatrist has also, interestingly, identified a syndrome he calls “post- mikvah panic disorder” among women who faint or have panic attacks after going to the mikvah because they are anxious about having sex, which they must do after the mikvah.

“No one will ever say their kid drove them crazy, because that would imply that they are not good mothers,” Chanie continues. “And there is a lot of emphasis on appearance. The women are formal and neat and put together, but not chic, and do not express any individuality. And everyone monitors everyone else.”

Gitty agrees and notes that when people come over to her home, she has to hide the books she reads in English (the language of the outside society) for fear that the women will talk about her as being “too modern;” such a designation could taint not only Gitty’s reputation, but that of her family, negatively affecting relatives’ marriage and job prospects. Gitty then tells me that whenever she has guests, she has to put away wedding photographs that show her daughter’s hand on her husband’s shoulder—a gesture of affection considered inappropriately intimate by community standards.

“And I still don’t understand why I can’t drive, why it’s immodest,” Gitty shrugs. “But that’s what we believe. That’s how it goes here, by us.” Chanie then tells me that she feels that she had her baby too young (at 19) and was robbed of her youth. Sometimes she resents it, even though she could have opted to wait; it was just that the peer and community pressure had been too great.

“And did you notice all of their ‘Baruch Hashems’?” Gitty interrupts.

I had noticed them, though I was prepared; Hasidic people often say “Baruch Hashem”—”Thank God”—after they are asked how they are, or, indeed, when they are referring to anything positive in their lives; this functions as a hedge against the “evil eye.”

“I have a real problem with that. If something is not going well, I admit it. I am honest,” Gitty declares.

Indeed. My head is spinning. An hour ago I convinced myself that I would endeavor to see the lives of these women from their own perspectives, which, all in all, appeared to be quite positive; 1 was going to enlist them to help me understand and try to convey the richness of meaning which they saw and which endowed their day-to-day existence. But here is another perspective entirely, and I suspect that, while it might be less typical—or at least less openly articulated—it is no less important

In the year since that dinner, 1 have spent hundreds of hours among people like Gitty and Chanie—Hasidim from various sects who, despite an attachment to the religion and certain elements of Hasidic culture, nonetheless feel oppressed by the community’s rigid rules and social scrutiny, forced to lead all manner of double lives in order to pursue their individual needs and desires—which include things like seeing movies, listening to classical music, reading philosophy, or watching a ball game on TV I have also met others who—for reasons ranging from a desire for more personal and intellectual freedom, to religious doubts, to the need to escape physical or sexual abuse—found it impossible to remain within this social structure and have taken the terrifying step of leaving the community, and sometimes the religion, altogether.

Significantly, however, the vast majority of these people— especially among the latter—have been men; out of the close to 70 people 1 have either spoken with, or know of, who have opted to leave Hasidic communities, no more than about 20 percent have been women.

When I ask Hasidim 1 have met about this gender difference, some claim it’s because women have less of a desire to transgress or leave the community than men; they feel that the community’s discouragement of female religious scholarship makes women less intellectually curious in general, and thus less likely to want to explore the world beyond community borders. Also, it is something of an open secret that many men in these communities see prostitutes and, because of this, others assume that the sexual motivations that often (though by no means exclusively) lead men to transgress do not exist for women, who, they feel, are “essentially” different in their sexual appetites. Obviously 1 don’t fully buy these explanations.

I have noticed that the particular emphasis on female modesty, which holds women responsible for thwarting male sexual temptation, tends to make many Hasidic women appear more controlled in their behavior than their male counterparts. And the lack of knowledge about sexuality among most Hasidic young women (and, to a lesser degree, young men) is profound, with most unquestioningly accepting what they are taught about the differences between male and female sexuality.

Most of all, however, it is likely that women’s primary responsibilities for the home and children, coupled with a double standard that sees a man’s transgressions as more “forgivable” than a woman’s, make even the thought of crossing boundaries both more remote, and riskier for women; without the time, and thus the opportunity, to explore the world beyond the community’s symbolic walls, women also seem to have more to lose than men (custody of their children, their reputations and, often, sources of financial support) if they were to do so— all this, despite their overall greater proficiency in English and knowledge of the outside world, which is, ironically, a direct result of the community’s understanding that women don’t have the “right mind” for Torah study and thus can spend more time on English and basic math. Further, the nature of the Hasidic community dictates that most all “rebellion” be hidden and private, given the risks, this may be even more true for women, making it harder for someone like me to identify and speak with female transgressors (significantly, I was able to meet groups of Hasidic men who have created “safe” spaces in which to hang out outside the community).

Nonetheless, there are women who do take these risks and some who actually leave. There is Layka, for example, the Satmar woman who, whenever she can get away, takes the subway to a Manhattan spa for a full-body massage, which, despite it being performed by a woman, flouts Elasidic standards of modesty and forces Layka to keep her visits secret. According to Layka, the Hasidic woman’s obligation to bear and raise so many children, though joyfully embraced by most, can nonetheless be very difficult on the body (not to mention the spirit). This is rarely discussed openly, and the thought of seeking physical pleasure for its own sake is one most Hasidic woman could not entertain without feeling dangerously immodest, or worse.

And then there is Estie, a divorced young Bobover woman who, once every few weeks, leaves her three kids with her unsuspecting sister and walks to the outskirts of her neighborhood to a bar run by Italians. Once there, she removes her wig, lights up a cigarette, and flirts with Tony, the muscular bartender who calls her “Estelle.” Though it never goes anywhere beyond the bar (were she to be discovered in this non-Jewish establishment, mixing freely with gentiles and men, Estie’s chances at remarriage in the community would evaporate), this flirtation is always a high point of Estie’s week. Indeed, it is the only time men look her in the eye, and sometimes admiringly at other parts of her body; it is the only time Estie ever feels truly desired.

And then there is Breindel, another divorced woman who lives in the Satmar enclave of Kiryas Joel. Breindel keeps a television set hidden in her closet and, when her kids are asleep, she plugs it in and watches late into the night, dreaming of becoming a famous actress who wears glamorous clothes. Breindel’s nearby neighbor, Chayla, not yet married and silently dreading it, sneaks off to the local library at least once a month where she devours romance novels and biographies, sometimes a whole book at one sitting.

While none of these women has expressed any intention to leave her community, there are others who, after much anguished consideration, have made the wrenching decision to do just that. Like the young woman from Crown Heights who, once a deeply religious girl, began having serious doubts after high school. While her religious questions ultimately sparked a fervent desire to attend college (which she ultimately did), she feels that it was a tour of the women’s mikvah that crystallized her desire to leave the community altogether; more alarming than the specific sights she saw on that tour was what the mikvah represented—namely, the impending loss of control over her 19-year-old body to her future husband and the inevitable children that she would be expected to produce, effectively ending all possibility of indulging her burgeoning curiosity about herself and the world.

And the woman from Boro Park who, after suffering years of abuse from a husband who routinely visited prostitutes, finally got the strength to leave him and the community; living with her two children on welfare, she keeps the commandments for the kids’ sake (she is no longer sure she believes), though she now wears pants and leaves her hair uncovered. She is looking for paid work and dreaming of the day she might be able to get her GED so she can apply to community college. Her close friend, another divorced woman originally from Williamsburg, has also left her abusive husband and the community. Since leaving, she has become lesbian-identified, though made the point of telling me that it was only after she left the community that she understood this about herself; among her Hasidic friends, the absence of sexual pleasure within marriage was common enough that she thought her feelings were normal. Despite leaving the community, she has remained observant in her own way, recently deciding that she would like to become a rabbi. And then there is the young Lubavitch woman, whose experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a prominent rabbi also led her to leave the community that not only failed to protect her from the abuse, but, even more troubling, tried to cover it up when it was brought to light. She credits the violin, which she has been learning to play since she left the community, with saving her life; despite her life-long love of classical music, growing up she was repeatedly told that listening to it, not to mention playing it, would damage her soul, “infecting” it with the corrupt souls of non-Jewish composers. Now she listens and plays as many hours as she can. For each of these women, making the difficult decision to leave the Hasidic community was informed by a sobering knowledge of the potentially devastating personal and social consequences of such a choice. All faced the prospect (and, in some cases, the reality) of losing their family’s love we support, being rejected by friends and other members of the community, and, if they are parents, the possibility of losing contact with their children. Many fought—and continue to grapple with—the guilt of bringing hurt and shame upon their families, and of rejecting a community and a way of life for which many of their ancestors died rather than give up. And each has had to face, often alone, the formidable obstacles to creating a life outside of the community, as a lack of secular education and credentials, and a general ignorance of how the outside society operates, constantly threaten to undermine their success in the secular world.

Even given these obstacles, however, the women who’d left ultimately felt they had no choice. And, despite their having become “immigrants” into the surrounding, secular society, they have found that the quintessentially American process of acculturation and self-reinvention is rarely complete and always ambivalent, accompanied by an inevitable sense of loss. Like all of us, they retain the imprint of their upbringing; the way they understand and act in the world was, of course, profoundly shaped by the values and traditions of the life they chose to leave. And so, rather than shed their Hasidic identities, many who leave find ways, often even subconsciously, to bring aspects of that life— a warm spirit of community, a clear involvement in tikkun olam, an interest in mysticism and Jewish spirituality—into the new lives that they make (and are always in the process of remaking) as they move forward.

Hella Winston is a sociologist living in New York City, Her forthcoming book, Unchosen, about people struggling to live within or leave their ultra-Orthodox communities, will be published by Beacon Press in the fall of 2005.