Where rebellious sons (and daughters) go

Haaretz, Israel/February 25, 2010

D. sounded surprised when asked what he thinks about his beard. He has never pondered the question of how he would look without it. He doesn't spend time twisting the ends of his mustache, contemplating what life would be like if he were clean-shaven. Perhaps this is because D. has never left the ultra-Orthodox community. Though he defines himself as yotze beshe'aylah - the Jewish equivalent of a lapsed Catholic, say - he isn't one to spend time imagining "what if?"

There is no doubt that among those having a good time at Tel Aviv bars on Thursday nights, D. stands out. Nevertheless, he wears his beard thick, intentionally ragged.

"When I go out to a club or a pub," he says, "I don't take my skullcap or my fringed garment off like other [former] ultra-Orthodox do. I don't change into a T-shirt. If it's a Saturday night, I go there in my Sabbath clothes. In principle, I'm not 'investing' anything in looking any different from the way I look in my natural environment."

Nonetheless, the sight of D. constitutes a sort of visual cognitive dissonance - an ultra-Orthodox fellow at the bar with a glass of beer.

He often frequents a lesbian bar. Sometimes a woman will come up and ask what a guy like him is doing in a place like that. His appearance provokes some pretty good conversation openers. People are captives of images, he observes, and he exploits the advantages of the rabbi costume to the fullest. When he is in the right mood, he plunges into deep conversations. At the bar, freely displaying the other part of his identity, men and women both open up to him.

D.: "At first some people thought I was a horny ultra-Orthodox male, who wanted to watch girls kissing one another, but quite quickly they understood that I have good friends there. I feel comfortable there."

He feels uncomfortable going around with his skullcap sometimes, because it symbolizes something he doesn't believe in, or when he feels that his two identities - the ultra-Orthodox and the other, hidden one - clash and cause a moral dilemma. For example, when he is asked to talk about religious ethics.

"Usually I evade this," D., says. "It sometimes happens that I'm asked, though, and I have no choice."

Latter-day Marranos

In contrast to D., who lives in peace with his beard and skullcap, S., whom I met several years ago, had a far more tortured and complex relationship with her wig. Every time she came home and closed the curtains, she would release her other personality, as expressed in a platinum-blonde buzz cut, well hidden in her daily life under a wig.

About five years ago some of these "split" ultra-Orthodox would refer to themselves as anusim, or Marranos, after the secret Jews of Inquisition Spain - only in reverse. They fanatically guarded their secret secular customs. On Shabbat, for example, they would smoke a furtive cigarette in hiding or turn on a light. They would eat something on Yom Kippur and sneak away to a movie matinee.

The epithet was brilliant mainly because of their sense of persecution. When I started to take an interest in their story and look for people to interview, I received an anonymous phone call. A man on the other end of the line told me to wait in a certain park in Ramat Gan. He appeared, glancing from side to side, as though he were an underground activist living under a totalitarian regime.

It seems that what was once thoroughly concealed in the religious world is today more open, thanks to the Internet. "First of all, people have discovered they aren't alone," says D. "They go out together more. They are more daring. If it used to be that people were afraid to go to a non-kosher restaurant, now three people together dare to do so. People learn from one another how to behave in secular society. Where it is a good idea to go so they won't be outed."

The Internet also provides an opportunity to meet women. It is clear to D. that the number of ultra-Orthodox who desecrate the Sabbath is increasing all the time because of the possibilities offered online. While in some ways these people act as if they work for an espionage organization, life under an assumed identity has never been easier.

Ultra-Orthodox society does not hurry to expel a rebellious son. The sky does not fall when it is discovered that a certain Hasid goes out to clubs. And altogether, in a world outside that is controlled by social networks in which an assumed identity may open all kinds of new possibilities, and everyone who is abnormal becomes normal because there are a lot of other people like him - what's wrong with a second, or third, skin?

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