This wasn't the first time he had tried. At first, he filled the bathtub with water and tried to drown himself. Later, he thought of entering the sea and never coming out, filling his lungs with water and sinking into eternal rest. But every single time, he thought of his children, who would be left fatherless. "I am suffering," he told me when we first met months ago. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about how I'm living a double life: A secular living under the guise of a haredi. It feels like Purim, only in my life, I am always in costume."
Some two months after our first meeting in Tel Aviv, and after countless phone calls, his friend Racheli called me in the dead of night. "He did it," she said. "Matan has committed suicide. He choked himself to death. I don't know too many details, and I also have no one to ask, because his family doesn't even know what he's been through these past months. He has been suffering."
Matan (a pseudonym like all names in this article) was an ultra-Orthodox Jew who stopped believing several years ago. "I don't believe there is a God, but I also don't really rule it out," he said. "It can't have an unequivocal answer. Our understanding as humans ends somewhere...Religion tells you exactly how to understand things, how to interpret them. This is exactly the problem."
Matan was not alone. He was part of a growing phenomenon found deep within ultra-Orthodox society, part of a large group of haredim of all streams and divisions who call themselves the "Marranos," secret Jews - haredim against their will, who have stopped believing, but are forced to live a lie and hide it from the people around them. But contrary to haredim who openly leave behid the faith to live a secular lifestyle, these "Marranos" look ultra-Orthodox on the outside, but their inner world is the exact opposite.
"We, like the Marranos in Spain (Jews forced to abandon their religion during the 14th and 15th centuries), are forced to lead a different lifestyle than what we believe in," explains Moishi, a Hasidic Jew from central Israel. "I sobered up about religion five years ago, but I can't change my life, because I am closed off tightly within haredi society, with family and children. Inside, I am completely secular, but because of the fear of hurting my family, I have to remain haredi on the outside."
Moishi says he feels alone, trapped in an secluded, black and white world. "I can't stop thinking about what would happen if I were normal. Would I finally be happy? I am completely torn, a wreck inside," he says through teary eyes.
Do you love your wife?
"I like her. But I can't love her, because she is the opposite of me, very wrapped up in religion. She knows I am more open and enlightened, but she doesn't know the whole truth. My wife is a fanatic, and it's stressful. She thinks that if she opens up more, she will be less important to God. We don't communicate much. We live like two managers of a company, which is actually the family."
And before the children were born?
"Even then we didn't talk much; I already missed it back then. I was mainly missing the love. It's difficult for me to live like a haredi. What calms me is the children. Sometimes at night I lay in bed and think of my situation, and then I go to the children's room, look at them while they sleep, and calm down. I don't regret having them for a minute, because I love them, but I am afraid of losing everything, having them taken away from me. If they didn't exist, my life would be different. I sacrifice my happiness for their happiness."
Suddenly, everything's different
The haredi world of 2010 is still closed off and isolated. Fearful of any peak into secularism and of any contact with outside elements, it keeps to itself, is rigid and detests when people from within start asking questions. This is the reason the "Marranos" are afraid to speak up, to reveal to their families, wives and children that they no longer believe. So it's no wonder that, after many reservations, they agreed to reveal the daily prison in which they live, in hopes that others in their situation understand they are not alone.
"At adolescence I already had questions, but after I got married and had the children, they only grew stronger," Matan told me, months before he took his own life. "The religious claim that the have decisive proof that the path of religion is the truth, so I set off to examine this proof. I started looking for answers in books in the Beit Ariela Library and at the Hebrew University, and then I also turned to various researchers. At one point I started searching the Internet, and it didn't take long till I realized it was all nonsense."
What did you feel at that moment?
"It was a crazy shock. After years of preparing to leave the faith, it happened abruptly. One minute I was religious, and the next, I wasn't. Suddenly I came to the conclusion that there is no proof that religion is truth, while there is endless evidence that it is not truth. I remember the exact moment it hit me. It was when I found a pile of archaeological evidence on the Internet claiming that the description of the Exodus from Egypt was a lie. Then I realized that they were simply selling me lies."
What did you do?
"I called this rabbi I was in touch with who I thought was wise and open. I told myself that he was my last resort, that if he had a logical answer, I still had a reason to believe in the religion. But he had nothing to say to me. He didn't even try. He just said he could improvise, but that faith is in the heart. It was no longer in my heart."
It sounds like a painful process
"On the one hand, it's what I'd been waiting for, for years. But on the other hand, the shock was inconceivable. It's like learning that you are an alien. Suddenly, the world seems different. My entire way of thinking, my direction in life, my whole education - as if the world was recreated. Like I was just born, and where do you go from here?"
Do you feel like you are living in both worlds?"For me it's just a technical thing, because I feel secular, even though I still haven't found myself socially. It is all clear and organized in my head, but it annoys me to live in haredi society. I walk around with black clothes, and once in a while travel to Tel Aviv to party. I live from outing to outing. I eat meat and dairy, seafood, and even pork. I change into jeans and t-shirts in the bathrooms of shopping malls. When I walk around Tel Aviv in the penguin suit, I feel like a giant wall is separating me from the city. Like I haven't entered it yet. Only when I change clothes do I fit in. My wife knows, but is in denial. She doesn't ask questions. I hide it from the children and the rest of the world."
Matan has finally found the peace he had been searching for - deep in the ground, far from the prayers and black clothing. "I blame haredi society for his suicide," says Moishi. "If this society wasn't so closed off, he wouldn't have felt suffocated. People in his situation should be helped, rescued. I also thought about suicide, but the difficult experiences that I went through during my childhood made me stronger. I will never choose that path."
Moishi's difficult childhood was what set the stage for his decision to leave the faith. "All my childhood I prayed to God for a better life, but nothing changed. I reached a point where I didn't believe in God but I also didn't dare fathom that I don't believe in him. I was in denial."
"Today I am sure that there is no God. And I don't observe the mitzvoth anymore. I haven't laid tefillin in a year now. I drink and turn on the light on Yom Kippur and use the internet on Shabbat. All in secret, of course. A few times I even drove on a Friday evening with 'Marrano' friends like myself to Tel Aviv to have ice-cream. It isn't easy, because you have to come up with a convincing explanation for leaving the house."
Yaanki and his wife Miri started questioning the path of the Jewish religion some three years ago, when Miri pointed out to her husband that he would believe in Christianity if he had been born Christian, and would believe in Islam if he had been born Muslim. "If so," she asked him, "Why do we believe in Judaism without examining it?"
For months, Yaanki tried to answer this question. He looked through books, and corresponded with rabbis who specialize in bringing people back to the faith. When they stopped answering him, he connected his home computer to the Internet in hopes of finding answers. "Suddenly I discovered many contradictions. If up until then I had blind faith in the Bible and the Talmud, I suddenly realized it was a lie. I was completely shocked. I felt like a fool for wasting 25 years of my life, and until then I was considered a wise yeshiva student. I wasn't one of those guys whose relationship with religion was by chance."
And your wife?
"She was never a big believer or emotionally attached to religion, but she kept the mitzvoth. I didn't mind, because I wasn't a Taliban-like extremist, like those that hit the streets only in black clothing, support separation on buses and use cellular phones that don't have Internet access."
The questions led the couple to stop observing mitzvoth. At first, they would light candles to warm food on Shabbat, then they turned on lights. Later, they started to watch movies on the computer after the children went to sleep. "We didn't have a television at home, so we watched movies on the computer with headphones, in case, heaven forbid, one of the neighbors would hear. We closed the windows, shut the blinds, and locked the children in their room so they wouldn't wake up and find out," Yaanki says.
From there the path was paved for participation in various online forums, under a pseudonym, of course."
The secular world, Yaanki says, was not foreign to him and his wife, "but we realized that as long as we live in a ghetto, we will not meet other people like us." A year ago, they adopted a national-religious lifestyle and decided to move to a mixed neighborhood in central Israel. "Until then we were living a double life, we had a problem with the kids being educated in a way we didn't believe in. We decided to make the change, because their education was important to us, and secular studies hardly exist in the haredi sector," he says.
Why don't you send them to a secular school?
"I don't know if we can. It's a matter of feeling. When we were haredim, they taught us that secular education is faulty and wrong and that there is violence in schools. It's important to us that the children get a little tradition and that they have some knowledge about Judaism."
'Trapped in black and white world' (Photo: Israel Bardugo)
Miri recently told her parents that she has stopped believing in God, but did not reveal to them that she has also stopped upholding mitzvoth. Yaanki still hasn't told his parents. "I will have to do it soon, before they hear it from my wife's parents," he says.
How did her parents react?
"At first they thought she was coming to tell them we are getting a divorce, but when they realized she was coming to tell them she has lost her faith, they calmed down. As far as the haredim are concerned, they are not really bothered with you not believing in God, as long as you're not showing it on the outside. Her mother's initial reaction was, 'How could you not believe in God?' She is also certain she can bring her back. She doesn't know that we are on the way out."
Do you think it's easier to leave the haredi world as a couple?
"It is definitely easier when you're two, but each one has their own pace of progress, their own priorities and family. We have to get our stories straight, to be considerate of each other and decide together what to tell the families and when."
What's the hardest part about this life today?
"Hiding things from the children and giving them a religious education that we don't believe in. Hiding from our families is also a burden, but we are not in daily contact with them."
Do you feel Jewish?
"Absolutely, but to me that means nothing. It's like how a Japanese person feels Japanese and a Russian feels Russian. I believe the world today is global and there may not be peoples and nations in the future. I would have no problem if gentiles from the West came to Israel today. Maybe this would stop the haredi takeover."
The other family
Racheli has been living in the secular world for years now, at least partially. She got married at the age of 17-and-a-half, and got divorced some three years later. Her children live with her, and spend the weekends at their father's.
"I wanted to get married to get away from the house and the suffocating conservative environment, and I ended up with something worse," she says. "We both grew up abroad so we were more open. Before we got married we even discussed things that he was not to bother me about, like the length of my sleeves. But after the wedding, he became stricter. He grew a beard and forced me to wear a head cover in the house. I felt imprisoned and I wanted a divorce. I wasn't scared of being alone. I had a child, and was pregnant with my second. At that time I didn't think of leaving the faith, I just wanted to be religious in my own way."
As she speaks about leaving the faith, her eyes glimmer with joy. She's wearing a tank top and shorts on top of black tights. There is not a single detail about her that could give away her haredi past. "The second I moved out on my own outside the haredi neighborhood I brought a television into the house. Later, I didn't turn it off on Shabbat, I turned on lights and didn't use a hot plate. The kids were small so they didn't understand. I left the religion slowly. I didn't think about whether or not there is a God or whether I would go to hell for turning on the TV on Shabbat. I just lived well, the way I wanted to live.
"To this day the kids don't know that I'm secular, although I think lately they are starting to suspect. I observe Shabbat with them, and would never walk around with them outside in pants," she says.
And your ex-husband?
"He started to internalize that I'm not religious anymore when he started to tell him that people saw me dancing in clubs. But he won't take the children from me, because he doesn't have the strength to raise them on his own. As long as they go to a religious school, as we agreed in the divorce settlement, and wear yarmulkes and tzitzit, he would rather look the other way."
Her family's response to the divorce and her leaving the faith was much worse, particularly her father's reaction. "They cut ties with me. My dad initially objected to me getting a divorce. He is a rabbi, and the only thing that went through his mind was what people would say about him. Later, when he heard that I am seeing a guy who I'm not marrying, he stopped talking to me, but not before shouting at me and telling me I am going to bring my kids up to be vile. This hurt me. We didn't speak for four years. It's a bad feeling, because you're like a kind of orphan. I have a father, and he's not there. Sometimes I had nothing to eat, while he bought another house, or large new car."
Did you feel lonely?
"I felt alone mainly during the holidays. The children are always with their father, and I was alone. My siblings never picked up the phone during the holidays to ask where I am or what I'm doing. During the holidays you just watch television and wait for it to pass. At some point, you get used to it. In hindsight, I see how miserable I was, but at that time I learned to live with it. A few years later my aunt from abroad heard I was alone on the holidays and started inviting me over. She would send me plane tickets and I felt that someone cared about me. The entire time I would say that if I were to die, no one would know because no one would call to check on me."
Two years ago she renewed her relationship with her father. "One day he suddenly decided to call. I didn't forgive him right away, and I also didn't trust him. I told myself, what would happen if tomorrow he gets angry again and decides to sever ties with me when he realizes that I really am not religious? What do I need that for? I'm better off without him. But in the end, your dad is your dad, and I missed him.
"Now it's fun, because he is a part of my life and goes along with me. He is not difficult, does not lecture me and does not make comments. But even today I don't celebrate the holidays with my family, because the holidays have no meaning for me."
Her double life as a woman who hides her true secular identity from her children, has led her to write a blog about herself. A few months ago she decided to open an online forum: "Haredim against their will."
"It's amazing to discover that there are so many people in this situation - seculars in a haredi disguise. This is the only place where they can question the path of the religion and talk about their opinion that there is no God. Once a month we hold meetings in alternating locations, so that we are not discovered. We had a barbeque together on Independence Day and we met on the even of Shavuot.
"But even in these meetings we don't always know all the participants' real names. We just know the nicknames, because we are afraid that someone might talk, that someone might reveal that we have stopped believing. For most of us, the consequences could be devastating. I know that I have helped many people, because without this forum that I launched they would still feel alone in the world. This forum is our second family."