It was the holiday of Simchat Torah, and as I sat behind the thick, heavy curtain on the women's side of the synagogue, a friend turned to tell me that her 17-year-old daughter was engaged. As I watched women and girls trying to catch a glimpse of the dancing men through a crack in the partition, I commented on the young age of the bride.
"That's the way we do it," my friend said, smiling. "Marry them off when they're young and dumb." She then launched into the usual: The couple would grow up together. They would get to know each other. They would eventually love each other.
I know all about young and dumb. At 19, I was set up with a boy and we were engaged six dates later, the usual time frame in the ultra-orthodox community. Girls are sent off into marriages without even the most rudimentary knowledge of their own bodies, reproduction or sex.
Girls are taught to marry, have children and serve their husbands, and the indoctrination starts early. College and career are frowned upon — for obvious reasons. College is a way out. Career is a way out. And no one wants us getting out.
Those of us who do wake up are simultaneously horrified and liberated; while we cannot believe we could be so duped, we are incredibly grateful for realizing it.
I was typical in my former community. I was married at 19 and had my first baby at 20. By 29, I had six children, one miscarriage, three sets of dishes and no college degree. It took me years to get up the courage to file for divorce. I was so afraid for so many reasons. There were the usual concerns, such as how I would manage to support my kids, put air in my tires and mow my lawn.
But it was the fear unique to ultra-orthodox women who leave the faith that haunted me: I was afraid of losing my children.
In Lakewood, as in any ultra-orthodox community, there is a rabbinic hierarchy, a hierarchy committed to a radical religious doctrine that controls every aspect of life — from politics and marriage to female modesty, birth control and sex. It is this same hierarchy that condones the kidnapping of children from women who have left the fold.
It took me years to get up the courage to take off my head covering and even longer to leave my house in a pair of pants. And, when I did, my closest friends and neighbors turned against me. I was systematically shut out, ostracized and vilified. In addition, because of my decision to live a truthful, genuine life, my community set out on a witch hunt, spreading rumors, fabricating lies and portraying me as something resembling a she-devil.
There is no place for anyone who deviates from what the ultra-orthodox community believes to be the norm, the correct and the righteous. There is no room if you are irreligious, intermarried, gay, transsexual. There is no room for questions, doubts, opinions or alternatives. There is no room to question authority. And I questioned authority.
As I continued my journey toward freedom, my best friend told me that I confused her — her way of saying that my new found liberation forced her to question her fundamentalist lifestyle and that the repercussions of addressing those questions would leave her unable to stay in the life she was living. She chose not to question by ending our 18-year friendship.
I think often of a friend who loved to write, who once dreamed of becoming a published author. Her husband disapproved, however, forbidding her to write and deeming it immodest. She called me, frustrated, but determined to obey her husband. "Don't listen to him," I told her. "Write!" It was then that she called me her "evil inclination." Apparently, I reminded her that she had a soul.
I am proud to act as evil inclination. After all, I have some souls to save.
Elana Knopp teaches English and Language Arts in Plainfield and Edison. She is a member of Garden State Equality and director of Unchained At Last.