Off the Path of Orthodoxy

The New Yorker/July 31, 2015

BY Talia Lavin

There are many terms for people who have left Orthodox Judaism: apikores (an ancient Hebrew term for “apostate”); chozer b’she’elah (a decorous Israeli term, which translates roughly to “one who returns with questions”); frei (Yiddish for “free,” usually used in a derogatory fashion); and “O.T.D.,” or “off the derech” (“derech” is Hebrew for “path”). The last term, once a dismissive way to describe Orthodox youth who sought to explore drugs and sex, has been reclaimed by some ex-Orthodox Jews. Using this term says: Yes, I have left your path—and now I must find my own way.

As I learned during my Modern Orthodox upbringing, the path of Orthodoxy is strict. It requires, at minimum, a life compatible with weekly observation of the Sabbath, twenty-five hours in which cooking, the use of electronics, writing, and other ritually determined forms of labor are forbidden; observing ten holidays; seven annual days of fasting; marriage to an Orthodox spouse; having enough children to fulfill the Biblical commandment to be fruitful and multiply; and participating in an Orthodox community established enough to satisfy the requirements of communal prayer, strictly kosher food, and collective celebrations of the milestones of Jewish life, from circumcision to burial.

I grew up in this milieu, on the leafy streets of Teaneck, New Jersey, a suburb-turned-shtetl dotted with bagel stores and schnitzel shops. The freedoms I was given were small and huge at once: though as a girl I was barred from counting toward a prayer quorum or baring my shoulders, I was granted a superb secular education alongside my religious studies, and was also permitted to use the Internet. On Saturday nights, after the Sabbath ended, I could watch TV, and see the America where Christmas was celebrated and teen-agers went to prom.

At nineteen, when I left my faith, I faked the culture until I could make it. I knew the language of my country, and slowly eliminated Yiddishisms, one by one, from my vocabulary. Modern Orthodoxy, whose borders are somewhat porous, can best be defined as a life style that embraces the many commandments of the Torah and Talmud but nonetheless allows participation in a larger world: access to media, higher education, career development. Members of ultra-Orthodox communities isolate themselves from secular influence and adhere to further restrictions, including sartorial edicts, limits on education, and obedience to the dictums of rabbinical leadership, which make the path narrower, further calcified, and far harder to leave.

A 2011 study found that there were four hundred and ninety-three thousand people living in Modern and ultra-Orthodox households in the New York area. Lani Santo, director of Footsteps, an organization which provides support services to the ex-Orthodox, estimates that about one per cent of people living in ultra-Orthodox communities will leave them. Exact numbers are difficult to determine; what is certain is that those who leave often face tremendous emotional and practical difficulties.

A discussion about the nature and urgency of those difficulties was rekindled last week, when Faigy Mayer, a woman who had left the Brooklyn-based Belz Hasidic sect, leapt twenty stories from a rooftop bar, at 230 Fifth Avenue. A subsequent flurry of press covered, at first, the sensational circumstances of her death (“Woman leaps to death off rooftop bar, patrons keep drinking,” the New York Post wrote), and then began entertaining speculation as to its cause, much of it centered on the plight of the ex-Hasidim.

Media scrutiny of Mayer’s life brought forth claims that she suffered from mental illness, was estranged from her family, and had struggled to create a life in secular New York. Determining the root causes of a suicide is a difficult—and unsavory—endeavor. But a week before her death, Mayer wrote an essay, published posthumously online in Tablet Magazine and other outlets, which revealed an ongoing preoccupation with the community from which she had come, and the difficulties she had faced in leaving it.

“IF PEOPLE WERE ALLOWED TO THINK, THEY WOULD NOT BE RELIGIOUS,” she wrote. “Thinking analytically when it comes to basic life decisions is something new to me and something I still struggle with, 5 years after leaving.”

Santo, the Footsteps director, described leaving ultra-Orthodoxy as immigrating to a country in which you’re already a citizen. “What that looks like is not knowing general norms of how society functions,” she said. Lack of access to secular media in the cloistered Orthodox environment, Santo said, makes the transition especially difficult.

Among those who have left ultra-Orthodoxy, a tight-knit community has developed. Some meet through Footsteps; others, in online groups or nomadic gatherings advertised on the Web, like Chulent, a weekly meeting for those who have left or are leaving Orthodoxy. For members of New York’s O.T.D. community, which Mayer had joined, the sensationalized circumstances of her death did not allay a sense of grim familiarity—and apprehension.

“The feeling is, Oh my God, it doesn’t stop,” Chaim Levin, a friend of Mayer’s who left the Chabad Hasidic sect at twenty, told me. “Personally, I know seven people who died through suicide or overdoses who were O.T.D. Who’s next?”

Shulem Deen, the author of a recent memoir about his experiences leaving the Skver sect of Hasidism, told me that those who leave Orthodoxy must contend with dire predictions from their families and communities.

“Coming away from the ultra-Orthodox world, you have all the voices in your head that say you will go out and you will fail and you will probably kill yourself,” Deen said. “If not, you’ll be a miserable loser and die alone, with nobody and with no success and unhappy—these are the recordings we have in our heads and they’re very difficult to get rid of.”

To combat these dire warnings, Footsteps affiliates launched a video project in 2010 called “It Gets Besser” (“besser” is Yiddish for “better”), meant to echo the viral “It Gets Better” campaign, which sought to encourage at-risk L.G.B.T. youth. “It Gets Besser” videos portrayed successful journeys away from Orthodoxy; one video featured O.T.D.ers singing along to the religious songs of their youth while engaging in secular pursuits, such as science research and studying philosophy.

Deen and others described a kind of vertigo upon leaving the highly structured confines of a religious upbringing, and facing the onset of the modern condition, all at once, in which every person must carve out a destiny, and nothing is predetermined.

“When you emerge you don’t realize what you have to brace yourself for,” Deen said. “The allure of freedom and choice and secular knowledge and the ability to pursue whatever your aspirations might be . . . maybe those who leave don’t realize that the freedom to make those choices and to pursue those things comes with a price, and the price is aloneness.”

Libby Polaki, who attended the same Belz Hasidic girls’ school as Mayer, in Brooklyn, spoke to me about her own departure from an arranged marriage, and then Belz Hasidism as a whole, in her early twenties. Recalling those years, Polaki, who is now twenty-seven, described repeated trips to the library “to learn about how people work.” It felt, she said, like arriving from a different planet. “During the period I was leaving, I felt very alone at times,” Polaki said. “It was just me and my shadow in the world.”

Many O.T.D.ers, though not all, are estranged from their families. The absence of a social safety net or a robust secular education, as well as a lack of familiarity with job-seeking etiquette outside a tight-knit religious network, can render their economic position precarious.

“I have been really, really desperate, kind of homeless, with no food to eat,” Deen said of the period after he left Skver Hasidism. “That’s true for other people, too.”

Friends of Mayer told me that she had learned to code in recent years, and had been discussing the creation of an “Ex-Hasid’s Guide to N.Y.C.,” an app that would provide the newly irreligious with resources and suggestions for life in secular New York. She had hoped the app could connect Hasidim who were secretly seeking to leave their communities with “out” O.T.D. people. (The term “closeted” is also used by some of those who identify as O.T.D. to refer to people living in ultra-Orthodox communities who have doubts, or who want to leave.) Since her death, and in a secular analogue to the Jewish tradition of learning Talmud and other sacred texts in memory of a friend or loved one, several O.T.D.ers have decided to learn to code in Mayer’s honor. Their first project will be completing the “Ex-Hasid’s Guide to N.Y.C.” app, which Mayer began this spring.

My own life in the years since leaving my faith has involved a complex process of reinvention. Even though I did not experience the educational and economic challenges others have faced, the transition was wrenching, and involved an erasure and redrawing of my moral calculus and place in the world. Outside the bounds of my old identity, I felt modernity rushing in. A world without religion was chaotic, like a kitchen without separate dishes for dairy and meat, or a suit that mixed wool and linen. Leaving the path offered its own pleasures: shrimp and pork and other satisfactions of the flesh. But every Friday night I could hear, in my head, the songs of the Sabbath meals I wasn’t attending, and the food I ate on fast days burned in my gut.

Along the way, I found others who, like me, had left the faith, some of them through a Facebook group called “Off the Derech.” They knew the songs; they knew the dense scent of sacred palm fronds and myrtle and citron; they faced the Talmudic quandaries of navigating relationships with those still observant. They knew the joys of leaving, and its price. “When you’re doing this with other people, it’s easier, and that’s what’s beautiful about the O.T.D. community,” Mayer’s friend Levin said. “You have other people like you.”

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