Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family

Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family

by Chaya Deitsch


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Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch

A heartfelt and inspiring personal account of a woman raised as a Lubavitcher Hasid who leaves that world without leaving the family that remains within it.
Even as a child, Chaya Deitsch felt that she didn’t belong in the Hasidic world into which she’d been born. She spent her teenage years outwardly conforming to but secretly rebelling against the rules that tell you what and when to eat, how to dress, whom you can befriend, and what you must believe. Loving her parents, grandparents, and extended family, Chaya struggled to fit in but instead felt angry, stifled, and frustrated. Upon receiving permission from her bewildered but supportive parents to attend Barnard College, she discovered a wider world in which she could establish an independent identity and fulfill her dream of an unconfined life that would be filled with the secular knowledge and culture that were largely foreign to her friends and relatives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As she gradually shed the physical and spiritual trappings of Hasidic life, Chaya found herself torn between her desire to be honest with her parents about who she now was and her need to maintain a loving relationship with the family that she still very much wanted to be part of.
Eventually, Chaya and her parents came to an understanding that was based on unqualified love and a hard-won but fragile form of acceptance. With honesty, sensitivity, and intelligence, Chaya Deitsch movingly shows us that lives lived differently do not have to be lives lived apart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805243178
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

CHAYA DEITSCH graduated from Barnard College with a B.A. in English literature and received her M.A. from Columbia University. She has held positions at Viking Penguin and Little, Brown, and now works as a financial writer in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

It’s been a few months since my grandmother’s passing, and I’m in my office, typing away, when I happen to glance at the clock at the bottom of my screen. It’s three thirty on a Friday afternoon. I do a quick calculation—mid-December means Sabbath candle lighting is early, a bit past four o’clock—and I call my parents’ house. These pre-Shabbos conversations are a ritual with us, a demonstration of my peculiar brand of filial dedication, but I cringe as the phone rings. My father picks up.
“Hi, it’s me,” I say.
“Hi,” he says. “Are you home yet?”
“No, but I’m out the door.” My heart sinks with the lie that we both know I’ve just told him.
“What are you doing for Shabbos?”
Every week, it’s the same question, from both of my parents. As if this time I will finally give them the answer that they’ve never stopped hoping they will hear: That I’m planning to attend services at a nearby shul, where I’ll meet the “Stu Schwartz, DDS, of my dreams,” as my sisters and I have named him. That a Crock-Pot has materialized on my cramped kitchen counter and is cooking a cholent for tomorrow’s lunch. I toy with telling the truth for once: that I’ll be at work until six and then plan to meet a friend for a movie, and that on Saturday I’ll go to the gym and then shop for shoes. But I don’t, of course.
“Oh, nothing really,” I say. “Just the usual.”
A moment of silence from my father. “Okay, then. Have a good Shabbos.”
“You, too. Same to Mom.”
When it comes to the particulars of religious observance, my parents and their adult children operate under a strict don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. By tacit agreement established back when each of us went off to college, we keep the various aspects of our lives WASPily compartmentalized to avoid the mess of confrontation with our parents. But we’re also a tight group, fiercely protective and acutely, if not always accurately, sensitized to one another’s moods and silences. To the chagrin of my brothers-in-law, my four sisters and I are in constant communication, relaying news about whom we saw and talked to, and what we’re eating, watching, wearing, reading, and worrying about. When Ella broke a tooth skiing, the rest of us knew about it practically before she’d unzipped her parka. My parents are looped into the network for the most part, but with the controversial bits edited out or replaced with religiously acceptable alternatives: Saturday travel is moved to Sunday, new trousers morph into skirts, a steak at Peter Luger’s becomes cocktails with work friends, and relationships with inappropriate men simply don’t exist. It hurts to think about the wedge these fabrications drive between my parents and me, and the self-diminishment of my life, but difficult truths seem to stick in my gullet. I’m not fooling them, I know, but I can’t bear to say difficult things.
Friends have remarked wistfully on my family’s closeness. We were not ever thus, I hasten to assure to them. As children, we fought and argued as all siblings do, jostling for emotional and physical territory, for sole parental attention. And being the eldest, I surely grabbed, or at least demanded, more than my fair share. Today, I know how fortunate I am to have the family relationships that I do, but I also know that clannishness has its price: subsuming the self for the good of the collective. In fact, this type of intense bonding isn’t unusual in our circles. As with most Lubavitchers, loyalty and obedience have been hardwired into our brains, spooned into us like pabulum since birth.
The practice of Orthodox Judaism today encompasses a web of variations that may seem like hairsplitting to outsiders but are crucial to its practitioners. At the baseline, Orthodox Jews keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, celebrate the festivals and holidays, and educate their children at some type of Jewish school. Married women immerse themselves in the mikvah, or ritual bath, each month, seven days after their periods have ended, so that they may resume sexual relations with their husbands. Men wear yarmulkes or some sort of head covering throughout the day—or at the very least when eating and praying. The men pray three times a day (women have a bit more flexibility with prayer requirements, as befits the sex that, in this world, anyway, is primarily responsible for child care) and before morning prayers they don a tallis and tefillin, the traditional prayer shawl and phylacteries. But as with any highly regimented community, small deviations have outsized implications. There’s kosher and then there’s glatt kosher. Even more expensive than regular kosher meat, glatt kosher meat comes from an animal whose lungs contained no adhesions or scarring, which would require further inspection and rabbinical ruling about the animal’s kosher status. There are kosher dairy products and then there’s Cholov Yisroel, that is, dairy products made from milk that has been supervised by observant Jews from the moment it has left the cow. There is the routine inspection and washing of fruit and vegetables to rid them of forbidden insects, and then there are the people who buy industrial-grade light boxes and special soaps in their search-and-destroy efforts. Appearances are also examined microscopically. Men may wear beards of various styles and lengths, and some choose to be clean -shaven (electric shaver only). Married women may cover their hair with wigs and/or scarves or with hats that leave some of their hair visible. Some married women cover their hair only in shul. The size, style, and color of a man’s yarmulke, whether a woman wears pants, how short her sleeves are, how long her skirts are—all of these nuances broadcast to those in the know where one fits into the Orthodox Jewish scheme of things. Like the thousands of silk threads that imprisoned Gulliver, we are held fast by minutiae.
Being Hasidic adds additional layers. Hasidim are known not only for their strict interpretation of halachah, or Jewish law, but also by their fidelity to a particular Rebbe, who serves as the community’s moral authority and to whom followers appeal for blessings and advice. More controversially, the Rebbe is revered by his adherents as a person on such a high spiritual and religious level that he can serve as their intermediary to God—a role that often makes non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews uncomfortable. Hasidism itself is likewise splintered into many branches, each with its own Rebbe, who usually inherited the mantle from his father or other close relative. Here, too, one is pegged by the cut of one’s jib. The style of the frock coat and of the fur-trimmed hat, the brim of the felt hat, the length of the side lock—all of these will differentiate at a glance a Gerer Hasid from a Satmar, a Viznitzer or a Bobover.
It was a lapsed Bobover who told me that other Hasidim barely consider Lubavitchers Hasidic. The Lubavitch movement is unique in its commitment to reaching out to unobservant and assimilated Jews and in the high-profile and tech-savvy nature of its outreach campaigns. The group derives its name from the Ukrainian town of Lubavitch, where the movement had its beginnings early in the nineteenth century. It also goes by Chabad, an acronym for choch-mah, binah, and da’as, the Hebrew words for “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “understanding.” The outer trappings of its adherents are more modern as well. The image some may have of Hasidim in general—of women in plain, dark clothing and seamed stockings, of men with long, dangling side locks and round fur hats—doesn’t pertain here. The Lubavitcher women I know wear modest but stylish dresses and staggeringly high heels; their human-hair wigs cost several thousand dollars apiece. The men have long, untrimmed beards but often dress in typically American clothing; my father goes to work in baggy khakis and a collared knit shirt, the fringes of his tzitzis discreetly tucked under his clothes. While it’s true that over the past few decades the public face of Lubavitch has become increasingly associated with proselytizing and Messianic fervor, there’s a substantial faction who are quietly lenient in their views. In the Lubavitch world that I know, some people own televisions and go to movies or watch them on DVDs; most surf the Internet. They travel widely, read secular literature, and subscribe to The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic.
Growing up in New Haven, far away from the prying eyes of the Lubavitcher epicenter in Crown Heights, my sisters and I were indulged a little more than most. When we were young, my parents allowed us to eat Cholov Akum—that is, kosher but non–-Cholov Yisroel milk and cottage cheese from the supermarket, as well as Hershey’s Kisses and Carvel ice cream cones, which we got almost every Sunday. I wore pants and short sleeves right up to my bas mitzvah and went to school with boys until high school, although casual dating was out of the question. We didn’t hide our television in an upstairs closet, as some of my Brooklyn friends did, and I watched everything from Captain Kangaroo to Valley of the Dolls. My reading was never censored.
My family has deep roots in Lubavitch, on both sides. Unlike the thousands of newcomers, we are what is known as gezhe, Hasidim who came from the old country and can trace their ancestry almost to the beginning of the movement at the dawn of the nineteenth century.
Among Lubavitchers today, devotion to the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the most recent and, most likely, last Rebbe, is complete and unquestioned, as is the faith in his superior wisdom. As a girl in Crown Heights, my mother remembers the thrill of the Rebbe greeting her by name when she stood in line for his blessing; when her family lived in Cuba, after the war, my zaydie and the Rebbe maintained a regular correspondence. My paternal grandfather consulted the Rebbe before making major business decisions. The Rebbe had encouraged him to open a plastics factory in New Haven, foretelling financial success if he raised enough funds to open a boys’ yeshiva in Crown Heights. It still feels strange for me to pass the Oholei Torah school on Eastern Parkway and see the brick building dedicated in big black letters to Mendel and Hinda Deitsch, my great-grandparents.
As a child, I was afraid of the Rebbe, believing he could read my dark and secret thoughts. And the sustenance my parents drew from his guidance could not nourish me. To me, he was an obstacle, a spoiler who put the kibosh on fun and threw up a wall between my non-Hasidic friends and me. Lying in bed at night, I fantasized about waking up the next morning a “regular” Jew, unencumbered by this strict, distant paterfamilias.
My parents, born in wartime, found stability in tradition, reassurance in the infallibility of the Torah. Like most parents, they assumed I would crave the same life: marry young to someone whose pedigree they knew, create a welcoming, kosher home for my husband and children, and find unobtrusive outlets in books and the arts. That wasn’t enough for me. It would have been easier in some ways to take the path of least resistance, but time and again I found myself tempted by an unfamiliar glimmer in the distance, a new exit ramp that might bring me to a different destination. I went for it, but all the while I carefully laid a trail of bread crumbs behind me.

Table of Contents

Introduction 3

1 Nisht Ahin und Nisht Aher 7

2 Upstairs with the Ladies 21

3 A Wedding in Crown Heights 35

4 The Platz 51

5 Conscientious Objection 66

6 Discovering Gloria 85

7 Canary in the Mineshaft 100

8 Valley Girl 113

9 My Messiah Arrives 136

10 Off the Cliff 148

11 A Girl in Sem 168

12 Stepping Out 190

13 On My Way 209

Afterword 225

Acknowledgments 229

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