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So I knew I was lucky to be a girl. My bat mitzvah, a few months later, was simple. I had a slumber party at home with my friends, and 12 helium balloons. But the next morning, when I awoke, my life was the same as it had been the day before, and my father still thought of me as a child. I did not wear a hat like my brother, or have my name woven in gold on the tefillin’s velvet case, but I could still take dancing lessons at Shira’s. Unlike our brothers, we were allowed to inch slowly toward womanhood, one year at a time.
Some boys, like my brother, thrived. He became the man he was told he was, throwing himself passionately into holy study after the first hard week. Up at 5 a.m., he learned diligently all day as my parents beamed with pride. I remember wondering how he did it, if he was really happy this way, and I supposed that my 9-year-old cousin had been right after all. Boys were better then girls. God made them different somehow — harder and stronger, able to wake up before the sun.
But other boys, like my cousin, fell. He was one of hundreds who were beaten, marched, prodded and twisted into shapes they could not become. Those boys fell through the cracks and into the streets; boys like that could not survive.
For many, the culprit was ADD, or various other learning disabilities. Others were simply miserable, their bright minds trapped in tight spaces, their young brains crushed under the leaden pressure of the system. They were unable to adapt to the mass production, the tightly controlled machinery that hammers and pounds thousands of boys into identical men.
Those boys were considered defective — spat out and thrown like unwanted packages from yeshiva to yeshiva, belittled and degraded, belonging nowhere. What for many was a community of powerful belonging, to them was a prison; holy words were like chains on the heart and mind.
In the end, I knew I was lucky to be a girl because my cousin told me so. He said so years after the boastful 9-year-old boy had died. In his place stood a young man, haunted, with welts on his back and scars on his mind, sorting through the fragmented lies, finding a God who never meant for His words to be seared onto the skin of boys.
I was the lucky one for a while — inferior, weaker and happier for it. What I didn’t know was that it would end. Marriage began our hell, the day we stopped being girls. But that’s a story for another time. Because up until age 18, we had it better. We who did not wake up with the sun.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. “Inside Out” is her essay series about life in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is based on true events, but her characters’ names and identities have been changed; some are composites, comprising several real-life people. Find her at Facebook.com/JudyBrownHush.