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When I was 9 years old, I heard a story. It was about a crazy lady who called the police. She told them crazy things about an uncle in the family. She had fabricated lies about him; she hated him, she wanted attention.
When I was 11 years old, a Bobov boy hung himself. He wasn’t crazy, but something was a bit wrong with him. Mainly, he didn’t have any friends in school. That’s why he hung himself, everyone at school said.
Then in high school, 14-year-old Chavi was expelled from school. She had testified to the police that her father molested her after he demanded custody. My principal explained to me that she knew that Chavi wasn’t lying, what she said was true. But her grandparents went against the will of the rabbanim and told her to talk to the police.
They had no choice, but to expel her, she said. Classmates were warned not to speak with her. We never saw her again.
Then, my friend told me her cousin touched her; he touched her a lot, she said. I didn’t know what she meant, but one day she took me to a faraway place, far beneath the world I knew. She pulled me along with her, down long, dark corridors to a space I’d never seen before.
Few in the Orthodox community know of this place, where children live who do not really exist. Few in the community know of this world, where children go to die of forbidden wounds.
I did not want to be there. I could not bear to stay. I wanted to run away from my friend. I wanted to be part of the happy world, where people smile, and sing, and pray, where they do not bleed impurity. But my friend pulled me back. She said she was scared, so scared, and that I must stay with her, and I did, watching her curl up in agony, begging to die.
I did not dare tell anyone what I had seen. That would be the worst of all. You cannot wipe off the blood of a leper.
I never prayed for my friend, or the ones who dragged me there later on. I kept them a secret, even from God. Surely He would have nothing to do with such boys or girls. God is for pure intentions and thoughts; God is for the tragically ill. Abused children are an aberration, a mistake, and I was scared He’d view me as tainted, along with them.
In the insulated confines of my ultra-Orthodox community there are two worlds: the outer world and the underworld, and in between them a horrifying disconnect. We, of the underworld, are untouchable. If it is revealed that we are in any way tainted by abuse, even if only by association, it will defile our entire family; it will ruin their lives, their prospects at marriage. We are contaminated. And it is our job to protect the community from our contamination.
For many years we hid. We hid from our friends and from our family; we hid from our spouses, who did not want to know. We grew in silence, through adolescence, through the teenage years, through young adulthood and, for many, through arranged marriages. Then, slowly, as adults, we emerged, one victim, then another, some by accident, some by therapy, some by way of an outsider who taught them the words forbidden in their childhoods, words that described hell.