(page 2 of 4)
Secular studies were limited to the rudiments, and focused on practical learning for becoming a successful balebuste. Math, beyond simple home budgeting, was considered unnecessary; Shakespeare and other classic or contemporary literature a waste of precious time that could be spent learning how to keep house, and science — aside from raising difficult questions about creation — an abomination. We had no access to the library, the Internet or any secular materials. Our textbooks were highly censored with permanent markers and crayons to block out material perceived as a threat to our sheltered brains.
In the sixth grade I was taught how to operate a sewing machine; in the ninth grade I learned why Murphy’s Oil Soap is the best cleaning solution for parquet floors. We had vocational classes, too. From ninth grade until graduation, we learned how to type on old-timey typewriters to prepare the office job seekers among us.
We were actually discouraged from seeking work in offices, where interactions with men were inevitable, and where access to the Internet, albeit with kosher filters, was unavoidable. We were encouraged to apply for jobs within the school instead. Qualifications for teaching jobs were based on test scores; college degrees were not required.
I graduated high school in 2002 and immediately started my new prestigious job at the Kiryas Joel Village municipality — fielding phone calls for the mayor and clerk, and taking care of other odds and ends. The next five years would bring marriage, beautiful children and a life-altering journey that sent me on a path to Sarah Lawrence College.
One snowy morning in December 2008, my husband and I packed our fragile belongings into our old, tan Buick and headed onto the road. Our destination was Airmont, N.Y. — just a 30-minute drive from Kiryas Joel, but truly a world away.
Our move was the culmination of years of questioning our radical community and the complete conformity required to live and breathe there. The friendships we’d forged with Orthodox couples living considerably less stringent lives outside Kiryas Joel also catalyzed the modest, incremental changes toward our more progressive Orthodox lifestyle. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was an incident the summer before our move, when a group of Satmar modesty enforcers threatened to expel my 3-year-old son from the only boys school in the community if I didn’t shave my head. I went home that night and buzzed off my long hair. But it was too late to go back to a strict Satmar lifestyle.
The following morning, my husband and I decided to leave.
We arrived at our small rented home, which we’d spent weeks renovating by ourselves. After clearing a pathway for the movers and for our newfound freedom, we settled into the monotony of work and raising two little children.
The wig-making business that I ran out of my basement apartment in Kiryas Joel was gone; our children were ready to start school, and the credit card bills from the renovations began piling up. I needed to find work to help our financial situation, but without a degree and with few credentials, my prospects were discouraging. I became increasingly frustrated knocking on doors for secretarial work and being told by arrogant men that I did not have the right to request a cent more than minimum wage.