On a cold spring evening last year, my Jewish literature professor took his Sarah Lawrence College class to a klezmer performance by the band Zion80, a mash-up inspired by the music of Shlomo Carlebach and Fela Kuti.
Inside the small, stuffy room at The Stone, a music venue in New York City, I watched students tap their fingers to the klezmer afrobeat. One fan shook his head violently in what I can describe only as a seizure. Talk about a performance.
Afterward, we stood outside in groups, chatting about Sarah Lawrence-y stuff: art, feminism, piercings. The conversation turned to a guy named Shylock. I do not recall the exact question my professor posed while pointing a finger toward me, but I remember my peers’ horrified faces when I responded with, “What is ‘The Merchant of Venice’?”
An awkward silence followed. I could practically see the thought bubbles above everyone’s heads: “How the heck did this woman get into Sarah Lawrence College?”
Indeed, how did I — a Satmar woman with a nonaccredited high school diploma whose proud achievement in life, aside from producing and raising two beautiful children, was being a great balebuste, or housewife — land at artsy-fartsy Sarah Lawrence?
I was born in Kiryas Joel, the exponentially growing epicenter for Satmar Hasidim in upstate New York. I attended the village’s only girls school through 11th grade, which is when Satmar girls graduate and begin preparations for their betrothal. Even before I pulled on my first pair of thick blue tights at the age of 3, I knew that a woman’s role is tending to her husband and children at home. Most women who worked were either supporting the family while their husbands studied in the kollel, the yeshiva for married men; some provided a supplementary income for their growing families. These latter women were the exception, not the rule.
The lives of Satmar women weren’t always so cloistered. My mother was among the first generation of Satmar-educated girls in America. She grew up in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, in those early years when the Satmar community was finding its footing. Her academic and cultural experiences were radically different from mine: New York City public school teachers staffed the English department of Bais Rochel, the Satmar girls school. My mother spoke English with her siblings and peers, read secular literature, visited the library regularly, attended movies occasionally, listened to the radio and dressed fashionably.
As the Hasidic community shifted rapidly toward extremism, so did the curriculum in Satmar schools. Gone were the qualified public school teachers, replaced by recent Satmar graduates. Yiddish replaced English as the language spoken in school. My classmates and I were taught Judaic studies, starting with the aleph-bet in kindergarten and continuing with the weekly parsha, or Torah portion, stories in Yiddish. In maintaining the traditional ban on substantive Torah lessons for girls, biblical studies in Hebrew were forbidden, and knowledge of Hebrew texts was restricted to prayers.
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.
I knew I was capable of accomplishing more in life outside the confines of my modest kitchen; I had aspirations I could not quite name, or understand. And so, in September 2009, I walked into the registrar’s office at Rockland Community College armed with my useless high school diploma, a rusty brain and deeply bruised self-esteem.
The college scene did not bode well for me. I felt like an old prude who was witnessing salaciousness at the highest degree. These were young, fresh-out-of-high-school teenagers with hardly a care in the world. There were many moments of culture shock and complete befuddlement during those first few months.
I eventually found my niche, thanks in large part to the many Orthodox individuals roaming the halls of the college, located next to the hub of Orthodoxy: Monsey. But I struggled tremendously in that first year. Despite hiring a tutor over the summer to help me with basic math so that I could pass the placement exam, I was still placed in a remedial class, and even the basic concepts of algebra were foreign. Writing my first essay was excruciating — up there with giving birth to my two children. I remember the agony as I struggled to form a coherent paragraph, putting my Yinglish thoughts into an English paper. My best friend, a closeted Hasidic blogger, rewrote, err, edited that first essay for me.
I grew by leaps and bounds that first year, as did my self-confidence. I worked so hard, spending many late nights writing papers and wracking my brain over math problems. In my second semester, an eccentric psychology professor encouraged me to talk to the administrators at the college’s honors program. Since I was so surprised at his suggestion that I — a simple wife and mother who grew up on Satmar Drive and was famous for the best meringues in Kiryas Joel — was capable of being included in the program, I immediately declined. But he did not give up on me, and I eventually enrolled in the program, which would carry me through to Sarah Lawrence.
In the fall of 2012, a few months before I graduated with highest honors from Rockland Community College, I received my acceptance letter from four colleges, all in close proximity to my home. Sarah Lawrence was one of them. From the day I discussed writing courses with my then-close friend, Deborah Feldman — who has since published a sensationalist memoir, “Unorthodox” — to the day my best friend, another woman, was accepted to Sarah Lawrence’s graduate history program, I knew I fit right in with the misfits. The generous scholarship that accompanied the acceptance letter made the offer irresistible.
On my first visit to the Sarah Lawrence campus one frigid Monday morning in October 2011, the first person I saw when I rolled down my window to inquire about parking was a butch woman with more piercings than I could count on my fingers. On that first walk through campus, I discovered a female population for whom long, bohemian skirts were fashionable, not the jeans I coveted and wished to wear. I discovered a group of young adults whose behavior and manner of dress seemed so out of place in little suburbia. They were colorful, confident, liberal and mostly brilliant.
In no time, I fell in love with the unique pedagogy at Sarah Lawrence and its respect for all comers. I found my niche, alongside the bright and fully pierced Sally and the sweet, neon nail-polish sporting John. I discovered my passion for radio and my love for storytelling, writing and Jewish studies. I even delved back into my people’s past, researching Satmar history as my most significant undergraduate project.
And then it was over. On December 19, 2013 I drove to campus, crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge with the windows rolled down, the wind whipping my hair, the tears rolling freely. It was my last day at Sarah Lawrence, and I was wholly unprepared for the unrestrained emotions of finally “making it,” of being the first in a family of 12 and an extended family of hundreds of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews to receive a college degree. I was bursting out of my chrysalis and getting ready to fly.
I stopped into the office of my mentor, Bill Shullenberger, a 70-something professor of literature and a brilliant Christian; he graced my family’s sukkah table last year. We hugged; I cried; we reminisced. I remembered the first time I walked into that office, in the spring of 2011, to inquire about taking his literature lecture course. I felt an overwhelming sense of inadequacy. There was another young student present in the room, a walking encyclopedia who clearly knew more than I did about Homer and epic literature. I later apologized profusely to Bill, explained my sheltered upbringing and divulged more personal information in one sitting than I should have — a habit that became my coping mechanism. Sitting there on that same spot two years later, in jeans and uncovered hair, I experienced a rare epiphanic moment: The insecure woman who sat here two years ago no longer existed. In her place was a confident woman whose lack of an academic background and whose childhood spent isolated from the world no longer defined her.
It was, perhaps, the first time in my life that I experienced real pride in myself.
I am immensely grateful for having had this opportunity to get an education beyond what was preordained for me as a little Kiryas Joel girl. I am fortunate to have a supportive husband and friends, unlike others who had to struggle alone through this difficult journey to college from a rudimentary education.
And I am grateful for having asked that question and discovering the controversy about anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Asking questions is how you learn.
Frimet Goldberger is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker for the Forward and other outlets.