(JTA) — The call came one evening in August. I was in Jerusalem staying with my oldest sister, Goldy, for the summer.
“It’s for you,” Goldy shouted from the kitchen. “Aunt Fraidy!”
Aunt Fraidy had been my host in my last year of high school. My parents, concerned about the influence of my modern Orthodox classmates in our hometown of Pittsburgh, had sent me to live with my aunt’s family in Manchester, the ultra-Orthodox environment that matched my parents’ yeshivish strict values.
“Leah?” Aunt Fraidy said.
“Yes?” I answered.
“We just received a call from Mrs. Kohn. She was cleaning house and found some papers she thought we should know about.”
Papers? I thought. What papers had my best friend’s mother found?
“Your letters,” Aunt Fraidy said, “to her son, Naftali.”
There was a tightening in my chest. It was hard to breathe. I had bared my soul in those secret letters to my best friend’s older brother asking Naftali what basis he had to claim that college was permissible and how his perspective on Israel, as a modern Orthodox Jew, varied from the ultra-Orthodox yeshivish view with which I was raised, and revealing, in my eager interrogation of his favorite holidays and hobbies and music, my unabashed interest in him.
The letters were a sin punishable by God, but no one else. Jewish law forbade reading other people’s letters. It was humiliating to be so exposed. It was infuriating to be held accountable for my transgressions by people who were breaking the law at the same time.
“We are flabbergasted, Leah,” Aunt Fraidy said. “Writing letters to a boy? We tried extremely hard to make you feel welcome. How do you expect my daughters to get a good match if people know they have a cousin running around with boys? You’re poisoning our family’s reputation. We don’t want you here in Manchester Seminary in the fall. We can’t have our name associated with a person who does such things.”
Her voice rose to a high-pitched shriek.
“Did you consider the effect of your actions? Did you think about how much shame you would bring to your parents?” she asked.
I dropped the phone and pushed past my sister, heading for the door, tears streaming down my cheeks. Gossip spread fast in our community. If my aunt knew about my letters to Naftali, every matchmaker in the world knew about them, too. A girl who talked with boys was inferior to a girl who never had. And I had planned on going to Manchester Seminary my whole life. If I couldn’t go there, I couldn’t go anywhere. All the other seminaries would quickly mine our close-knit information network to learn that they didn’t want a girl like me.