Ex-Hasidic Writers Go Off the Path and Onto the Page

How OTD Literature Became Its Own Literary Genre

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By Ezra Glinter

Published May 27, 2014, issue of May 30, 2014.
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But the backlash against OTD memoirs fails to grapple fully with the OTD experience. The journey away from Orthodoxy is not just a matter of “how?” or “why?” but most of all, “what was it like?” This is the most difficult thing for any writer to convey, especially to a reader who assumes non-Orthodox life to be the most desirable outcome. In fact, the OTD journey is painful largely because this outcome is not desirable. There are the internalized beliefs about God, and the anxiety that abandoning Judaism will lead to suffering in this life and the one to come (Auslander is particularly emphatic on this point). A person leaving Orthodoxy has to reconsider who she is as a person, and who she will become. Figuring out secular standards of dress, speech and cultural reference can also be formidable obstacles. And if rewriting your assumptions about yourself and the world is an intense experience in the best of circumstances, most people who leave Orthodoxy aren’t in the best of circumstances.

In fact, for many of them, the costs of breaking away extend far beyond faith or self-conception. Leaving your community can endanger your ability to earn a living, and can have devastating consequences on the family members left behind. Deen has written movingly about the dissolution of his marriage and, in a heartbreaking piece for Tablet Magazine, about the difficulty of maintaining a relationship with his children. (After reading that essay, acknowledging that “Orthodoxy isn’t for everyone” is cold comfort indeed.) With so much at stake, the most desirable thing is to convince oneself that Orthodox life really is best, whatever its costs. For those who do leave, it is only because the psychological anguish of living a lie leaves no other option.

Of all the ex-Orthodox memoirists thus far, it is Vincent who best portrays the lingering doubt that lies at the heart of the OTD experience. Unlike Auslander, who feels compelled to dress up his prose in comfortless humor, or Feldman, who is simply boring, Vincent achieves a sober voice that invites the reader’s sympathy without begging for it. Although her prose could stand to lose a few of its adjectives, her persona is both serious and sincere.4

Vincent’s book is also the best illustration of the vast grey area that exists between being on and off the derech. She describes how a few minor transgressions, like exchanging letters with a boy and buying a sweater that was too tight, caused her family to push her away, rather than pull her back in. Yet even after being rejected by her family, she still dressed in modest clothes and kept the laws of Shabbos and kashrus. Rather than abandon Orthodoxy entirely, she told herself at first that she would simply become Modern Orthodox. At one point she almost married a man who had also gone off the derech, but had repented and was once again devout. Such stories belie the idea that OTD authors are simply bitter people seeking revenge on the communities they left. Rather, they show the ways in which they tried to avoid leaving at all.

In addition to underestimating the ambivalence of the OTD experience, critics of these memoirs also fail to acknowledge the continuity of OTD engagement. In fact, not all “OTD” writers consider themselves non-Orthodox, even after personal transformations. In articles and blog posts for the Forward, Frimet Goldberger has described her journey from a Satmar upbringing in Kiryas Joel toward a more liberal Orthodoxy in Airmont, New York. In a case that lit up OTD social media a few months ago, a self-described Satmar hasid wrote about his embrace of modern biblical criticism, while continuing to live a committed hasidic life. Many OTD writers engage with Jewish life through the OTD community itself, and through involvement with organizations like Footsteps, which supports people going through similar experiences. Such cases illustrate an expanding realm of self-definition beyond the ultra-Orthodox/ex-Orthodox binary that has dominated the discussion until now.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s worth recalling — and OTD writers urge us to recall — that the journey hasn’t ended in triumph for everybody. There are those who feel compelled to stay in repressive Orthodox communities because their livelihoods or the wellbeing of their families depend on it, or because it is simply too difficult to leave the only world they know. There are those who have left, only to succumb to addiction or mental illness. There are people like Deb Tambor, who reportedly committed suicide last September after being denied custody of her children. The people who are able to write and publish memoirs are only a tiny part of the larger OTD drama.

Yet these memoirs give us insight into a phenomenon that is increasingly vital. As a publishing trend, the OTD story is probably nearing the end of its course, at least when it comes to mass-market memoirs. Yet the larger OTD phenomenon can only keep growing. As the Orthodox community expands, and as parts of it become increasingly extreme, there will inevitably be more and more people peeling off at its edges. Their impact on the rest of the Jewish community is palpable now, and in sufficient numbers it could be transformative. Already, the once-marginalized OTD population has achieved the organization necessary to make the rest of the world listen, and to have its voices heard. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they have such stories to tell.

Footnotes

  1. The term “OTD,” short for “off the derech,” or “off the path,” is controversial among ex-Orthodox individuals, since it is the term used by the Orthodox community itself and implies an inherent waywardness from normative values. At the same time, many ex-Orthodox people have embraced the term and it is widely used in the ex-Orthodox community. For the purposes of convenience, and with the liberty I grant myself as an OTD person — who says, after all, that sticking to the “path” is the superior choice? — I have chosen to use it. ^Back
  2. At one time I, too, thought I had an interesting story to tell. At age 11 I became religious and, five years later, after graduating high school at 16, I left home for an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Baltimore. Three-and-a-half years down the road, thoroughly disillusioned with Orthodox Judaism, I left. I may yet write a memoir one day, but in comparison with the hardships suffered by other OTD writers, my life story isn’t all that interesting. ^Back
  3. It’s no wonder that the OTD community protested when the Monroe Free Library amended its charter in late 2013 to exclude residents of the nearby Satmar village of Kiryas Joel. The library’s board of trustees may have been correct to point out that Kiryas Joel contributed no taxes toward the Ramapo-Catskill Library System, but they may not have realized the indispensable role the library served for a generation of wayward hasidim. ^Back
  4. One of Vincent’s few missteps, but also her most irritating, is her insistence on describing her former community as “The Yeshivish,” thereby turning an adjective into a capitalized noun and asserting the unity of non-hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews, despite their lack of centralized authority or institutions. Here, regardless of the semantic innovation, Vincent also trades in cliché, since it is easier to slot her community into the hasidic sect-based model familiar to readers of other ex-Orthodox memoirs than it is to deal with the vagaries of denominational hair-splitting. ^Back

Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Contact him at glinter@forward.com and follow him on Twitter @EzraG


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