On the surface, Frimet Goldberger and Rachel Brown seem to have little in common. Goldberger, 28, grew up in the Satmar Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York. Brown, 30, was raised in Ogden, Utah, in a devout Mormon household. Yet the two have a shared path: Both left their respective religious groups in search of a meaningful and self-determined life. Just as ex-Hasidic Jews are increasingly sharing their stories with the wider world, former and questioning Mormons are finding a clear and unapologetic voice in Utah and beyond.
In the following dialogue, the two women explore the differences and parallels in their upbringings. They both left their communities of origin along with their husbands and young children, while remaining true to themselves and the traditions they love. Today, Goldberger lives in Airmont, New York, with her husband Hershy and their children Shloimy and Rachel. She no longer shaves her head or lives a Hasidic lifestyle, but considers herself an observant Orthodox Jew. Brown lives in Springville, Utah, with her husband, Jonathan Strange, and their children, Chai and Sparrow. Brown no longer participates in the Mormon Church, but recognizes that her spirituality is constantly evolving.
Frimet Goldberger: *I grew up the 10th child in a family of 12. I had a relatively uneventful childhood. I did not question my faith; I believed what I was taught, that the Hasidic way is the righteous and only way to be a pious Jew, and that the rebbe’s teachings were sacred. Girls were prohibited from learning the Torah, as was the late Satmar rebbe’s wish, so whatever I learned was secondhand.
I internalized these lessons, to the point where I loved being frum [pious] and out-frum-ing my peers; I wholeheartedly believed that changing my stockings from 60 denier [the thickness] to 100 denier would please God, my family and the matchmakers. As a young, devout teenager, I swore to never wear mascara in my life, because, as we were taught, the Second Temple was destroyed partly due to immodest women who wore eye makeup and perfume. In other words, I was a goody-two-shoes.*
Rachel Brown: I am the oldest of 11 children of a very orthodox and very committed Mormon family in Ogden, Utah. I was very faithful and devout throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. Although I believed deeply and found spiritual connection, fulfillment and growth through my participation and service in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there were aspects of doctrine and practice that were painful and damaging to me as a female — like the emphasis on women as supporters, helpmeets, which to me indicated a preference for males on the part of God.
Because I wholeheartedly believed that these uncomfortable pieces reflected the mind and heart of God, I struggled for years to reconcile my own doubts with the unshakable, powerful testimony I wanted to have. One major moment of doubt happened when I was 17. I wanted to serve a mission, but I was discouraged from doing so by church leaders. [Almost all Latter-day Saints boys go on missions, and while girls are allowed to, up until recently they were not actively encouraged to.] I wrote a letter to the prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, seeking encouragement for sisters who were aspiring to serve. I promptly received a reply from a church secretary, essentially saying that a mission is not a necessary part of a woman’s life. That was in the winter of 2002. I did end up serving a mission. But the stinging hurt, the feeling that a door was slammed in my face when I should have been welcomed in by loving arms, resides somewhere in my being, like a physical pain.
A little over a year before I met my future husband, I discovered the world outside of Hasidism — namely, the world of trashy romance novels, chick flicks and conservative talk radio. The culture shock manifested itself in a tremendous disconnect from the environment around me. I desperately tried to keep these demonic thoughts at bay, attributing many tragedies that befell community members to my doubts. When I married my husband at the ripe old age of 18, which is the customary age for Hasidic boys and girls to marry, we discovered we were both the black sheep in our families.
People often comment about how lucky I am to have a “partner-in-crime,” a husband who was willing to leave Hasidism with me and trudge along on this journey. But our journey was anything but painless. The path was laden with rocks and hindrances, and the relationship almost came apart at its seams.