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.
A lot of the focus in the Hasidic community, and to a lesser but still substantial degree in the frum Orthodox community, is on a woman’s appearance. Hence, I, not my husband, was always the one causing trouble. It was my too-short skirt that caused my son to be expelled from school the first time, and my immodest wig — it was too long and revealed a portion of my natural hair — that caused him to be kicked out the second time. Finally, the principal of my son’s school requested that I bring my sheitel, my brand new $2,000 wig, to his office for safekeeping so he could ensure I would never wear it again. That was it. I pulled back and wanted nothing to do with the extreme ideologies of the ultra-Orthodox. I was ready to explore other options. But my husband was not. We talked and argued, fought and cried. We delved deep into our souls, examining the source of my angst and of his desire to hold on to the last thread that tied us to our community of origin.
When we were dating, Jonathan was troubled by my discomfort with gender roles in the church, until he experienced a shift in perspective that allowed him to have empathy for me. Eventually, my differences became something he appreciated about me, just as his critical thinking and openness about his own doubts drew me to him. Now I know that I unconsciously recognized that he would eventually be able to understand me, and that we would find rest for our unrest together.
After we got married, the acceptance I felt from Jonathan unlocked a door in my mind; I allowed myself to look directly into the sun of my issues instead of averting my eyes. I gave myself permission to become more nuanced in my belief; for instance, after study and honest consideration, I decided I did not believe that polygamy was an “inspired” doctrine. For the first time, I allowed the possibility that some of the institutional and cultural sexism in the church was not “from God,” as I had always supposed, but rather reflective of the generational and personal biases of church leaders, who were, by and large, octogenarians.
My husband and I began to peel back the layers of our faith and examine our assumptions. There were so many pieces and fragments of our Mormonism; sometimes we felt giddy sorting through them at other times it felt like we were tearing off our own skin as we rejected aspects of our belief that had once been so precious to us. We didn’t want to let go of some of those comforting answers that had buffered us against real suffering. We worried that if our loved ones knew how we felt they would distance themselves from us and see us as strangers. We continued to attend services, fulfill callings and study the scriptures, but all of this was more nuanced. We looked critically at our formative experiences and found that we felt troubled about how much shaming was a part of our development, how honest questioning of the church or the brethren was always discouraged. We began to see this as unhealthy. We also learned that the version of church history and the restoration story we had been taught and taught others on our missions were not accurate, and that felt like a betrayal. I reached a point where I decided that if so much of what I had upheld as God’s truth was actually arbitrary, I need no longer be complicit in my own subordination, or anything resembling submission. I gave myself permission to embrace what nourished me spiritually and to reject what felt poisonous.
What resulted from all the strife was tremendous growth — both as individuals and as a family. We grew closer, holding one another, understanding our collective and individual struggles better than anyone around us. We got to a place where the family unit became the bulletproof protection against anything that may come our way. It has gone from being a frighteningly lonely journey to a shared and joyous one.
When we realized that maintaining a close relationship with our families would not be easy, the loss weighed us down. Growing up in huge families and being perpetually surrounded by siblings and nieces and nephews, we were accustomed to family being an integral part of our lives. As we left Hasidism, we were never outright rejected from our families, but we lost our common language. Despite all the goodness that came of these lifestyle changes, I mourn the loss of being able to relate to my family members.
My husband and I never really fought over the keeping of traditions. For us, our change was more spiritual and psychological and did not lead to any immediate behavioral changes, other than that I stopped wearing my temple garments [underclothing symbolizing commitment to temple covenants and ensuring modesty]. That action on my part did give my husband pause, because we had always been taught that if we were to stop wearing the garments, we would experience a withdrawal of divine protection and forfeit blessings of security “both spiritual and temporal,” as the oft-repeated phrase from Mormon scripture goes. He expressed the worry that now I would possibly be unfaithful to him or that our marriage would become less important. I told him that our relationship was precious to me and I resented having it associated with practices and symbols that felt degrading. When I explained that for me, the garment had become a symbol of oppression and coercion, of promises I wasn’t informed of prior to making, and that I felt negative energy when it touched my skin, he was able to hear that and have empathy for me. My husband was actually the one who initiated the most drastic breaking of tradition: In the spring of 2013, he stopped attending regular Sunday church meetings. I wasn’t quite ready to stop attending at that point, but I understood his decision and it wasn’t a point of friction.
The changes we made, the bridges we crossed but didn’t burn, we did for our children — so they can grow up in an environment free of pressure to conform, and able to express their individuality. We introduced our children to new friends and surrogate family, but we also forfeited their relationships with their over-100 cousins.
It gives me boundless joy to see my children live openly, and to know that they feel pride in being Jewish. We imbue them with a love of Jewish tradition and respect for Jewish morals; we teach them about the sanctity of the Sabbath. I often hear other ex-Hasidic mothers express fear that their children will rebel against them by becoming more religious, returning to the place that they themselves left behind. I am keenly aware of that possibility, and it does not scare me. The choices are theirs to make as adults and humans in a free society — and choice is what my husband and I fought tooth and nail for. Why deny them that?
Leaving has come with many losses, most poignantly, the distance in some relationships that I can never seem to cross. When I shed the safety and security of the tribe, I lost respect and trust. But when I think of my children, there are losses for which I am grateful. We have lost the idea that there is one true way, a set of right answers, which I feel is the best gift I can give my children — an open canon, an open world and permission to determine their own values. We have lost the words “worthy” and “unworthy” as used to describe human beings. We have lost the sense of having a superior spirituality and worldview to other people’s. My son won’t be told that he will have a “lesser” life and forfeit happiness if he chooses not to serve a mission. My children will never be interviewed by an older man about their sexuality [a practice that occurs annually from age 12, when a local church leader determines whether congregants are “worthy” of certain religious privileges]. Nor will my children be taught that normal sexual responses make them unclean. My daughter will never spend week after week looking up at the pulpit and wondering why there are only men sitting up there. She will not be told by her mother that she must make covenants that make her subordinate to men, that she must veil her face in the temple. These losses are welcome. I hope to teach my children the same process I have allowed myself, of keeping what nourishes and discarding what does not. I don’t feel panicked that I don’t have a palatable, comforting answer for many of the painful questions of life — I see grappling with impermanence and ambiguity as beneficial. Rather than an unshakable testimony of what “I know,” rather than pinning them down with “the truth,” the wings I will give my children are asking, “What do you think?”
Frimet Goldberger is a frequent contributor to the Forward. She lives in upstate New York.
Rachel Brown is a therapist. She lives in Springville, Utah.