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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.