Ex-Hasidic Woman’s ‘Suicide Book’ Rattles Ultra-Orthodox World
“In this city I gave birth to my daughters, and in this city I died because of my daughters” – this, among other things, was written in the suicide note left next to the body of Esty Weinstein, which was found on Sunday in a car near the Ashdod beach.
Weinstein, 50, a resident of Azor, a town located southeast of Tel Aviv, had disappeared six days previously.
Weinstein had for some time made comments related to suicide, verbally and in writing, centering on the profound personal crisis she underwent a few years ago, after she was forced to cut herself off from six of her seven children and her grandchildren. She also left behind a short book, a manuscript of 183 pages, which describes her life in detail and is dedicated to her third daughter, Tami, the only child who maintained contact with her.
Weinstein had left the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, world seven years ago, but the community was up in arms when she disappeared last week, not only because she came from a very well-known, prestigious family but because her story is rattling social skeletons in the closets of Gur, the country’s largest Hasidic sect, as well as in other closets.
Indeed, among those hit hard by Weinstein’s saga are individuals who have also left the Haredi fold and are shaken periodically when one of their group takes his or her own life – in many cases, because being cut off from their families, including their own offspring, is just too hard to bear.
Weinstein volunteered as an employment counselor at Hallel, an organization that helps individuals make the transition from the sheltered Haredi world to mainstream society. She was known there as “a strong woman, a role model. We didn’t know how deeply in crisis she was,” said Yair Hess, the group’s director.
Weinstein’s story is personal, delicate and complex, and evolved over many years. There is, therefore, no point in rushing to conclusions about why she committed suicide and to point accusing figures, as has been happening on social media, where there have been allegations that she may have been killed by someone in the Haredi community.
But by apparently taking her own life, Weinstein chose to put an issue on the table that affects thousands of families, often in a painful way: the “regulations” of the Gur Hasidim, which are enforced by “counselors” whose aim is to impose strict supervision over relationships between couples, including their intimate sexual ties, particularly during the first years of marriage.
This supervision over marital and sexual conduct by rabbis and counselors acting in the name of the leader of the sect, the Admor of Gur, is a subject that keeps coming up for discussion on blogs and in Facebook groups; at least three such groups are actively publicizing online testimonies from Hasidim.
In 2012, an investigative piece by Haaretz revealed the wide use in Hasidic circles of psychiatric drugs, sometimes dispensed by leading physicians, to suppress sexual desire among teenagers in the community.
“Doing his Will,” is the name of the manuscript Weinstein left in the form of a computer file that is now being passed around via email among ultra-Orthodox, past and present. The book tells the story of her marriage and her past attempts at suicide (“I will offer myself up for the benefit of my entire respected and important family, so as to not cause any unnecessary emotional and damage to the surroundings”).
It also testifies to the existence of rigid norms familiar to some 10,000 Gur households. This Hasidic court is a central element of Haredi society and to some extent of Israeli society as well, with one of its members serving as a government minister.
Weinstein wrote about the sole meeting she had when she was 19, with the young man who would be her husband:
“’You know that in Gur there are ‘regulations,’ he said, and his voice trembled. Oh, now comes the speech that they told me about – about how hard it is to observe the regulations and how important it is and blah, blah, blah. I thought to myself, and felt bad for the skinny boy in front of me, slouched over, his hands clasped in front of his body and squirming slightly in discomfort…”
“His general appearance was far from perfect, but his embarrassment was touching and made me feel comfortable near him. I would agree to the match, of course. I knew at that moment for sure. ‘I hope that you’re aware of all the difficulties there are in observing all the stringencies of the Gur Hasidim’ – the well-known speech began.”
After their marriage, Weinstein’s husband would address her by saying, “come here a second,” or “tell me,” but would never use her first name. “At that time,” she wrote, “I had no idea what romance meant, but I felt with all my heart that I wanted to hear him say my name. Sometimes I would follow him around at home like a shadow and imagine him suddenly turning around to say that magic word.”
Weinstein ends her book by describing how her life was divided into two: the life of the independent woman she had ultimately chosen, and “the life of motherhood, which hurts, which has been smashed to smithereens, which is bruised and wounded.” She also describes the alienation vis-a-vis her children and their unwillingness to renew their relationship with her.
“I thought it would be a temporary thing,” she wrote, “but the years pass and time doesn’t heal and the pain doesn’t let up.”
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