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Heretic in the House: Nebech

The following is a transcript of Episode 3 of the Heretic in the House Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Naomi: Before you get too far into this episode, I should give you a warning. It includes a short segment in which I talk about some heavy topics. Suicide, specifically. If you don’t want to listen to that right now, you might want to skip this one. 

So I’ll admit to something. In the last couple of episodes, I’ve been using the term OTD to refer to us ex-Orthodox Jews. Again, OTD stands for “Off The Derech,” where “derech” means path and the path in question is the normal trajectory of an Orthodox life. 

I should tell you, though, that a lot of OTD people can’t stand this moniker. The main reason they dislike it is that the term began in the Orthodox community to describe those of us who left. Whenever someone joins one of these OTD groups on social media, the first thing they often say is: “I’m not off their path, I’m on my own path.” 

Pearl: the term OTD implies that there is a derech, there it’s still within that world. It’s still using that mentality.  

Naomi: Exactly, it’s, what it is, it’s like queer. It’s a term that gets thrown at you that you then reclaim. 

Pearl: Okay. You can reclaim it. I, it’s not– 

Naomi: You don’t have to reclaim it. Give me an alternative.  

Pearl: I don’t have one.   

Naomi: And that’s exactly the problem. On the one hand, Pearl wants to reject the OTD mentality, to reject the idea that she should be defined by what she left. But if you’re not going to be defined by that, then defining this big experience in your life, giving yourself a new name that lets you move beyond this big thing, that becomes a lot harder. 

It’s not just the term, obviously; it’s also the community that goes with it. Lots of OTD people leave the Orthodox community thinking they’ll make a clean break, that they’ll start their lives over. For some, why would they even want to join an OTD Facebook group or take on any kind of label? They left one community, why join another one? 

There was a time that my friend Lauren Stoss thought that she was gonna make a total break, not only with the Orthodox community, but also with the ex-Orthodox one.

Lauren: Oh my god, they’re all talking about this stuff, all the time. And I don’t want that, I want to run, like, this is not gonna define me. I am not gonna be about being OTD. Just like, I don’t wanna be about being frum anymore. Like, I don’t want any of this to own me. And I don’t wanna talk to these people and I’m different than them. I got off the Facebook group. I moved to California. I’m like, I’m gonna restart my life. I’m gonna make my life, blah blah. It’s embarrassing now. I was an adult when I had these thoughts. 

Several years of therapy later, on our, I think it was our second or third date. I said to my wife, something about being religious and Orthodoxy. And I said, you know, I’m gonna talk about this for the rest of my life. And she said, of course you are, how could you not? And I had this moment where I was like, oh, of course I am. It is the clay that formed us. It is what I am made of.

I was still a little bit embarrassed. Like I realized I couldn’t escape it. 

Naomi: The reason it’s so hard to escape isn’t just that it was a big part of your life. It’s that Orthodox communities today have a narrative to explain why anybody would ever want to leave, in which anybody who leaves is a nebech, someone to be pitied. 

Lauren: She nebuch lives alone, she nebuch isn’t married, she nebuch doesn’t have kids, only works all the time. She nebuch married a non-Jew. 

Naomi: OH my god, there you go, there you go. Nebuch, nebuch, nebuch.

Nebuch is a Yiddish word that pours out of you when you feel sorry for someone. It also can refer to that person you feel sorry for, the poor soul who, for whatever reason, never really made anything for themselves. Or had some really bad luck in life. 

It’s a word with real feeling behind it, and I don’t mean to imply that it’s purely condescending. Nebuch. There are a lot of unfortunate people in the world, and nebuch covers all of them. But for Orthodox Jews, the word also specifically covers us, the poor souls who are no longer part of their community.

There’s the hero story that the secular world tells about us, that we’re brave souls who left the Orthodox community. And then there’s the nebuch story that the Orthodox world tells about us. And somewhere in between those stories, there’s our story,the story of the people who actually left. This perspective gets the least attention, maybe because there are more of them than us, whether that means Orthodox Jews or the secular world. That imbalance means that other people tell our stories, or at least choose which ones get to be told, which ones will be published or aired. 

These stories are complicated not only because the secular world tends to want to hear one kind of story. They’re also complicated because we ourselves get caught between two kinds of stories about us: in one kind of story, we’re heroes, in the other story, the one told by our family and former communities, we’re losers. 

That second story, the one the Orthodox world tells about us, it has an effect. If you grow up being told that leaving is nebech, and anyone who leaves is a nebech, then you might end up feeling nebech, too. These are big stories that hang over our heads, and they aren’t necessarily how we see ourselves. People who leave that community, sometimes they have to find their way out from under these stories, the stories that other people tell about us. 

I’m Naomi Seidman. This is “Heretic in the House,” a podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. This episode: “Nebech.” 

Pearl: I have to tell you a story. My brother came to visit for the first time. This is the first time any member of my immediate family has come to visit me from the Chasidish world. 

And they come to my home, which you have now called bougie, which it is not. But anyway, I understand why you said that. 

Naomi: I guess I meant it looks clean, and there’s actual matching furniture. 

Pearl: Okay, you know about me and cleanliness, so yes, yes, I’m a little bit Hungarian that way. 

Not even a little. Very.

So anyway, they come over and my brother’s looking around and he’s touching this and looking at that and he’s like, wow, you, you have like a life, like, like you have things here and, and, and there’s, Babbi’s needle point for the Mizrach sign and it’s here and, and, and you have pictures of people and you have books. 

And he just, he was blown away by the fact that this image that they had was nebech, that I need to be sitting in the dark somewhere. They know I’m not but this level of awesomeness.

Naomi: Like where are the heroin needles? Where are the used condoms hanging from the lamps? 

Pearl: No, I mean, like this idea that, the idea that we would have similar values in terms of how to build a home, if you think this is clean, like go to my sister-in-law’s homes, like, they’re gorgeous and they’re cared for, and they’re loved, like really cared for loved spaces. And so is mine. He’s like, you’re such a balabusta and I’m like, why wouldn’t I be? I’m your sister! Like we come from the same place!

But it couldn’t be imagined, like how does it transfer into that world? 

Naomi: The nebech story is instilled at an early age, long before you realize that you’re on the way out, and because of that, it strikes deep. 

You might not think Pearl is a nebech. She’s made quite a name for herself as a filmmaker, and she’s a tenured professor at Penn State. An artist with job security–not so bad, right?  

When Pearl first left, the main worry was how her leaving would affect the rest of the family, whether she’d be a bad influence on her younger relatives. 

Pearl: I remember that concern that this would, you know, infect the future generation and they’ll leave.

Naomi: But as it turned out, in Pearl’s family, just like in mine, 

Pearl: Not one other member of my family and we’re at, almost three generations past me. 

Naomi: Nobody followed us out the door. 

Pearl: I mean, one is going to online college or whatever.

Naomi: While Pearl is a professor and a successful filmmaker, it’s distinctly possible she’s seen as a nebech. And I would go further to say, because she’s a nebech, she isn’t quite as dangerous as you might think to those nieces and nephews: 

Pearl: No matter how exciting my life looked to me and those around me, in that world, there is nothing exciting about it, especially in my case, I am single and I don’t have kids. 

Naomi: Pearl’s life does look pretty good to me, but it doesn’t to much of the Orthodox world. There, success isn’t primarily having a good job or a great career; it’s having a bearded man by your side and many, many children. Her family is proud of her. They love her, but to most of the community, 

Pearl: To them, she’s a cautionary tale.

Naomi: She’s a lot less threatening that way, because cautionary tales keep the younger generation right where they’re supposed to be: in the community, following those rules. 

Pearl: You have now saved the next generation.

Naomi: Frieda, who we met in the first episode, it’s like that for her, too.

Frieda: There is a tremendous chasm in perspective of life. 

Naomi: Frieda had a kid before she left, but her family also sees her as nebech. They just can’t imagine that she’s fine the way she is: 

Frieda: My mother would sometimes throw in, I just want you to be happy. I want you to get married and like, what, what, where does this come from, that you decided I’m not happy? I know that that’s what you’re thinking: I’m not happy because I’m not in the kind of situation that you think that I should be in. Even though my mother knows people who are extremely unhappily married, but when she says, I want you to be happy, it’s one way to say, I want you to be married. 

Naomi: A frum life with a frum family. That’s the same as a happy life. 

Pearl: Keeps Shabbos, kosher, marries on the earlier side, so you can do the pru urvu and have kids and grandkids and great grands, so how I missed the, the memo on that is very disturbing. 

Naomi: We OTD people, who missed that memo, who left that table, who didn’t do the pru urvu, the “be fruitful and multiply,” we mystify our families, who can imagine no greater joy than Chasidic life and no greater emptiness than the world we chose.

If Frieda’s mother wants her to get married so badly, it’s because she has an idea of what the alternative looks like. She has a story in her mind about what Freida does outside the community gates, if we made it out in one piece. There’s nothing out in the secular world but materialism and sin and one-night stands. It’s an empty world that doesn’t have anything that can compare to an Orthodox life, with all the kids running around and a Shabbos meal around the table with the family. 

If we didn’t get what the world was like before we left, we surely know it by now. When we come back for a wedding or holiday, anyone can see it plain on our faces, just how sad and meaningless a life we’re leading in whatever corner of the world we’ve landed. Sad and meaningless, at the very least, because if we got out in time, we probably don’t have ten kids. We might not have any at all. What could be sadder than that?  

Because the outside world is such a disaster, Orthodox Jews have a very specific story to tell about the kind of people who want to live in it. People who leave are people who are desperate or broken, because nothing else can explain why anyone would throw away such a fulfilling life, throw away the gift of being born an Orthodox Jew. 

People who leave aren’t just nebechs because they don’t have successful Orthodox lives; they’re nebechs because wanting to leave is itself a sign that there’s something seriously wrong with you, that psychologizing of OTD people I’ve mentioned before—that you have some kind of unfortunate affliction, your parents were divorced, you were abused or bullied at school, you have some form of mental illness, or maybe you’re gay—that psychologizing lets the community off the hook with shunning us, but it also paints us all as poor souls. Only something like that could explain our leaving, right? 

The problem with these explanations, however sympathetic, is that they explain us away. For all the Jewish sympathy that gets packed into that word, nebech, it’s also a way to minimize the threat we pose to those who stayed. That aspect of our lives that for us is a point of pride—that we got away, against all odds—it takes that as evidence that we’re flawed human beings. 

The people who say, nebech, she was bullied, or nebech, he’s gay, they’re the kind ones, the whole ones, the healthy ones, who didn’t have to blow up their lives the way we unfortunate souls felt we had to. 

This story about us as nebech, it’s not just a family narrative or neighborhood gossip about, nebech, another kid leaving. It’s a community-wide discussion, a kind of consensus that’s been building for the past few decades. By now, there are all kinds of people making their reputation on explaining why young people are leaving, and suggesting various remedies for the great plague of defections the community has been scrambling to deal with. 

Self-styled Orthodox experts on OTD, who write articles titled “Why Jews leave observance, and healing the hurt that causes it.” That particular article, by Allison Josephs, concludes that: “The most universal issue we see for why people leave Judaismis… insecure attachment due to childhood emotional neglect.” 

Insecure attachment due to childhood emotional neglect. That’s going to explain us. Apparently all those people who become observant or stay observant, they were adequately nurtured in their childhood, they have secure attachments, they’re models of psychological health, which explains why they have no difficulties drawing what they need from what Josephs calls “the warm, supportive community of Orthodox Judaism.” 


Posting these articles and discussing them, that’s the kind of thing that happens on OTD Facebook groups. I think you can probably imagine the kind of responses this article elicited: lots of rage, wrapped up with some quite hilarious inside jokes, all riding a general wave of mockery. 

What never ceases to astonish our merry band of OTD people is the really quite remarkable fact that the Orthodox Jewish community seems incapable of wrapping its collective brain around the possibility that we just don’t believe the various things you’re supposed to believe in if you’re an Orthodox Jew. 

Even if we don’t see ourselves as our families see us, we know how they see us, and that makes a difference, not only when we’re talking to them, but also when we think we’ve put them behind us. It’s as if this other story about what our leaving meant, what it continues to mean, carries on, a kind of shadow narration of our lives, a Greek chorus, though this Greek chorus knows a lot of Yiddish. Nebech

It’s hard to leave the Orthodox community without marketable skills or family support or money, the way so many of us did. But this is something else that’s hard, and that’s a little trickier to see. It turns out, leaving the Orthodox fold also involves leaving the story we’ve heard about people who leave that fold. We’ve got to break that story down and find another, if we’re going to figure out not only how to get away from Orthodoxy but also how to get away from who we are in Orthodox eyes, nebech.

You see, leaving the fold also means leaving the story about what it means to leave the fold, the story you’ve heard for all those years you’ve been scheming to leave. Before you take your first step out, your whole life story has in a sense been “pre-interpreted” anticipated, headed off before it can happen. If you’ve been raised to believe that everyone who leaves is broken, then it’s hard to leave without suspecting that you might be broken, too. You have to fight to the exit, nobody makes it easy in these communities.

But aside from fighting to leave, you also have to fight to figure out what you think it means to leave, to make your own judgment call, to tell your own story. And that doesn’t end when you move to a different neighborhood. That can go on for your whole life.

If you ask formerly Orthoodox Jews why they left, you’ll often hear a very different story, a story that the nebech tale is designed to hide. This story isn’t psychological. It’s not about trauma or abuse. It’s about religion, about theology, about heresy. 

For people who left Orthodoxy, there’s something powerful about claiming the status of heretic. I have an OTD friend who actually has the Hebrew term for heretic, “apikores” tattooed on her arm in Rashi script. I worked hard to be taken seriously as a heretic. So did my tattooed friend. I told everyone and anyone who would listen that I left the Orthodox world for intellectual reasons. 

 But it’s harder to be taken seriously as a heretic than you might think. If we’re so persistent in making this claim, it’s because we had to fight for the status of heretic, because the Orthodox world wasn’t so ready to grant it to us. 

It’s particularly hard for women to claim the mantle of heretic. You’ve heard me say it before: in the world I grew up in, it didn’t really matter what kind of religious doubts might be bothering an Orthodox girl. What mattered was whether they were behaving themselves, and whether they would keep behaving themselves. 

But heresy is hard for boys and men, too, because fitting in is more about what you do than what you believe. Lauren has this theory that we OTD people, the ones who left, we’re the ones who thought we should be believing what we were told, understanding every word of the prayers. 

Lauren: I understand why, the tower, the whole thing comes down. 

Naomi: There are plenty of people in the Orthodox community that don’t believe, or don’t follow the rules to a T, but stay in the community anyway, for whatever reason. These people got the message that it wasn’t such a big deal, you can show up for whatever you show up for. If you can’t stand to pray in the synagogue, then you can just hang out with your friends outside on the sidewalk, just bring a book to synagogue and read it while the Torah was being chanted, just put a baseball cap over your yarmulke and go to Manhattan to get a break. 

Lauren: It would never have occurred to me to just do things that I wasn’t allowed to do, and just apologize about it later.

Naomi: There are ways of just satisfying whatever you need to satisfy without blowing your whole life up. 

Lauren: It’s kind of true. Like poor me, I took it seriously. If I hadn’t taken it seriously, I could have had all my taivos and my family and my life. And you know, poor me, I meant. Maybe I shouldn’t have meant it so much. 

Naomi: I don’t know if this is true of you, but I had like, a year or two when I was driving everyone crazy because I was a religious fanatic. I was like, if we’re actually gonna do this, then we’re gonna do this. Like I want to actually believe what it is I’m saying, you know, ashrei yoshvei beisecha, blah blah blah. 

Lauren: I did a thing where I learned the meaning of every word of the davening. It took me like two hours. 

Naomi: So maybe it isn’t the Orthodox community that are the fundamentalists, it’s us, who couldn’t figure out how to be flexible and just get through the day. That was our mistake. That’s what got us in trouble. 

So that might be why we’re the ones who think of ourselves as heretics. Because we really tried to be religious, within a community where other people understood that you didn’t have to take such things so seriously, so seriously that it all make sense. 

Lauren: Talking about God was almost embarrassing. Like, people don’t talk about it. Like, you talk about belief. People are like, Ugh, it’s a little, that’s a little much, like, isn’t that a little like crunchy, a little crunchy granola. 

Naomi: It’s Christian. It’s goyish.

Heresy is also attractive because being a heretic is, in many ways, the opposite of being a nebech. If the nebech story says that you left Orthodoxy because of psychological factors beyond your control, the heretic story says that, no, this is something you chose for yourself. If the nebech story is about emotion, the heresy story is about reason. If the nebech story is something shameful and embarrassing, heresy is something dignified, something you can be proud of. A nebech is a victim of circumstance. A heretic has taken control of their own life.

But it’s not really so black and white, and even a lot of us in the OTD community have become less insistent that we left for purely intellectual reasons. The attitude I was just describing, that old need of ours to retain the dignity and pride of heresy, that seems to be fading, for me and other OTD people. It’s one thing to insist that you left because of your principles, but is there really a way to separate reason and emotion, to figure out whether you left because you read Nietzsche as a teenager or because nebech your mother didn’t nurse you as a baby? 

The nebech story and the heretic story can’t really be separated. So part of reclaiming the OTD story from those framings is to say: it doesn’t really matter why you left, and you don’t really need to justify it to anyone. As Lauren put it in one Facebook discussion, “Any reason, or no reason at all, is a good reason to leave Orthodoxy.” 

For people who don’t know the Orthodox community, it might be mystifying why she felt moved to put it that way. But no one in the group had any problem understanding her point, appreciating it. We’ve been there. We’re veterans of that battle for control over the OTD story.  

Let’s take Lauren’s own situation for a moment.  

Lauren: I stopped being frum when I was about 27 years old, 26, 27. I was in the shidduch system for many years. 

Naomi: The shidduch system, the arranged marriage market, which is the prescribed way that almost all Jews in her community find partners.

Lauren: I was nebech an alte kaker at 26. Everybody was very concerned. 

Naomi: She was a spinster, still not married in her mid-twenties. No wonder she threw in the towel and left Orthodoxy. Lauren suspects that that’s the story her old community tells about her, but she’s insistent; that’s not why she left. 

Lauren: I knew that I did not believe in precisely what I was being told from a very young age, my first memory of not believing I was five

Naomi: She tried to believe, to take the prayers and the Halakha seriously. 

Lauren: It took me a very long time to realize that not really believing meant I couldn’t live that way.

Naomi: She was having religious doubts, heretical thoughts, long long before she ever had to put together her first shidduch resume—yes, that’s a thing. 

Lauren: I left because I didn’t believe in it, or didn’t wanna, want to anymore. 

Naomi: So maybe, if you’re a budding or full-fledged atheist, maybe your behavior on those shidduch dates is kind of a red flag, and it’s no surprise that none of them worked out. One time  she kind of screwed up just when a part of the Orthodox world was discovering that New York City tap water contained these tiny little creatures that look like shrimp, and might not be Kosher.

Lauren: Oh my goodness. I was on a date and this man, I was like, oh, well, I’ll get some water from the like hotel lobby, you know, the Brooklyn Marriott or something.

Naomi: Hotel lobby. I’ve been there. 

Lauren: And this sweet Yeshiva boy is like, well, bottled water, right? And I said, oh, like, from the tap is fine. And he had this look on his face, like, oh, you’re not who I thought you were. And I was like, oh, that’s the end of that date.

Naomi: Even if a lot of people think that nebech, Lauren might have stayed in the Orthodox community if she had just found the right boy to marry, I think it’s safe to say that that particular match may have been sunk by whatever she was going through then, whatever it was that marked her as a loose woman, that is, a woman who was okay drinking from the tap. 

Lauren is now pretty thrilled that Mr. Bottled Water didn’t work out. In fact, I think she’s fine with the fact that none of those dates worked out, and that she had the nursing degree that allowed her to move into her own apartment, and that she had the guts to move to California where she met the woman who she eventually married. So thank you very much, she doesn’t really need people in the Orthodox world to feel sorry for her.

So what does it mean to live with that Greek chorus that talks a little Yiddish, whether it’s in your head or online or only in your past? It’s not a drag for everyone. Pearl, for instance, who can imagine how she’s seen in that community, she managed to make something of that perception of being a nebech, to add her own perspective to that one.  

Pearl: Sometimes we tell our story in order to cope with the nebech, if we’re the oned who are the arbiters of our own stories, then we get to put ourselves, whether you like to put it that way or not, as the hero of that story. 

Naomi: But for some of us, it nags, it gnaws, that what counts as happiness for us, what counts as success, registers differently in that world we tried to put behind us. Whether or not the Orthodox world wishes us ill, there’s a force in that nebech. Maybe our Orthodox family and friends don’t prefer us to be miserable, don’t actually wish us ill, but it’s still the case that when things are hard for us, that confirms something about how they think the world works, affirms their own choices. 

Lauren: So I don’t think that they’re rooting for us to fail, but I think that there’s a little light that goes on that says, yes, it makes sense. Because when you leave Hasham, your life falls apart. And if it doesn’t fall apart, then they have to find another way to explain it. Maybe you’re like, you’re really still a really good person. You secretly are like gonna come back one day, you’ll be frum again, or maybe you still hold onto your Jewish identity, which means, 

Naomi: So that’s the argument we’re having, that’s the voice in our heads, whether we’re fighting it or succumbing to it.

Lauren: It’s very hard to accept that you could not live according to these ways of life and still have, like you said, success, happiness, meaning. 

Naomi: It helps in that sense to have a fabulous life, to get the big prizes, to make it. But let’s be real. We’re not all living fabulous lives. We don’t all love our jobs. We haven’t all found a place in this big beautiful secular world. We’re not all as free as that secular world is cracked up to be. And that Greek chorus, that Yiddish chorus, it gets louder when things aren’t going so fabulously. 

Either way, whether the big world turns out to be just as cold and evil and empty as they told us it would be, or whether we found a warm corner to live out our lives in, either way, for a lot of us, that familiar voice, that old argument, is still there, it hasn’t gone away.

One way of dealing with this is to turn the tables, to stop looking at how the Orthodox world is imagining us and our lives, and start thinking a little more critically about what passes as fine in theirs. Maybe the real nebechs are in the Orthodox world, and we should be pitying them rather than the other way around. Or if not pitying them, at least figuring out how to get outside that oh-so-familiar perspective. 

Lauren: As an OTD person, you’re always looking for permission to say the way that they’re behaving is not good. But because we’re so conditioned and trained to see it from their perspective, And because their perspective does make sense to them. Right?Like I understand why, for example, a cousin of mine might not want me to bring my wife to their frum wedding. Like I, I get it. No one has to explain to me why. 

Because their perspective is the perspective that I was, I was form, I I’ve been molded into that. I have to teach myself to see that’s actually not okay. 

Naomi: I know what Lauren is talking about, the way some of us are in a twisted way relieved to see the Orthodox world behaving badly, going Trumpy or homophobic or anti-vax or whatever turns you off, because it helps us, it just helps us feel okay with the decisions we’ve made with our lives, even if we made those decisions a long time ago.

But what if we don’t feel fine? What if we managed to escape from what felt like a high-security prison but you know, now we’re in the woods of Alabama with just the clothes on our backs and bloodhounds on our trail? That happens too, to a lot of us, especially in those first few months or years after their escape. There’s a lot of OTD crisis and sadness and difficulty out there, and for some people that big mess ends in real, irreversible tragedy. 

There’s an OTD writer who’s written about this, Jericho Vincent, they identify as non-binary. Jericho’s put their finger on a very real and serious phenomenon. They call it the “Post-Ultra-Orthodox Death Prophecy,” the self-fulfilling prediction that leaving Orthodoxy will consign you to an unbearable life. In Jericho’s words, “we’re scarred by the belief that our fate has already been written, and that our story could have only one possible outcome—misery.” It’s a death prophecy because in some cases, that’s what happens.

Suicide is unfortunately, not uncommon among OTD people. And what’s more unfortunate is when the misery that underlies some of these suicides is tangled up in the actions of their old communities. 

In 2011, Deb Tambor, who left the insular Chassidic sect of Skver, fought to retain custody of her children against her frum ex-husband. She ultimately lost. On top of that, visitation rights to her children were restricted to once every other week for one hour. That court ruling was something her former Skver community heavily litigated to achieve. Her own father testified against her. In 2013, she killed herself. 

If the Orthodox community has such clairvoyant powers of prophecy, it’s because those prophecies, what Jericho calls death prophecies, are sometimes fulfilled by the very people who predict them. If the cold cruel outside world doesn’t get you, if you try to leave with your kids, the people you imagine you can leave behind will do what they can to make sure they maintain some control over those kids, to work for what you perceive as their best interests, to save their souls, even if their mother’s souls get lost in the process. 

That’s the ugliest side of nebech, the part where those who say those words are doing all they can to make sure that your life really will be a disaster. 

Zalman: In my research, I interviewed an OTD person and I interviewed his parents. And they’re Satmar and, you know, echtika, real Satmar people who live, you know, still within the community. And at one point, I asked the mother, you know, is it true that everyone who leaves is meshugah, that they’re all crazy, you know? 

And she basically said, well, you know, some people who leave might have mental illness, some might not. But when you go to a judge and you’re fighting for the child custody, and you want to make sure that the child remains within the Satmar community, rather than going to the OTD parents, you know, you’ll say anything, because what’s being contested is not just the life of the child here on earth. It’s the usid, it’s the future, it’s eternity.

 What, you think we’re going to go to a secular judge and tell them, yeah, sure, the parent and the OTD parents is perfectly normal and healthy, but we’re concerned about the neshama, about the soul of this child and their future after, you know, 120 and so on. You think the judge is going to take us seriously? They’ll throw us out of court. 

Judges understand mental illness, dysfunctional parenting, dangerous parenting, whatever. That’s the language that we talk. What you’re talking about, from the perspective of the Chareidi community, is the cosmos, is, you know, how do you serve god and fulfill the purpose of creation, the purpose of each person’s soul? What won’t you say and what won’t you do to project eternity?

Naomi: This is where calling us traumatized, abused, mentally ill, gets messy. It’s not always wrong. I don’t want to imply that no one who is ex-Orthodox carries this baggage, that all of us are pictures of mental health. But it’s a cudgel, wielded against us in family court. It’s also a cover story, one that lets the community wash its hands of any collective responsibility. One that lets that community keep hold of its own sense that it knows the truth. It knows what it is to live a life of meaning. Knows what it to not be broken. It’s our ticket to a kind of acceptance. Though only on condition that we can agree that we’re the ones who are broken.

But we’re not off the hook either. This obsession so many of us have with how the frum community sees OTD people, that can blind us to how we’re sometimes the ones holding the blunt instrument. Even if we’re not out there with our complaints, not making fun of their large families or laughing about their ever-increasing stringencies and fear of tap water, even if we’re not sharing our escape stories with the world, the very fact that we turned our backs on the life they hold dear, they feel judged by that. 

Underneath all their diagnoses and judgment of us is a lot of defensiveness and hurt. It’s one thing to be made to feel bad that you’re an Orthodox Jew, that you wear a wig or live in a world of lots of rules. But when it’s OTD people doing the judging, using all the ammunition they managed to acquire in their years inside that community, well, that can really sting. 

It took me a long time to see this, to fumble my way into understanding how it might feel to a frum person when someone they know, someone in their family, leaves their community. Because the damage we’ve inflicted on each other is so asymmetrical, so different, it’s easy enough for anyone on either side to feel like they’re the supremely wronged person. 

But who has the upper hand in this story? If you’re fighting your own father for custody of your kids in family court and the court sides with him, it probably feels like the Orthodox community won. But if you’re frum, watching your community be paraded out for the entertainment of secular audiences on Netflix, you might think that OTD people have all the cards. 

Are we nebechs, or are they? Who gets to frame this awful story? If this is a different kind of custody battle, it’s one that no district judge is really adjudicating. I’m not counting on any judge in heaven either. So, that leaves only us to figure this one out. At some point we’ll have to just look each other in the face, show them the wounds we carry, see the ones they carry, and just bear witness. We don’t look so different, whether we cover our hair, cover our heads. After all, we’re both molded from the same clay.

Heretic in the House is a production of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. It was written by me, Naomi Seidman. This episode was produced by M. Louis Gordon, with editing assistance from Alex Dillon. It was recorded by Lucien Lozon at MCS Studios Toronto, with theme music by Luke Allen and mixing by Cory Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Our senior producer is David Zvi Kalman. 

If you or anyone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, there’s some resources we can link to in the shownotes. If you’re OTD and need support, there’s an amazing organization called Footsteps that can help. We’ll link to them too.

In the fourth and final episode, we’re gonna talk about the act of leaving itself, and how we get praised for it in the outside world. 

Freida: People start to say, you’re just like Deborah Feldman. You’re so brave. 

Naomi: I’m Naomi Seidman. Thanks for listening. 

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