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Heretic in the House: Shunning

The following is a transcript of Episode 2 of the Heretic in the House Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Zalman: From the Lubavitch perspective, any tampering with your beard is considered a gross violation of Jewish law, and also socially is completely unacceptable. I mean for someone to shave their beard, that means they’re fundamentally off the, the proper path.

Internally, I was kind of moving away from Lubavitch and Orthodox Judaism. I called my mother the day that I shaved my beard, because I was scheduled to come for Shabbat a few days later, and I didn’t want to have a huge, emotional scene, you know, in Crown Heights, in my parents’ doorstep. So I called her up to warn her that I shaved my beard. 

She basically hung up the phone on me. She called me back again and said, “You know, okay, you want to shave your beard, you don’t wanna be Lubavitch, you wanna do your own thing, no problem. Come over, on Sunday, when I’m not home, pick up your stuff, and, you know, that’s the end of it. You’re on your own. Don’t come back home.”

I was really shocked and pained by her response. Well not completely shocked. I had some idea that she would respond very forcefully to my change. I just didn’t come home. I didn’t speak to my mother at all. You know, I graduated college, I started a new job, I got a new apartment, whatever, all of this was, you know, without my parents’ involvement.

Naomi: There are lots of things the secular world gets wrong about ultra-Orthodox Jews, big things and little things. Every time there’s an article in the New York Times or a Netflix show about that world, Orthodox people tend to jump on those mistakes. They’re not wrong. And Lord knows it’s also an issue the other way around: there are plenty of things that Orthodox Jews get wrong about the secular world, that den of iniquity and one night stands and antisemitism. 

But this is an episode about the one thing that everyone seems to get wrong, on both sides of the divide. Even those of us who know the Orthodox community and spend time in secular spaces, even we seem to get this wrong. This is a myth we all seem to buy into, even those of us who should know better. I talked about this myth with a few of my friends who left the Orthodox community, my OTD friends. If you remember from the last episode, OTD means off the right path, the Orthodox path.

The story we all believe? It’s about the consequences of straying from that path.

Lauren: You know, your family’s gonna tear their clothes, they’re gonna sit Shiva for you, they’re never gonna speak your name again, you’re gonna call the house, they won’t pick up the phone. That’s the story.

Naomi: The idea that those who leave Orthodoxy are permanently and completely disowned by their families and their community. 

Lauren: The vast majority of OTD people I know did not experience this. It no longer represents what’s actually happening. Why does the story persist?

Naomi: That’s the question I wanna answer. Because I’m not just here to correct the record on some minor misconception; I want to get at the heart of how we think about the boundaries of Orthodox communities, boundaries that matter to all of us whether we’re inside or out or somewhere in between.

Lauren: That mythology is really useful. That’s why it’s not going away.

Naomi: I’m Naomi Seidman, and this is Episode 2 of “Heretic in the House,” a podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America about the stories we tell about Orthodox Judaism and the people who believe it. This episode: “Shunning.” 

Before we get into this show, I want to give one important caveat. This episode is mostly about people who left their communities before they had children, before the question of child custody enters the conversation. Custody complicates things immensely, because Hasidic communities have very specific ideas about how children should be raised, so things can get pretty ugly pretty quickly when children are involved. For now, I’m going to focus on those of us who got out without that complication. 

Let’s start with Zalman Newfield, who we met last time.

Zalman: Sure, so, I should say,

Naomi: In 2020, Zalman published a book called Degrees of Separation, where he interviewed 74 ex-Hasidic Jews about their experiences. 

Zalman: I was looking at, in particular, the Lubavitch and Satmar community. 

Naomi: Out of all these people, only two or three were shunned in any kind of absolute way, say by their families or friends cutting off all contact with them. 

Zalman: It absolutely surprised me. I thought that I would find, like other scholars have found in other strict religious communities, whether it’s the Amish or whether it’s a Seventh-Day Adventist, whether it’s, you know, Scientologists, there’s often a harsh system of established practices of shunning, of excommunicating of, you know, publicly rejecting the people that leave the community. 

Naomi: He was expecting to hear that in the strict Hasidic communities the people he interviewed had left, some kind of shunning was going on. And the people he interviewed also believed that was happening, even if it hadn’t exactly happened to them.  

Zalman: I searched very hard, for several years to try to find someone who grew up Lubavitch or Satmar and left, whose family ended up sitting Shiva for them. 

Naomi: Shiva. That was the ultimate specter, the myth in its purest and most absolute form. Shiva, if you don’t know, is the name for the traditional period of mourning that many Jews observe after the death of a close relative. 

It’s called “sitting shiva” because you’re supposed to spend most of it actually sitting, receiving a long string of people who are trying to comfort you, while you sit on a low chair with a torn shirt. When you sit shiva for a living person, the message is absolutely clear; there’s no more direct way of telling a family member that they’re dead to you. 

Zalman speculated that maybe it was something that used to be done, but times have changed, partly because there are just so many more young people leaving. 

But there’s another reason that the Orthodox community mostly isn’t excommunicating its heretics, which is that in the past few decades Orthodox Jews have gotten very interested in psychology and therapy, in things like dyslexia and anorexia and trauma.

There’s also a lot more talk about emotional or physical abuse. If Orthodox Jews can blame someone’s choice to leave the true path on psychological issues rather than on wickedness or sin, that makes it easier for you to forgive them, to forgive us. This is how leaving Orthodox Judaism goes from being a sin to being kind of a symptom, not a choice but a kind of misfortune. 

Yitzchok: In other words, if you allow yourself to think, Oh, there is a psychological problem, they come from a broken family. There was abuse in this child, in their history, so then we don’t have to question our core beliefs. 

Naomi: Maybe that’s why folks aren’t sitting shiva anymore. They don’t have to. 

Yitzchok: I’m Yitzchok Shonfeld, otherwise known as Isaac.


Naomi: Almost everyone else I’m talking to on this podcast is OTD, so I should make it clear that my friend Yitzchok is not. 

Yitzchok: I’ve lived in Borough Park all my life, except for a short stint of four years in a yeshiva in Mexico. 

Naomi: He’s totally and entirely frum, which is what observant Jews call themselves; he lives in the heart of the neighborhood, the same one I grew up in, but even a place like Borough Park, Brooklyn has its mavericks, and Yitzchok is definitely that. 

Yitzchok: You have to keep Shabbos, you have to eat certain foods, dress a certain way, think a certain way. If you are living a restricted life, it has to have meaning and a purpose, it has to have a truth to it as well. 

Naomi: A society so sure of its way of life has to find some way of explaining why anyone would want to leave.  

Yitzchok: The reason why you see so many people abandoning it is because their boat was rocked. They must be slightly meshugeh. They must be slightly insane. They must have some, some psychological problem. You know, they came from a broken family, they were abused, or some dyslexia, they’re gay, etcetera. They were pushed out of this wonderful truth. 

I think that it’s wrong and I think that it’s disrespectful as well. 

Naomi: Yitzchok rejetcts these psychological diagnoses, even though he understands why his community makes them. He doesn’t think of himself as all that different from the ones who left, even though he stayed. 

Yitzchok: It’s even a disservice to people, to tell them that there’s only one truth, and we have it. Do I know that there is a god, there isn’t a god, do I know that if there is a god, that he gave us an instruction booklet? And if he did give us an instruction booklet, is it the one called the Torah? I don’t know the truth.

Naomi: So, psychologizing heresy makes it easier for Orthodox communities to not turn their backs on their wayward children. But there’s another possibility, which is that the whole “sitting Shiva for your wayward child” was never really practiced as much as it was preached. Maybe it’s been largely theoretical for a long time, a bogeyman haunting the OTD story, a big stick that hangs over the people who are thinking of leaving. 

When a friend of mine told her parents she was a lesbian, they sent her to talk to their rabbi, who warned her that if she didn’t repent of her evil ways her parents would sit Shiva for her. She just laughed at this: She told him, “Look, I’m a rabbinics scholar, don’t tell me my parents are supposed to sit Shiva because I’m a lesbian. Where do you get your knowledge of Jewish law from anyway, Fiddler on the Roof?” 

So maybe that’s where we all got that piece of ethnic lore from, from shows like Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye shuns one of his daughters for marrying a local gentile, or from Unorthodox, where the grandmother hangs up on her OTD granddaughter when she calls from halfway around the world. 

Those stories about Orthodox Jews—well, Orthodox Jews started to believe them, even when they should have known better. And we did too. That big stick, that bogeyman, that’s one reason I had a hard time getting my OTD friends to talk to me on tape. 

But even for those who actually did get shunned or excommunicated, there’s a disconnect between how they experienced being cut off and how that experience is heard in the secular world. Izzy is one of those who was cut off, very deliberately, by his parents. That might have something to do with the fact that he did agree to being recorded. 

Izzy: My name is Izzy Posen. I am the oldest of 10. When I left, I was 20. All of my siblings were 17 and younger, and the youngest was a newborn baby.  

Naomi: Izzy lives in England, studies philosophy and science,  

Izzy: I’ve recently graduated from the University of Bristol with a master’s in physics and philosophy.

Naomi: He makes podcasts. He also teaches physics

Izzy: High school-level physics.

Naomi: on Youtube. In his late teens, Izzy came out as an unbeliever. His parents had what to say about that, but Izzy stuck to his guns—and not just for personal reasons, but for philosophical ones. 

Izzy: It’s not because I don’t know what I’m doing or, you know, I’m not thinking properly about the Oylam Haboh, the world to come and how bad it’s gonna be in Gehennom, in hell.  It’s because I’ve really, really thought about it carefully. I’ve read, I’ve researched, I’ve spoken with people and I’ve come to the conclusion that Hareidi Judaism is not true. It’s belief system is not the right way to think about the world. And that was a big, big threat. I was beloved by my siblings. They looked up to me. 

Naomi: Izzy’s parents were just terrified that this was the beginning of a chain reaction,

Izzy: In their eyes, if I’m gonna have a relationship with my siblings, they’re gonna be influenced by my heresy. 

Naomi: That all of them were going to follow their big brother out the door. 

Izzy: So I was cut off on my siblings and it was incredibly painful, incredibly painful. 

Naomi: His friends in the secular world were horrified to hear about this. But unlike his secular friends, he gets it. 

Izzy: When we make the decision to leave, for whatever reason, when we doubt, when we become fried, whatever, whatever it is, there are human beings, they’re our parents, who had, rightly or wrongly, had very different vision for us, live in a community in which what we are doing brings them a lot of shame, live in a community that all their life has told them that what we are doing is wrong and think, based on their worldview, that what we are doing is harmful to ourselves. 

And it is, in a very real sense, it is usually what we do usually is harmful to the family for the family name, for shidduchim of our siblings. And so on.

Naomi: Shidduchim means arranged marriages, in a marriage market where your value goes down there’s a stain in your family history. Anyone in your immediate family that left–that’s a huge stain. That’s part of what we all grew up with, the threat that we’d be ruining the marriage prospects of other people in our family.

Izzy sees what his parents are doing as a way of trying to stem the damage that he’s done, protecting the future of those younger brothers and sisters. This doesn’t mean he agrees with them, or regrets what he’s done, but he sympathizes with it.

Remember, Izzy is the exception here, the one whose family actually carried out the threat to cut him off. But as Zalman found, most of us, even from the most insular Chasidic communities, maybe we were threatened too, but when it came right down to it, we weren’t entirely cut off.

Zalman: After eight months, I decided that, you know, enough is enough. I should try to go back home and resume some kind of family relationship. It was Purim at the time, so I told my father that I really want to come home for Purim to see everyone. My father suggested that since its Purim anyway, maybe I should put on a fake beard, cause people often, you know, little kids, they wear fake beards, etc. etc. as Mordechai, whatever, so it would be in the spirit of the holiday.

And I told him, no, I don’t want to wear any fake beards, like, this is who I am and this is how I want to come. He asked my mother about it and my mother didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no. So he said, okay, that’s as good as it’s gonna get. If you want to come, come. 

So I did. And my mother, she told me, she’s like, I don’t recognize you, I don’t know who you are. This is not my son.

And I spent a lot of time trying to tell her no, this is your son, I haven’t changed, I’m not a different person, I’m just, not fundamentally a different person, I just look a little bit different. 

Naomi: Nobody sat shiva for us. Most of us are dealing with an in-between sort of situation. We were cut off and then not. Some family members shunned us, and some didn’t. We could come back for some occasions but not others. Or we had to come back home wearing a costume.

The details vary from case to case, but there’s also something a lot of these in-between situations have in common. I want to talk about this in-between situation because my suspicion is that people outside our small OTD circles don’t even realize it exists. 

My friend Lauren Stoss has certainly lived it.

Lauren: I grew up in Flatbush, in what I now think of as a Yeshivish community, but at the time I would have just said, oh, we’re just frum.  

Naomi: Lauren is an oncology nurse and she writes a lot, too. I met her at an OTD meetup in Berkeley. 

Lauren: Now I am not religious. 

Naomi: She reads a lot of books about people who leave fundamentalist religions, and she picked up this term.

Lauren: Soft shunning.

Naomi: Soft shunning. Here’s an example that happened to her.

Lauren: I have a cousin who invited me to her wedding. I love her very much. 

Naomi: It turns out that right as she got this invitation, Lauren had a big life update of her own, 

Lauren: You know, she called me to talk about the wedding, and I had just gotten engaged to my wife. And I said, oh, I’m also engaged. She said, oh, would you maybe not mention it at the wedding? Cause I don’t know if people know about it and I don’t really want this to be like your coming-out party, my wedding. I don’t know anyone who ever had a coming-out party. 

I don’t know anyone who had a coming-out party. I kinda want one. Maybe I should have one now.

She didn’t shun me. She didn’t say don’t come. I didn’t even suggest bringing at the time my fiancee. It wasn’t a shunning moment. It was a request. And I had to really think about it. What am I gonna do? And I said, you know, I’m not gonna lie to anyone. I won’t get up on a table. I won’t announce it, but I’m also not gonna lie about my life and what I’m doing. 

Cause I could was imagining, and you know this happens, a thousand people coming over to you saying nebuch, how old are you? Like, do you want, what are you interested in? What kind of boy do you want? You know? 

And they mean well, this is coming from a place of love, also a place of nosiness, but a place of love. That’s the collectivist culture, right? We have to get everyone married. 

Naomi: She would be expected to listen to all that rigmarole and absorb all that pity without saying, actually, I’m not single, I’m engaged to my girlfriend. 

Lauren: And I offered to her, I said, would you prefer it if I just didn’t come? I don’t wanna ruin your wedding. And she said, yes, please don’t come. Is that a shunning?  

Naomi: Well, maybe. Because if she said anything at all about a gay relationship, she would be treating her cousin’s wedding like a coming-out party (whatever that is), and that would be selfish, that would hurt people—shock them, really.  

Lauren: That’s what I think of when I think of soft shunning.

Naomi: If hard shunning means zero contact with family members, like in Izzy’s case, soft shunning means that you’re connected to your family, but not very often, and under rules of engagement that are pretty strict, even if they’re mostly unspoken. It’s important to Lauren that we recognize that soft shunning is still shunning, because there are so many rules that go along with it. You’re welcome to be here, but not really you, not your whole self. 

There’s something else: the soft shun is always shadowed by the hard shun. The hard shun is there—it’s still an implicit threat and one way it works is to make the soft shun seem merciful by comparison. 

Lauren: We’re gonna sit shiva for you but only if you don’t do this XYZ thing.

Naomi: In other words, we could be getting cut off, but we’re fortunate, because we’re only getting soft shunned. 

Lauren: So I told her she has to wear something else, I told him he has to wear a yarmulke, but I’m telling him he can come!

Naomi: But the specter of the hard shun is always there right behind it. 

Lauren: Exactly.

Naomi: So we’re made to feel that we should be grateful that our parents aren’t sitting shiva for us, that things aren’t worse. That’s how the shadow of the hard shun works, to make the soft shun feel like a mercy, like you’re the beneficiary of some privileged exception to the truly horrible rule. 

OTD people who are soft shunned aren’t the only ones who feel like they’re the exception. Their families also end up feeling exceptional, and there can even be a touch of pride in that, in the mindset that other families may sit shiva for their kids, but we don’t. We value our children, we understand the family bond, we love our children, come hell or high water. We’ll be there for our children, we’ll keep in touch, whatever the rabbi has to say, whatever God has to say, whatever Fiddler on the Roof has to say—and, in the back of their minds, the thought that maybe, just maybe, some measure of acceptance will even persuade their straying children to come home. Because Orthodox Jews aren’t so bad, even if Netflix thinks they are. And because inside every Jew, however far away they’ve gone, is that Jewish spark. No matter where we’ve run off to, no matter where we ended up, hope for our return never dies. That’s how it is. 

If it’s so beautiful, though, why am I calling it soft shunning? Because it’s not so beautiful. In fact, a lot of us hate it. One OTD friend of mine I talked to about this episode was pretty clear about that. “Shunning! I wish I was being shunned!” he said to me. “If I were being shunned, I could be on your podcast!” 


What my friend meant was that if he were totally shunned, he’d be free. Because soft shunning always comes with rules of engagement. These unwritten rules lay out exactly how it might happen that someone who abandoned the Orthodox world might be conditionally allowed back for a meal, or a wedding, or—lord help us—an entire holiday. We may have thought we were escaping all those Orthodox rules. In some ways, we did. But not entirely, because it turns out that along with those rules, there are some reserved just for that special case, the case of the wayward child coming back for a visit, the case of the heretic in the house. Those rules aren’t always spoken, you can’t look them up. But they’re there, spoken or not. 

Zalman: My father asks me, you know did I put on tefillin today. It’s very awkward because I don’t put on tefillin, you know, but I don’t want to make my father feel bad, you know, the man’s been through enough. Do I you know, sit there, putting it in his face, I didn’t put on tefillin today, whatever, I ate at this restaurant that’s not kosher, you know? 

If someone asks you a question, that means that they’re ready to hear the answer. If they’re not ready to hear the answer, they shouldn’t ask the question. I think sometimes they may not even fathom what your answers gonna be. In that sense, they couldn’t possibly be prepared to hear your answer. 

Or they know what your answer might be and they’re really hoping it’s the other thing, you know? And when you tell them the truth, it could be deeply, you know, painful to them.

Naomi: There’s a kind of protocol in place when we talk to relatives in the community. Let’s call it the Orthodox “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. It’s the details we leave out when our parents ask us how life is going. The questions that they know they don’t want to hear the answers to. That’s an important piece of what soft shunning looks like in practice. 

It isn’t just the big sins that you can’t bring up at your cousin’s wedding—being gay, having a non-Jewish partner, being an atheist, desecrating the Sabbath. What makes it hard is that just about everything is off limits, all the details of your new secular life that have no place in an Orthodox conversation. You bought a house where? You do what for a living? You voted for Obama? And the worst possible thing you can ever bring up is the simple fact that you’ve left the Orthodox world. It’s just rude to mention it, even if everybody knows the story or if they don’t know the story, they can immediately see it because even putting on a long dress can’t hide all the little tells of a secular life. 

What this means is that what used to be all about conforming to a bunch of rules, well, now it’s more about things we have to conceal. So why bother?  

Izzy, and he was hard shunned, he realizes now that he could have avoided being cut off by his family if he had played the game the right way, if he had been a little less arrogant and young and honest and in-your-face on the way out. He’s still hoping that it’s not too late to fix that up. As he sees it, there’s something about Orthodox Jewish psychology that could work in his favor.

Izzy: People really want to believe that you’re frum, it’s very painful for people to believe that you’ve consciously rejected it. It challenges them. And people really wanna believe that deep inside you’re frum. And I’ve learned, you know, what, I’m gonna let people believe that. And I’m not gonna do anything too explicit to the public to say explicitly my level of religiosity. 

Naomi: So soft shunning is a kind of compromise, a kind of equilibrium, and there are plenty of reasons for both OTD people and their Orthodox families to take that path, to avoid the alternative of total rupture. And yet, there are plenty of us who don’t feel like it’s good enough, who aren’t grateful for getting this “don’t ask don’t tell.” 

The friend I mentioned, who told me that he wished he was shunned, maybe you’re thinking, well if he wishes they were shunning him, why doesn’t he just cut them off? Why do we go on, so many of us? 

Lauren: Yeah, the idea of being free of the relationship that is painful is almost a fantasy in a situation like this, you know? And it’s a little bit easier when the other person does the cutting. So you don’t have to feel the guilt of having done it. 

Naomi: It’s also about who the heroes in this story are. And who the villains are.

Lauren: You know, now I have to deal with the reality, like, oh, I’m the one who stopped talking to them. 

Naomi: Is it us, who broke our parents’ hearts, who selfishly gave up a life of meaning to chase the empty vanities of this world? Or is it them, the old-world patriarchs, threatening us with ex-communication, threatening us with ex-communication, unable to give us the freedoms we deserve? 

Behind those rules about how you present at your cousin’s wedding, there’s a mighty battle being waged, not about who is right and who is wrong, those old categories, but who is loving and who is hateful, about what family means, what love means, and who really has it, who really feels it. Maybe that’s why we do it, pick up the phone, get on a plane. To show that we’re the good guys in the story. And that’s why they open that door or pick us up at the airport, to show that they are. 

Lauren: We didn’t become the thing that they said we would be, selfish, right? We are still involved in family. Family still matters. Community still matters to me, blah, blah, blah.

Naomi: But does it have to be blah, blah, blah? Do we have to take what we get, now that we’re OTD, if we couldn’t accept it when we were still religious? 

Lauren: Cut the cord that’s choking you, right? That’s an expression that I think of a lot.

Naomi: Many of us think about it a lot. Some of us have managed to cut the cord, but lots of us haven’t. And what does it look like anyway? You didn’t go to the wedding, and for a year or two, maybe there’s no contact. It’s fine, it’s great.

But then someone picks up the phone, and the next thing you know you’re in the middle of it again. The middle of this in-between situation where you just keep going, because, as Lauren said, blah, blah, blah. 

Zalman: The relationship is circumscribed, it’s limited in some way, it’s not the kind of full, absolute, unconditional embrace that we would hope that all people would have with their families. When they come back home, the women wear more conservative clothing and everything, they cover up, married women cover their hair, the men put on a yarmulke, maybe even more Chasidic garb. 

It was very upsetting, especially for my wife, who is very put-off by all of these restrictions. It came to a point where it was just too much for her. And it was also you know, upsetting to me to have to put on what essentially was a kind of costume, just to get through the door.

Shouldn’t the family feel a need to respect who these people have become and not demand that they wear a skirt or put on yarmulke or what have you?

Naomi: People live with these relationships. But you know, it’s easier for some people than for others. 

Pearl: It’s literally a line in my film. Don’t ask, don’t tell. 

Naomi: This is my friend Pearl Gluck. Pearl’s a filmmaker. She directed Divan, a film about tracing her Hungarian Chasidic roots by telling the story of a couch that had been in her family.  

Pearl: I was telling a story about Chasidim who had survived the Holocaust and who were still telling Chasidic stories but were not religious anymore. And I was going to use my great-grandfather’s couch as a structural form. 

Naomi: Pearl certainly knows what we’re talking about, this soft shunning, and she follows those same rules of engagement, but she just accepts it. Not just accepts it, actually—she talks about how fortunate she feels that her family welcomes her back to the extent that they do. 

As she sees it, some of that is luck, or privilege, that her family is not as extreme as some others are, that she’s not intermarried. 

Pearl: If I wanted to transition, if I wanted to be with women, if my family was abusive, god forbid — I literally left for none of those reasons. I just wanted to study, to travel, and I just wanted to get out there.

Naomi: She knows perfectly well that her relationships with her family are on their terms, but she puts on the skirt, she drives back to Brooklyn, she does it. And no, she doesn’t feel any hope or compulsion to have it out with her family: 

Pearl: That is not on my to-do list. My interest is to keep the conversation going as people in a family, who’s getting married, how they’re feeling, their health, their love, their rituals. That’s honestly all we spend time talking about. 

Naomi: Do you consider that you have real relationships with them and are they limited in some way or…?

Pearl: Yeah. How can they not be? There’s like literally 80% of my life that I don’t talk about. And not because of a bad reason, but because we’re living totally different lives and lifestyles.

You know, when I got tenure, they were so happy for me. And I think it’s because they knew that it was something I wanted, they didn’t know what it was. Some of them had to look it up. When I got a Fulbright, they were like, great. You know, just because I was over the moon, you know. 

Naomi: So Pearl goes home and she puts on the skirt. 

I hate, hate, hate wearing a skirt.

Pearl: Me too.

Naomi: And you do it anyway.

Pearl: I don’t hate wearing a skirt as much as I hate wearing stockings. I hate stockings and we’ve come to a point in my family where I don’t wear it in the summer. And no one says anything anymore. They’re cool. And I’m cool because I’m not wearing stockings.

Naomi: She understands why all this stuff enrages me, but it just doesn’t enrage her. She accepts the limitations. 

Do you ever have a real conversation with any one of these people? Does it ever get real?

Pearl: I’m going to repeat what I said before. What do you mean real? Of course, it’s real. I’m sitting with my niece or my nephew or my father or my brothers or their wives. And I’m talking to them. What’s not real about it?

Naomi: You say something real about your life? Cause I feel like, I never say,

Pearl: Everything, everything. And they know not to ask certain things if they don’t want the answer. They have taken questions back. 

No, I’m real, but I’m also really conscious of not hurting them. So there’s certain things I choose, I choose not to talk about.

Naomi: Why does she put up with it? Maybe it’s the filmmaker in her, the ethnographer, doing her fieldwork. She’s willing to go to some length to make sure she keeps those connections, no matter what.

Pearl: Do you have to deny your own perspectives when you go toward the other side? No, you do not deny your point of view by trying to build a bridge, that’s the beauty of building bridges, is you put the outstretched hand, but you remain you. 

For me to walk into the Chasidish world, for me, and a lot of people do not agree with me, and I have absolute respect for them, I am not judging them, for me, putting on a skirt is my outstretched hand. For me, making the time is my outstretched hand, and knowing it’s Shabbos, and I do Shabbos, but my way, and it doesn’t look like that anymore, I let it look that way for the 72 hours that I’m in their world. And I am fully aware that it’s on their terms, but I buy into that when I go there, and I go there knowing that I’m comfortable doing this for this amount of time. Like I know my limits. 

Naomi: If soft shunning is a new concept to you, I hope that by now you understand what it is and why it continues and why hardly anyone talks about it. Netflix isn’t going to buy your life story if you’re only soft shunned, because who wants to hear that story, that you put on a yarmulke or dress and you went to the wedding or bar mitzvah or bris and didn’t talk about your life? 

But you also don’t hear about soft shunning because it’s not just “don’t ask don’t tell your family,” it’s also “don’t go broadcasting all this to the world.” The reason I had such a hard time finding OTD people who were willing to talk about this soft shunning was that the people who do have some contact with their family tend to be worried: What if they said something and someone in their family heard it? What if it hurt them, or shamed them? It didn’t seem worth risking that.

Maybe the reason I’m willing to go public with these ideas is that I have some lingering fantasy that it might be possible for all of us to have a conversation about such things, a more honest conversation. At least some of my friends want that too.

Yitzchok: The Ba’al Shem Tov liked this Gemara and used to quote it often. Rav Broka encounters Elijah the Prophet, Eliyahu HaNavi in the marketplace. And he asks him, who in this marketplace is a ben olam habah, who is going to merit the world to come?

So he says, those two people over there. 

Rav Broka eagerly approaches them, and he says, what is it that you guys do? Perhaps he was expecting, you know, great talmudei chachamim, or big baalei tzedakah, or very humble, some of the qualities that we usually associate with a ben olam habah. They say, badkhana ana. We’re clowns, we’re jesters, we’re comedians. When we see somebody sad in the marketplace, we cheer them up. This merits them the world to come, just because they cheer people up, they give them a place to feel good about themselves. To me, that’s extremely important, a principle, and a way of life. 

Naomi: Yitzchok started a weekly get-together called Cholent, named after the truly delicious meat stew that gets served on Shabbos afternoons. I should say that cholent is the one thing I miss about being Orthodox. 

Yitzchok: My goal is to make a safe place for people to explore the other and express themselves. 

Naomi: It’s actually more of a roving party, where people on both sides of Orthodoxy can talk to each other, without pretending.

Yitzchok: It could mean that they’ve left the fold. It could mean that they’re firmly in the fold. It could be people who are becoming religious, actually, or becoming Jewish, we have a lot of potential converts, at time. 

Naomi: But even Yitzchok, as different as he is from his frum friends, even he found it hard at the beginning to truly listen to someone’s OTD experience. 

Yitzchok:  I remember at Cholent early on, somebody came over to me and she was discussing the fact that she finally broke free, and she’s now not observant. And I said, that’s great. Mazal tov, you’re expressing yourself, exactly. You’re living your, as they say, living your truth. And then I said, but I feel a little bit bad that you had to abandon frumkeit. 

She got very upset with me. And she was right. That thing that I feel uncomfortable, that’s me.  It’s a challenge to my own belief, and we used to be the same, exactly the same. And now in one way, we’re not the same anymore. 

And I apolgoized and I said, I’m very proud of you. If something doesn’t work for you, if, I don’t, I, I, I’ll put it this way. If there is a God, that God gives us a mind, a personality to grasp and understand the world around. And its truths and falsehoods. 

And if that mind doesn’t recognize God, then God can have no claim, no taina, no claim, cause that’s what the person was given. If somebody feels that they don’t believe anymore and they don’t wanna be observant, if it’s somebody that I know and I knew them as religious, it might bother me personally for a moment or two. 

But I really proud that the person is able to muster the strength to seek the truth. Seek their truth.

Naomi: Is this what I’m hoping for, for someone like Isaac to be able to say that he’s proud of someone for leaving Orthodoxy? Shouldn’t he be able to feel what he feels? 

On the other hand, there’s not so many people like Isaac who even see the problem, who are trying to figure out how to do things differently, have a conversation where one side isn’t trying to diagnose the other, where an Orthodox Jew can understand that it’s no small feat breaking away, that we have reasons for feeling proud of ourselves, we have a perspective worth hearing, too. 

I didn’t quite follow how he got to that point from thinking about God, but I’m fine with that. I can stand to listen to a little God talk from Isaac, if he’s willing to listen to someone who’s just gone OTD talk about what it means to her. That doesn’t sound like a lot, I’m aware. But it is. It’s progress. Everyone bends, maybe slowly, maybe not all at once, but eventually.

Zalman: I told my parents, we love you, we want to be apart of this family, we want to continue to see you, but we can’t do it like this, we just can’t, I mean, you’re putting up too many restrictions. 

My mother says, does Jenny, my wife, does she want to come in a miniskirt? I mean, what do you think we’re gonna have over here, you know? We’re gonna have total chaos?
And I said no, obviously, she’ll be respectful, but maybe she’ll wear pants, maybe she’ll wear a skirt, you know?

To my parents’ tremendous credit, I think, they were agreeable, and now we’re able to go without all of these stipulations. Now, I still wear a yarmulke, and I make sure to wear a black yarmulke, like a Lubavitch yarmulke. You know, again, I’m trying to be sensitive to my family’s needs and feelings, and at the same time, they’re trying to be sensitive to mine. You know, they still think, at heart, that what I did was wrong and that I’m doing the wrong thing, but they love me and what to stay connected to me, so we’re able to have a family connection.

Izzy: You know, I don’t want to go into the intimate details of my relationship with my parents, but I’ve seen signs of improvement. I’m still shunned at this point in time, I don’t have access to my siblings, but I can see things improving with time. 

Pearl: They’re still working on it. It’s under construction. It’ll be under construction till my dying day, where they believe that there’s still hope, and to me, that’s a sign of life. 

Naomi: Shunning. That would be a way of giving up hope. But it would also be an odd kind of acceptance, this is who we are, who we really are. 

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, and 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. 

Subscribe to the show and look out for my next episode, where I dig into the cautionary tale the Orthodox world tells us defectors, that wretched archetype we call a nebuch. 

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

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

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