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Heretic in the House: Telling the Tale

The following is a transcript of Episode 1 of the Heretic in the House Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Naomi: When you leave the Orthodox Jewish community, you tend to leave a lot of things behind. You leave behind rules. You leave behind connections. Sometimes you leave behind family and friends. But some things stay. You carry them with you whether you want to or not, whether you know you’re carrying them or not. 

Even the ones who slept through religious day school classes growing up know lots of things by heart: passages from the Tanakh, prayers from the Siddur. You know at least two tunes for Mah Tovu, another two or three for Mizmor leDavid. 

I’m throwing a lot of Hebrew words at you that I won’t translate for the sake of time, but one term I do need to teach you is OTD. OTD stands for “Off the Derech,” or “off the path.” The Orthodox life path, to be precise. OTD began as an Orthodox term for the ones who left, but it’s now what most of us exiters call ourselves.

 For people who are OTD, some of the material we picked up back in the old country can come in handy in our new lives. Take me, for example. I’m a professor of Jewish Studies. I sometimes joke that I monetized my unhappy childhood.   

But maybe the biggest thing we take with us on this journey off the Orthodox path, or at least the thing that’s in the highest demand, is the OTD story itself, the story of leaving and the story of what we left behind. 

It was a long time ago for me—I left when I was eighteen, decades ago, but somehow it’s still always there, ready to be pulled out. People know it about me, and if they know a little, they want to know more. When, why, how–all that. It’s been a while, but it’s not going away.  

I’m betting that you’ve heard some version of this story, even if you’ve never talked to someone like me before, because the story of leaving the Orthodox world is having something of a cultural moment. 

CLIP: “They’re like, the lunatic fringe. The men just study the Torah and the women are baby machines.” 


Naomi: It starts with some poor spirit, a natural-born free thinker, trapped in the oppressive structure of their cultish enclave… 

CLIP: “Where I come from there are many rules” 

“The rules are imaginary. Their power is just in your head.” 

Naomi: Through willpower, wit, and a little outside help, they make their escape… 

CLIP: “I had to get as far away as possible from my community.” 

Naomi: …into the big, brave world of modern society. 

CLIP: “I have no money, no education, I have nothing!” 

Naomi: Cut off by their rabbis and families, maybe they find a chosen family, and put in the hard work of making a brand new life for themselves. 

CLIP: “Why did you leave?” 

“God expected too much of me. Now I need to find my own path.” 

“Well, I’ll drink to that.” 

“Definitely, yeah!” 


“L’Chaim! Ha ha!” 

Naomi: Freedom at last. That’s, at least, how Netflix’s Unorthodox would have you hear it. And sometimes that’s what happens. It happened to Deborah Feldman, whose memoir the show is based on. But there’s something else going on, there’s a kind of uncomfortable transaction happening here. 

Esty Shapiro, the heroine of Unorthodox, doesn’t win her freedom just with willpower and wit and a little help from her friends. She wins it the same way Deborah Feldman made it to college, the same way I got into graduate school. It’s the same way many OTD people have to earn their keep out in the wider world, and almost everybody missed it. 

CLIP: “Tell us a bit about your education.” 

“You escaped, didn’t you?” 

“You make it sound like I was in prison” 

”Why a secret?” 

“I come from a community where women are not allowed to sing in public” 

“Why not?” 

“It’s considered to be immodest.” 

Naomi:  Freedom at last? Sort of. 

As an OTD person myself, I’ve stood around at parties, surrounded by people I’ve literally just met peppering me with questions. 

Speaker: Wow. Does your family talk to you? What was it like?

Naomi: I’d say I regaled them with the details, but regaled isn’t the right word. 

Speaker: Did you have sex with a hole in the sheet? 

Naomi: Regaling implies enjoyment, on both sides, and I’m looking for a word that captures the queasiness of going along with something sickening even though you know it’s sickening, because why? Because it’s so easy to feed this particular beast, and this beast is so hungry? 

So that’s what I want to talk about. Not the story of going off the derekh—sorry, not gonna do it. It was a long time ago, and you’ve heard a lot of variations of it anyway, I’m guessing. 

What I want to talk about is the stuff around the story, why people want to hear the story so badly, what it is they want to hear, and what gets left out even when that story gets told and retold. Why it feels like a lie even when you’re telling the truth, and why it sometimes is a lie. This might all sound mysterious to you right now, but  I think every OTD person knows more or less instantly what I’m talking about, and by the end of this podcast I hope you will, too. 

I’m Naomi Seidman, and this is “The Heretic in the House,” a podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute about the stories we tell about Orthodox Judaism and the people who leave it. Today’s episode is called, “Telling the Tale.”

Frieda: Can we curse?

Naomi: I have no idea. 

Frieda: Probably not. 

Naomi: I have a friend, Frieda Vizel, who grew up in the Hasidic sect of Satmar, a more extreme branch of ultra-Orthodoxy than the one in which I was raised. 

Did he say sure? 

Frieda: We have permission, now we’re Kosher cursing. 

Naomi: Like me, Frieda has figured out how to make something of an advantage of this background.

Frieda: I’m a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, and I see myself as someone who studies this extremely unique community in New York City.

Naomi: She shows people the synagogues, gives a little history, explains the signs for kosher smartphones, and provides explanations of what the women are wearing on their heads. You get to go into a bakery and there’s always lunch over kishke and kashe and so on. That’s actually how I met her, going on one of her tours.

Maybe Frieda can explain this insatiable curiosity people have for our stories. Maybe she’s experienced it herself. 

What really got Frieda about this curiosity is how it zoomed in on one thing that was true about her, while disrespecting everything else she was.

Frieda: I’m really genuinely very fascinated by this community. And I want to impart that to people who come on a walking tour. The most frustrating and difficult part of doing that is that people don’t come to hear the story I want to tell. They come to hear a story about escaping a terribly restrictive cliche cult. 

Naomi: It was as if that story about leaving Orthodoxy was all she had to offer. Here I should emphasize that Frieda’s wealth of knowledge doesn’t just come from growing up in that world She also does research on the Satmar community, on lots of different aspects of it that I don’t think anyone else is really investigating. 

We just had a long conversation, for instance, about why Hasidic women dress like American women did in the 1950s and 1960s—a serious discussion about modesty and style and acculturation. Just to be clear, those concepts come from the intellectual tools we had developed after leaving the Orthodox world, when we were still Orthodox, those Jackie Kennedy boxy suits you see on Hasidic women, we just took those for granted. 

But what the people on her tour want from Frieda is not this research she’s always doing. What they often want is only that story.

Frieda: They want to dab their eyes at the end and be like, you’re so brave. Thank you. And you know, I have been out of the community for 10 years and I have been through a lot of things in the interim, I have a lot of things to share, a lot of different interests over the years, and to be stuck all this time, being told to tell the same story, it’s like a cruel joke.

Naomi: I asked Frieda why she thought this was the case, why no one really cared about who she had become in the ten years since she left, why they were so eager to hear about the act of leaving. Frieda has a theory, which is that OTD is a kind of cultural myth, a story of escape from a repressive culture, of heroically joining the modern secular world. 

People just want to hear that—they NEED to hear it. I get it. And I watch the shows and read the books like a fiend, like a lot of other people. 

Frieda gets why people want to hear her story. She thinks that hearing about her troubles in the Orthodox community and her escape from it validates them, their lives, their choices, in some profound way. But whatever it does for other people, she feels that she’s the one who has to pay the price for providing this service:  

Frieda: And I don’t want to be stuck in like a Groundhog Day, repeatedly telling that story. That’s terrible, and to go through all these challenges only to be stuck in a new place where people don’t allow you to grow.

Naomi: Frieda had the impression that it was a particularly Jewish dynamic, that it was secular Jews who were the ones who most wanted to hear her story. Unless it was the case that they were just more vocal about asking questions, as if they felt they had the right to her story. 

One week, journalists from Germany came on her tour, and Frieda noticed that she felt relief about that, because German journalists wouldn’t be prying into her personal life in the same way her Jewish tour-goers sometimes did. 

But if this is a Jewish dynamic, then what explains it? Why do secular Jews want to hear our stories? What kind of story do they want to hear? And why does it feel so gross to be satisfying this curiosity, whether you’re getting through a party or just trying to do your job? 

There’s no doubt that part of why secular people are so hungry for stories about those who escape from oppressive Orthodox communities is because these stories validate secularism and all its gods—freedom, choice, individuality, reason. For secular Jews, these stories let people know that their grandparents who left observance behind had made the right choice. 

But why do these people need their secularism to be affirmed? Is it possible that a part of them still worries they’re missing something, that Orthodox and Hasidic communities still have?  What Frieda helped me see is that this need on the part of the secular world for our story, whatever it meant for them, requires that we play and replay that one moment in our lives, tell that same story, again and again.  

If you don’t see the irony here, I’ll spell it out: we went from being trapped in the Orthodox world to being trapped in the OTD story; and the OTD story shuttles us back into the Orthodox world we left, in order for people to watch us escape it again and again, because of something they need, which we pay for. This is what our liberation looks like.

But let’s get real. If we pay, we also get paid. Even if it makes Frieda sick to tell the story, there’s an ever-present temptation to tell it anyway, since what we have in our possession, among the most valuable things we got out of the experience, is that story. And it’s in very high demand. 

Frieda: If you tell the story, then we will gratify you.  We’re not just entitled to the story. We also reward good behavior. If you tell the story correctly, you’re rewarded you can be rewarded with fame, you can be rewarded with an huge amount of exposure and money and all of that. 

Naomi: Maybe I should explain something. People who leave Orthodoxy are not part of that famous American Jewish demographic: upper-middle-class, professionals, Ivy-League educated, Upper West Side, whatever you want to call it. Nobody put us through fancy colleges. Most of us left with nothing. 

Maybe it’s different in modern Orthodox communities, where young people do go away to college, but not in the stricter Orthodox world I left, or which Frieda left. A lot of OTD people struggle, financially and otherwise. So if someone who left this kind of community makes it, we tend to take notice. What we have when we leave is the story, which for at least some of us lands us a book deal, or even Netflix. 

But the thing is, I’m not just talking about the big rewards, the big prizes, which obviously not too many people are going to get. The road is paved with much smaller prizes. When you’ve got one card to play, you play it in all kinds of situations.  You’re pulling out the story, for nothing, just, I don’t know, to get someone to be interested in you or to pave over an awkward situation or as compensation for some way you think you wronged someone. 

As a tour guide, Frieda is no stranger to this game. 

Frieda: I was giving a tour to someone who had been on my tour once, and they came with their relatives who were gluten-free. And they were like, “This is the best store ever, I can’t wait to bring my relatives.” 

Naomi: And she couldn’t find them gluten-free cookies in any of the Williamsburg bakeries she was taking people to that day.

Frieda: We go to one place. They don’t have gluten-free. We go to another, and you see their enthusiasm is like collapsing. They’re like, oh no, this is not at all a great tour. And I’m really starting to panic. 

Naomi: So, she spilled the beans. 

Frieda: And that’s when I’m suddenly like, ask me anything. I will reveal my gatchkes, my everything, because, now I’m freaking out  I feel like I’m humiliating myself. I am violating my own, my own dignity. You shouldn’t make me do it. You shouldn’t encourage me. You, you, you should see that I’m panicking and sweating to heck because you can’t have your gluten-free foods.  

I’ve been so trained that this is sort of a fallback, that this is what people want, that I find myself giving it. And when I give it, I feel disgusting.

Naomi: It isn’t just Frieda. I have another friend, Zalman Newfield, who grew up in Lubavitch, a different Hasidic group than the one Frieda left. 

Zalman: I had a long beard and it was such a difficult thing to imagine shaving my beard. We were raised in Lubavitch to understand that shaving your beard or even trimming your beard is prohibited by a biblical law. 

Naomi: Zalman’s a Sociology professor, who wrote a really great book called Degrees of Separation, about people leaving the Hasidic communities of Satmar and Lubavitch. Like me, he’s a graduate of Brooklyn College; I joke with him that Brooklyn College was the OTD Harvard. 

Zalman: Certainly for people who grew up frum. 

Naomi: Zalman knew perfectly well what I was talking about when I asked him about this sickening little game, of telling the OTD story. He’s a reasonable guy, a little less prone to drama than Frieda and I are, a little more forgiving of people on both sides of the story, those who tell it and those who want to hear it. 

Zalman: Right, I think there could be a lot of, of explanations.

Naomi: When I asked him why he thought people were so fascinated by our stories of leaving Orthodoxy, he didn’t immediately go to the places Frieda and I had gone to. I like that about him.

Zalman: Even outsiders understand that this is a major life transition. There’s a lot of rich, narrative depth in the idea of people consciously changing their life in profound ways.  

Naomi: No big deal. It was perfectly natural and appropriate for people to be interested in that kind of interesting story. OTD was just a small part of a whole range of stories like that. Escape from Alcatraz, from a harem in Saudi Arabia, from a Mormon compound, from an Amish community—all those places you want to read about people escaping from, both because you want them to escape, and once they escape you want them to tell you what it was like on the inside. 

But for all Zalman’s sense of perspective, he did think there was a little problem with the dynamic around the OTD story in particular, which is that it relied on so many stereotypes and assumptions about the Hasidic or ultra-Orthodox communities. That meant that people were rooting for someone to leave the community, as opposed to understanding the people still inside. 

Zalman: They have all sorts of ideas about how backwards and wrong the Haredi community is and so they’re very excited about someone who managed to quote unquote, escape it, even if the way that the person who left the community describes their narrative is very much not as a narrative of escape, but that kind of label and that tinge gets applied to such narratives by outsiders.  

Naomi: As Zalman saw it, the OTD story had to present Orthodoxy as bad, and leaving it as an escape. He was fine telling his story about leaving, but even with the dramatic moments of shaving his beard, and finding his first girlfriend, his story didn’t exactly match what people were hoping to hear. This wasn’t just a social problem, of people losing interest in you at parties. It also reflected a whole world of popular culture, marketing, sales, that kind of thing. 

Zalman, it turns out, has written an OTD memoir, which he showed to an editor at a major publisher.

Zalman: He read, earlier, a draft of it, and we ended up meeting and we had this whole great conversation and he was, you know, a really intellectual guy and very, very thoughtful. But he’s like, if your book was more, if your book reads like some kind of a cheap thriller or whatever, whether it’s because of sex, and certainly, sex would help, but if it’s not sex, some other sexy thing, like mental illness or something like that, you know, if I had spent, you know, a year in a psych ward or something, well then, the story sort of writes itself, you know, there’s an automatic audience for that kind of story.  

Naomi: Zalman’s story wasn’t just fatally devoid of wild sex and psych wards. It also wasn’t so terrible on the Orthodox side of things. He wanted to talk about his life while he was still in Lubavitch.  

Lubavitch—which sometimes is called Chabad—is an unusual Hasidic group, with emissaries around the world. If you’ve ever seen a man with a wild beard, asking passersby if they’re Jewish and if they want to spend a few minutes praying, that’s them.

So if you grow up Lubavitch, it turns out you have a lit of opportunities to travel, and Zalman took full advantage of those opportunities. He spent a year working in a Chabad House in Singapore, he’d conducted a Passover Seder in Russia, spent a summer in China, he went to a yeshiva in Buenos Aires. 

But everybody knows that the Hasidic world is insular and closed and so on, and Zalman wanted to interest a publisher in the life of a Lubavitcher kid who had spent years traveling the globe.  And what the editor said was that if he was going to write that kind of book, with positive memories of his Hasidic life, it would have to be very well written.

So what this means is that the stories most consumers of popular culture in America get to hear about OTD are the ones they want to hear, some limited number of cliches and images or tropes are made to represent the OTD experience writ large. If you’ve got a picture of a half-naked woman on the cover, you can sell the book. The thing is, that’s what I tried to put behind me. 

As a skeptical teenager in the Orthodox world, it bothered me that heresy wasn’t really an option for girls. Nobody cared what we were thinking, all anybody cared about was how long our skirts were, or whether we were hanging out at the pizza store to meet boys. I always wanted the dignity of heresy, which I imagined only boys were given. We religious skeptics didn’t get that dignity from the Orthodox community, if we were girls, and we don’t really get it from the secular world, either. 

Zalman doesn’t really believe any of the OTD stories people tell, of any kind—that they left because they were filled with intellectual doubts, or because they were abused or treated badly in the Orthodox world, or—as the rabbis describe OTD people— that they left because they are overcome by their forbidden desires. 

The Orthodox stories about why we leave and the OTD story that the secular world wants to hear about why we left, they’re not that different in the end. It isn’t just that secular audiences have stereotypes about the Hasidic world. Hasidic culture is just as full of stereotypes about the secular world, and particularly about why someone who grew up in that world might be thinking of leaving. 

And what that means is that people who leave have generally lived for at least a while with a set of powerful stories about what it means to leave or want to leave the Hasidic world, what kind of people do it, and what it will spell for those who manage to break away. Stories about them, so when they do leave, they’re also wrenching themselves away from the stories about everyone who’s found the exist before them.

Zalman: They know the stereotype, they know, these very negative associations that people in the Hasidic community have with those who leave it.  Either someone is meshuggeh, they’re crazy, that’s why they’re leaving. Or, they’re a Ba’all Taiva, they’re so enslaved and ensneered to their base instincts, especially sexual desire, that that is the reason why they left.  

 Naomi: So the issue I laid out at the beginning, of how to tell the OTD story in a secular world that is so eager to hear it, actually began before that. For a lot of us, leaving the Orthodox community required that we figure out a different story than all the cliches we’ve heard about people who’ve gone over to the other side.

Zalman: The upshot of all of these narratives is it leaves the community feeling that they’re blameless 

Naomi: Leaving meant securing the right to this story, away from the families, and rabbis, and religious therapists who pretold the stories, who had us all figured out even before we saw exactly where we were headed.  

Zalman: Anyone who leaves is either for some internal problem that they had, like a mental illness or unmanageable, ungovernable sexual desires, 

Frieda: They were either broken by child abuse.

Zalman: They were sexually abused.

Frieda: By difficult circumstances.

Zalman: Nebuch, a tragedy.

Frieda: Or by being broken themselves.

Zalman: Or their family is dysfunctional. So of course it’s not surprising that their son or daughter would leave the community. 

Naomi: Those ways of explaining us don’t really end after we leave. 

Frieda: Whenever you admit to struggling on the outside, they use it as fodder to prove that you were actually a broken person and that’s why you left. 

Naomi: For those of us who still had some contact with our families and the old community, these stories just hung over all those relationships.

Frieda: So if you leave and you say, well, here’s me not living a performative, bullshit life. 

Naomi: You have to wrestle with this other story.

Frieda: The frum community says: see?

Naomi: The Orthodox story about what it means to go. 

Frieda: This person’s having trouble. This person is not in a relationship. We told you this person is a broken person. 

Naomi: You don’t want to validate it, so you insist that you’re fine, you’re not a broken person but actually a fulfilled and happy person—in Frieda’s word, you end up living a performative, bullshit life, if you don’t watch out. 

But who’s not broken? And what is our story, in the face of all these dramatic plot lines that you step into, that capture you just as you’re trying to escape? Have these powerful frames warped our ability to tell our own stories, to see our lives straight on? So this OTD story that’s yours, which sometimes feels like the biggest thing you have and maybe for a time was also more-or-less the only thing you had, may not be yours after all.

Of course, Zalman, my reasonable, not permanently enraged friend, says that that’s more or less true for lots of other stories, lots of other people, too. We’re not so special, we OTD people. Stripped of our stories, we’re just the same as everyone else. Is that the way we should go? First to give up the Orthodox world, and then to give up our peculiar relationship with it? First to stop believing you’re one of the Chosen People, and then to stop believing you’re so special for not believing that anymore? Is that the way to reclaim our lives as human beings from the terrible force of the OTD story? 

We’ve extracted ourselves from a community that carries on. But I wonder how many of us have also managed to extract ourselves from the story of how we left. What happens when the biggest thing in your life is the thing you’ve tried to put behind you? And the main thing somehow still hasn’t been said, can’t be said, because it becomes a lie as soon as it’s said. 

I said at the beginning of this episode that the main thing you leave with, in whatever suitcase you manage to take with you, is your off-the-Derech story. Except when that story dissolves between your fingers. 

The 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 David Zvi Kalman and recorded by Francois Heroux and 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. 

Please check out Frieda Vizel’s website, where you can check out her fabulous tours of Hasidic Williamsburg at

Also, take a look at Schneur Zalman Newfield’s amazing book, Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

Keep an eye out for my next episode, where I talk about what our communities do when we stray off the Orthodox path. 

Lauren: Your family’s gonna tear their clothes, they’re never gonna speak your name again. If you call the house they won’t pick up the phone… 

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

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