The following is a transcript of Episode 119 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Friday, December 9th, 2022.
Today we’re gonna talk about the twists and turns of Jewish identity. But first I wanna talk about the breaking ball. Stick with me, even if you’re not yet a baseball fan. There are basically two kinds of pitches in baseball, straight pitches and breaking pitches. Straight pitches like fastballs and changeups, well, they follow what look like a straight trajectory from the pitcher who throws it to the batter, who tries to hit it. The difficulty in hitting a pitch like that basically depends on its speed, cause it’s very hard to hit a ball traveling nearly a hundred miles per hour from 60 feet away. And it also depends on the batter’s expectations.
But breaking balls are a totally different animal. These are pitches that because of topspin, because the pitcher throws them with a different grip, well, they seem to curve or drop or even rise between when they’re thrown and when they reach the plate.
The best such pitches don’t really show their break until about 10 feet from the batter. From that distance, it’s really, really hard to adjust to time a swing differently. The pitcher then looks like a magician. The hapless batter, who had already committed to swing based on what they thought the trajectory of the pitch was going to be, looks foolish.
Now, the idea that a pitch would change direction mid-air or drop precipitously or rise, well, this shouldn’t happen based on the laws of physics. So people have been studying the curveball for a long time and based on what I’ve read, the latest understanding comes from a neuroscientist named Arthur Shapiro from American University, who argues that, yeah, the ball curves in the sense that it follows a more sharp parabolic arc than a straight pitch.
But what makes it look even more dramatic is that it’s something of an optical illusion, which kicks in for a hitter because the batter’s eyes toggle between their direct and their peripheral vision. The path of the ball never actually changed in mid-air, but our expectations of it certainly did, and we become surprised as a result.
Patterns of behavior, whether it’s a baseball or in nature, or even among humans, they can be dramatic and normal at the same time. And whether we experience them as anomalous or not is merely a question of perspective.
You know, we at Hartman have been producing and releasing a new podcast, our first narrative and scripted podcast here in English and in America called Heretic in the House. It’s hosted and written by one of our research fellows, Naomi Seidman, and it explores the phenomenon of Jews who leave their lives in Orthodox communities and forge new identities.
Or more accurately, this show explores the fascination with this phenomenon, the stories that are imagined and narrated about other people’s experiences. When I was listening to this particular comment early in the third episode, I started to think about curve balls.
Naomi Seidman: 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 tend to say is, I’m not off their path. I’m on my own path.
Pearl Gluck: The term OTD implies that there is a derech. It’s still within that world. It’s still using that mentality.
Yehuda: So how powerful is this? All of us have twists and turns in our lives. We all make changes and sometimes those changes and those decisions could be more radical than others, but it’s likely that all of us will look back at our lives somewhat coherently with lines that brought us to where we are and see straight pathways. After all, those are the only pathways we know.
Others, meanwhile, expecting the ball to travel straight, see a curve ball. Some Jews grow up orthodox and decide to leave, and they get grouped as off the path. Are they? Or are they only off the path based on our expectations of them or even our expectations of ourselves?
You know, this show is called Identity Crisis for a reason because the American Jewish community, we care a lot about questions of identity, and we tend to get activated by moments of crisis. And because identity crisis is also a pretty good characterization of this period of Jewish life, and so much of Jewish communal energy is taken up with questions of continuity and change around Jewishness.
Folks who leave Orthodox communities may seem exceptional because the change from one lifestyle to another seems so radical. But a lot of us are spinning along some version of a path individually or even in our communities from one phase of Jewish life and choices and commitments into another. It almost feels to me that the whiplash of change is one of the basic characteristics of modern Jewish life.
So I’m happy to be talking about this, the podcast, but more generally, what it all means with Naomi Seidman, who is the Chancellor Jackman Professor in the Arts at the University of Toronto, a fellow here at Hartman, a scholar who writes on a wide variety of issues in Jewish identities and modernities.
Naomi, thanks for coming on the show today, and I wanna talk about this podcast. You say at the outset of the first episode that you’re not gonna talk about your own departure story from Orthodoxy, but you are engaging with this podcast in a pretty personal project. You talk personally a little bit about your own choices. You’re invited a lot of your friends and colleagues from the OTD community to participate. So maybe we could start by asking you what’s at stake for you in a project like this and what’s motivating this particular body of work for you?
Naomi: Wow. First of all, thank you so much for having me, and second of all, that seems like such an obvious question, and it’s a very difficult one. It’s slightly embarrassing to be doing this, and I’m not a hundred percent sure why, but, I think one of the things is that it happened so long ago for me, I mean, it’d be one thing to be chewing this over if I were still in my twenties or even my thirties, but I’m not, and what does it mean that I still am?
And I guess one answer to that question is that my life around this issue changed very dramatically about five years ago. I’ve basically put it behind me. I didn’t really write about it, I mean, it shows up in little ways, but I also, I moved to California pretty soon after I left the Orthodox world. And I, I knew almost no OTD people and I wasn’t part of any kind of OTD community and about five years ago, I discovered that, you know, again, very belatedly that there was this OTD community online and that you could even meet some of these people if, you know, there would be these things called OTD meetups.
And that’s how I met Lauren, who’s one of the people I interview who’s so brilliant, and somebody who was living, I don’t know, six blocks away from me in Berkeley. And I would never have met, I mean, we just, our paths probably would not have crossed, speaking about paths. And I fell into this world and it really changed my life in very dramatic ways.
Maybe I could just give you one example because I mean, other than suddenly discovering that these people were out there and just hearing these stories and starting to think about them, it, it’s very hard to really know what to think about even a huge thing in your own life when you don’t have people to talk about it with, and the people around you are kind of fascinated but mystified and not on the inside of it in the way that these people are.
And when suddenly you can have these conversations, I mean, one of the sort of weirdest and most dramatic things that happened is that because I have this background in my circle of kind of secular, but light candles Friday night people, I’m the expert Jew. And for many, many years I’ve been hosting these huge Passover seders, you know, for my whole circle of people. I organize something for all the kids who had kids age for the Bar mitzvah thing, and I was the Jew.
I mean, they were all Jewish too, but a lot of them had very little Jewish knowledge and I fell into this Facebook group and suddenly we were just making these hilarious jokes about Pesach and the wrapping everything in silver foil. And next time I had to do the Seder, I found it very hard to do it. I couldn’t quite muster the sort of earnestness and solemnity cause I was in this group that was just making fun of Jewish observance.
I mean, I’m not defending people making fun of it or attacking it, but it just, and, you know, as you know, I’ve kind of made a little bit of a living as a Jewish study scholar, which also requires a certain seriousness about it.
And something about being in this group really just changed me in, in some very dramatic way, which is interesting because it’s not as if my story changed, it’s just hearing other people’s stories that changed mine and I just started reading about it, and meeting people like Lauren who had so many interesting things to say and it was just something I had never, really researched and suddenly I had a, a research team, a very brilliant and funny and research team online and occasionally in person.
Yehuda: It’s, it’s a really fascinating kind of outcome. The fact that this is prompted by the internet is not, in some ways not surprising. One of the transformations that internet did was around affinity-based community. And this can be both terrible in certain ways, like, you know, all these neo-Nazis living in their parents’ basement suddenly have a network of communities to be a part of.
But it’s also been very powerful in a positive sense for people who don’t know that there are others who share their hobbies or worldviews or backgrounds who can be connected to each other. But it’s a fascinating vision for community that you’re describing because so much of the OTD experience is about the departure from a community that people find to be stifling, and then the reacquaintance with community, based on, it’s not really just based on a shared past or necessarily a shared trauma, because as you unpack in the show, not all departures are rooted in trauma, right? Um, they’re not, people just leave one place and go to another place.
So what holds community together among OTD people? What is that? It’s also a little bit funny because then you’ve like left Jewish community in one normative sense, but you’ve reacquainted with Jewish community in something else.
So maybe you could tell, share a little bit more. I, I, I actually like your story about the Pesach Seder because it, it attests to the fact that a lot of people still want to go to a Pesach Seder, but maybe one that’s a little bit less stringent and maybe a little bit more funny.
Naomi: Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve managed to bring the funnyness in because my, my seders are basically, I, I don’t know what to call them. I mean, we do a lot of, I’m married to a musician, and a lot of our friends are musicians. Our friend groups are musicians. They tend to revolve around singing a lot of spirituals. And we always read Martin Luther King’s speech, so they’re nothing like the Seders I grew up with, for one thing, they’re not six hours long and starting at 10 o’clock at night.
But the funny part is I do actually have one person in this friend group who’s OTD, and she totally got it when I was like, ugh, I don’t know if I could lead a Seder this year. I mean, I’m the one who explains where the four sons come from. I mean, people just don’t know basic stuff as you know.
So just imagine. I mean, there’s some huge part of my life, if I try to explain to a lot of the people I spend a lot of my time with, it would just require, you know, half an hour to explain something very basic. And then, you know, you meet up with a bunch of these people in a cafe, and of course it’s gotta be Saturday, it’s gotta be Shabbos, because there always has to be a taste of transgression in it, because that’s, you know, what spices it up. And that’s part of the, I don’t know what I think of as OTD style and someone’s gotta make a big joke about ordering the most treif thing on the menu.
But also there’s just a shorthand of I’ll try to give you an example. So one of the things that we do is we make fun of trope of OTD. I mean, it gets very meta very quickly. It feels like I live a lot of my life on the surface of, let’s say, Jewish discourse by virtue of living in Berkeley, California, which is not, you know, David Meyer he rates these Jewish enclaves in terms of how many Babkas you can get. And he refuses to live in a less than five Babka town. Well, Berkeley is, let’s call it a one Babka town.
So to sit around with a bunch of people and like, one of the things that we do is not only talk about the leaving story, but it gets even more meta than that. So at one point someone said, what was the first thing you did that wasn’t frum, and I wrote, and I, I think this probably won’t be hilarious to people outside the OTD world, but I wrote, I went over to the next neighborhood and put on shatnez. So I see you’re chuckling.
In other words, what I’m doing is simultaneously making fun of Jewish law, sorry. And making fun of the OTD trope of going over to the next neighborhood and doing something evil or sinful, which normally is something that involves some kind of yetzer harah, right? It involves some kind of desire for something you want to do. And I don’t believe even, you know, anybody has any desire to wear shatnez.
So, you know, this esoteric law about not mixing wool and flax but, so that was my joke and, you know, I got a bunch of laughs. Try explaining that to anyone even in my, you know, Jewish studies Ph.D. class. I mean, maybe some of them would kind of get it. And basically what you need to do is you need to know the Orthodox world inside out, which is very easy to do if you live there for 18 years, and then you have to have quote unquote, the wrong attitude about it.
I don’t mean to imply there’s no humor within the Orthodox world. I think that’s one of the things that everyone gets wrong, which is that it’s a society that, a community that, that has its own very rich tradition of humor. And I think people don’t know that. And there’s, you know, Purim Torah and all this stuff and, and it’s going on inside the world too. But there’s a particular flavor of OTD humor that I don’t know makes my day, basically added some huge thing to my, as you said, added a kind of, what does it mean to have community? It means you can speak shorthand. It means people understand you, they get your jokes.
Yehuda: Yeah, it’s a really useful, uh, example because one of the things that’s interesting to me about like migrations of Jews across choices and communities, and it happens all the time, every, I find a lot of the headlines that come out of Jewish population studies not that interesting, but when you actually dig into some of the data, there oftentimes is a lot of very interesting data about what changed within a 20 or 30 year period about how Jews identify.
One of the more interesting pieces of data around that is that like there’s always migration between reform and conservative Jews. You know, you leave this community, go to another one. Oftentimes there’s not that much of a normative difference between the behaviors that reform and conservative Jews do. So it’s a lot of stylistic differences between those things.
But when Orthodox Jews leave, there’s a cliff. They tend to not show up in other denominations. And it’s, um, that’s actually kind of fascinating. And it’s partly, it’s partly rooted in the fact that in orthodox Jewish educational environments, you don’t get taught there are five different ways of being Jewish. This is ours. But if this doesn’t work for you, here’s option two, three, and four. But in non-Orthodox context, that often is the case. Here are your various options that are available to you.
And so when somebody leaves orthodoxy, it’s not like, well, I left orthodoxy and I joined the reform temple down the street. It almost feels as though, well, if you, if you left orthodoxy, went to the reform temple down the street, well people there also eat treif, by the way, many of them. That’s not the novelty. But the novelty is maybe that what actually bound people together was not just normativity, but a lot around language and culture and familiarity.
It feels to me that language, culture, immersion is a little bit of the untold story of Jewish denominational life. Um.
Naomi: I totally agree. I’ve thought it and said it so many times. I mean, basically growing up Orthodox, it doesn’t matter where, whether you stay or go, it kind of ruins you for conservative and reform in some way. It even ruins you for modern Orthodox. You’re like, those people, those, I mean, it, it’s a certain kind of very intense and deeply ingrained snobbery, which I actually have to actively work against to treat other types of Jews as legitimate Jews.
It’s kind of awful how deep it goes. And even making a distinction between conservative and reform, you’re like, really? Okay. It’s important to them. I get it. To us, it just looks like, it’s like when I first started teaching at the GTU, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the nuances of these denominations, I mean, obviously I teach Jewish studies. I know about the nuances of these denominations, but they don’t have any deep grip over me. They don’t have any attraction for me. You know, the attraction I have is like, okay, so am I gonna raise my kid Jewish, and where?
And I happen to belong to a conservative synagogue cause at least it feels a little like, I mean, obviously I’m not going, I try to avoid going into an Orthodox synagogue and even the orthodox synagogue in Berkeley doesn’t feel particularly orthodox to me. And I certainly don’t want to go back to the kind of shul that I went to.
You know, we actually davened at least some of the time in, in Satmar shtebel where I couldn’t even see what was going on. People are so surprised to know that I don’t know how to daven, that growing up that frum, there’s no culture of explaining or even transmitting it. It’s all totally mimetic and, and if you don’t have a good view or you’re not particularly interested, you just don’t learn how to dive. And so I’m sort of lost even in a conservative synagogue, which people are a little bit surprised at.
But the thing I like about the conservative synagogue, just to be a hundred percent honest, is that there’s Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors. I mean, maybe there are in the Reform temple too, but I somehow doubt it. I don’t think that they could take that. Maybe they can, I don’t know. But, you know, there’s 101-year-old Holocaust survivor named Ben Stern in Netivot Shalom and Netivot Shalom, many years ago asked me to do Torah study and my father had a, a Yiddish column about the parsha in the orthodox paper when I was growing up and was collected into books, and they do Torah study at nine o’clock in the morning, which is very early for me.
But I go in and I read my father’s Yiddish you know, in “De Yiddishe Voch.” And my father was a political reporter, so it’s all about what was going on in the UN during those years and whatever. And Ben is sitting next to me and if I don’t know a Yiddish word, he explains it to me. And I have this connection with Ben, and that’s my quote-unquote Shabbos morning. And then I go off for breakfast at 10 o’clock when people go into daven.
So I manage to, I do some form of checking in with some, I don’t know, Yiddishkite, I guess I would call it. And I love it even though I’m cursing as I climb out of bed on a Saturday morning. And, that’s what I find satisfying and I’m completely uninterested in, you know, walking into the quote-unquote sanctuary, I mean, even the word sanctuary,
Yehuda: You know, Naomi. It’s, it’s just, it’s, it’s, I’m sorry. I’m surprising for me to say it and you’re gonna hate that I’m saying it. What you’re describing is that you are in some ways a Peoplehood Jew. It’s not about the davening and it’s not about the space, and it’s not even
Naomi: And why don’t I like that word? That’s a style thing too.
Yehuda: It’s interesting, right?
Naomi: I mean, I, I basically like very old Yiddish-speaking Jews.
Yehuda: It’s interesting, a lot of what you’re talking about is what we see and what we’re curious about. The show is, is in many ways about curiosity. You have a trench in criticism throughout Heretic about the almost voyeurism that many people seem to have about the inside of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.
Let’s actually play a short clip on that.
Frieda Vizel: …explaining us don’t really end after we go. 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 Seidman: For those of us who still have some contact with our families and the old community, These stories just hang over all those relationships.
Frieda Vizel: If you leave and you say, well, here’s me outliving a performative bullshit life,
Naomi Seidman: you have to wrestle with this other story.
Frieda Vizel: The frum community says, see
Naomi Seidman: the Orthodox story about what it means to go,
Frieda Vizel: this person’s having trouble. This person is not in a relationship. We told you this person is a broken person.
Naomi Seidman: You don’t wanna validate it. So you insist that you’re fine. You’re not a broken person, but actually a fulfilled and happy person. In Frida’s words, 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 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.
Yehuda: So in this particular clip, Naomi, you’re talking about why members of the communities that people leave need to see stories that OTD Jews have as following a particular trajectory to affirm their own story. And it feels a little bit like the inverse of what many other pieces of what the show is about, which is people outside the community are obsessed with the OTD story because they want to have like a voyeuristic view inside orthodoxy.
What is this about? Like what is that peeking all about? Why do we as Jews need to see the stories of other Jews following these particular plot lines? What do you think this is about?
Naomi: I mean, I think you’re right. I think there’s two things. They need to hear the story about you left and then they wanna know what was going on on the inside. I mean, one of the things I sort of realized belatedly, and it didn’t quite make it into any of the e episodes, is I think Orthodox Jews feel it too. That’s what’s so I think that people don’t get that.
So I have a brother who has 11 kids, who lives in Monsey, speaks Yiddish to his family, even though he’s, he went from being Hasidish to being a Lithuanian Brisker type Jew. Um, there’s still a small core of that Litvak community that speaks Yiddish, and my brother is like in that core, core, core.
And he started yeshiva that’s in the woods that’s like on the model of that old Mussar Yeshivas. He’s a very interesting character, my brother, My father’s funeral, I remember his eulogy and he was saying, we lost this contact with that old world. With my father being gone and this is my brother, the beard down to his belly button, you know, speaking intense Lithuanian Yiddish, they wouldn’t understand him at YIVO. And he’s talking about what’s lost with my father being gone.
I’ll give you another example. I, I was walking down the street, 13th Avenue, and I see a group of people and they’re standing around. There’s buskers, which is very unusual on 13th Avenue. It’s not, people don’t busk on the street in Borough Park. I guess there’s enough music with all the weddings every night. and I kind of peek in around the edges and it’s, it’s a bunch of Russian Jews and they’re playing tunes from Fiddler on the Roof, including Tradition. And so basically you have a bunch of Ultra-Orthodox Jews watching a bunch of secular Jews playing music from Fiddler on the Roof, which they know and they love.
And also people talk about, oh, you grew up in this warm, thick community. I grew up in a place where people were longing for warm, thick community. It didn’t entirely exist. So this thing that we all want, and that we imagine other people have, I mean, we’re living in a kind of a cultural wasteland and people don’t sufficiently understand that the Holocaust was not just a, not just like, that’s not enough. It didn’t just kill 6 million Jews. It really destroyed a culture. Even in Borough Park, they haven’t managed to reconstruct or they’ve managed to reconstruct in a very thin way, in a very, superficial way, and in a very rigid way.
And, you know, I’m thinking about, you know, again, my father who in was in the Agudah, in interwar Poland, and who was in what could be called the left wing of the Agudah, the cultural left wing, where all the poets and the mystics were hanging out. Whoever heard of poets and mystics in Agudah today? Yeah, I’m sure they exist. You can never destroy them completely, but the Orthodox world is a shell of its former self.
And, you know, not to romanticize what there was in the Interwar period, what you were talking about of the dramatic changes, I just finished reading a book called Der Veg Tsu Undzer Yugnt, by um, Max Weinreich, about Jewish youth in the Interwar period. And he said, you know, there’s generation gaps everywhere. There’s no generation gap bigger than the Jewish generation gap. The gap between what older people experience in their lives and what younger people experience, and he’s writing in 1935, it’s published in 1935, it’s amazing that older Jews and younger Jews can talk to each other.
And sociologists say that the Jewish secularization was not a gradual process the way it was for Christians, where they go from, you know, the sky’s full of angels and the priest can do magic to slowly the reformation and then slowly secularism. With the Jew, it’s like you cut off your peyes and that’s it, you did it in 20 minutes.
Jewish secularization has always had a quality of drama to it for various reasons, including the fact that it’s so related to practice. You’re either keeping Shabbos or you’re not. There’s very little in between positions. I mean, yes, the in-between positions. Ha ha ha. I always joke about, you know, my in-between position that my child for a while was under the impression that Shabbos was a monthly ritual. That yes, I light candles Friday night, but since I never get to Havdalah, like all other liberal Jews, Shabbos is actually never over until maybe Tuesday night, according to some opinions.
So there’s no real in-between positions. I mean, I know there are in-between positions. I know that intellectually I teach that. But let’s say, from the perspective of someone who leaves orthodoxy, the in-between positions are kind of a joke and you don’t, like, really, I’m gonna, I mean, I’ve never paid money to be a conservative Jew. They give me this as a, this is like, okay, you’ve taught for us for five years. Do you wanna be a member of a conservative shul?
Yehuda: Right, you get to a member.
Naomi: I’m like, okay, if you’re gonna give it to me, I will. I certainly would never pay for it. It’s expensive, for one thing.
Yehuda: Yeah. Your fiddler example reminds me of one of my favorite Jewish studies academic books, Jeffrey Shandler’s, uh, Adventures in Yiddishland, in which he talks about Yiddish as a post-vernacular language. I even remember when people talked about Yiddish as a endangered language. It’s not endangered anymore by any linguistic standards. You have over a million Yiddish speakers now in the world. But there has been the construction or the creation of a new Yiddish culture, which is unusual. It’s post vernacular. It wasn’t necessarily handed down from parents to children, or a relatively small number of people survived who were native Yiddish speakers. And then you get the production of a new vernacular.
What that suggests, Naomi, which is really, really interesting, is that we’re noticing the phenomenon of people, quote-unquote, leaving the community or going off the derech more than we’re noticing the phenomenon of the active construction of that very path as a relatively recent phenomenon, right?
That’s the post-Shoah effort of Haredi Jews, which is, we are going to reconstitute a mythic version of what we lost, which isn’t actually about the cultural continuity, but it’s about Torah and Mitzvot, performing a particular type of religiosity. And we’re gonna do so by having a ton of children, and by centering Torah study as the dominant value in our community and creating enclaves around that.
That’s been an active constructed process that starts in the middle of the 1940s and continues to now. And ironically, we’re paying attention to the departures from that relatively new way of life, more than we’re noticing that incredibly political act of the construction of that community. That feels kind of remarkable to me.
Like, shouldn’t that be the dominant story, rather than the fact that like some thousands of people, a small percentage look at this and say, hmm, I guess I don’t wanna really be a part of it. And what does that do, also, by the way, to non-Orthodox Jews fascination with ultra-orthodoxy to actually name, that it’s a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not the old world enduring, and we are the ones who have failed to attach ourselves to it. It’s actually the production of a new world that many of us just don’t have a stake in.
Naomi: Wow, that’s really beautifully put. That should be a whole episode. I think that’s so true. And I think that having had a very old father, my father was close to 60 when I was born, it’s almost like I had a, you know, I had a connection to something, uh, a certain kind of different way of doing things that through him, that I think other people my age and certainly younger didn’t have, and they sort of bought the story, I mean the story that it’s always been this way, that we’re continuing the life.
I mean, I knew that we weren’t continuing the life because my father was so much more cosmopolitan and open, even open to me than a lot of the younger fathers there. And I mean, the idea that this is a new construction is something I’m constantly battling against. I, I just remember going to my mother’s house and picking up the whatever orthodox Jewish rag was lying around on the table or the couch. And I’m like, so Ma, when did this start with the no pictures of women? And she’s like, what do you mean when did it start? It was always like that, no? And I’m like, no, it was not always like that.
And one of the things that I’m doing is in, in my own research is to do serious professional history around the school system that I went to, Beis Yaakov, and, you know, show 150 photos from the Interwar period, obviously no problem with photos of women. No evidence that there ever was a problem with it. So one thing is to historicize the stringencies. I mean, people do historicize a little bit. They say, well, in the Interwar period, there was so much OTD then, that we couldn’t be as strict as we really should have been, we had to be flexible. I mean, in some ways they’re being flexible now.
I have a cousin who said to me, I know you feel like such a freak and you’re the only one in the family, but you know, if it weren’t for the Holocaust, you’d have, you know, 15 first cousins who were communists. And you’d be one of them. This is, this was just what Jewish families were like. That was really common, you know. In my father’s family, you know, some of the people went off the derech and those people did not survive.
And now I am, you know, whatever, dozens and dozens and dozens of people. And as far as I know, unless they’re in the closet, no one but me. And I think that that sort of starts to get at one of the, this kind of effort to keep people in, and I think doing a relatively good job. I don’t actually know the statistics, but,
Naomi: And a kind of range of what you could do, right? So yes, my father, a Hasidic man who went to university and got a Ph.D. and you know, and then his, most of his siblings were business people. They didn’t sit and learn in Kolel. And now I can’t tell you how many, you know, nieces and nephews they have that live in Lakewood that have arranged their lives.
And that’s another story is everyone thinks that the story of the ultra-orthodox world is a story about Hasidim. That’s the only story people are interested in. Even though really what’s going, everyone assumes the people, Yeshivish world is like, oh, they’re too cosmopolitan to be interesting cause they know English.
And that story is of no interest for some reason to the secular world. And it’s the big story now. And just for my example, you know, a Hasidic family that is now mostly Yeshivish, it’s, that’s where it’s growing is the Yeshivish world. Even this kind of ultra-Yeshivish world that people also don’t know, even I think people like you don’t know it exists.
Yehuda: Oh, I know it exists, but I also know
Naomi: I mean do you know about the the the Yeshivish, Yiddish speaking, Mussar world in Monsey and places like that?
Yehuda: I, know a bit about it cause it includes members of my family, but I know it also very well from Israel. In Israel, the complexities around, uh, ultra-orthodox identity are far more subtle and in many ways widely known, partly because there’s also political expressions of those.
Naomi: Exactly. Exactly.
Yehuda: Right, and, and here we don’t quite have it quite the same way the political expressions happen through, you know, people know about Satmer and Kiryas Joel, as a particular type of community that reflects its politics locally. But partly it’s invisible, Naomi, because who would spend time in those communities?
So like, if you’re on the outside, you know, America allows you to say, okay, well you’re in your enclave. I’m in mine. In Israel, you have kind of no choice but to interact and cross-pollinate, um, uh, across thes things.
Naomi: So can I say one other thing about that? One of the things about the Ultra-Orthodox politics and its visibility is that it actually allows for a Jewish expression of dissent against this, in America, what you tend to get is you know, this kind of half-guilty suspicion that those are the real Jews, that’s where authenticity lies, and a kind of slight guilt almost. And like, it’s good they exist. Like I used to take people in what I called the, the Brooklyn Safari, like, you know, it’s good. We got, okay, they’re an endangered species, let’s go visit them in their zoo.
In Israel, people are happy to say the most direct, angry things about Ultra-Orthodox Jews. They don’t serve in the army, they have way too much power, they get social services, all this stuff. I like that. We should be having an argument. We shouldn’t be projecting these kind of fantasies onto ultra-orthodox Jews. We should be fighting with them. We should be standing up for, you know, whatever the alternative values are. And American Jews have a very hard time doing this. The New York Times, you know, education piece is somewhat of an exception.
And if I can say one more thing about this is that one of the main ways that I was given the gumption, let’s say, to leave the orthodox world because I spent a year in Israel, very typical of girls my age and general level of orthodoxy. I spent a year in a seminary in Israel, very early, for some reason, when I was 16. And one of the things that we did in the seminary is we went to Shabbos demonstrations. Demonstrations against whatever, building a soccer stadium. I can’t remember the exact.
And I remember standing at this demonstration and realizing something and going, I knew I didn’t believe from a pretty early age, but it didn’t occur to me that that was a reason to leave. That seemed like too dramatic. And I was like, okay, so I don’t believe, but this thing’s, you know, there’s other reasons to stay. I mean, the big one being you don’t your, you don’t break your parents’ heart.
Yehuda: It’s also, it’s what you know and where you’re safe and it’s the world you’re in. Right? There’s obviously a thousand reasons why people stay where they are.
Naomi: Exactly. There’s a thousand reasons to stay. And I did not foresee that I would leave. And I’m in a Shabbos demonstration and the people around me are chanting something and I’m like, I was okay doing this at my own expense. I was okay living out my life as an Orthodox Jew, who is it hurting? You know, it’s like, I’m not hurting my family. I’m whatever. I’ll, okay, so I won’t daven in with kavana. I will, maybe I’ll sneak a snack or something if I’m really hungry on Yom Kippur. But then I’m realizing I’m gonna take my thing that I don’t even believe, and I’m gonna make someone else do it for whatever reason?
And I’m like, I can’t do that. I’m not like, I don’t believe this enough to chant whatever they’re chanting. And I certainly don’t believe this enough to make any trouble in anyone else’s life. Like being an ultra-orthodox Jew in Israel made me realize I can’t be an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
Yehuda: Hmm. Because you weren’t gonna quietly vote for Meretz on the side,
Naomi: Exactly. I mean, that’s not enough. You know, I’m not asserting myself to that extent.
Yehuda: I wanna go back to something that you said about your, I would’ve had 15 cousins who were communists. And what’s kind of telling about that example? And it even goes to the question of I could stay or I could go right, depending on where the pressure kind of comes into bear, which is that it feels to me like the narrative arc that modern Jews seem to like is, is one that is linear.
The convert who leaves, or the person who rejects and moves from like place A to place B, or in reverse the other narrative arc that is actually quite common in Jewish life, which is the Ba’al Teshuva, which I mean, not just religiously, a person who grows up with nothing and then decides to become religious, but also I understand the kind of Jewish political journey for the neocons as a story of Ba’al Teshuva also.
Leo Strauss makes that explicit. He calls a Ba’al Teshuva, the Jew who is a universalist, goes out into the world and discovers he’s the only one and is returned to his people, is what he calls a Ba’al Teshuva. That’s a very compelling and easy narrative, and it winds up turning the world into basically a binary, right and left religious and not religious.
And it’s so surprising because instead of allowing all of ourselves, to have like the dynamism of complicated political identities and family identities, we all seem to be like wanting to allow that that’s the world, the world of piety or rebellion, the world of politically right or politically left. It just seems totally strange and counter to the experiences that most of us have.
I, I wanna play one more clip that, that attests to this actually, which is about family. Because one of the things that you allude to in the show is that the narrative arc that people seem to want is the one in which people just reject their families or their families reject them. And you illustrate with this clip that we’re gonna play, um, that actually, attachments to family remain in place even if they’re complicated.
Naomi Seidman: 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 Stoss: 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 Seidman: It’s also about who the heroes in the story are and who the villains are.
Lauren Stoss: You know, now I have to deal with the reality, like, oh, I’m the one who stopped talking to them.
Naomi Seidman: 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, those old world patriarchs 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’s right and who’s wrong, those old categories, but who’s loving and who’s hateful, about what family means and what love means, and who really has it and who really feels it. Maybe that’s why we do it. Pick up the phone, get on a plane, to show that we are 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.
Yehuda: It’s a magnificent piece, Naomi. And maybe it’s also not, at the end of the day, some people are the good and some people are the bad. Maybe it’s just that like the narrative arc of departure or rejection, it makes for good television, but actually Jewish lives and human lives are just evolving and complicated and messy and right, I mean, maybe that’s the real story of modern Jewish identities. Even when, you know, the narrative arc of departure and rejection is the one that gets the Netflix specials.
Naomi: Hmm. Yeah, you know, who was the good guy, who was the bad guy? Such a complicated story. On one hand, I mean, and this is something that I think, you know, David Zvi was saying, this is too much to put into the episode, but one of the things about leaving the Orthodox world is that you basically have to move from one value system, and it’s like you let go of one value system and then you have to discover the next one, in a moment of great desperation, right?
So great desperation is a time when a lot of things like you’re not supposed to steal, and a lot of ethical rules go out the window anyway. But this idea of, you know, who am I as a good person when good person no longer means that I wait six hours after I eat meat to eat milk or wait, yes, that’s how it goes.
Yehuda: Mm-hmm. Come on. You knew that one.
Naomi: That’s another sort of inside joke of like, we, I just saw on an OTD Facebook group last night of like, what are the stages of leaving OTD? And it occurred to me that. I didn’t write this down caise I was too tired. But it was like, first you only wait five hours and then you, you know? First you only wait five hours and then you have a cheeseburger, like whatever, you give the absolute stringency and you’re like, what the hell? There’s no God, there’s like, I mean that, that kind of, if you’re not gonna wait six hours, then why the hell are you not murdering people, you know?
Yehuda: Well this is what people, this is what, this is what the system calls a slippery slope.
Naomi: Yes. This is the OTD slippery slope that the philosophers talk about, like this is what happens when you know, you have this like ridiculous value system that sort of keeps you in mind, sorry if I’m offending anyone. And then you go, well, does that mean that there’s no ethical system? Where is that ethical system and how do you discover it?
Yehuda: Okay. But let me, I wanna, but I wanna push back on that cause you actually, it seems here you’re being sharper about your critiques of that system, but in the show you actually, you kind of seem to respect, at least begrudgingly respect that communities can have their norms and communities can have their commitments.
And because if you grant that, then it helps to reduce, not only the guilt, but the decision that a person says, I just don’t wanna live by those norms anymore. I find that to be very humanizing as opposed to saying it’s an absurd system. You say, well, okay, some communities build their norms that way.
And where I would really push back is that when you get to that whole piece on family, you basically say, okay, you have your norms and we have our norms, but at the end of the day, the real norm is love and kindness. And that actually holds us together more than the fact that yes, you wait six hours between meat and milk and I’m eating a cheeseburger. Right?
I mean, that’s not really, I felt, the thrust of the show, is to say the system is absurd. It’s actually to say, well, maybe the system needs to be what it needs to be and I don’t wanna have it, but maybe something does hold us together more powerfully than just the difference between like that normative system and my behavior. Is that fair?
Naomi: It’s a very schizophrenic show, because I mean, I started off by thinking I’m gonna give people a taste of the things that OTD people say among themselves and the things that OTD people say among themselves. I mean, it’s a, what’s the word? An escape valve. It’s a channel for huge amounts of rage and pain and humor all mixed up.
And when this became a podcast, the idea that we’re all held together with love and its family and all that, that’s a product of thinking, okay, what do we say when I speak in a venue that there’s some chance in hell that someone in my family will hear?
I mean, I love the OTD world and I love that humor and I love that sharpness and I love making fun of Orthodox Judaism. And I can’t live without it. I have to check in two or three times a week just to feel sane. But I also have another life as, first of all, I research the Orthodox world and I speak about the Orthodox world with great respect.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t have people who were willing to be my research subjects. Otherwise no one would buy my books. Otherwise, so, my schizophrenic life, I, I’m not saying one is more real than the other, but there’s a way in which we talk in one venue that we don’t talk in another.
And I would never, you know, and I have Orthodox students, I have, you know, three or four probably gonna listen to this podcast, who, I have a research group where we get together and about the orthodox world. And it’s great and it’s fun, you know, and I don’t put on this crazy, heretical personality that I have in other venues. And then thinking about what the podcast is and thinking about how the secular world is so willing to dehumanize ultra-orthodox Jews, maybe even Orthodox Jews, if we could be more general, this actually happened at a moment.
I was sitting, listening to some rough cut of episode three. And you know how suddenly, like you go back to something you wrote cause someone tells you they read it and suddenly you’re reading it through their eyes? I suddenly saw it through my sister’s eyes. And I suddenly was like, this is bullshit.
No one, by the way, in my family thinks I’m a nebuch. I’m a Jewish studies professor. What they don’t understand about me is how the world is so stupid to pay me the huge amounts of money it pays me as just the ignorant person that I am, that they take me to be. And for them it’s a sign of how the secular world so doesn’t understand what Judaism really is, that they’re willing to pay me my enormous salary.
Which, you know, a lot of them can’t believe how much I get paid for the little amount that being a professor is like, that’s another big part of it. And as someone who like, was never an A student in Beis Yaakov and you know, obviously barely knows Yiddishkite, they think it’s hilarious. That’s their take. But it’s not the nebuch. I didn’t put this in there cause it’s not my story, but I’ll tell you that’s what, how much do you make? And how often do you teach and what do you teach? They’re literally laughing as they ask me this. But no, it’s not nebuch.
And I’m like, well, what is someone of my fa I mean, the nebuch thing I heard about from people on the in, you know, in these OTD groups, I didn’t even know it. So that’s really not my story. And I’m, listen, I’m thinking about my sister and she’s like, in my mind, listening to this and going, what do you mean nebuch, I feel like you make fun of us all the time. She, she somehow knows that, um, and it hurts her feelings.
I have no idea whether my sister will ever hear this. And, um, I hope not, somehow thinking about what this feels like for an Orthodox Jew to hear. I, I don’t want her to hear me making fun of people preparing for Pesach. I don’t need that. I need to do it for myself, but I don’t need it for her. So you know, I think I said this in the fourth episode. I’m an academic, I don’t, my family doesn’t read what I write, but a podcast is a different story and I suddenly felt like, what if a frum person hears that? And it really changed what the podcast was.
Yehuda: Well, uh, well, I hope they do. I felt, every time I’ve heard the episodes, Naomi, from the first draft that I saw, I felt a little even haunted by this, all of the ways in which, for all of us modern Jews, there’s a kind of tragic incapability of Jewishness and it’s intertwined with our past in the bad sense when it’s just nostalgia, but in also in the good sense where it’s binding and obligating and it’s intertwined with family, which is also tragically inescapable and complicated for all these reasons.
So I wanna just thank you for the work that you’ve done on this, for being on our show today, for the boldness and the rawness of this show, Heretic in the House. Thanks to all of you for listening to our show. Special thanks to Naomi Seidman. The first three episodes of Heretic are out now, and you can find it on whatever platforms you’re using to hear Identity Crisis.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choi at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by so called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs.
To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute can visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you wanna hear about, if you have comments on this episode. If you have thoughts about the next great podcast from Hartman, please write to us at [email protected]. You can you rate and review the show on iTunes to help more people discover the show and you can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening.