Jul 312014
 

I often compare my Hasidic childhood in Kiryas Joel to the Rockettes. Yes, those gorgeous 6 feet girls who perform on Broadway and dance and kick in perfect unison — yes, them. That’s how I remember it felt.

Let me explain.

Life in Kiryas Joel was many things; it was filled with female friendships, family, tradition, and constant stability. But when I try to articulate what affected me most in Kiryas Joel, I think about its discipline among women. It was like I was thrown onto the stage with these dancers. Kiryas Joel’s female population mastered perfect execution of societal choreography, self constraint, unity. We all didn’t look like these Rockettes below (or above), true, but all of my friends seemed to embody the same skill.

My all-girls classes were filled with well-groomed students ready to stand under the stage’s bright lights; to perform; to be perfect. The Hasidic community was the audience, they were all watching, the yentas and neighbors were eager to applaud or critique, and all we girls had to do was behave as we were taught. Everyone had the right postures, moved with beautiful precision, knew intuitively how to earn the approval of the crowd. They were not only modest; they were also as ‘spast, as was appropriate, and they were always “normal”, a standard that required execution of an indefinite number of rules. They could read social cues effortlessly and know without instructions what was right or wrong.

And then there was me. I was dancing with these Jewish Rockettes too, only I had no talent for it. I tried to dance; I more like bobbed; wobbled; flapped and yipped. I was as if short legged and clumsy, always absent minded and anything but a group person. I did not fit the costume at all and was an eyesore in the Hasidic girl’s uniform. As a younger kid my thick blue tights often trailed out of my shoe in a giant tail so I spent half the day tugging the stocking’s waistline up to my buttocks. People said my hair was never brushed but I didn’t know how they knew or why it mattered, and my pleated skirt was more puffy creases than pleats. No matter how hard I tried to be a Rockette, disheveled tombody I was, a Rockette I wasn’t. In this performance of religious behavior, my legs would never extend to the right length, my body would not deliver the right symmetrical movement, and my face couldn’t hold itself together with the perfect controlled smile. I was always forgetting what I was supposed to do, improvising, getting it right, getting it wrong, being weird, being silly, crying in public, laughing in public, doing things that didn’t belong on the Spectacular, raising eyebrows from the crowd, wanting to run off the stage.

I got suspended from school three times for being wild, behavior that was extremely shameful among mature girls. I was constantly in trouble. Every good or mediocre episode was a rare victory – a good report card, a pious prayer – and it was soon followed by a disaster; an inappropriate comment, troublemaking in class, just being scatterbrained.

I was always a sensitive soul and I internalized all of the criticism and let it eat at me. I spent much of my youth wishing I was like the others who were dazzling the crowd – good girls; great modest, help-at-home, mature girls – full of hope for their futures, making their mothers proud. I remember many, many nights in bed, curled up in my orange Spitzer’s nightgown, just hating myself. All I wished for was to stop being me.

My teachers, my parents, the neighbors, everyone cheered for my friends and sisters. “Spectacular!” they applauded. “Perfect! What fine, b’chaynt girls.What a joy to watch them!” and to me they’d offer encouragement: “Be like that! Do that! Follow the script! You can also be a fine Rockette!”

I wanted to be a Rockette. I wanted it so badly; I believed I could be like the others if only I tried hard enough. I kept promising myself to try. I would control myself, I would be good. I would make my mother proud. She would be so proud. She would cry naches tears and then my world would shine. I saw my mother among this audience as she watched me, I heard her pray at dawn and I knew she davened for me to improve, I saw her hopefulness that I’d get it right, then her disappointment when I acted “crazy” or “not normal” and everyone judged me. I was often upset with myself, but never as much as when I sensed the disappointment of my sweet mother who prayed every day for things to go more smoothly for me.

I often wondered why I couldn’t get it right. As I walked Forest Road to the Shopping Center, I remember trying to figure out: what’s wrong with me? Why am I so weird? Why do I break out into a sudden skip, almost as if I was overtaken by a tick, while walking in the street, when I was already a kallah meidel, big and grown up, and should be “normal?” Why did I laugh to myself or sing to myself or talk to myself while normal people just kept it together, even faced? What was wrong? I knew that no one would ever hurt me and tell me if I was somehow born with a disability that made me so terrible at what I needed to do, so I had no way of knowing what the problem was. But it was clear to me that there was something wrong. Everyone was so amazing. Whatever was wrong – it was me.

For many years, I thought something was wrong. My hope was that I could fix it and make it right. It was years before I began to think that perhaps there was something different about me, and that different does not mean wrong.

I learned to deal with my ruthless self-loathing by embracing the role of the clown and always being the butt of the joke. But I was never taken seriously, and I felt like no one ever saw ME, the me that I believed I could be, the me that was not *only* a bad Rockette.

When I finally left the Hasidic community four years ago, I knew a heavy curtain would fall between me and my entire world. After so many years, it was so hard to go. It was just hard to leave it all – the intimate family, the hope, the progress, the small successes, the world I created there, the humor I mastered, the friendships I made, the costumes that had all my sweatstains on it. But I had to go. I could no longer try. I could no longer pretend. I could no longer even hope to be like the others. I could no longer beat myself up. I could no longer take my own wrath.

People always ask why I left, and I have many answers. But to me, the question that boggles me is how I was ever there. Anyone could see: I am not made to be a Rockette.

I know that many of my friends in the Hasidic community will look at me and ask “Rockette what?” — and not only because Hasidim don’t know anything about Christmas dancers. Not everyone in the community experienced the social pressure as intensely, or the the discipline as constricting. Not everyone bolts at a whiff of authority or feels like they are in a straightjacket if they are ever told what to do. True, not everyone feels as controlled, but that didn’t make it any better for me. I look at the world around me and see that people are different, find meaning in different ways of life, and I respect that some people can be okay with the demand for conformity. Only I expect the respect for people’s differences in return. There will also always be those like me, odd-balls and free spirits, individualists and adventurers, who were dropped by the stork at the wrong gig, who will always struggle with the feeling that they can never live up to what they were asked to perform on.

For those people, those Rockettes with short legs, I feel so much sadness. I so wish they’d be allowed to be themselves, that they wouldn’t be judged, or that they’d be let off the stage so that they would no longer measure themselves by a standard that is not for them. Because a Rockette with short legs can also be a girl with a great mind or a guy with great wits or a person with the unique quirks that make him or her special.

I know that I will always feel pain that I failed as a Rockette, disappointed my parents, hurt all who had invested so much in my future. But I am glad that I left. I can now try to be good at other things. And I am even more glad that I can raise a child with the opportunity to dance any way he wants, freestyle, salsa, the tango, hip-hop, or even like a Rockette.

Sometimes, early morning in our home far away from Kiryas Joel, when the rest of the world is sleeping and the coffee is brewing and my son and I are still in our pajamas, we break into a silly dance of booty shaking and whirling and twirling and loopy jumping. Then I am happy. I am happy that despite all the hard times, I’m still dancing, with new moves and old moves combined. And that I dance to my own beat.

Jul 032014
 

The Senate unanimously signed a bill today making it a requirement for all bathtub manufacturers to attach a product warning to caution users not to throw away the baby with the bathwater. The bill passed the House late last week and is now on the President’s desk. Obama made it clear that he will sign the bill into law immediately and that there will be no revisions to the bill language to ensure that there is no delay.

baby bathwater

The urgent appeal for this new mandate was brought to Washington’s attention after many years of human rights lobbying to stop the tragic incidents of babies being thrown out together with bathwater. “There are unfortunately lazy folk” said the author of the bill, Senator Richard DeMint, in an exclusive conversation with Oy Vey Cartoons, “they empty the tub and with it the baby and they continue to use the tub for the next baby, etcetera. Americans can no longer ignore this waste. I am proud that we were able to come together today in a bipartisan vote on this important issue that concerns the wellbeing and prosperity of this great country. I promised the people from my state that I will eradicate this practice. Today, I delivered to the people of Minnesota.”

The exceptionally quick turnaround on this law was prompted by the tragedy last week in Brooklyn, NY, when a woman was arrested for throwing out her baby with the bathwater. The call came to the 91st precinct of the NYC police from an unsuspecting neighbor, Mrs. Blumenkrantzenholzenburgenboym, who was on her way to the wig maker when she noticed her neighbor Sury Green, age 32, emptying her tub and her baby in her backyard and then leaving the premises. “I looked out from my snood,” said a visibly shaken Mrs. Blumenkrantzenholzenburgenboym, “and saw that poor baby lying there in the dumps! I was horrified and called 911! Thank God the cops came and took matters under control immediately!”

Sury Green is held in solitary confinement in the La Guardian Penitentiary with no bail, and is said to have her first hearing next week. Our telephone calls to her cell were not returned. In a call to her lawyer Mordy Greenblatt, Greenblatt confirmed the charges of second degree manslaughter and said that Sury will plead not guilty because she does not have a baby or a bathtub.

Senator DeMint contacted the family last week as the new broke to express his condolences and to promise to move forward with legislation to ban this practice. He flew in for a private meeting with Mrs. Blumenkrantzenholzenburgenboym where he listened to her first-hand account of the tragedy and gathered the information necessary to formulate the bill.

As the two left the meeting they stood for photo ops and then spoke a few words to the gathering crowd. “May God save the babies,” said DeMint, as he entered his limo with eyes red from obvious crying. “And may God bless America.”

 

Reporting by: Frieda Vizel/Bathtub, NY. Hand me a towel, someone! 

2014 Caption Contest

 Posted by on May 15, 2014
May 152014
 

UPDATE!

Thank you all so much for contributing to this caption contest and the one I had on Facebook (which Y Lopin nabbed.)

My favorite submission for this cartoon was Daas Hedyot’s caption alluding to the stir that erupted on Facebook after Rabbi Fink called a meeting between rabbis and some OTDs groundbreaking.

Caption: “If we have a summit and there’s no one to tell about it, is it still a groundbreaking summit?” – Daas Hedyot

I love it because it is smart and satirical and timely. But that’s the problem — it is timely, and it will be dated and strange within a month. We know how quickly a good brouhaha is forgotten these days. I’m trying to collect a gallery of cartoons that can be accessible and comprehensible to at least a quorum of readers. Otherwise I feel like I’m alone, laughing on an island, a groundbreaking moment that no one else appreciates. And we know the essence of an event lies in how many people click like and hear the evil laugh.

I chose a more general caption as the winner, by our very own Obama.

“Yup, we are definitely off the derech.” -Obama

Obama wins my magazine! Thanks :-)

I want to give a shout out to Daas Hedyot because his blog really influenced me, especially his interview series “Better Know a Kofer.” I’ll never forget when he launched it. I lived in Kiryas Joel then and the isolation and loneliness made a good post so much more exciting. Especially when XGH satirized the first interview – it’s a shame that the satire is no longer around. No internet event is complete without some good satire.

Check out the Better Know a Kofer series!

 

 

OTD Cartoon

 

—-

Obviously we’re down to doing a caption contest a year. Then it’ll be a contest a century, then it’ll be a millennia event. What am I saying, it’s already a millennia event.

I’m not reviving the blog. I just perceptively realize that people have a lot of witty things to say at the moment and it is my moral obligation to provide a safe and public environment for them to channel it. Especially if that environment involves me showing off the site’s major cosmetic makeover (thanks Eli, Shimon and Leo) especially the new Gallery tab on top. Looks fine, doesn’t it?

So see the doodle below. It’s the old cartoon of two people stranded on an island. It’s in need of a caption, something smart and funny and acerbic and insightful. Please don’t leave these two stranded Jews alone without a good joke. Come up with something. I’ll pick a winner based on bias, nepotism and irresistible hilarity.

IF YOU WIN: In the past, the winner got money, and it usually stayed in PayPal uncollected. Since money doesn’t sell, I’m upgrading my incentive: winner gets a copy of my New Leaf Magazine mailed to you, the winner, with no personal autograph whatsoever. You may even have to pay your own postage. But you’ll win this gem. The magazine is self-published — to this date there are three copies in circulation. It consists of half edited doodles and pretension, all good stuff. You want this. You will win this. You can do this. Etc. Go.

2014 Caption Contest

On the Fink Summit

 Posted by on May 13, 2014
May 132014
 

 

Friends have been asking me about the meeting I attended this Sunday. It was hosted by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink. I was there with nine people; five orthodox who are in some position of authority, five formerly orthodox who are in no position of authority whatsoever (we OTDs don’t believe in authority anyway, so there.) We met in a nice Rockland home, just a few minutes away from where I live. When I came inside, Hasidic time; which is a few minutes late, everyone was already assembled in the living room and people were making introductions. There were bottles of waters and the participants were curling up their notes into long microphone-type rolls. I spotted my friend Leah Vincent amidst the odd crowd, in a black skirt and beige stockings, talking to some bearded guy about the parsha. This, I assure you, has not happened at any of my meetings with Leah before.

I know well some of the people who were there. Leah, Adina and Ushy are good friends. Fink is a good star I follow online. The other people had good beards, except Avital Chizhik. She had good hair; great hair. Fink had no hair and no beard. Anonymous had no hair, no beard and no name. As I said, there was great diversity.

I was introduced to Shafran and when I said I’d read his stuff, he said “and you’re still talking to me?” His answer was NOT the style of small talk my own Satmar Rebbe would have made, which would have probably been to kick me out the door with his silver cane. See, my reference point is a fundamentalist rabbi, so I am perhaps not the best judge of seasoned politician rabbis. But from my shtetled perspective, I appreciate the Rabbis’ willingness to “talk.” In my journey I’ve very often turned to Rabbis for help. And I’ve been yelled at, talked down to, ignored, brought to tears. I’m always cynical about grand efforts to save the day by Rabbis and the troublemakers like me, yes, but all that aside this was an unusual opportunity to be able to talk to Rabbis, with the promise to at least brainstorm.

The meeting was not about vague talk. It was a platform to discuss concrete issues. There were no illusions about grand solutions, it was just an effort, another one of thousands from many of us, to try to figure out problems that seem insurmountable but are too important to ignore.

I’m not sure I can divulge what others spoke about, but I’ll tell you about my subject:

I spoke for the issue of custody wars that erupt when a parent leaves the faith. I made it very clear that I come from a Hasidic community and that I’m not sure of the degree to which these issues are relevant in mainstream orthodox or Yeshivish communities. I did not come with any illusions that there is accountability for hard-core Hasidic problems in the wider orthodox world. I came because I think the wider orthodox community needs to be aware of it and needs to stop turning a blind eye.

I have two girlfriends who lost custody in the Hasidic community. I myself was very close to losing custody, and only because I had some good luck and good timing am I lucky enough to raise my son (and I raise him on The True Off Derech, mind you.) My proposal was for there to be pressure from the larger Jewish community to stop tearing children away from one parent, especially, excuse my old fashioned values, mothers. My proposal for action was this: that we should look at the issue the same we we look at the aguna issue. The aguna issue is morally unjust but created by religion (only as a friend pointed out, the aguna problem is an imaginary construct and using kids as pawns isn’t.) Both aguna and parental alienation are incredibly tragic contortions of religiosity used in bitter divorces. If two people want to destroy each other and their children because their marriage went sour, our hands are in many ways tied. But in some segments of the Orthodox religious community, religion is the tool through which the destruction happens. And it is such a powerful, effective tool. The ability for the religious community to empower injustice, petty fighting, self destruction, bitter divorces, is incredible. The tool must be stopped.

Here’s how a religious community is so effective:

(note, I use the Hasidic community in my example, because it is what I KNOW. It may be true to some degree too in other branches of orthodoxy.)

 

1. Rabbis and askonim get actively involved in ostracization, shaming and bullying the OTD parent.

2. The money poured into the legal system by the religious community just buys the legal victory.

3. Family court judges are elected, and the religious community can bargain with a huge bloc vote.

4. The buddy-buddy friendships between the influential lawyers who know how to work the legal system (take Eric Thorsen) and Hasidic community is a mutually beneficial union that makes lawyers rich and the community successful even while destroying little children. Often these goons don’t even go through the legal system. They use “mediation”, i.e. legal language intimidation with rabbinic power, to get their way.

5. People who leave a sheltered community (especially if it is the only community they know) are emotionally very vulnerable and this is exploited to throw a convenient label of ill mental health on them. Borderline and BPD and Depression crop up in forensics and legal arguments before you know it.

6. The schools and chedarim cooperate with this war as well; threatening to throw the children out as a leveraging chip. The court hates getting children expelled, so judges are very influenced by the argument that the parent who is OTD is causing children to be removed from schools.

7. The wider Orthodox world does not offer a yeshiva in its place. Or any help for the leaving parent. This means that the choice of a middle ground does not exist. You either stay in the Hasidic community or drop orthodoxy entirely. And the very need to make a radical change is very off-putting to courts.

8. Courts love status quo. A status quo designed by a system that marries its kids off at 18 isn’t a fair status quo though. It doesn’t allow for personal growth.

9. People who leave Orthodoxy often lack a support network. This is exploited by lawyers and therapist directly and indirectly.

10. And most sadly; the children are often poisoned against the leaving parent and they themselves wage the war against their own mother or father. How terribly sad.

 

These are issues that few people know about. Number ten is only part of the list. Please, feel free to add an eleven, twelve and thirteen and thirty.

I care not only because I retained custody through the skin of my teeth and was so close to losing my son, but because of the heartbreak I’ve experienced through friends who were mulled ruthlessly by people who commit injustices under religious guise.

I am not saying this has much to do with Shafran and Fink. But in the same way that the orthodox community is to some degree effective in raising awareness and shaming the man who refuses to give a get, we can try to tackle the issue of custody cases. We can try to stop making this about religion versus no religion and make it about the children’s wellbeing.

I got five minutes for my presentation. Each presentation was followed by a conversation. There was of course, no objection to the problems I raised, and no solutions either, but I could hope that this overlooked issue will get some attention in the Orthodox community.

As we were eating dinner Shafran asked the old question — why those who leave Hasidism “go all the way” instead of staying to some degree religious. And it was an opportunity for me to bring up the problem of the complacency among the Orthodox, of almost enabling the Hasidic world. I myself tried to become mainstream orthodox, but no Yeshiva would accept my son. They didn’t like a Yiddish speaking little boy with a Hasidic background. Yes, I tried and was denied, turned away time and again. The orthodox don’t like the whole idea of former Hasidim, that was my experience. Let’s be honest, there’s a silent prejudice the way there is among the Satmar towards Yemenites. I lived for three years in an orthodox community and tried to integrate. My son didn’t make a single friend on our block (in fact, I paid a neighbor to play with him) and I felt like a complete outsider, a few rungs down and out. I got none of this type of condescending treatment EVER from the secular Jewish world.

The orthodox community has a silent respect for the Hasidic, or maybe a desire to see it survive and thrive. That is all good and well. I want to see my Hasidic family and friends thrive happily too. But it does not mean it is acceptable to turn a blind eye to problems like: parental alienation, no yeshiva for children, etc. Contrary, if you care and want to see a community prosper, then you don’t ignore where it bleeds. The orthodox world needs to be aware of these problems and make an effort to help address it. We all need to. This is not the type of problem we can stand back and watch “respectfully.”

I am hopeful that next time I contact one of these rabbis because a friend needs help in a legal war, they’d be a little more engaged. They’d speak up, make some phone calls, put some pressure. Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz has been very effective in influencing even the Hasidic community on the issue of sexual abuse, because rabbis who really want to can do so with unique influence. Maybe the solution isn’t magical, but it is anytime better than the silent pain we have now.

After we all talked we had dessert of chocolate rum balls and cookies with a chocolate swirl on top. We all agreed to finish strong like that.

Turning in My New Leaf

 Posted by on November 21, 2013
Nov 212013
 

The New Leaf that you see is a faux New Yorker magazine I’d done for a school project. Inside, I included a number of essays, poems and doodles and oodles of pretentious fonts and bylines. The results were quite fun. But I still love the cover most of all. Let me explain.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Skyline Hotel in New York City for the Footsteps 10th Anniversary Gala was that on this evening, my shoes were going to silently murder me. The second thing I noticed, and that completely made me forget the first, was that a magazine cover was blown up on beautiful poster board and placed on a table at the entrance of the program hall. There I stood, on my bloody Towers of Pumps, staring at my work that I’d almost forgotten. It looked so professional, published, sophisticated even, with its bold colors on light background. I hobbled around the table and informed everyone who did and didn’t care to know that I’d done it. (And I had.)

I drew this faux New Yorker cover – my New Leaf – a number of months ago. It is actually part of a larger work I created for an admissions application. A part of my endless and often frustrating graduate school career is the constant scrambling to complete lengthy funding or program admissions applications. For this creative writing application I decided to have some fun with it, and instead of simply sending in a 30 page essay, I compiled a number of my published and unpublished essays and some of my cartoons, and formatted it all in the style of a sleek New Yorker, complete with oodles of pretentious fonts and bylines. (I drew the line at umlauted diphthongs though, thank you very much).

I toyed with a cover concept, and decided to draw something clean and neat and came up with the dual woman, only with a twist. I like that she’s poised in both lives. There’s something to that. A friend surprised me and printed the pdf on glossy pages. One day, in the mail, I got my own real-looking magazine, complete with various author names, like F. Vizel and Frieda V. and the authentic New Yorker fonts. Mmm, fonts. Then it got lost somewhere in my house, with the thousands of other subscription mailings.

Works like these make the effort of learning amateur cartooning worth it. Actually, Amateur comes from the Latin word amare- to love. Amateurs are people who do what they do foremost because they love it; not because they are in the business of reaching financial and creative success. How it is that amateurism has become a negative term, I can only guess. Our world of over-education and perfectionism and ruthless careerism does not sufficiently appreciate the raw and perhaps sloppy works of the amare. We are much too success oriented for the amateur to be appreciated on the basis of loving his work alone.

But I love amateurism; and in the ways in my life that I am not the amateur I once was, I miss it. But I take solace; I will always be an amateur cartoonist. That is, unless I won’t be a cartoonist at all. That’s a dangerous thought; perhaps not an outrageous one, considering my doodling output has considerably slowed down. And my Photoshop drawing board, too, went the way of the old Macbook; to hell.

I still doodle; mostly to send ridiculous cards to friends of their adult faces lodged on their six month old bodies, or to put a note in my son’s briefcase with lavishly illustrated awards of recognition for him. Here and there, I doodle something to go with a written piece. Lately I’ve been writing more and I’ve been involved in some creative writing projects, and I enjoy playing with mixed media. But nothing beats a funny doodle with a biting punchline. Well, save for a funny doodle with a biting punchline and an amare flair, perhaps.

I did get an acceptance letter a few weeks after I submitted this compilation. But with a tuition price tag I can’t really afford, I felt a mix of excitement and disappointment. And then I moved on. It was wonderful to see it again at the Footsteps celebration that night, but then came the treat on top: up at the penthouse, where the dancing was supposed to happen, for the people whose shoes had spared their feet, someone sought me out. Someone downstairs, she said, wanted to buy a print. I took his business card and promised to be in touch. Did you know that a 1968 Francis Bacon painting was auctioned for $142 million last week? Who knows, my tuition may still get paid after all.

A final word about – and to – a living legend and cartooning inspiration: Bob Mankoff. Bob. Mr. Mankoff. Supposing you do see this. Mr. Mankoff– Bob, I am such a fan of yours. I would be honored and thrilled if we could have coffee. Don’t worry, I’m no ruthless cartooning manipulator. As I explained, I’m headed off to graze on other pastures. But if your people would call my people, and you could spare a half hour, I’d love to chat over coffee. I think I could learn a great deal from you and perhaps, who knows, you might even enjoy learning a thing or two from me.

Yours,
Frieda Vizel, amare

On the Before and After

 Posted by on March 11, 2013
Mar 112013
 
Before leaving and after leaving

This cartoon was commissioned; I was asked to draw a before and after with approximate instructions. When it was done, I immediately worried about the before. The family looks too warm and sane. Doesn’t the official “before” picture come with an abusive rabbi in a dark basement or some dysfunctional family which festers dark secrets behind closed doors?

I suppose, I thought, after my pencil had brought to life a crowded and safe home, for me this is how I remember it. A religious childhood home can be safe, and warm and rich with tradition and it can still be stifling and oppressive and limited. It’s what makes leaving so damn hard.

Most of the time the journey from Hasidism out is depicted in a before and after template, the before picture consisting of a droopy nosed Hasid in a wild beard and a bride in frightening eighties wedding gown and hair that stands as wide as the shoulder pads. The after picture is glorified by a full shave, a target tshirt, the dippity do from the payos now in the hair. All of it, the critics say, very superficial.

So I took it upon myself to conduct a longitudinal survey with forty samples and find out what their before and after is like in words. The scientific approach behind it was to post the question on facebook and ask people to describe their before and after. The first thing the study proved is that OTDs are a group of wise guys – which we knew already. And more seriously, and interestingly, that for most people the journey of before and after is the process of embracing individuality; tearing yourself out of a strong communal setting that leaves little room for the individual and making something of yourself. For many, it is not even a matter of rejecting religion. It is simply rejecting the groupthink. Here are some I got:

EM: Before I obsessed over making every minute of the day meaningful for the afterlife; now I make my life meaningful to me, in this world.

MW: Before, I was a cog in the wheel. Now I’m in the driver’s seat.

YM: Before I was Gd/religion centric and squished myself in wherever I could ; now I am me centric and fit in religion wherever it enhances my life.

CCN: Before I my kids were only nachas machines and ways for me to serve an unknown God, spending my time not with them but trying to appease God; now I actually listen to them and do things with them “just because” without any goal.

AK: Before I was following them… now I follow my heart, my God, my תורה

SK: Before I did everything for the After, now I am undoing everything from the Before. (FV: lol!)

YS: Before, there was an after. (FV: and after?)

PS: Before I was “it”, now I am ME.

CS: Before I was humanoid and annoyed… I’ve since joined the humans, and now my life is enjoyed and amusing.

CW: Before I lied to and hid from my children, now we are working together to embrace an honest future.

Fred MacDowell: Before I liked cookies. Now I bake cookies. (FV: for this before an after we do actually need a picture.)

AB: Before my life belonged to others. Now, it belongs to me.

AB: Before I spent all my time delving into the gemara. Now I spend it on Facebook.

Ha ha. You gotta admit, it’s the (after) life!

 

True Story

 Posted by on December 7, 2012
Dec 072012
 

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This “True Story” is the result of about twenty hours of work and some very misguided ideas about my artistic capabilities. I thought I’m a major illustrator there for a minute. A minute, no. The delusion lasted twenty butt-stuck-on-chair hours. In my mind it was hilarious. It isn’t.

Well, I kinda could say that scenes of changing clothing in public places always fluctuate between the very funny and the very miserable. I know all too well. I titled it “True Story” because I’ve seen with my own eyes as these things happen, although I’ll be dead in a shpitzle before I’ll admit that it was me I saw it happen to.

Such awkward dress changes happen because it’s the only way those restricted to the religious code of dress can wear hiking pants on a trail or a comfortable dress for a hot day in the city. When we are still officially in the fold, we are confronted with one of two options: dress religiously in a way that are completely uncomfortable in, or humiliate ourselves by pulling on tights and shirts and wigs in the back of taxis and behind poles in the subway and in public restrooms and emerge in civilized society entirely “normal”.

Why is the first option so bad? Why couldn’t I put up with just wearing whatever I wore as a religious woman and face the world as I am? Well, I know some women – proud, gorgeous, self-confident shpitzle ladies – who do it all the time. They are savvy and smart, and their posture says it all. Unfortunately, not all of us are endowed with these traits. Some of us cave to social pressure more than others. Some of us take on hobbies that require more specific kinds of clothing. Some of us also want to feel that their clothing represents how they see themselves. When I wore the pious clothing, I was treated in a way I felt wasn’t me, like I was a pious nun without a sinful thought. What an insult. I  also felt talked down to all the time. If, wearing a Shtrasser’s suit and Gucci tichel I would say to the lady next to me on the Metro North “the creme brulee in Gordan Ramsy’s cookbook is a must try”, she would, instead of thinking about trying the damned thing, look real hard at me and then say “for a Hasidic woman you seem very open minded. Your peers aren’t like this. I can tell you are very open-minded, I can tell”. Pardon me, but if you need an open mind to know about good crème brulee then you’re not using the right recipe.

I’ll never forget that time a headgear disappeared and a wig appeared on my head on the way from Monroe to NYC. I remember walking in Manhattan, plastic hairs sexily flapping in the wind, when I was stopped for directions. It was the first time in my life anyone in the city ever asked me directions. No one, I noticed, ever asked for information when I was in tribal gear. Could it be that it had just been my luck that no one stopped me until now, or was it that now that I looked like everyone else people treated me like a regular genius who has the capacity to comprehend the Theory of Uptown and Downtown? I say it was probably the latter.

It’s clear that clothing is a lot more than fashion. It is a representation of who we are, who we want to be, what we stand for and what we believe. It is important, as much to non-religious people as to religious people. Those caught between worlds are left torn in both directions.

I get very enraged when people call the dress switcheroo hypocritical. I’ve often heard that “changing what you wear in secret is hypocritical. If this is who you are stop hiding, or don’t do it.” That kind of either/or black and white thinking is so insensitive to the nuances of a complex situation some of us are in. There is nothing hypocritical in trying to exercise a little freedom when we can. Hypocrisy means being duplicitous inside. But when we are sure of who we are inside but we are forced to look like someone else, wearing what you really want to once in a while is a creative way of making a small world fit.

ON a different note: I came across in my research this very interesting description of a near similar scene, from Hilary Nussbaum chronicling Warsaw c. 1881:

It was not easy at the beginning for those European-dressed ladies to go out and make their way unscathed through Jewish [traditionally-dressed] districts. They were met each time with hissing, pointing fingers, laughter, jibes, name-calling, threats, and curses, such that many of them would leave the house only in the evening […] with a hat wrapped up and with other articles of toilet, and […] at a prearranged entrance to a street forbidden to Jews, the lady would change her clothes.

One could say there’s a mesorah for changing clothes in public places!

On women shaving all their hair

 Posted by on October 2, 2012
Oct 022012
 
An Hasidic woman shaving a married woman's head

How can you cartoon about shaving? You have to. Because without some humor to lighten the subject, it’s hard for me to go there. Shaving my head was one of my most humiliating and hurtful experiences I went through as a chasidic woman. Before I got married, in our cart at the hardware store of china dishes and cutlery and hooks and potpourri, we placed a Braun electric shaver for me. Every month I plugged the shaver into the socket near the mirror, flipped on the black switch, and beginning from my forehead over to the back of my neck, held the vibrating machine at my soft little hairs as it fell to the side, the floor, into the bowl, down my back. Where I had shaved, my scalp showed itself in pale white, dotted with dark roots. When I was done, I was bald. I collected all of my hair and tossed it into the toilet and flushed.

I did this every month for years.

It wasn’t always so hard. At first I didn’t think about it much. I have only a very vague recollection of the first time my hair was shaved – by my mother on the morning after my wedding at eighteen, and not much more comes to mind of the first year. The whole ordeal was insignificant at a time of such tremendous life change; of starting to live with a man I didn’t yet know. I’d also been a tomboy growing up, and I was glad to get rid of my frizzy responsibility on my head. Every married woman shaved, and it was a prerequisite to marriage, a price I was willing to pay. But as the years went by and I turned twenty, twenty one, became a mother, matured and grew into myself, I no longer thought marriage was contingent on this tradition. I no longer felt hair was simply a messy mane. I no longer wanted to rub Panteen on my shaven, itchy head every night. I was a woman, and I ached to put a comb through my hair, to watch it fall softly to my shoulders, to feel dignified and feminine. I wanted to make decisions about my own body.

But still, I shaved. Every month. In Kiryas Joel, it can be almost impossible to hide growing hair, and without the support of the husband, entirely impossible. A hair sticking out of the turban, a neighbor noticing, a mikvah lady asking questions, a husband tell-tailing. I tried to rebel. I didn’t just take it lying down. But when a few months passed and my hair began growing so long it no longer stood straight but tilted over as if to bow to my forehead, the start of blonde bangs, word got out. One day, out of the blue, the phone in my kitchen rang, a religious woman sent by the leadership on the other end of the line. It was the phone call I dreaded all this time.

“I was sent to go down to your house and check if your head is completely shaven” she said in Hungarian Yiddish “so we can know that your tzadikl, your son, can be in cheydar. We cannot accept your neshamala into cheydar until you’ve done what every holy Jewish woman should do, so I’d like to come to your house as soon as possible.” Then she told me about the many blessings that will come to me for this great mitzvah, and she reminded me of the illnesses and accidents that come from women like me who cannot resist their feminine yetzer horah. She talked about cancer and recent tragedies and said that I never know if God had not sent them because of my sins.

I hung up the phone and felt shaken, my knees pulsing. She wanted to come to my home. She wanted to check under my turban. She wanted to see my bald head.

I had to let her. What choice did I have? I believed in none of what she said and thought her premise ludicrous. But banning my son from their school was a sure-way of forcing me to comply. My toddler, moping around on the kitchen floor, pulling on my duster, blabbling in Yiddish, needed to go to school. I applied to a different small privately run school in the community, but they returned a message through a relative that they are unfortunately unable to accept my son, pursuant to instructions from community leaders. I had no choice. I wasn’t prepared to take radical action like fleeing the community without money, a job, a school for my child, a degree or even a drivers license (women are not allowed to drive). I knew much better than to be impulsive in my very volatile situation. I stood to lose custody of my child, for heavens sake, if I ignited the community’s wrath. I had no legal support, no emotional support, no people behind me, no alternative cheyder, no way to stick up for myself. I was just me, a Chasidish lady among my Chasidish peers. I was helpless.

So one night I took out the shaver again, flipped the switch, and held it under my new side-part. I watched myself in the mirror. I was no longer a child bride. I had become a woman with opinions, ideas, aspirations and self-respect. I did not want to shave, I abhorred the control others had over my body. But I had to do it.

As I shaved from end to end over my scalp, tears streaked from my eyes and nose. When I was done I looked at my bald face in the mirror. And then I yelled. It was a scream that tore itself out of me in protest for every ounce of my dignity that was gone, for every hair of self-respect I cut away. For the fight I had lost, to our own. My grandmother was bald like this, in the war, because of the Nazis. I have her recordings of these memories, and the horror and pain of forcing a woman to shave is shocking. Yet we do it, to our own children, ourselves, our women. We should, they should, someone should know BETTER!

But no, the ritual continues to be enforced. I know women who continue to shave their heads against their will because they are too powerless to make decisions about their bodies. I don’t refer to women who believe in the ritual. I refer to those who don’t believe there’s value to it and don’t want to be bald. What are they to do? You may assume they simply need to be assertive, but do you realize that everything they have stands in the balance? Do you realize how at mercy of their Hasidic husbands and rabbis they are?

For me, this episode made me more determined in the long journey to take back control over my life and my child, earn a degree, save money, get a drivers license, find a good school for my son. But it left a very deep impression on me — about how vulnerable mothers in the community are. I learned that women who become mothers at a young age are essentially powerless, because anything they try to do puts the children in the balance. To me, shaving embodies the enormous power the community has to make its rebellious women naked, humiliated, powerless and defenseless. I feel strongly that more needs to be done to help the women who want different things for themselves and their children.

I don’t shave anymore but it still hurts, a scar that refuses to heal.

On Leaving

 Posted by on June 21, 2012
Jun 212012
 
Leaving Brooklyn? No Vey!

Leaving Brooklyn

Satmar leaders often told me: “We demand that you follow the rules. If you don’t like our rules then you have a choice. You can leave.”

Oh?!

Really? How exactly can I leave, what with my young child deep in the system’s throes, how?

Officially, those who don’t comply can leave. After all, they’ll all say, the community strives to maintain utmost purity in its schools and in its homes and does not want my or your or anyone’s filthy ideas about individuality or modernity or cross-country cycling (that’s mine) infiltrating their community. But the truth is that they don’t want you to leave either; they aggressively don’t want you to leave. That’s because the Hasidic community is a social construct in which one departure pulls a thread out of the whole fabric of the community. A man or woman who leaves implicates the sibling’s marital prospects, the “poor abandoned spouse”, the “grieving parents”, quite often young children who are on the threshold of two worlds, and all the other neighbors, friends, or unrelated gawkers who may be led to think or take action as a result.

If you are happy in the community, good for you. But if you are unhappy, the reality is sadly very grim. Leaving it is a journey through hell via the extended scenic route.

The community is set up like an onion; layers upon layers that keep you in the system in various ways, and oh, how it can make you cry. You are sewn into its fibers by relations to friends and family you love; you have no one else. You are married before you are old enough to make a choice, and then tied to a spouse and soon children. You have little vocational training; no financial headstart, no education or personal development, no practical world knowledge, a language barrier and a cultural barrier and the barriers just piled so thick, to slice through them you weep. You are so bred into the system psychologically and emotionally, you may not be able to leave even when all logistical boundaries have been removed.

The result is that even if you feel you outgrew the community and the community oppresses you, judges you, hurts you, controls you, bleeds you and robs your spunky spirit and crazy opinions, you may not be able to imagine yourself anywhere else. You may not hope to leave. You may not be able to part with kin and kind. The bind that this creates is a double life fraught with conflict and restrictions too painful to imagine. There’s a growing underground community of double lifers who are finding support and ideas among each other. I know some of them to be  incredibly unique, often gifted and supremely talented, with ideas and interests that sets them apart from any mainstream culture. They are resigned to go through hundreds of rituals a day that have no meaning to them and keep secrets from loved ones, because their loved ones cannot accept their truth.

And if you want to leave, if you cannot bear another minute of no freedom, intimidation and raising children against your beliefs, then slather your skin with lots of protection, because hell’s rays blister to the bottom of the soul. Leaders may tell you to go and good riddance, but they will also tell you that they will do all they can to make your life miserable. If you are a parent, the children will be pawns through which they will not let you go. I know this because I’ve been through it. They will tell you they will ensure that your children will be barred from every frum school, that your spouse will be “saved” from you and your marriage torn, that you will have to fight a losing custody battle in which you will be vastly outdone in power, support and money. That you will be ostracized, isolated, defamed and lonely. They will tell you that while you can make a choice, your children cannot be part of that choice. After all, you made a commitment upon marriage (at puberty; when you may have otherwise made a commitment to move to the moon and cure your acne) to raise your children Hasidic. So why, go, go, good riddance, leave your children you carried in your womb and nestled on your breast and go wander the world alone. It’s what you want, isn’t it? Now why aren’t you going yet? It’s a choice, a choice!

Oh?! Oh no, that’s no choice. If any parental tie is torn to bloody shreds when we “can choose” to leave, then NO Mister Rabbi, we don’t have a choice. When our children will be allowed to have relationships with both parents, when children won’t be turned against the leaving parent, that’s when we’ll have a choice. When family won’t close their doors on their own, when a mother won’t have to fight tooth and nail to retain custody of her children, that’s when we’ll have a choice.

The reality is a horrible nightmare of power and control that cruelly attacks anyone who threatens the system. Those inside who are content may not understand the need to leave or the pain one goes through when stuck in a system they want out of, and in that way, they are complicit in the ostracizing, gossiping and investing money in fighting the leaver.

My only solace is that the present situation will improve, that leaving will become easier. It simply has to. Footsteps, an organization aimed to helping those who leave, is growing its resources for parents. There’s also a new organization called “Unchained at Last”, for women in particular. There’s increased social support for those who are in the process of making this decision, online especially. Perry Reich brought national media attention to this issue when she went on Dr. Phil about her own custody battle. Some Hasidic parents are finding out that it is alright not to fight their OTD ex; it is best for the children for the parents amicable. And more awareness and writing from those on the other side, who have survived this nightmare and managed to resettle and salvage their cherished bonds, gives hope to those who want the same.

And there’s the human spirit and our loved ones. We can only hold on to that and keep going, keep going, keep going, until hell can’t hurt us anymore.

On Hasidic Women

 Posted by on May 25, 2012
May 252012
 

 Stormtroopers coming to liberate chasidic women from cultural oppression

Recently, Hasidic women became the subject of much heated debate after a fluffy little article by a Chabad woman named Chaya sparked inter-web-wide conversations. Let me precede by saying that I am absolutely qualified to add to the conversation since I am NOT a chabad woman and NOT a baales tshuva (yet) and NOT even Satmar (anymore). And because I have many siblings and friends who are true, authentic, Satmar Hasidic women.

What troubled me about these recent conversations was the absence of a single Satmar woman’s voice. We heard Deborah Feldman, who was Satmar in one of her pre-celebrity incarnations, and I am writing, having been Satmar without any celebrity incarnations, but Satmar women themselves said nothing. Can a Chaya from Satmar speak up? I assume the task of trying to explain what drives a Satmar woman feels impossible to any one of them. And Satmar women too seem to have resigned to the reality that the outside world just doesn’t get them.

It is indeed true that Satmar women shave their heads. Yes, indeed they are taught not to use birth control. Yes, they are relegated to the women’s section and unwelcome at male events. They are required to dress to the inch of the law of the town, and they do not choose their husbands. They send their underwear to the rabbi. They are not allowed to drive.

It is a life of law and limits for a Satmar woman.

But what do Satmar women say about these rituals? How do Hasidic women keep sending off underwear while they wait for the secular media to swoop in and liberate them? Can we try to understand what compels a Hasidic woman to adhere to these rituals and pass it on to her children?

Hasidic women live in a radically different culture than the secular American culture, and their world is more complicated and nuanced than the mere sum of these rituals. Things that seem strange and unjust to outsiders are natural and non-issues to Satmar women. A combination of indoctrination and very little exposure to different ideas makes for a community of women who themselves know only a world of motherhood and piety. They invest themselves in the home and find power and passion within the framework of their available religious outlets.

As a woman’s history student myself (yes, baby!), I often, in my studies, come across scenarios of women who voluntarily took upon themselves the most extreme stringency of religion. Nuns who fasted for days or Indian widows who jumped into the fire; these are extreme examples of women who embraced their religious, patriarchal setting and found passion and power within it. They did not want to be liberated.

In Hasidic culture, most women embrace their lifestyle and expand on the rules and regulations. Many women WANT to have many babies even while rabbis increasingly dispense birth control. These women direct their energy towards their children because it’s a community that invests itself towards its future generations, and because women find motherhood to be their only venue to express their passion and interest. And many find joy in these things. A woman without a baby will sit among her friends conspicuously childless, feeling as empty and misplaced as a secular woman without a career. A good friend of mine recently visited a rabbi for a blessing of a child, after five children and three years without another pregnancy.

When I was Hasidic, the women were the ones who were often the imposers of the law: the Hasidic women washed my back in the mikvah and commented on the length of my shaven hair; the women criticized my open neckline or sent me letters in the mail about my deviances; the women encouraged new rules to enhance community purity and stringencies.

Of course, as I became disenchanted and increasingly frustrated with the Hasidic lifestyle, I no longer understood the passion or conviction Hasidic women find in their lifestyle. I was no longer able to shave my head or send my underwear in the most nonchalant way. I began to experience everything that was previously sacred and natural as oppressive and strange.

Hasidic women may be content to spend their day washing dirty faces, rocking the baby carriage, preparing flowers for the holiday, washing the floors until the apartment smells of Mr. Clean and Challah and dressing the family in their holiday best. Perhaps in the midst of all this they also check their vagina for blood. It’s five seconds of their day and it’s hardly what they think about when they go to sleep at night.

The same experiences can feel suffocating and outrageous to Deborah Feldman and others like her who are on the fringe or who already left. Because once someone does not want to belong to the community, once someone chooses another lifestyle, there is hardly a way out. With a cloistered community that believes in the ultimate law, the community rears its ugly head at those that test its limits. That’s an ugly side many content Satmar women who toe the line never know, and I didn’t know until I began to ask for more myself.

We can decry Satmar women’s oppression and demand their liberation. But we’ll be missing the point. Satmar women don’t want to be saved. But problems exist in the community that need to be addressed. Increasing awareness and resources for Hasidic victims of domestic violence or women (and men!) who want to leave are some of the ways we can have a conversation about the problems in the Hasidic community without narrowly judging a people from the prism of our own culture.