[Today – the 12th of July – I celebrate my fourth anniversary of leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. I have never written before about my story in detail. If I ever decide to publish a memoir of my journey, this is what a first draft of some chapters might look like.
Image: my last day in yeshiva]
It was motzei shabbos (Saturday evening) the 24th of Tamuz, 5775 years to what I now knew was not the creation of the universe. Sahbbos had just gone out and the narrow yeshiva dormitory corridors were abustle with boys readying themselves for the new week of study to come. I was also getting ready, but for something of an entirely different nature – for something far more consequential.
The long shabbos afternoons of the summer always gave me plenty of time to think. And when I thought I introspected and when I introspected I discovered uncomfortable truths. It had been over three months now since I admitted to myself that I didn’t believe that Orthodox Judaism was true, but since then I’ve been hanging in limbo. I was no longer a believer in any meaningful sense of the word, but I was still a fully practising orthodox Jew and, by appearance, even a chassidic Jew – although I had given up any internal adherence to chassidism two years earlier.
It is one thing to lose your faith intellectually – not that that was easy: it took years and years of torturous and guilt-ridden thoughts to seriously question the religion of my upbringing. It took further time to explicitly admit to myself that I am not a believer. But even after that confession nothing changed in my outward practice. Practising orthodox Judaism, I discovered, was not really a matter of faith or conviction, but of deeply ingrained habit. It was a way of life – an exclusive way of life. What would it even mean to not make a blessing before eating? How does one even go about putting non-kosher food in their mouth? These were things that I could not comprehend even after losing my faith. All my life I lived a specific lifestyle with a specific set of rules and norms. I didn’t know of any other way to live. I have never seen anyone living differently. Even the thought induced a shudder through my body.
But this is the blessing of shabbos: not being able to do any work or to get anything done, you are forced to reckon with yourself and confront those personal inconsistencies that you’d rather leave undug. And so I thought. I thought about my future and about my prospects. They looked grim. I could not see myself living my life as an Orthodox Jew in an Orthodox Jewish community. It was not the personal practice that bothered me, but the idea of living a closeted life, not being able to be open about my beliefs. I knew that the instance that my heresies became known would be the end of my social life. No one would want to be seen talking with me, I would have no marriage prospects and the yeshiva would most definitely kick me out.
Even as things were, my social and marital prospects were very dire. No one knew yet at that point that I am not a believer. But people suspected that something fishy was going on. Rumours were flying around in yeshiva and people would quote me saying things bad enough to classify me as someone with heretical leanings, if not as an outright heretic. The chassidic boys in yeshiva attached to me the title “oifgeklerte”. To be ‘oifgeklert’ is to be enlightened, but not in a good way.
The word ‘oifgeklert’ entered the Yiddish lexicon from the German ‘aufklärung’, which, in chassidic communities – still traumatised from the haskalah and the havoc it wrought on traditional orthodox Jewry – came to symbolise everything that is bad with freethinking and rationalism. The questions that I asked and my sceptical freethinking – even though I was careful not to be outright heretical publicly – were enough to give me the reputation of an oifegeklerte. Consequently, the pious boys would keep away from me. Being oifegeklert also meant that I was radioactive from a shidduch (match-making) perspective, as no respectable parents would risk giving me their daughter in marriage. How could they rely on me to give them pious and chassidic grandchildren?
The option of continuing on as I had done over the last three months was therefore unsustainable. But what was the other option? By then I had already been in contact with people outside of the community to discuss the possibility of leaving. Until not much earlier I didn’t know anyone who was not an ultra-orthodox Jew. I had discovered the internet in March of that year and immediately started searching for outside connections. I entered into Google every combination of the terms “Jewish heretic”,“ex-Orthodox Jew”, etc. and followed whatever results I got. At the time the ex-Ortohdox community in the UK was not yet well established and I got no local results. But I did get in touch with a New York based organisation called Footsteps and asked them for help.
Footsteps said that they have no overseas services. But I was desperate. I said that I would fly over to NY so that they can help me leave the orthodox world. When they asked if I had money to pay for the ticket, I said that I didn’t: as is the case with most chassidic bachelors, I was completely dependent on my parents, without any belongings of my own. The person on the other side of the phone apologised and was about to discontinue the call. But then she remembered something. She had heard of a new organisation in the UK called Mavar who were trying to do the same thing that they were doing in NY, but in the UK. They were quite new, she said, so they didn’t have a strong online presence, but that it is worth giving them a call.
By the time I was having this conversation with myself on this afternoon of shabbos parshas Pinchos (the specific weekly portion of the Torah read that week), I had already gotten in touch with Mavar. They had laid out for me all the options. We assumed that I’d be homeless once I left, so they were looking at finding temporary accommodation for me until I could find work and start renting my own place. I would also have to somehow catch up on high-school education, since I told them that I wanted to go to university. It all sounded very alien and foreign to me and I was scared.
Up until this point I had been waiting for a catalyst to bring about my breakaway. I now realised that I need to make it happen. I still had no clue how I was just going to get up and leave yeshiva. How was I going to inform my parents? My mentors? My friends? But on this shabbos afternoon I decided that the time is up and that I am going to start taking practical steps towards leaving. The first thing I was going to do was to stop observing Orthodox Judaism in my personal life.
The thought was frightening, in fact, terrifying. This was going to be the most consequential decision I have ever made in my life. I was going to take all my hypothetical, theoretical and intellectual heresies and actualise them in the real, practical world. Thoughts can always be reversed and one can just have a change of heart about things. But actions, we were taught, are permanent. They leave a permanent stain on one’s soul, a stain that cannot be removed even through repentance.
Of course I no longer believed in souls and sin. But that was all theoretical. Twenty years of indoctrination have left me trembling and shivering of the thought of deliberately sinning. I had never done this before. To be sure, I wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. Of course I had occasionally been late to prayer, made a blessing without intention, recounted a juicy item of gossip; but never before had I sinned because I wanted to. Never before had I sinned for the sake of sinning, for the sake of rebelling.
But this terror that I now felt confirmed to me the importance of my decision. Why was I so scared? It had been months since I believed. I knew that there was no God out there who was going to care about my transgressions. So whom was I so afraid of? This fear was purely psychological and irrational. It was a result of brainwashing and I knew that no amount of theorising would get rid of it. The only way to get rid of it was to negate it by acting against it. I needed to go out there and transgress, or I would forever be held back by fear.
There was also another reason for my fear – a more rational one. This decision was going to confirm my breakaway once and for all. This was the first practical step towards physically leaving the community. I knew that by doing this I am stepping out onto an unknown and treacherous journey, the destination of which was utterly unknown and mysterious. From my recent online research I had learned that the suicide rate in the “off the derech” (orthodox apostate) community is really high, which is unsurprising given the shunning, the shame and the struggle with making it in a world that has been consciously alienated and otherised in all of our years of upbringing and education. There was no guarantee that my journey will be any more successful. I too was going to have to make it in a world that I have never been allowed so much as a peak into; where I have no relatives, friends, or even acquaintances; that has been vilified and portrayed in the darkest and most morally corrupt colours throughout my life; that functions by radically different norms, values and rules, which I have never learnt to make sense of. A terrifying prospect indeed. But I had made up my mind.
That night – it was well past midnight – I lay down to sleep. I did not say the Krishma (bed-time prayer). For all my life – ever since I could utter my earliest words – saying the Krishma was part of going to bed. No matter how tired I was, no matter how drunk I was (if it was the evening of Purim), there was no going to bed before saying it. It is the prayer in which one asserts the oneness of God as the last thought of the day. You are not meant to talk afterwards, so as to fall asleep with thoughts of the Almighty in your mind. In it you also ask for God’s protection for when your soul is gone and your dreams take over.
Nighttime is scary and mystical time. Your soul leaves your body and there is no guarantee that it will be returned to you in the morning. The angel of death and his demons roam about freely and the impure powers rule. In the Krishma you pray that God and his good angels protect you from them. That night I had made a pact with the impure powers. I no longer needed the good angels to protect me from them. I peacefully slept through the night.
The sun was shining through the thin curtains of my room in the yeshiva dormitory. It was the morning of Sunday the 12th of July 2015. That day probably also had a Hebrew date associated with it. But not for me. From that day on it would be the Gregorian calendar that dictated my dates.
I woke up unusually peacefully. A “normal” morning would involve quickly checking the clock to see how much time is left until the deadline for the morning Krishma. One needs to wake up to God, just like one goes to sleep with God. In the morning there’s a deadline – a certain number of hours after sunrise – by when one needs to have said the morning Krishma. Usually, this requirement would give me stress in the mornings, especially after a sleep-in. But this morning I was free from that.
Although I could’ve rolled back into bed today, not having to get up and prepare myself for the Krishma, I chose to get up. I didn’t want to oversleep the deadline – which has happened to me several times in the past and after which I would always carry the guilt and repent – I wanted to miss it. I was going to stand there ready, looking at the clock as the deadline approaches and not say the Krishma. It felt naughty. It felt good.
I have never said the Krishma since.
The life of an Orthodox Jew is dictated by endless rules and laws. These affect the most minute and intimate parts of your body and life. There are rules for everything: how you get dressed, how you eat, even how you go to the toilet. During millennia of isolation and prevention of taking part in worldly affairs, the Jewish community had created its own fantasy world, which ran according to its own rules; where none of the injustices of the world existed and where things made sense.
Every morning I would get dressed according to a prescribed halachic-kabbalistic formula: shirt first – right sleeve then left sleeve – buttoned up right upon left. Then came the yellow tzitzit on top of my shirt. Next up the trousers – right leg before the left. Right sock, left sock. Right foot slipped into the right shoe, followed by the left. Left shoelaces tied, followed by the right.
This order is intentional and specific. Hundreds of pages and books are written about this topic alone and every part of it has a reason. You see, had I been right-handed, then I would tie my right shoelaces before the left. Being left-handed changed that, although it didn’t change the order of sleeves and trouser-legs: those were still right first, then left.
This pattern had been so entrenched in my dress routine, that it was now just habit. I wanted to unlearn this habit. Not that there is anything wrong with tying one’s shoes one way rather than another, but I knew that if I do not consciously uproot this habit then I will forever be a slave to my past. I was going to retrain myself and my habits back to neutrality and then let nature dictate my behaviour. That morning I followed the formula exactly in reverse.
The tefillin are a pair of leather boxes and straps that the Orthodox Jewish male fastens on his forehead and arms daily. Failing to put them on is not just the passive failure to fulfil a commandment; it also affects you on a physiological level. The Talmud says that “a scalp that does not wear tefillin is amongst those who sin with their body”. Failing to put on the daily tefillin is akin to committing an active sin with your body. Consequently, the daily laying of tefillin has become a hallmark of observance. You know that one is a serious sinner when one no longer puts on tefillin. That was me that day and from that day on.
But I had to be careful. Following the rumours and suspicions about me that were making the rounds in yeshiva, boys would occasionally go into my cupboard and sift through my private belongings to see if they can find any evidence of contraband. For instance, there was a rumour going around that I was reading heretical books (think, say, a book about evolution). After going through my belongings all that was found was a book on the history of British monarchs – I was trying to familiarise myself with British history that I had never learnt in cheider (Jewish primary school). It wasn’t quite what they were looking for. But it was bad enough. After all, why is a chassidic boy reading about goyishe (non-Jewish) rulers in yeshiva? Moreover, it had pictures of women in it, God forbid!
There is a story that was told about this boy in the Volozhin yeshiva of pre-war Lithuania. Rumours had been going around that he had fallen prey to the secularising currents of the haskalah and that he was no longer observant. His friends came up with a way to verify this. They stuffed tissues into his tefillin case and waited. A couple of days passed and they checked the case. The tissues were still there untouched. This was proof that the boy had not been laying his tefilling and he was expelled from yeshiva.
Knowing that people were going through my personal belongings I feared that they would subject me to a similar test. I therefore checked my tefillin case everyday, ready to remove any tissues that would be put there. I never found any, but I had to be cautious.
As the days passed by I started looking for more active opportunities to transgress. Yes, I haven’t been saying the Krishma, praying, or laying tefillin, but I wanted something more. I wanted to commit as many sins as possible to get rid of the aversion, fear and disgust associated with these acts. I wanted to liberate myself from any psychological barriers and phobias. But how many opportunities for sin are there in yeshiva? I had to get creative.
One morning whilst eating my cereal at breakfast I had an idea. I poured some milk into a plastic cup and took it back to my room. That day, meat was served for lunch. Immediately after eating, with some meat still stuck between my teeth, I hurried back to my room and gulped down the cup of milk. This was a sin, since eating meat and milk is forbidden. In fact, our custom was to wait six full hours after eating meat before consuming any milky products. And here I washed out my meaty mouth with milk!
During this week I also started exploring my sexuality. But before I could get about doing that I had to learn what that was. You see, sex and sexuality does not exist in the chassidic community – not in any acknowledged form anyway. Chassidic Yiddish doesn’t even have words for sex, intimacy, or the sexual organs. All of these concepts are referred to in euphemistic Hebrew terms, intended for scholarly and Talmudic use. The penis is referred to as “the limb”, or “the covenant”; the vagina is “that place”, or “the nakedness”; the act of sex is “activity of the bed” – no specifications were ever given for us bachelors as to what this “activity” consists of.
The chassidic boy is required to keep his thoughts pure at all hours of the day. From immediately after our barmitzvahs at the age of thirteen, we kept on being reminded of this. It was never quite specified what exactly “impure thoughts” were, but we knew that it had something to do with looking at, or thinking of, women. My prepubescent self did not quite understand why women were impure, but it made sense. After all, women are second-class members of the community, being denied any community leadership roles and being placed behind partitions in the synagogue. Perhaps there was something inherently impure about them?
Then odd things would start happening to me. I would walk to yeshiva, eyes down as instructed, and from the corner of my eye something would catch my attention. I would try ignoring it and diverting my thoughts to the Talmudic topic that we had been covering that week. But this mysterious pull was stronger than my will to keep my eyes pure. I would eventually give in and lift my head just to be confronted with a huge scantily-clad female model on a billboard. Nothing else on the street interested me, only the source of impurity.
Why? What is wrong with me that out of everything that I can look at, it is exactly the impure woman that I am attracted to?
And then I felt it in my pants.
I had long made the connection between impurity, women and my penis. The earliest memories that I have of my granddad is him catching me itching my crotch through my trousers. With a stern look and a serious voice he told me, “Yitzchok, a Jewish boy does not touch himself there”.
“Why?” I asked naively.
“A Jewish boy doesn’t ask why. A Jewish boy listens and obeys.”
Never since did I touch my penis. Not until this week – my week of sin.
Finally now was the time to explore that part of my body too. But where to begin?
Next time I went online I brought up the Wikipedia entry on “penis”. From there I was led to “masturbation”. And so it was one afternoon that I found myself heading to one of the public toilets in yeshiva to put my hands to the test for the first time. I was twenty years old.
I had not yet had the chance to learn about the abundance of digital stimulants online, nor did I have anything stored in my imagination to fall back on. It was just my two hands and I. The effort was arduous and did not immediately yield the desired results. It would be some time before I perfected the craft. I will spare you the details.
It was Friday evening of the 17th of July. The sun was about to set. Everywhere there is rushing and hurrying. Chassidic boys are running, their wet peyos (side locks), fresh out of the mikve (ritual bath), dripping over their shiny silk bekitches. Non-chassidic boys, freshly clean-shaven, are helping each other secure their colourful ties around their necks. Freshness and purity is in the air.
As far back as I can remember, Friday evening was my favourite time of the week by far. The radical transition between hectic Friday and serene shabbos that occurs as the sun sets, always had a magical climactic effect on me. As soon as shabbos arrived everything came to a sudden standstill. Whatever has been done was done, and what was still unfinished would have to wait until tomorrow evening to be continued with. For now, everything was as if it was completed. “When shabbos arrives,” the Talmud says, “rest as if all your work had been done”. And that’s exactly how it felt every single week.
Shabbos was even more beautiful in yeshiva . At the time designated for the evening prayer to begin, the beis midrash (study hall) was packed wall-to-wall with boys dressed in their finest, ready to welcome in the shabbos with prayer and song. At no time during the week was the beis midrash so full and at no time during the week was everyone so bright, cheerful and fresh.
The Friday evening prayer is the most beautiful of all prayer sessions: it is concise, collaborative and full of songs. The pinnacle is reached just before the silent Amidah (standing prayer), when the whole community erupts in the melodious tune to the words of “Veshomru” (“they shall observe [the Sabbath]”). The minute or so during which the whole community sings this melody in unison was without a doubt my weekly highlight. I never got tired from participating in it. It gave me goosebumps every single week. Even when my prayer attendance was lax, I never missed a veshomru. If I was late to the Friday evening prayer, I was never late enough to miss it. That is, never until now.
This week was different.
This week was going to be the first shabbos of my life that I would not observe. Shabbos is a covenant between God and His people and I was eager to break this covenant. This week, instead of rushing to the beis midrash to catch the veshomru, I headed to the toilet and pulled out a smartphone.
Smartphones are strictly forbidden in yeshiva, but I had been using one for the last three months. What made this time different is that I was using it on shabbos. Use of any electrical devices on shabbos is strictly forbidden in Orthodox Judaism. This was never cumbersome or a bother. To the contrary, I cherished the rest and isolation of shabbos. But in this, my week of sin, shabbos had to be desecrated. In later years I would learn to synthesise shabbos observance with my new secular lifestyle. But for now it had to be destroyed before any thought of rebuilding could be considered.
And so there I was locked up and hidden. I was writing an email to JM – an individual who had left the community several years previously. I shared with him my situation and asked him for advice. As I am sitting there and writing I can hear the sound of harmonious prayer emanating from the prayer hall. At that point I knew that there is something that the whole community is having right now that I no longer have. Suddenly I was alone, left behind in the mundaneness of the week. My friends and the whole community are in a different metaphysical plane – the plane of shabbos – and I have chosen to stay behind.
The Torah already warns of those desecrating the shabbos, “Their soul will be cut off from their people.”
I had no way of knowing how lonely and isolating being cut off from my people would be.
Saturday morning, the 18th of July. My roommates have just left the room to join the long shabbos morning prayer. I put on my bekitche and fasten the gartel (belt). After locking the door to make sure that nobody comes in unexpectedly, I grab my wallet and push it deep inside one of my pockets. I check to make sure that no bulge is visible and make my way out of the yeshiva building.
The streets of the Jewish neighbourhood are deserted. The men are in the synagogues and the women are looking after the children at home. After a ten minute walk the quiet Jewish streets fade away and I can start to feel the noise and pollution of the city centre. I head directly to the big Tesco at the centre of the shopping mall.
There are no Jews around, as shopping on the shabbos is strictly forbidden. I can ease my tension; no further precautions are needed here. I head directly to the food section and pick out a ham sandwich.
It didn’t have to be ham, but it had to be made of pork. Pork is a food item that any good Jew would not only refuse to eat, but be disgusted even by the thought of it. I was going to try it. Not wanting to call attention to the odd sight of a chassidic Jew – peyos, beard and all – buying a ham sandwich, I used the self-checkout and paid for my purchase.
The Jewish mind, we were taught, is pure and clear. The reason that only the Jew acknowledges the truth and glory of the Jewish faith is because he keeps his mind and thoughts clean. A goy’s (non-Jew’s) mind is farshtopped (blocked) because he fills his belly with impure and non-kosher food. Jews are obsessively careful when it comes to the kosher status of their food consumption because they know that even a microscopic particle of non-kosher food can contaminate their mind and stop them from thinking straight.
I no longer bought in to that. The ham looked healthy. I was going to eat it.
And so I locked myself, once again, in the toilet of Tesco. I opened up the packaging and took a bite. It felt strange and tasted odd. But it is not good taste that I was after now. I finished the sandwich, letting it dull my feelings of disgust. I needed every bit of desensitisation, for there were many more ham sandwiches to be consumed in the days and years to come.
Perhaps the pork was numbing me from experiencing the severity of the sin; from letting my inner holy spark cry out in protest? Perhaps it was just cognitive-behavioural therapy, getting rid of irrational disgust and phobia?
It didn’t really matter.
I headed back to yeshiva. My week of sin had concluded. I had left Orthodox Judaism. I never looked back.