Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

Why I’m Not a Fan of Memoirs About Leaving Religious Life

First things first, the winner of the giveaway for a copy of Tamar Ansh’s new Passover cookbook for children is Keshet Star, who has great recipe for toffee bars her friend’s mom handed down to her.  Congrats!  I’ve sent you an email, so please respond within 24 hours so I can send you a copy.  

My friend Nina sent me a thought-provoking email last week.  She was reading a book in the “I left the clutches of Orthodox Judaism” genre, and wasn’t sure how she felt about it.  Should she applaud the author for articulating a painful experience?  Feel ashamed of Orthodox Jews behaving badly?  Do I or my friends ever read these memoirs?

With some regularity, there are books, articles and interviews that follow the path of someone who either didn’t find satisfaction within their religion (for the sake of this post, we’ll just stick to Orthodox Judaism) or were badly mistreated by those found within religious culture.  I see these stories pop up in my news feed from time to time, I hear them on the radio, I see links to them on Twitter.  The ones that I’ve read or heard seem to focus on deriding the seemingly strange or rigid aspects of the culture, focusing on the freedom a person feels by throwing off the shackles of religious fundamentalism.

Considering that I actively chose to become Orthodox, I am obviously looking at religious culture from a different angle.  Clearly, I found value and depth in living an Orthodox life, and so it pains me to hear (or read) it disparaged and mocked.  I always feel vaguely uneasy when another one flares up.  And when my friend sent me this thoughtful email, it gave me the opportunity to articulate why that is.

The thing that I object to most emotionally with the genre of “leaving the oppressive world of religious fundamentalism” memoirs is that they seem to take one person’s negative experience and with it, paint the entirety of Orthodoxy in a horrible light.  It conceals the beauty and wisdom of Judaism, and doesn’t acknowledge the tremendous generosity, warmth and support that I’ve found in many Orthodox communities.  And that just hurts.  It hurts that someone had a negative life experience within Orthodoxy.  It’s a shame when people don’t live up to the ideals of the Torah, and it’s painful and embarrassing when it happens.

But I just can’t support the drive to write a sensational memoir about it.  There are so many sides to complicated family situations, and by writing about just one person’s experience, it defames people without giving them a chance to speak, or to tell their side of the story.  It’s very problematic considering the laws of gossip and slander that Judaism lays out (which I think are brilliant, by the way).

The sad reality is that these kind of stories sell.  If I were to write my memoir, about how I came to Judaism, all the grappling and struggling I did to get to a point where I am happily baking muffins with my kids, slogging through potty training and in a wonderful marriage with a respectful husband, it would probably not even get picked up for publishing (well, assuming my writing was top-notch and all that).  There’s nothing juicy there.  People like juicy.

Anyone who has suffered abuse or trauma certainly deserves an abundance sympathy and love, and I completely understand the need to write about painful experiences as a form of catharsis.  I’ve been furiously writing in journals for years and years.  Culturally, there is a long and somewhat illustrious tradition of writing angry letters that are never sent.  There is so much good in getting out negative emotions, through writing, or therapy, or art.

But by publishing and promoting a story like this, it is effectively burning the bridge to that life, and to the people in it.  And burning bridges, while immensely appealing at times of emotional upheaval, deeply tempting when feeling the pain of abuse or the indignation of knowing that you were wronged, is a rather permanent thing.  It’s much harder to rebuild something from scratch than to just repair a broken structure.

I don’t think that we should pretend that living in Orthodox society is some utopia, and as Pop Chassid wrote this week, the more we acknowledge the flaws of religious society, the more we can feel empathy for those who left it.  But it does seem to me that there are far more negative depictions than positive out there, though it’s likely I’m hypersensitive to that.

It’s interesting to note that before I ever met anyone Orthodox, I had a very negative perception of Orthodoxy.  I thought “they” were all crazy bigots who were going to judge me (I obviously missed the irony in that opinion).   Thankfully, I was able to look past the stereotypes that I had been exposed to, and gave Orthodoxy a chance.  I do not regret my decision, even after coming in contact with Orthodox Jews who, shall we say, fall short of the Torah ideal.

What it boils down to is that most memoirs, biographies or articles should be taken with a grain of salt (mine included), as all writing is done through the lens of personal experience and bias.  I think there absolutely needs to be space for criticism and thus, growth, but constructive criticism is different than throwing an entire culture (or family) under the bus.

That’s my perspective; what do you think?  


34 thoughts on “Why I’m Not a Fan of Memoirs About Leaving Religious Life

  1. I think you should write a memoir! I want to know the details of being Baalei teshuva! I’m constantly thinking about it, but I don’t know what it’s like, so I feel like I can’t do it, or that I’ll be rejected.

    1. Maybe I will, someday when my children are grown. There’s a fascinating book I just finished (and that I’ll be reviewing after Pesach, IY”H), The Mountain Family, which traces an entire family’s progression to Yiddishkeit. I’m sure there have to be some other books about becoming a Ba’al Teshuvah. I think Matthue Roth also wrote one.

  2. You and I both have blogs which talk about why we went our direction (from having negative views of Torah Judaism to becoming a practitioner of it). As much as I agree with you about not being a fan of people who write about going the other way, these are also people who want to share their views and stories with others. The problem, and this is where I agree with you again, is when they are mostly negative. A person who can’t write more positive things about where they are now than negative things about their past has a problem, whichever direction they go. This is where, for the most part, I think ba’al teshivah writing is about finding depth and meaning even if it’s still imperfect humans trying to follow a perfect system. OTD writing tends to be focused on a negative past … can’t recall reading a single one which focused on the fulfillment of living your life like a particular atheistic philosopher or nihilist pleasure seeking goal.

    Moshe Feigin

    1. “A person who can’t write more positive things about where they are now than negative things about their past has a problem, whichever direction they go.” I could not agree more with this, and it’s one reason I have a serious problem with the attitude that “all secular society is corrupt and horrible.” First, it’s not true, and second, it’s not enough to make a choice to be Orthodox based on that. You have to really believe in Judaism, not just not believe in being secular.

  3. I agree with you, especially the part about these memoirs painting with a broad brush so that Torah Judaism (or the people in it) are overwhelmingly negative. It just doesn’t seem fair.

    But I’ve been thinking lately, if I were to write a memoir, what would I write about the life that I “left?” What would I say about the teachers and leaders who, I felt for a long time, betrayed me by lying about both sides? At first, I was very bitter about that. But now it’s ancient history. My life is not defined by what I left behind, but rather the treasures I’ve found.

    1. Well put. I think the ancient history part is key. Were we all to write memoirs immediately after a tumultuous period in life, there would probably be many choice things we would want to say. And it’s so much more positive is it to define ourselves by the direction we are heading.

  4. Great entry! I’ve read a few of those memoirs lately, and I have mixed feelings on the subject. To give you a little background, I became a Christian at 16 and I grew up in a very dysfunctional family with parents who are heavily into the New Age movement. After being a Christian for almost 9 years, a series of events is leading my husband and me toward Messianism (long story.) So I can totally understand going through a significant change in beliefs, whether that’s joining a religion or leaving one, and I find myself drawn to memoirs written by people in both situations.

    That being said, I think it depends on the intention in writing the memoir. Some memoirs are clearly written with the intent of slandering the religious community or worldview that the person is leaving behind. That’s not respectful or healthy. But if someone writes a memoir in the interest of sharing their story and encouraging others in a way that doesn’t disparage the community they left, then I think that can be a very positive thing. There is a lot more I could say about this so I will stop here and write more on my own blog at some point.

    1. Those are good insights, and I agree. I think if written in a respectful way, there could be benefits to the genre. Let me know if you write a post about it!

      1. One memoir I really liked was “The Witness Wore Red” by Rebecca Musser. That was an amazing book! She writes about her escape from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints cult (i’m just going to call that like it is), but not in a slandering way. In fact, in the acknowledgement section she thanked those who believe in polygamy for sharing their views.

  5. Such a fair, balanced post and I look forward to seeing what Pop Chassid has to say about it, too. I’ve only read of the “I left the clutches of Orthdodox Judaism” books, but I’ve read articles about plenty more. I recently read Matthue Roth’s memoir that is somewhat about him coming into Orthodox Judaism. He’s an interesting “character” who’s well covered by mainstream media, too. (Mainstream literary media, I mean.)

  6. There are really so many books and stories.written by Baalei Teshuvah about their lives. Ahuva Gray.Akiva Tatz who wrote anatomy of a search. I can’t remember others off hand but there a number. People who write about their negative experiences with Orthodox Judaism usually are coming from dysfunctional lives. Anything can be twisted. Have you heard the saying “don’t look at Jews look at Judaism. Judaism is perfect since it was created by a perfect being. It’s really sad when people grow up with a skewed view of Judaism because of people who distorted it

  7. I think your response is sensitive and covers all the issues relevant. I agree that anyone who only sees the negative in their past has a problem. When I was 19 and becoming independent and forming my identity, I could only think of all the bad things about my community, and I looked back at my past negatively. Now I only remember the happy times and the good things, because I’ve accepted that the world is a mixed bag of imperfect humans (and some really evil people), including myself.

    1. Likewise. I think it’s natural when forming one’s one identity to look badly on where we came from. It probably helps with the development or something. But with age and maturity comes to ability to see nuance. I’m deeply glad that I never wrote anything public while I was in my early 20s. There wasn’t a lot of nuance in my worldview back then!

  8. I couldn’t agree more. I read all of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox and as much of her Exodus as I could stand until I was thoroughly disgusted. If a person isn’t happy in Orthodoxy and they can’t fix what makes them happy, then they should make the choice that is right for them. But to me there is a real lack of gratitude that goes along with trashing everyone who was part of your coming to the point of writing the memoir, as well as the basic unfairness of having a platform that isn’t granted to the other side of the story. But it’s what sells. Calvin Trillin said, “Memoir in America is an atrocity arms race.” Sadly, he’s largely right.

  9. Religion is an easy (and socially popular) scape goat for problems that are essentially caused by individuals hurting you. Religion can’t defend itself against your claims and as an added bonus you can achieve a moral high ground by bravely “leaving the oppressive world of religious fundamentalism”.
    I feel horrible for people who have gone through all these traumas and abuses (who wouldn’t?!) but to blaim a whole culture for that, and in such a public forum, is inexcusable.

    1. Indeed. And it’s curious that society seems to view leaving religion as the moral high ground. Perhaps they have forgotten where the morality come from in the first place.

  10. This is really interesting. I actually work with agunot for a living, so I am well aware of the dark side of the frum community–BUT, I firmly believe that those situations exist because the frum community is full of human beings who are imperfect, and sometimes dysfunctional and abusive, NOT because the Torah or Orthodox Judaism allow or support such behaviors. If anything, I feel that my work is an expression of Torah values in helping the vulnerable. But it’s interesting because it’s so often perceived by the public in the opposite way.

    (And thanks for the book, by the way. I am way behind on my blog feed as you can see:))

    1. Wow, I’d really like to hear about your work someday. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and I can completely relate to being behind on reading blogs! I’m woefully behind on mine. :)

  11. Memoirs are a reflection on one’s own life and not on life in general. They are also written at a point in someone’s life when they feel reflective on the past. Sometimes this is spawned by forgiveness or understanding, sometimes by anger and vengeful passion.

    They written with an emotional slant reflective of how one is feeling at the time. If I wrote one today about an experience I’ve had, it would likely differ greatly from one I’d write in 1 10 or even 25 years about the same experience.

    As a reader, you need to always remember that.

    Fwiw, I have an unabashed crush on Matthue’s writing. Definitely worth reading his stuff.

    1. Sure, time and perspective will absolutely make a difference in a memoir. I think in a memoir of a distinct subculture like Orthodoxy, one tricky thing is that there will likely need to be some explanation of the cultural norm, and there’s plenty of room for distortion there. Not every ready is savvy enough to take the slant into account. Writing a memoir of why being Orthodox didn’t work for someone is one thing, but to mock and misrepresent a community is something else.

      I really need to read this Mr. Roth!

      1. I guess I mean to say is that as a reader one has a responsibility to the book to understand its purpose in order to be able to truly understand it. Sure you can read any book you like without any context. If course! But you’re going to likely lose a lot in the interpretation that way.

        I don’t think books or feelings should be censored, but I do think it goes with out saying that writers have to understand there are consequences to eveything we write. It’s a sucky reality sometimes. But it goes both ways yk?

        1. Yeah, the reader definitely needs to have context in mind. I think about how naive I was about that, though, when I was younger and how often I took things at face value.

          I’m also not a fan of censoring. I think it’s a very slippery slope. And I wonder if writers of sensationalistic memoirs think through the consequences. I’m sure it’s very exciting to have one’s story picked up for publishing. I could see it being easy to not think about any potential fall-out. You know? Seems like a shame.

          1. I’m sure the excitement of getting published, for the first time especially, must be so thrilling that consequences aren’t thought through. That’s a shame but a reality. We all are impetuous sometimes. Make decisions we didn’t consider from all angles.

            So do I like whiny, poor me memoirs? Absolutely not. Makes me roll my eyes. A dime a dozen. Nothing new to read here. But, I would never try to impose my feelings do far as to say they shouldn’t exist.

            Judaism is strong. And though it’s unfortunate that it gets beat up by its own sometimes, it will withstand it. It’ll be strong and functioning like it always is. We are tough-skinned and tender hearted. We survive!

          2. I’ve certainly published things impetuously. :) To be clear, I’m not saying they shouldn’t exist (though I wouldn’t be sad if the genre faded away). Just voicing my feelings about their existence. I read a really interesting article the other week about how those of us who are observant can learn from these types of memoirs.

          3. Okay, good, I’m glad that the post didn’t come off that way. Sometimes things I think I’ve expressed clearly are not really so clear, you know? :)

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