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?