Photo credit: Shmully Blesofsky. Taken July, 2014 at a Phish concert
The following is the three chapters (1, 2 and 5) of my memoir, tentatively titled I Am Acher. Some of the material has already appeared on my blog, I Am Acher. While the market already is saturated with plenty of OTD memoirs, many of which are more interesting and gut-wrenching than my story, I still hope that by putting my thoughts out there, I can positively contribute to our cause—that being to encourage people to think for themselves, to live their lives to the fullest potential, and to encourage those trapped in an unconducive lifestyle to break free from their shackles.
I come not to tear down the pillars in every shul and to encourage every frum child to drop out of yeshiva and pursue a living instead. I come instead to truly examine what exactly they believe in. I come to invite them to open their eyes to the world around them. I come to encourage the frum world to not keep their kids from receiving a secular education, but the join the free-market of ideas; to invite themselves to study the ideas of others. And to freely discuss how their views agree or disagree with the others.
Some people ask what I have to complain about. Most of the OTD memoirs I have read come from people who were raised Ultra Orthodox. Their upbringings were definitely more subversive than mine. However, I contend that growing up Modern Orthodox was no bed of roses. It took me years of self-destructive behavior, psychological counseling, sexual frustration, on-and-off weed and alcohol, reading, researching, making a complete ass of myself, and continuously picking myself up to completely divest myself of the traumas—which may or may not have been worse if I was raised Ultra Orthodox, or even completely secular.
Ger Hayiyti ba’Guf Sheli.
It is better to follow one’s destiny, though imperfectly, than to follow someone else’s destiny with perfection—Krishna (Bhagavad Gita 3:35).
Being a Modern Orthodox Jew is like walking on the median of a busy highway. You are safe as long as you stay on the median. If any cars happen to swerve, they will hit you. And if you try to get off the median, you will get hit. And so, you have no choice but to keep on walking; maybe the traffic will clear up and you will be able to safely disembark. However, many people are perfectly content to remain on the median and continue walking the straight derech.
By the time I was 22-years-old, I had serious vertigo from watching all those cars speeding in both directions. As a good Modernishe Yid, I received a quality secular education; I had a TV; I listened to the same music as the Goyyim; to the untrained eye, the only differences between me and the Goyyim were the yarmulke on my head and the tzitzit sticking out of my shirt.
On the other side of the road I had the religious education I received. Modern Orthodox Jews are equally as critical of the secular Jews (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, et al; not that we knew or cared what the difference between them is) and the Ultra Orthodox Jews. Yes, if I decided to shuckle too hard while davening, be makpid on washing negelvasser in the morning, or say oi instead of oh, I was chided with ”don’t be such a chnyok!” However, I still did receive a religious education. We still had to daven—in Hebrew too. I came out of high school knowing how to shteig a blatt of gemara about as well as I could write an essay, neither of which were that impressive—though had I not squandered my education, perhaps I could have been reasonably competent in both.
There is what to admire from the Ultra Orthodox. At least they are more forthright about their tartuffery. Modern Orthodox Jews beat around the bush, running logical circles around you, before you perhaps realize they are basically peddling the same malarkey as their Hareidi frienemies—except the Modern Orthodox brand has shinier, more gaudy packaging.
A Modern Orthodox Jew would lionize a ham sandwich and then yank it away from you at the last minute and quip “you can’t eat that!” An Ultra Orthodox Jew would potch you if you even thought about a ham sandwich. Both groups forbid eating ham. But at least the Ultra Orthodox Jew does not actively whet your palate by allowing you to ogle the ham sandwich.
Therefore, as a youngster, I thought that perhaps if I was Ultra Orthodox, I would be less confused about religion. I used to say that my Modern Orthodox high school was so open-minded, that it was making my brains fall out. I did not have a firm grasp on either my secular studies or my Jewish studies. I understood that the ideal in the Modern Orthodox world was to excel in both worlds. Maimonides did it. J.B. Soloveichik embodied it. Many of the people I knew from shul had no problem keeping halacha and being secular.
What happens when one decides they want to leave?
In my high school, when we used to get caught cutting davening, we would be chided with “if you don’t like davening, you should transfer to public school. Nobody will force you to daven in public school.”
From the other side of their mouths, they would make public school sound like a complete cesspool, an orgy of sex, drugs, and unruly behavior. When we misbehaved, Rabbi Rothman (name changed) would tell us that his wife teaches in public school in the Bronx, and that our behavior resembles theirs—and he’d make a point that over there, kids bring guns to school! Many of our rabbis warned us about what would happen if we went to public school. Except for Rabbi Fessel (name changed). Rabbi Fessel actually went to public school. He was a ba’al teshuva. Yes, he would tell us that we had more chutzpah than public school kids. When he was a child in the 1970s, speaking out of turn was punishable by suspension.
Those of us who had friends in public school knew that it wasn’t the Sodom and Gomorrah that our rabbis said it was. At least not completely. Still, if we decided we actually were going to public school, they would not be respectful about it at all (understatement).
They would call you into the office. They would demand to know why you are leaving yeshiva. No explanation was good enough—even if it was finances. They would guilt trip you. They would tell you what a big mistake you are making. But clearly, it was hardly altruistic on their part. It was mostly a knee-jerk reaction hard-wired into the psyche of every frum Jew in the world. Let us call it the Hotel California Syndrome: you can check out any time you’d like, but you can never leave.
These are the things that caused me to remain Jewish. I had my doubts. I felt cramped. I wanted freedom. But the many guilt trips, together with NCSY and various mussar schmoozen made me scared to take the first leap into the oncoming traffic. Or to wait for the traffic to clear and then break for it.
Ger Hayiyti. I was a stranger. The first 22 years of my life were acted out by a strange soul occupying my body. We share memories (those I haven’t repressed). We share experiences. We share knowledge. But we are as different as Yin and Yang. Except we do not (necessarily) complement each other. Those 22 years were detrimental. But they still were fundamental. When I read poetry and essays that I had written back then, I hardly recognize the voice on the page. There is a specter of familiarity. But alas, it is as if they were written by a previous gilgul. Alas, I might as well have lived three different contiguous incarnations in one 35-year lifetime.