The Story of Rebecca M. Ross

BecInterviewRebecca M. Ross is a writer, teacher, playwright, blogger, and community activist. She lives with her husband, four children, and very large dog in the Hudson Valley. She loves coffee, Phish, and making people laugh.

Hi Rebecca! I am thrilled to interview you today. You are a longstanding friend of mine on the OTD online scene. We first ‘met’ on the now defunct blog ‘Haven Not Heaven’. Today, we are both admins on the Off the Derech Facebook group. Could you introduce yourself in terms of your religious background?

Hi! Thanks so much for including me in this very important project. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here.

In a nutshell, I was raised in a liberal Conservative home–I went to public school and we didn’t keep kosher, but we lit shabbat candles and made kiddush. I also attended a Conservative Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. I dabbled in orthodoxy in college. When I got married, I kept a kosher home, but then ended up frumming out several months later after an intense trip to Israel. About a year later, my husband and I went off the derech. Several years later, a move from Brooklyn put us in touch with the local Chabad. We ended up frumming out a second time, making aliyah, and then moving back to the US a year later. We went off the derech a second time almost a year after returning to the States.

What made you and your husband decide to go Off the Derech the first time? Was it a conscious decision or a slow process?

The first time we just left we were living at the edge of Midwood, a community made up of both orthodox and non-orthodox Jews, as well as Mexicans, Russians and Pakistani families. We rarely went to shul and never integrated into the orthodox community. Because of this, very few people noticed when we went off.

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Becoming Acher by I.M. Acher (part 3 of 3)

Chapter 5:  Denial; Not Just a River in Egypt.

FullSizeRenderThe conversation that woke me up to how far I had fallen off the path.

He called himself Rabbi E.  He stood outside the store trying to convince people to sign up for Birthright.  He had been doing so for several years now.  I’ve walked by him many times.  He should have known I work in the store.  He had been pitching his Birthright trip outside of the store for several years.  But never once did he even look me in the eye.

He kind of reminded me of C-3P0.  Or at least what C-3P0 would look like if he was human.  He wore a small black velvet kippa.  He had tzitzit sticking out.  He had small payyot tucked behind his ears.  He had red hair and a 5-o’clock shadow that was beginning to turn white.  And like most campus missionary types, he spoke the language of the college neophytes.

At least that was his target audience.  Clearly, he was ill-prepared for a hardened heretic.

I only stopped by his table because an old friend was preparing to film him.  I hadn’t seen Shlomo in a few years.  Shlomo had graduated a few years before.  Now, he was a cameraman.  He did a lot of work for Jewish organizations.  Now, Shlomo was about to film the Kampus Kiruv Klown in action.  I just stopped to catch up with Shlomo. I had no interest in engaging the Kampus Kiruv Klown.

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Becoming Acher by I.M. Acher (part 2 of 3)

Chapter 2: Elisha dies, Acher’s Inception

And [Jesus] said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  Therefore, the son of man is also the Lord of the Sabbath.—Mark (2:26-7, NKJV).

Washington Heights, Summer of 2002.  FullSizeRender

People often wonder what caused me to become such a heretic.

There is no simple answer to that question.  Many things spurned me on.  It had been two years since I was makpid on davening every day.  Or even putting on tefillin.  I had dropped out of YU.  The previous semester had been spent taking 2 classes at Brooklyn College, habituating in a basement apartment in Boro Park, and working part-time in a group home for severely disabled adults.

But my first foray off the median, I remember it like it was yesterday.

Chapter 2.2:  To My Left, Gabe.

That summer, I moved back to Washington Heights.  I was planning on attending City College that fall.  I was planning on getting my shit together.  I was still working at the group home part-time.  The rest of the week was spent getting drunk, smoking cheap weed, playing video games, watching TV, and being completely unproductive.

I was sharing a 2-bedroom apartment with 5 people.  They were good friends, so I didn’t mind.  Stu was the first friend I made at Yeshiva University.  Gabe was my favorite smoking buddy and a former coworker of mine.  We worked the graveyard shift at the Caf. Store.  When we were done, we would get drunk and high together.

Gabe was fun to get high with.  He kind of reminded me of young Seth Rogen, only with a higher-pitched voice.  My fondest memory:  Winter of 2001 one night, our shift at the Caf Store was over, so we headed to my place to get high.  Our friend N.C. was with us.  I decided to microwave a Fettuccini Alfredo TV Dinner (munchies!).  Gabe and N.C. raided my pantry to look for munchies for themselves.  One of them found what looked like a bag full of potatoes.  They asked me why I had so many potatoes.  I didn’t know.  I didn’t cook.  My roommates didn’t cook.

I examined the bag closely.  True. I was high.  But I could still read.  Those were not potatoes.  They were deli rolls that had expired 3 weeks before.  They were so mouldy, that they looked like potatoes!

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Becoming Acher by I.M. Acher (part 1 of 3)

Photo credit: Shmully Blesofsky. Taken July, 2014 at a Phish concert

Genesis

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.

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Shana’s Story

1724171_1530637980552356_3522793952121040408_nShana is in her forties, mother of five and lives with her partner in the tri-state area. She is a writer and an English teacher.

Hi Shana. On your Twitter account (details below), you describe yourself as as “Survivor of ultra-orthodox Judaism, atheist, lesbian, liberal, author of The Sins of Our Daughters: A Memoir.” Which one of the above do you associate yourself most with?

That’s a great question, and I had to think about that for a bit. I think that I associate most with being a survivor of ultra-orthodox Judaism, and this is because living through the trauma of that life–and subsequently surviving it–really has shaped who I am.

Could you describe in a few sentences what your religious upbringing was about?

My upbringing was an interesting one. My parents both grew up in secular homes, and the home they created was mostly devoid of any kind of religion. Then, when I turned five and we moved to a new area, my mother got a sudden burst of Jewish feeling, and we were all sent to Jewish schools, we started keeping some semblance of Shabbos, loosely celebrated holidays (we built a sukkah, had 2 seders, lit the menorah, delivered Mishloach Manos, partially fasted, etc.) and we ate kosher meat. I was sent to orthodox schools from the first grade and on, mainly because there were no “in-between” schools back then–like conservadox or modern-orthodox– in our area. So while my home was really just traditionally Jewish, I did have an orthodox education my entire life.

After my parents’ divorce and a move across country, my mother sent me to a Bais Yaakov high school, and that was really the beginning of the end for me. Feeling vulnerable and lonely and desperate for a family of any kind, I was easily pulled into the fold when I was 15. I graduated, went to seminary (pushing off my plans for college at the urging of my rabbi for fear that I would not find a shidduch), and was married by 19.

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Dan’s Story

Dan is a 28 year old single male who currently lives in Tel Aviv and is a student and archaeologist. 

I met Dan in Israel a few years ago during an OTD meetup, where he told me that he is learning under Professor Israel Finkelstein at the Tel Aviv University.

Before we start, I would like to ask you how it is to learn under Professor Finkelstein? One of the first books that I read that catapulted my apostasy was the book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts he wrote together with Neil Asher Silberman. 

Finkelstein is great. He’s an amazing scholar and a great teacher. Very instructive, very ‘socratic’.

I mean we have lectures and seminars and stuff too, but during our meetings and stuff, its very informal. Just asking questions, and responding, creating a conversation / discussion about what I’ve done, what I think, and where and how to progress forward from there. He’s a great scholar to study under, because in addition to the actual material, he is a very successful professional scholar with lots of appointments and publications, and learning under him is providing useful for learning (at least the beginning stages) of how to do that for myself.

A note / addendum, though: Israel is only my secondary advisor. My primary adviser is Dr Guy Steibel, who is equally learned, accepting, friendly and a good teacher / mentor.

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