Shana 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.
How did it feel like, going to a Bais Yaakov from a non-orthodox background?
At first I was miserable. I recall that the modesty rules were most disturbing to me, and comments were made about my short sleeves and sockless legs. It was an out-of-town Bais Yaakov, so believe it or not, you didn’t get kicked out if you came to school improperly dressed. What you did get was what we called a “mussar schmooze,” or a guilt-laden, conscience–arousing speech about the problems with that way of dressing and living. It reminded me of my experience in first grade when I was called a “goy” for wearing short sleeves (actually, my bad experiences all throughout elementary school at the hands of orthodox kids makes me question why I ever became involved in that lifestyle altogether. I was truly bullied by these kids, so much so, in fact, that just a few months ago I received a handwritten letter of apology from one of my former classmates who was especially cruel to me).
Did you feel ‘targeted’ for kiruv or was it solely your own decision?
I felt absolutely targeted. I was prime goods–a girl just waiting to be saved. What my rabbi and his wife saw was a girl coming out of a difficult and painful divorce, moved across the country to a new city and a new school, a mentally ill mother…I was just asking for it. There was nothing I wouldn’t have done to please my rabbi. His praise and love were more important to me than anything. He was a replacement for my father, his wife a fill-in for my mother. With them, I felt like I had a family, and that was something I so desperately craved. Once that bond was formed, it was easy to get me to do just about anything. Interestingly enough, years later I was having a conversation with a former high school classmate of mine. She expressed what she felt back then–that my rabbi and his wife were very manipulative, that they never should have led me down the path into that life, that what they had done was wrong and cruel. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly.
When did you start having doubts? How did you deal with them at the time?
I always had doubts as far as the existence of God. That’s one of the reasons why I still have a hard time coming to terms with my own bad decision to lead an ultra-orthodox life. I don’t really think that I ever believed in God fully. I did have my moments, however, that I absolutely believed. Perhaps belief, like sexuality, is fluid, although I have never heard that from anyone before! Believers generally seem to be die-hard believers, so maybe I’m somewhat of an anomaly.
My belief in the system–the ultra-orthodox lifestyle, etc.–left me completely when my daughter died. I won’t go into details here, but her death–which was due to medical negligence on the part of highly-respected, ultra-orthodox medical personnel who were a part of our ultra-orthodox community– along with the subsequent cover-ups and rampant injustice really took its toll on me.
My belief in any kind of deity or organized religion–specifically fundamentalist religion– was put to the test once I started college. The idea of God, religion, all of it just did not stand up under scrutiny once I started my education. It did not seem rational at all. Knowledge and information really solidified my ideas about God and the ultra-orthodox community–in other words, that God did not exist, and that a community like the ultra-orthodox community was no different than a cult. Once I began understanding that, there was no turning back.
Do you remember your first aveirah (sin)? How old were you then and how did you feel in its aftermath?
Well, there were small transgressions, like brushing my teeth on Shabbos, taking a hot shower on Shabbos, that kind of a thing. The first aveirah that I considered somewhat of a watershed moment was when I ate non-kosher meat at a diner. That was a biggie for me. I was about 36 at the time. The aftermath was several weeks of intense fear. I was absolutely convinced that I would be struck down, or, at the very least, develop some scary illness associated directly with the sin. A real eye for an eye type of thing, which embarasses me, actually, when I talk about it! Other “first sins” that I considered really serious include the first time I drove on Shabbos, the first time I uncovered my hair in public, the first time I set foot in a gay nightclub, and the first time I had sex with my girlfriend.
Would you categorize your going “off the derech” as being a mainly a rational or an emotional decision?
Going “off the derech” was a rational decision for me. It was based on my knowledge that I was continually gathering, on science and history. I’m an avid reader, so I read a vast amount on it, really studied it. It was actually very frightening and painful at first. I felt as if I had been such a fool, that I had totally wasted my time, and that I had brought children into the world with religion as the backdrop to their lives. It was a very emotional realization for me because it was a very solid and strong conclusion for me. There was no God. Absolutely. Now what?
Were there any books that you found particularly helpful at the time?
There were a few books that were helpful insofar as solidifying and validating what I already believed. Richard Dawkins was stimulating, brilliant, and validating. As far as my sexuality, I did read some coming out stories that were helpful and that I could very much relate to. There was a book called, “Stranger at the Gate,” which was the coming out story of a former minister. His words mirrored many of my struggles and feelings, and so reading that was somewhat helpful.
You wrote a book yourself about your religious and sexual emancipation. Currently, it’s only available as an eBook; are you also planning to publish it in the form of a hardcover or paperback?
If the book would get picked up by a publisher–well, that would be very exciting. I never thought about sending it to a publisher. I wrote it and self-published it. Maybe I felt that it was just so personal…not sure why my only thought was to self-publish. I certainly hope that one day it will be available as a paperback.
You decided to call the book “The Sins of Our Daughters – A Memoir”. Could you explain the title of your book? I am also curious to know what your reasons were for writing this book.
The title took me a very long time. I had a different working title for the longest time, then changed it, and changed it again. A title is a tricky thing, for sure! The title came to me in a flash–literally–one day, and I knew that was it. One thing I encountered as I went through my transformation from ultra-orthodox, straight woman to an atheist lesbian is that there were so many women hiding inside their own closets. Whether they were struggling with belief or sexuality, or feeling trapped in a bad marriage, in a life they didn’t want to live, I came to see that there were many women going through similar struggles, and that all of them–like me–felt tremendous guilt. They felt guilt for wanting something else, wanting to love someone else, believing something else, not believing, dreaming of another life…We, the Daughters of Israel, were all struggling with our own desires, whatever they may have been, and we looked at these desires as sins. When I realized that I was gay, I felt less than human, like I was some kind of twisted, sick animal. I looked at myself as a sinner, and that was very painful. What was interesting is that I did not really believe in God when I was coming to terms with my own sexuality, so I was subscribing to some kind of societal moral compass that existed in the ultra-orthodox community. After all, why would I think that homosexuality was wrong? Although I was not a believer, I was still living deep inside a community that condemned homosexuality as a perversion.
As for my reasons for writing the book–this is huge for me, so thank you for asking this. When I was going through the process of leaving the ultra-orthodox community, as well as self-discovery as a lesbian, I had no one to turn to. There were no resources out there, and I felt very alone. I combed bookshelves and online communities and forums trying to find others who were going through–or had gone through–something similar, and I couldn’t find it. I made a promise to myself that if I ever made it out, that I would share my experiences so that someone, somewhere, might come upon my story and find hope and courage and solace.
In your book, you describe having this secret relationship with a lady called Jaime. She ends up becoming what seems to be the love of your life. And eventually, mainly through her, it seems, you manage to escape from the clutches of the community. Do you sometimes think about what would have happened if you did not have her to support you on your way out?
I’ve thought about that a lot, and we’ve actually discussed that. I think that had Jaime not been in my life, I would have remained in the community far longer because it was so incredibly frightening to leave. Jaime pushed me to take many steps that I thought I was not ready to take. It’s funny–I always thought that if you don’t feel ready to do something, then that must mean that you’re not ready. But now I know otherwise. Fear drives so much of what we think we can do, what we think we are ready for. I think I would have continues using my fear as a crutch veiled in the idea that “I wasn’t ready.” I was ready. I just needed someone to hold my hand, to support me. I think that the whole process of escaping from my community would have taken so much longer, and it would have been far more frightening.
I also often questioned my decision to leave while in the process of leaving. It was such a painful and traumatic time–a time of emotional and physical upheaval–and nothing seemed definitive to me. Jaime was there to ground me, to remind me why I was doing what I was doing. It sounds strange, but sometimes I needed her to say the obvious to me like, “You have to get your kids out of this. It’s not fair to raise them in a cult,” or “Our relationship is not wrong. We love each other.” It’s very hard to change your life, to start from scratch, to wipe away ideas and beliefs and a context by which you’ve lived most of your life and begin again.
What would you do different if you could go OTD it all over again?
I’m not sure how to answer that. Going OTD is such a twisted, traumatic, crazy process. Your whole world is turned upside down. Your ideas and values and thoughts and feelings and lifestyle are all in a state of flux. Everything feels frightening and wonderful and exciting and awful all at the same time. Going OTD is kind of like weaning yourself off a drug. Or maybe it’s like getting onto a drug. It’s just a wild ride– and worth every minute of the fight. I guess if I had to choose something, I’d choose to have more courage–and I wish I’d gone OTD a lot sooner. I can never get back those lost years. Living with the knowledge that I wasted a lot of time is a constant struggle for me.
Is there currently anything that still connects you to your Jewish identity, religion, or culture?
I’m definitely completely disconnected on a religious level. As far as my identity–well, although I have no wish to shrug off my identity as a Jew, it also seems impossible to do do. It just comes up, if you know what I mean. I am not ashamed of being Jewish, nor am I proud of it. It’s not who I am or what I am–I am not invested at all in my Jewish identity because it’s not important to me. As far as culturally–I suppose there are things that tie me to “being Jewish.” Jewish humor, Jewish food, fabulously expressive Yiddish words, Hebrew songs from my childhood–that kind of thing.
What question would you have liked the last one to be and how would you answer it?
I think I’d like you to ask me what I would say to someone who wants to remove themselves from the lives they are living, but are too afraid to do it. I would tell them that there really is a way out–even if it means losing something, or more than that. And I would tell them that this is their one and only life, and it’s theirs to choose. There is a way out, and there can be a better life waiting for them if they are strong and smart. Our life stories continue on, but thus, far, my life has had far from a fairy tale ending. Few lives do. I have the normal struggles and challenges and pain. I also have a lot of happiness and satisfaction and the joy at living the life I want and need to live. What I did gain was my freedom, a solid and rational life, a genuine life, and the knowledge that I did the best and healthiest thing for myself and my children. I gave us the normal life and the opportunities that we deserved, and that we never would have gotten had we stayed in that life. The fight is worth it, and I want people to know that.
Shana Asher’s book “The Sins of Our Daughters – A Memoir” is available as an eBook at Amazon: