What Remains?

Last week Pam Helberg and Grace Peterson, two Beyond Belief writers, suggested some important additions to my list of Questions I Wish They’d Ask. One of them, how are we all still impacted by the religious communities we left, I’d like to speak to today. This question resonates strongly with me (Susan) and is made even more poignant because my 21-year-old daughter is visiting for a few weeks before she heads back to college several thousand miles away.

Like most parents with almost-finished-with-college, almost-an-adult children, I cherish every moment I get to spend with my daughter knowing that as her life takes shape into the future our time together will become even more rare. In my case, however, I feel a deeper sense of gratitude about our relationship. I have a sense of pride that we both made it through not just the normal pushes and pulls of the mother/daughter relationship as she entered puberty, individuated, rebelled, etc., but that we survived the very real danger that we may not have had a relationship at all because of the decision I made to leave Orthodox Judaism.

When I left Orthodoxy I chose to leave largely because I was concerned for the long-term mental and emotional health of my children and myself. I had to get the hell out of the situation first and then go back for my children, it was not ideal, nor pretty. It was triage, it was why they instruct you on an airplane to put on your own mask first, because if you pass out you won’t be much help to your children.

Leaving was risky, extremely risky because not only did I have to believe that I had the strength to do it but I had to believe in my children. I had to believe that they could sort out the situation for themselves, that they knew who I really was despite what they were being told.

The very rules of orthodoxy that I had followed to help keep my family together became barriers used to keep me from my children. The tight knit fabric of the community I had worked so hard to create and weave my children into morphed into an impermeable net that separated us once I was on the other side.

And while I respect and understand that the rules of Orthodoxy were only trying to protect them, I knew better. I knew that the connection we had as mother and child was more fundamental, more holy and vital than the religious overlay that was being used to keep them away from me. Religion should be part of what strengthens and protects families, and for many years I experienced just that support in my Jewish life.

In order to leave I had to believe in my children far more deeply than I had ever believed in Orthodoxy. I took a huge risk. I walked away with the hope that I would eventually be in their lives in a real, and for lack of a better word, natural way.

Yes I often feel guilty for having put my children through the pain and suffering of what took place when I left Orthodoxy. But as the years go by my trust in them has been justified. Today I may act just like any other mother with almost-adult kids home for a visit but what remains inside me, what has become an intrinsic part of me is the visceral memory, the fear, of how close I came to losing them.

 

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Questions I Wish They’d Ask

Questions I Wish They’d Ask

Don’t get me wrong. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to write, edit and currently promote Beyond Belief. The topic of women and religion is one that I have given a great deal of thought to and lived firsthand for many years. I am deeply appreciative to everyone from our publishers and editors at Seal Press to our authors, who helped make the anthology a book that I am proud of. I am also grateful to those in the media who have reached out to Cami and I (Susan) and invited us onto their TV and radio shows, interviewed us for publications, book reviews and blogs and shared our thoughts and the stories in the anthology with their audiences. (Check out our media page to read and watch the clips yourself.)

That being said I have to admit a bit of frustration. Each time a new opportunity to share the anthology arises I find myself excitedly preparing answers to a growing number of questions that I think are interesting and important. More honestly, I find myself preparing for all the questions I wish someone would ask. These tend to be juicy, more controversial questions that reach into a gray area where religion is explored with curiosity and openness without preconceptions that it is either the one true way or else a dead end.

Some of these questions are: “What was better in your life when you were religious?” “What do you miss the most?” What do you think religion has to offer women that secular society doesn’t?”

But no one we’ve talked to in the media asks these questions. For the most part, the media that are open to Beyond Belief are somewhat biased toward an anti-religious viewpoint and approach us with the notion that the conclusion of our book must be that religion is not the way to go. After all, our writers all left their faiths so that must mean religion doesn’t work, right?

Most people with an antireligious slant don’t want to hear that in some respects religious life offers a stronger more viable sense of community, real community than secular society. In my own experience the orthodox community that I lived in for ten years was where people actually looked after one another, brought food and visited and watched children when disaster or death struck. Within the orthodox world people took the time to celebrate, feast, open their homes, and offer hospitality to strangers for no other reason than that they were part of Klal Yisroel, the people of Israel.

On the other hand the believers out there who adhere to a religious practice that would be considered fundamentalist don’t even know that our book exists. They don’t read books outside of what their community sanctions and they certainly don’t surf the net and read blogs and reviews by feminists or on Atlantic.com or watch Current TV.

So even though Beyond Belief is not anti religious, these religious folks won’t ever know it. They won’t find us and we won’t have the opportunity to talk with them, to tell them, we’re not against you. We would love for you to read these stories, to hear first hand how by limiting the opportunities for women within religion communities women are being disrespected and making choices to leave their faiths.

The questions that don’t get asked are often the ones that need to be asked the most. They are the most uncomfortable ones, because they help us to admit that we could be wrong, that we have doubts, that we do not possess any truth or absolutes.

The Questions I Wish They’d Ask are stacking up and my responses to them are coalescing on the page. In the coming weeks I hope to write and post them in this blog.

Next week: What do you miss the most?

Beyond Belief Interviews Leah Lax

This week Beyond Belief talks with writer Leah Lax. Leah earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She has published prose, poetry, award-winning fiction, memoir, essays, the libretto for a major opera, and a world-traveling exhibit. She contributed to the 2010 anthology Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Lives. Leah currently lives and works in Houston.

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What interested you in contributing to the anthology? Over the ten years since I left, I’d only met a few women with similar experiences. The idea of gathering such a group together was exciting, particularly since Beyond Belief shows our common thread across a number of religions. I consider all women who live or have lived “under the veil” to be my sisters. My memoir is dedicated to them.

What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Very painful. In order to make a scene come across as genuine on the page, a writer has to essentially experience it in exquisite detail as she writes, allowing emotion and sensation to drive the process. Although I teach memoir writing, I frankly don’t recommend doing it and tell my students so at the first class. They just laugh.

What was the hardest part of leaving for you? My two youngest, who were thirteen and fourteen at the time, refused to leave with me. A lawyer told me that since I am a lesbian (this was in Houston during the Bush administration), that there was no judge in the vicinity that would grant me custody. My entire life had been defined by our home and children and I had to walk away.

Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? I can’t draw a general conclusion here. I can say for myself that I stepped out into a vast dangerous confusing world far too young and extreme religion offered structure and clarity. The rules and their God were parental, the community familial, and I still needed both.

To me now, people in those communities seem stuck in a pre-adolescent state since they were never allowed to do the essential things adolescents have to do—like challenging authority, threshing out their own morals, exploring their sexuality. When I left, I went through a period of doing those things as if I was picking my adolescence back up where I had left it years before. I’ve found this true of others who left similar communities. The people who remain, however, like younger kids, accept without question—and seem to need—the parental authority they call God.

What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I can read the Hebrew Bible and prayer book fluently. I have a huge working knowledge of Jewish Law and am familiar with the basics of mystical philosophy. I know how to bake good challah, and where to buy the best human hair wigs for orthodox women. My heart holds onto values touted in Hassidic life: a profound level of kindness to animals, the social responsibility of sharing with others, deep respect for the elderly, etc. I accept that my Orthodox life formed me in many ways. The best: I wake every morning with the startling joyful awareness that my life is impossibly brief, a huge unearned gift, so I better get to work.

What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Here’s a quote from the Epilogue to my memoir Uncovered. Although addressed to women still living a fundamentalist life, I feel it applies to everyone:

TO MY COVERED SISTERS: To get the best from religion, you have to sift. Allow yourself to do that, no matter what people say. Stand up to the guilt or shame that some use as a tool of religion (it’s a dishonest tool) and reserve the right to think for yourself, judge for yourself, even when you stand before judges. Suck out the wisdom, inspiration and beauty and leave the rest behind. Most covered women don’t think they have that strength. But you do.

Keep your voice. Free choice, choice you must not sacrifice, is yours.

What are your current writing projects? I’ve recently completed two different manuscripts. The first is a memoir entitled Uncovered about my thirty years among the Lubavitcher Hassidim as a covered woman, a mother of seven, and a hidden lesbian. The second is entitled Not From Here, a collection of first-person accounts by immigrants and refugees to the U.S. from around the world telling the stories of their journeys. I think I did that project because, after leaving the Hassidim, I felt like an immigrant myself.