Jul 312014

I often compare my Hasidic childhood in Kiryas Joel to the Rockettes. Yes, those gorgeous 6 feet girls who perform on Broadway and dance and kick in perfect unison — yes, them. That’s how I remember it felt.

Let me explain.

Life in Kiryas Joel was many things; it was filled with female friendships, family, tradition, and constant stability. But when I try to articulate what affected me most in Kiryas Joel, I think about its discipline among women. It was like I was thrown onto the stage with these dancers. Kiryas Joel’s female population mastered perfect execution of societal choreography, self constraint, unity. We all didn’t look like these Rockettes below (or above), true, but all of my friends seemed to embody the same skill.

My all-girls classes were filled with well-groomed students ready to stand under the stage’s bright lights; to perform; to be perfect. The Hasidic community was the audience, they were all watching, the yentas and neighbors were eager to applaud or critique, and all we girls had to do was behave as we were taught. Everyone had the right postures, moved with beautiful precision, knew intuitively how to earn the approval of the crowd. They were not only modest; they were also as ‘spast, as was appropriate, and they were always “normal”, a standard that required execution of an indefinite number of rules. They could read social cues effortlessly and know without instructions what was right or wrong.

And then there was me. I was dancing with these Jewish Rockettes too, only I had no talent for it. I tried to dance; I more like bobbed; wobbled; flapped and yipped. I was as if short legged and clumsy, always absent minded and anything but a group person. I did not fit the costume at all and was an eyesore in the Hasidic girl’s uniform. As a younger kid my thick blue tights often trailed out of my shoe in a giant tail so I spent half the day tugging the stocking’s waistline up to my buttocks. People said my hair was never brushed but I didn’t know how they knew or why it mattered, and my pleated skirt was more puffy creases than pleats. No matter how hard I tried to be a Rockette, disheveled tombody I was, a Rockette I wasn’t. In this performance of religious behavior, my legs would never extend to the right length, my body would not deliver the right symmetrical movement, and my face couldn’t hold itself together with the perfect controlled smile. I was always forgetting what I was supposed to do, improvising, getting it right, getting it wrong, being weird, being silly, crying in public, laughing in public, doing things that didn’t belong on the Spectacular, raising eyebrows from the crowd, wanting to run off the stage.

I got suspended from school three times for being wild, behavior that was extremely shameful among mature girls. I was constantly in trouble. Every good or mediocre episode was a rare victory – a good report card, a pious prayer – and it was soon followed by a disaster; an inappropriate comment, troublemaking in class, just being scatterbrained.

I was always a sensitive soul and I internalized all of the criticism and let it eat at me. I spent much of my youth wishing I was like the others who were dazzling the crowd – good girls; great modest, help-at-home, mature girls – full of hope for their futures, making their mothers proud. I remember many, many nights in bed, curled up in my orange Spitzer’s nightgown, just hating myself. All I wished for was to stop being me.

My teachers, my parents, the neighbors, everyone cheered for my friends and sisters. “Spectacular!” they applauded. “Perfect! What fine, b’chaynt girls.What a joy to watch them!” and to me they’d offer encouragement: “Be like that! Do that! Follow the script! You can also be a fine Rockette!”

I wanted to be a Rockette. I wanted it so badly; I believed I could be like the others if only I tried hard enough. I kept promising myself to try. I would control myself, I would be good. I would make my mother proud. She would be so proud. She would cry naches tears and then my world would shine. I saw my mother among this audience as she watched me, I heard her pray at dawn and I knew she davened for me to improve, I saw her hopefulness that I’d get it right, then her disappointment when I acted “crazy” or “not normal” and everyone judged me. I was often upset with myself, but never as much as when I sensed the disappointment of my sweet mother who prayed every day for things to go more smoothly for me.

I often wondered why I couldn’t get it right. As I walked Forest Road to the Shopping Center, I remember trying to figure out: what’s wrong with me? Why am I so weird? Why do I break out into a sudden skip, almost as if I was overtaken by a tick, while walking in the street, when I was already a kallah meidel, big and grown up, and should be “normal?” Why did I laugh to myself or sing to myself or talk to myself while normal people just kept it together, even faced? What was wrong? I knew that no one would ever hurt me and tell me if I was somehow born with a disability that made me so terrible at what I needed to do, so I had no way of knowing what the problem was. But it was clear to me that there was something wrong. Everyone was so amazing. Whatever was wrong

On Hasidic Williamsburg

 Posted by on May 11, 2014
May 112014

A shirt I made on photoshop. It says “When in Williamsburg, Dress like a Williamsburger”

As many of you know, I’m a licensed New York City tour guide. I work in the city with groups (usually educational groups or Jewish congregations) that come to Hasidic Williamsburg to learn about its history and culture. While Visit Hasidim is only a part time project and I still have to keep my day job, being a tour guide is by all means the most enjoyable “job” I’ve ever had. My groups are usually highly intelligent visitors from all over, with contagious curiosity and enthusiasm. They don’t see the streets of Williamsburg as a show you come and watch. They see so much more. They see it in the context of world history, Jewish history, as a part of the global Jewish community today, and as an example of the ways in which cultures diverge. They often bring their own unique quest for identity to what they experience. They come to deepen their knowledge of the Jewish people, not to get a good look at caricatures. Their questions are intelligent and reflect knowledge of other elements of Jewish life.

The life and culture of Hasidism is a subject that I give a lot (a lot!) of thought to, and I love talking to others about it. I always try to step away from my biases and share raw material for my visitors to absorb and mull over. I get so much satisfaction when I hear different ideas bounced back to me.

There is also the pleasure of being a bridge between peoples. Often my groups engage in respectful conversations with Hasidim, an experience the students tell me they don’t forget afterwards. They hear ideas and worldviews that they could not hear elsewhere. After one particular conversation with three women, some of the students envied their simple lifestyle, yet others found their ignorance troublesome. On another occasion, the students were so impressed by the intelligence of a young Hasidic man they spoke to, that I heard feedback about it from one participant a year later!

It’s really an incredible learning opportunity.


Turning in My New Leaf

 Posted by on November 21, 2013
Nov 212013

The New Leaf that you see is a faux New Yorker magazine I’d done for a school project. Inside, I included a number of essays, poems and doodles and oodles of pretentious fonts and bylines. The results were quite fun. But I still love the cover most of all. Let me explain.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Skyline Hotel in New York City for the Footsteps 10th Anniversary Gala was that on this evening, my shoes were going to silently murder me. The second thing I noticed, and that completely made me forget the first, was that a magazine cover was blown up on beautiful poster board and placed on a table at the entrance of the program hall. There I stood, on my bloody Towers of Pumps, staring at my work that I’d almost forgotten. It looked so professional, published, sophisticated even, with its bold colors on light background. I hobbled around the table and informed everyone who did and didn’t care to know that I’d done it. (And I had.)

I drew this faux New Yorker cover – my New Leaf – a number of months ago. It is actually part of a larger work I created for an admissions application. A part of my endless and often frustrating graduate school career is the constant scrambling to complete lengthy funding or program admissions applications. For this creative writing application I decided to have some fun with it, and instead of simply sending in a 30 page essay, I compiled a number of my published and unpublished essays and some of my cartoons, and formatted it all in the style of a sleek New Yorker, complete with oodles of pretentious fonts and bylines. (I drew the line at umlauted diphthongs though, thank you very much).

I toyed with a cover concept, and decided to draw something clean and neat and came up with the dual woman, only with a twist. I like that she’s poised in both lives. There’s something to that. A friend surprised me and printed the pdf on glossy pages. One day, in the mail, I got my own real-looking magazine, complete with various author names, like F. Vizel and Frieda V. and the authentic New Yorker fonts. Mmm, fonts. Then it got lost somewhere in my house, with the thousands of other subscription mailings.

Works like these make the effort of learning amateur cartooning worth it. Actually, Amateur comes from the Latin word amare– to love. Amateurs are people who do what they do foremost because they love it; not because they are in the business of reaching financial and creative success. How it is that amateurism has become a negative term, I can only guess. Our world of over-education and perfectionism and ruthless careerism does not sufficiently appreciate the raw and perhaps sloppy works of the amare. We are much too success oriented for the amateur to be appreciated on the basis of loving his work alone.

But I love amateurism; and in the ways in my life that I am not the amateur I once was, I miss it. But I take solace; I will always be an amateur cartoonist. That is, unless I won’t be a cartoonist at all. That’s a dangerous thought; perhaps not an outrageous one, considering my doodling output has considerably slowed down. And my Photoshop drawing board, too, went the way of the old Macbook; to hell.

I still doodle; mostly to send ridiculous cards to friends of their adult faces lodged on their six month old bodies, or to put a note in my son’s briefcase with lavishly illustrated awards of recognition for him. Here and there, I doodle something to go with a written piece. Lately I’ve been writing more and I’ve been involved in some creative writing projects, and I enjoy playing with mixed media. But nothing beats a funny doodle with a biting punchline. Well, save for a funny doodle with a biting punchline and an amare flair, perhaps.

I did get an acceptance letter a few weeks after I submitted this compilation. But with a tuition price tag I can’t really afford, I felt a mix of excitement and disappointment. And then I moved on. It was wonderful to see it again at the Footsteps celebration that night, but then came the treat on top: up at the penthouse, where the dancing was supposed to happen, for the people whose shoes had spared their feet, someone sought me out. Someone downstairs, she said, wanted to buy a print. I took his business card and promised to be in touch. Did you know that a 1968 Francis Bacon painting was auctioned for $142 million last week? Who knows, my tuition may still get paid after all.

A final word about – and to – a living legend and cartooning inspiration: Bob Mankoff. Bob. Mr. Mankoff. Supposing you do see this. Mr. Mankoff– Bob, I am such a fan of yours. I would be honored and thrilled if we could have coffee. Don’t worry, I’m no ruthless cartooning manipulator. As I explained, I’m headed off to graze on other pastures. But if your people would call my people, and you could spare a half hour, I’d love to chat over coffee. I think I could learn a great deal from you and perhaps, who knows, you might even enjoy learning a thing or two from me.

Frieda Vizel, amare

On the Before and After

 Posted by on March 11, 2013
Mar 112013
Before leaving and after leaving

This cartoon was commissioned; I was asked to draw a before and after with approximate instructions. When it was done, I immediately worried about the before. The family looks too warm and sane. Doesn’t the official “before” picture come with an abusive rabbi in a dark basement or some dysfunctional family which festers dark secrets behind closed doors?

I suppose, I thought, after my pencil had brought to life a crowded and safe home, for me this is how I remember it. A religious childhood home can be safe, and warm and rich with tradition and it can still be stifling and oppressive and limited. It’s what makes leaving so damn hard.

Most of the time the journey from Hasidism out is depicted in a before and after template, the before picture consisting of a droopy nosed Hasid in a wild beard and a bride in frightening eighties wedding gown and hair that stands as wide as the shoulder pads. The after picture is glorified by a full shave, a target tshirt, the dippity do from the payos now in the hair. All of it, the critics say, very superficial.

So I took it upon myself to conduct a longitudinal survey with forty samples and find out what their before and after is like in words. The scientific approach behind it was to post the question on facebook and ask people to describe their before and after. The first thing the study proved is that OTDs are a group of wise guys

True Story

 Posted by on December 7, 2012
Dec 072012

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This “True Story” is the result of about twenty hours of work and some very misguided ideas about my artistic capabilities. I thought I’m a major illustrator there for a minute. A minute, no. The delusion lasted twenty butt-stuck-on-chair hours. In my mind it was hilarious. It isn’t.

Well, I kinda could say that scenes of changing clothing in public places always fluctuate between the very funny and the very miserable. I know all too well. I titled it “True Story” because I’ve seen with my own eyes as these things happen, although I’ll be dead in a shpitzle before I’ll admit that it was me I saw it happen to.

Such awkward dress changes happen because it’s the only way those restricted to the religious code of dress can wear hiking pants on a trail or a comfortable dress for a hot day in the city. When we are still officially in the fold, we are confronted with one of two options: dress religiously in a way that are completely uncomfortable in, or humiliate ourselves by pulling on tights and shirts and wigs in the back of taxis and behind poles in the subway and in public restrooms and emerge in civilized society entirely “normal”.

Why is the first option so bad? Why couldn’t I put up with just wearing whatever I wore as a religious woman and face the world as I am? Well, I know some women

On women shaving all their hair

 Posted by on October 2, 2012
Oct 022012
An Hasidic woman shaving a married woman's head

How can you cartoon about shaving? You have to. Because without some humor to lighten the subject, it’s hard for me to go there. Shaving my head was one of my most humiliating and hurtful experiences I went through as a chasidic woman. Before I got married, in our cart at the hardware store of china dishes and cutlery and hooks and potpourri, we placed a Braun electric shaver for me. Every month I plugged the shaver into the socket near the mirror, flipped on the black switch, and beginning from my forehead over to the back of my neck, held the vibrating machine at my soft little hairs as it fell to the side, the floor, into the bowl, down my back. Where I had shaved, my scalp showed itself in pale white, dotted with dark roots. When I was done, I was bald. I collected all of my hair and tossed it into the toilet and flushed.

I did this every month for years.

It wasn’t always so hard. At first I didn’t think about it much. I have only a very vague recollection of the first time my hair was shaved – by my mother on the morning after my wedding at eighteen, and not much more comes to mind of the first year. The whole ordeal was insignificant at a time of such tremendous life change; of starting to live with a man I didn’t yet know. I’d also been a tomboy growing up, and I was glad to get rid of my frizzy responsibility on my head. Every married woman shaved, and it was a prerequisite to marriage, a price I was willing to pay. But as the years went by and I turned twenty, twenty one, became a mother, matured and grew into myself, I no longer thought marriage was contingent on this tradition. I no longer felt hair was simply a messy mane. I no longer wanted to rub Panteen on my shaven, itchy head every night. I was a woman, and I ached to put a comb through my hair, to watch it fall softly to my shoulders, to feel dignified and feminine. I wanted to make decisions about my own body.

But still, I shaved. Every month. In Kiryas Joel, it can be almost impossible to hide growing hair, and without the support of the husband, entirely impossible. A hair sticking out of the turban, a neighbor noticing, a mikvah lady asking questions, a husband tell-tailing. I tried to rebel. I didn’t just take it lying down. But when a few months passed and my hair began growing so long it no longer stood straight but tilted over as if to bow to my forehead, the start of blonde bangs, word got out. One day, out of the blue, the phone in my kitchen rang, a religious woman sent by the leadership on the other end of the line. It was the phone call I dreaded all this time.

“I was sent to go down to your house and check if your head is completely shaven” she said in Hungarian Yiddish “so we can know that your tzadikl, your son, can be in cheydar. We cannot accept your neshamala into cheydar until you’ve done what every holy Jewish woman should do, so I’d like to come to your house as soon as possible.” Then she told me about the many blessings that will come to me for this great mitzvah, and she reminded me of the illnesses and accidents that come from women like me who cannot resist their feminine yetzer horah. She talked about cancer and recent tragedies and said that I never know if God had not sent them because of my sins.

I hung up the phone and felt shaken, my knees pulsing. She wanted to come to my home. She wanted to check under my turban. She wanted to see my bald head.

I had to let her. What choice did I have? I believed in none of what she said and thought her premise ludicrous. But banning my son from their school was a sure-way of forcing me to comply. My toddler, moping around on the kitchen floor, pulling on my duster, blabbling in Yiddish, needed to go to school. I applied to a different small privately run school in the community, but they returned a message through a relative that they are unfortunately unable to accept my son, pursuant to instructions from community leaders. I had no choice. I wasn’t prepared to take radical action like fleeing the community without money, a job, a school for my child, a degree or even a drivers license (women are not allowed to drive). I knew much better than to be impulsive in my very volatile situation. I stood to lose custody of my child, for heavens sake, if I ignited the community’s wrath. I had no legal support, no emotional support, no people behind me, no alternative cheyder, no way to stick up for myself. I was just me, a Chasidish lady among my Chasidish peers. I was helpless.

So one night I took out the shaver again, flipped the switch, and held it under my new side-part. I watched myself in the mirror. I was no longer a child bride. I had become a woman with opinions, ideas, aspirations and self-respect. I did not want to shave, I abhorred the control others had over my body. But I had to do it.

As I shaved from end to end over my scalp, tears streaked from my eyes and nose. When I was done I looked at my bald face in the mirror. And then I yelled. It was a scream that tore itself out of me in protest for every ounce of my dignity that was gone, for every hair of self-respect I cut away. For the fight I had lost, to our own. My grandmother was bald like this, in the war, because of the Nazis. I have her recordings of these memories, and the horror and pain of forcing a woman to shave is shocking. Yet we do it, to our own children, ourselves, our women. We should, they should, someone should know BETTER!

But no, the ritual continues to be enforced. I know women who continue to shave their heads against their will because they are too powerless to make decisions about their bodies. I don’t refer to women who believe in the ritual. I refer to those who don’t believe there’s value to it and don’t want to be bald. What are they to do? You may assume they simply need to be assertive, but do you realize that everything they have stands in the balance? Do you realize how at mercy of their Hasidic husbands and rabbis they are?

For me, this episode made me more determined in the long journey to take back control over my life and my child, earn a degree, save money, get a drivers license, find a good school for my son. But it left a very deep impression on me — about how vulnerable mothers in the community are. I learned that women who become mothers at a young age are essentially powerless, because anything they try to do puts the children in the balance. To me, shaving embodies the enormous power the community has to make its rebellious women naked, humiliated, powerless and defenseless. I feel strongly that more needs to be done to help the women who want different things for themselves and their children.

I don’t shave anymore but it still hurts, a scar that refuses to heal.

On Leaving

 Posted by on June 21, 2012
Jun 212012
Leaving Brooklyn? No Vey!

Leaving Brooklyn

Satmar leaders often told me: “We demand that you follow the rules. If you don’t like our rules then you have a choice. You can leave.”


Really? How exactly can I leave, what with my young child deep in the system’s throes, how?

Officially, those who don’t comply can leave. After all, they’ll all say, the community strives to maintain utmost purity in its schools and in its homes and does not want my or your or anyone’s filthy ideas about individuality or modernity or cross-country cycling (that’s mine) infiltrating their community. But the truth is that they don’t want you to leave either; they aggressively don’t want you to leave. That’s because the Hasidic community is a social construct in which one departure pulls a thread out of the whole fabric of the community. A man or woman who leaves implicates the sibling’s marital prospects, the “poor abandoned spouse”, the “grieving parents”, quite often young children who are on the threshold of two worlds, and all the other neighbors, friends, or unrelated gawkers who may be led to think or take action as a result.

If you are happy in the community, good for you. But if you are unhappy, the reality is sadly very grim. Leaving it is a journey through hell via the extended scenic route.

The community is set up like an onion; layers upon layers that keep you in the system in various ways, and oh, how it can make you cry. You are sewn into its fibers by relations to friends and family you love; you have no one else. You are married before you are old enough to make a choice, and then tied to a spouse and soon children. You have little vocational training; no financial headstart, no education or personal development, no practical world knowledge, a language barrier and a cultural barrier and the barriers just piled so thick, to slice through them you weep. You are so bred into the system psychologically and emotionally, you may not be able to leave even when all logistical boundaries have been removed.

The result is that even if you feel you outgrew the community and the community oppresses you, judges you, hurts you, controls you, bleeds you and robs your spunky spirit and crazy opinions, you may not be able to imagine yourself anywhere else. You may not hope to leave. You may not be able to part with kin and kind. The bind that this creates is a double life fraught with conflict and restrictions too painful to imagine. There’s a growing underground community of double lifers who are finding support and ideas among each other. I know some of them to be incredibly unique, often gifted and supremely talented, with ideas and interests that sets them apart from any mainstream culture. They are resigned to go through hundreds of rituals a day that have no meaning to them and keep secrets from loved ones, because their loved ones cannot accept their truth.

And if you want to leave, if you cannot bear another minute of no freedom, intimidation and raising children against your beliefs, then slather your skin with lots of protection, because hell’s rays blister to the bottom of the soul. Leaders may tell you to go and good riddance, but they will also tell you that they will do all they can to make your life miserable. If you are a parent, the children will be pawns through which they will not let you go. I know this because I’ve been through it. They will tell you they will ensure that your children will be barred from every frum school, that your spouse will be “saved” from you and your marriage torn, that you will have to fight a losing custody battle in which you will be vastly outdone in power, support and money. That you will be ostracized, isolated, defamed and lonely. They will tell you that while you can make a choice, your children cannot be part of that choice. After all, you made a commitment upon marriage (at puberty; when you may have otherwise made a commitment to move to the moon and cure your acne) to raise your children Hasidic. So why, go, go, good riddance, leave your children you carried in your womb and nestled on your breast and go wander the world alone. It’s what you want, isn’t it? Now why aren’t you going yet? It’s a choice, a choice!

Oh?! Oh no, that’s no choice. If any parental tie is torn to bloody shreds when we “can choose” to leave, then NO Mister Rabbi, we don’t have a choice. When our children will be allowed to have relationships with both parents, when children won’t be turned against the leaving parent, that’s when we’ll have a choice. When family won’t close their doors on their own, when a mother won’t have to fight tooth and nail to retain custody of her children, that’s when we’ll have a choice.

The reality is a horrible nightmare of power and control that cruelly attacks anyone who threatens the system. Those inside who are content may not understand the need to leave or the pain one goes through when stuck in a system they want out of, and in that way, they are complicit in the ostracizing, gossiping and investing money in fighting the leaver.

My only solace is that the present situation will improve, that leaving will become easier. It simply has to. Footsteps, an organization aimed to helping those who leave, is growing its resources for parents. There’s also a new organization called “Unchained at Last”, for women in particular. There’s increased social support for those who are in the process of making this decision, online especially. Perry Reich brought national media attention to this issue when she went on Dr. Phil about her own custody battle. Some Hasidic parents are finding out that it is alright not to fight their OTD ex; it is best for the children for the parents amicable. And more awareness and writing from those on the other side, who have survived this nightmare and managed to resettle and salvage their cherished bonds, gives hope to those who want the same.

And there’s the human spirit and our loved ones. We can only hold on to that and keep going, keep going, keep going, until hell can’t hurt us anymore.

On Hasidic Women

 Posted by on May 25, 2012
May 252012

Stormtroopers coming to liberate chasidic women from cultural oppression

Recently, Hasidic women became the subject of much heated debate after a fluffy little article by a Chabad woman named Chaya sparked inter-web-wide conversations. Let me precede by saying that I am absolutely qualified to add to the conversation since I am NOT a chabad woman and NOT a baales tshuva (yet) and NOT even Satmar (anymore). And because I have many siblings and friends who are true, authentic, Satmar Hasidic women.

What troubled me about these recent conversations was the absence of a single Satmar woman’s voice. We heard Deborah Feldman, who was Satmar in one of her pre-celebrity incarnations, and I am writing, having been Satmar without any celebrity incarnations, but Satmar women themselves said nothing. Can a Chaya from Satmar speak up? I assume the task of trying to explain what drives a Satmar woman feels impossible to any one of them. And Satmar women too seem to have resigned to the reality that the outside world just doesn’t get them.

It is indeed true that Satmar women shave their heads. Yes, indeed they are taught not to use birth control. Yes, they are relegated to the women’s section and unwelcome at male events. They are required to dress to the inch of the law of the town, and they do not choose their husbands. They send their underwear to the rabbi. They are not allowed to drive.

It is a life of law and limits for a Satmar woman.

But what do Satmar women say about these rituals? How do Hasidic women keep sending off underwear while they wait for the secular media to swoop in and liberate them? Can we try to understand what compels a Hasidic woman to adhere to these rituals and pass it on to her children?

Hasidic women live in a radically different culture than the secular American culture, and their world is more complicated and nuanced than the mere sum of these rituals. Things that seem strange and unjust to outsiders are natural and non-issues to Satmar women. A combination of indoctrination and very little exposure to different ideas makes for a community of women who themselves know only a world of motherhood and piety. They invest themselves in the home and find power and passion within the framework of their available religious outlets.

As a woman’s history student myself (yes, baby!), I often, in my studies, come across scenarios of women who voluntarily took upon themselves the most extreme stringency of religion. Nuns who fasted for days or Indian widows who jumped into the fire; these are extreme examples of women who embraced their religious, patriarchal setting and found passion and power within it. They did not want to be liberated.

In Hasidic culture, most women embrace their lifestyle and expand on the rules and regulations. Many women WANT to have many babies even while rabbis increasingly dispense birth control. These women direct their energy towards their children because it’s a community that invests itself towards its future generations, and because women find motherhood to be their only venue to express their passion and interest. And many find joy in these things. A woman without a baby will sit among her friends conspicuously childless, feeling as empty and misplaced as a secular woman without a career. A good friend of mine recently visited a rabbi for a blessing of a child, after five children and three years without another pregnancy.

When I was Hasidic, the women were the ones who were often the imposers of the law: the Hasidic women washed my back in the mikvah and commented on the length of my shaven hair; the women criticized my open neckline or sent me letters in the mail about my deviances; the women encouraged new rules to enhance community purity and stringencies.

Of course, as I became disenchanted and increasingly frustrated with the Hasidic lifestyle, I no longer understood the passion or conviction Hasidic women find in their lifestyle. I was no longer able to shave my head or send my underwear in the most nonchalant way. I began to experience everything that was previously sacred and natural as oppressive and strange.

Hasidic women may be content to spend their day washing dirty faces, rocking the baby carriage, preparing flowers for the holiday, washing the floors until the apartment smells of Mr. Clean and Challah and dressing the family in their holiday best. Perhaps in the midst of all this they also check their vagina for blood. It’s five seconds of their day and it’s hardly what they think about when they go to sleep at night.

The same experiences can feel suffocating and outrageous to Deborah Feldman and others like her who are on the fringe or who already left. Because once someone does not want to belong to the community, once someone chooses another lifestyle, there is hardly a way out. With a cloistered community that believes in the ultimate law, the community rears its ugly head at those that test its limits. That’s an ugly side many content Satmar women who toe the line never know, and I didn’t know until I began to ask for more myself.

We can decry Satmar women’s oppression and demand their liberation. But we’ll be missing the point. Satmar women don’t want to be saved. But problems exist in the community that need to be addressed. Increasing awareness and resources for Hasidic victims of domestic violence or women (and men!) who want to leave are some of the ways we can have a conversation about the problems in the Hasidic community without narrowly judging a people from the prism of our own culture.

The Get

 Posted by on September 26, 2016
Sep 262016


I remember you told me once that you like to watch me take off my rings. You said that all of my stubbornness comes through when I try to wrench them off. You said it teasingly, laughing at me lovingly, pulling my sweaty hands apart and slipping the wedding band off my finger.

Do you remember that now as I remove my ring and set it on the rabbis desk in the bes din room, near my coat and bag, looking as white as I did the day our marriage began? Do you see me trembling, my stubborn perseverance hanging on to its last fight; my willfulness slowly failing with our marital death? I wonder if youll look at me with my fingers naked of your gold, shaking, aching for your comforting bond to return. But your bearded face is turned to your father and brothers while you talk amongst each other somberly. Youre wearing your gartel over your calf-length suit jacket. Its what you wear for special events, for occasions like this monumental one, when you are to make me, me I who crept into your arms and I who share your baby a stranger. It seems like yesterday that you wore the gartel to Chanukah lighting and you bounced our baby on your knee, smiling at me proudly. But you wont look at me now. Im a stranger. Im far away from your familiar touch, a million heartbreaks apart, miles into my stubborn hell, a gaping chasm of religious differences dividing us towards an inevitable end.

The Rabbi asks me to inspect my hands to make sure I set down everything I had. I know that its a tradition at the get not to have a kinyen or accessory on you, parallel to the tradition of our wedding day. The rabbi talks with his eyes on me. You wont look at me, but he does. His acknowledgment of my presence is too kind, threatening to emit warmth thatll melt my brittle faade of bravery. I dont want to let them see how I feel in this quiet room in the synagogue on this sad day of parting. Im the only woman in the room filled with Hasidic men. I dont know most of them, but I can guess they know of me. Everyone around is blurred by a terrible weakness in me. Even you I dont see clearly. The sofer is finishing writing the get by hand. I hear my heart beating wildly. I look at you, and you glance at me before you divert your gaze. I know you hear my heart beating. Im still alive; my heart still pounds its stubborn melody, you know it does even though I stumbled on a path you do not want to walk with me. Im not so innocent or moldable anymore, I agree, but Im still the same Satmar girl. And I love you still. Even though I read books and found my voice and ask for a life of more rights and liberty, that same heart you knew from its fragile first days as your eighteen year old wife beats in me. Now it thumps, whacks, bangs its stubborn sound. It calls to you, the only man Ive ever known.


You do not hear the voice of a stranger and you walk towards the sofer to whisper something into his ear. The proceedings take long and I feel cold. I fix my eyes on my warm coat on the table but I cant see anything except a veneer of tears. We bought this coat together. It has a swing and opened wide with my expanding figure when we awaited Leahele.

Im not alone, Yoelish. I have friends who support me and will comfort me when your familiar reassurance is gone. But they struggle to understand me. They wont appreciate that I can feel this way at a time of betrayal and divorce. They dont know how far Ive come with your support, only to come too far, beyond the territory you wanted to support. They cannot comprehend that even though I love you, the role of a wife and mother that is required from that love is not something I can give you. They wont understand that sometimes were confronted with diverging convictions, and as desperately as we hold onto the relationship, our deep beliefs drive a sharp knife through the bond. Our virgin marriage has become too small for our growing differences. Its time to let go.

The Rabbi wants me to step over to where you stand. I walk cautiously to you directly, Yoelish, oh, my heart explodes. I can smell your familiar sweat. My head swims with memories of your nightgown and tsitsis and our bedtime talks. My limbs fire up inside with hope that quickly burns to ashes with the dreadful realization that standing so close will only be followed by standing apart, forever. Forever. Yoelish, can you live without me forever? Forever? And our Leah?

I stand in front of you, a hugs distance. I cry quietly. A cathartic release surges in sobs as I stand here in this frightening room, with you, my husband, in front of me. I hear you sniff. I feel comfort, relief by your presence. I miss you already.

Youre given the divorce document. Im instructed to cup my hands and catch it because youre not permitted to pass it to me directly. I hold my hands. Silently, you let the document go, and it falls together with my tears. I receive my pain and my hopes for freedom into my curled fingers. I take it, put it under my arm, and walk a few steps towards the door in accordance to the Rabbis directives.

Done. Mazel Tov, they say. Im a grisha, the stigmatized rejected woman, and young single girl and many other things I choose to be. Ive come here today by myself in order for this to happen. And now I must go home by myself.

Lets go home, Yoelish. The loneliness is strangling me.

I straighten my back and try to fix my faade. I return to the rabbis and hand them the document that testifies were now strangers.

You ask me quietly for forgiveness, and I nod tearfully. I look at you for the last time. I want to tell you Im making fleish and ferfel for supper for us tonight, that we should go for a walk around Keiv Road when Leahele is asleep, but you wont be home for supper or for our daughters bedtime. You and your father and your brothers leave the bes din without looking at me again. Its the last Ill see of you for the foreseeable future. Youll go on to slash my heart again soon by quickly remarrying and moving on with a new Hasidic family, with a wife who doesnt stubbornly take birth control and resist shaving her head. Ill continue to mourn you, Yoelish, as youre alive in my child, youre alive in the Chasidic child in me. But eventually Ill be alright. You know Im stubborn. Slowly, youll become a stranger to me too.

 Comments Off on The Get