How my childhood was like the Rockettes

How my childhood was like the Rockettes

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-constrained, uniform. 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 tomboy 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 – it was me.

For many years, I thought something was wrong. My hope was that I could fix it and make it right. It was years before I began to think that perhaps there was something different about me, and that difference does not mean wrong.

I learned to deal with my ruthless self-loathing by embracing the role of the clown and always being the butt of the joke. But I was never taken seriously, and I felt like no one ever saw ME, the me that I believed I could be, the me that was not *only* a bad Rockette.

When I finally left the Hasidic community four years ago, I knew a heavy curtain would fall between me and my entire world. After so many years, it was so hard to go. It was just hard to leave it all – the intimate family, the hope, the progress, the small successes, the world I created there, the humor I mastered, the friendships I made, the costumes that had all my sweat stains on them. But I had to go. I could no longer try. I could no longer pretend. I could no longer even hope to be like the others. I could no longer beat myself up. I could no longer take my own wrath.

People always ask why I left, and I have many answers. But to me, the question that boggles me is how I was ever there. Anyone could see: I am not made to be a Rockette.

I know that many of my friends in the Hasidic community will look at me and ask “Rockette what?” — and not only because Hasidim don’t know anything about Christmas dancers. Not everyone in the community experienced the social pressure as intensely or the discipline as constricting. Not everyone bolts at a whiff of authority or feels like they are in a straightjacket if they are ever told what to do. True, not everyone feels as controlled, but that didn’t make it any better for me. I look at the world around me and see that people are different, find meaning in different ways of life, and I respect that some people can be okay with the demand for conformity. Only I expect respect for people’s differences in return. There will also always be those like me, odd-balls and free spirits, individualists and adventurers, who were dropped by the stork at the wrong gig, who will always struggle with the feeling that they can never live up to what they were asked to perform on.

For those people, those Rockettes with short legs, I feel so much sadness. I do wish they’d be allowed to be themselves, that they wouldn’t be judged, or that they’d be let off the stage so that they would no longer measure themselves by a standard that is not for them. Because a Rockette with short legs can also be a girl with a great mind or a guy with great wits or a person with the unique quirks that make him or her special.

I know that I will always feel the pain that I failed as a Rockette, disappointed my parents, hurt all who had invested so much in my future. But I am glad that I left. I can now try to be good at other things. And I am even more glad that I can raise a child with the opportunity to dance any way he wants, freestyle, salsa, the tango, hip-hop, or even like a Rockette.

Sometimes, early morning in our home far away from Kiryas Joel, when the rest of the world is sleeping and the coffee is brewing and my son and I are still in our pajamas, we break into a silly dance of booty shaking and whirling and twirling and loopy jumping. Then I am happy. I am happy that despite all the hard times, I’m still dancing, with new moves and old moves combined. And that I dance to my own beat.

  • Itchemeyer
    Posted at 03:39h, 02 August Reply

    Made me cry.

  • Natalia
    Posted at 13:33h, 02 August Reply

    You’re such a gifted writer Frieda… before I start reading any of your articles or blogposts I think: “please let this be long!” You should definitely write a book.

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 18:48h, 03 August Reply

    I so identified with it. Thank you for expressing what I feel every day. I’m still here with the Rockettes but trying to bring up my children to feel free to dance to their heart’s content.

  • Frieda Vizel
    Posted at 19:13h, 03 August Reply

    Thanks so much for your comments. And it’s so encouraging to hear people still care to read longer entries!

  • Vill Visen
    Posted at 00:19h, 04 August Reply

    Ooh it’s so much in the head. I find people that think so much of what they believe others think about them as having miserable lives, and if not fixed upstairs no matter how communities one leaves it’ll still be there.

  • OnTheOtherHand
    Posted at 16:11h, 04 August Reply

    Frieda, Frieda, Freida;
    As usual; very well written.
    Yes, it evokes painful emotions for many of us -especially those stock in the system- But you manage to make it humorous.
    Just so you know; That is your unique specialty; writing such heart wrenching stuff and still manage to get a smile from the reader while reading it.
    Can you accept a compliment ? I hope you can.
    Now , a word about the picture
    It’s beautiful. (Of course it is, and I bet you knew that without me telling you)
    However; I wish one half would show the man “Rockettes” as well.
    While in the The real “Rockettes” – The link you gave us to Wikipedia- there aren’t any men; in the Chasidic Teather, we -men/boys- are expected to choreograph our lives just as the woman.
    While I’m not entirely sure what I’m saying here; I guess that I’m saying that the issue you raise is one that apply to men just as much as it applies to women.
    Wishing you a happy T’bav.
    Oh; one more point.
    Never mind. Forget it. Maybe next time.
    Have a grand one.

  • Frieda Vizel
    Posted at 07:14h, 05 August Reply

    You. Always cracks me up.
    Well, actually I didn’t feel like I could speak for the male experience. The Hasidic community is very gendered. We need a male (perhaps YOU?) to tell us about that.

  • Friend
    Posted at 06:24h, 06 August Reply

    Your hero status amongst the obedient penguin crowd and of course the great anticipation for your book is the poignant way you keep the narrative focused on you and your life and struggle rather than painting the whole yiddishkeit with a big black paint roller.

  • Frieda Vizel
    Posted at 07:17h, 06 August Reply

    “Hero status among the obedient penguin crowd” and “anticipation for your sefar”
    I think you’d meant to leave this comment for one of the Teitelbaum brothers.

  • Katherine
    Posted at 02:36h, 06 March Reply

    Hey I think your story is very interesting. I am on a familiar route with not fitting into religious community life. The difference is I’m Christian and I’ve been through a few religious communities that always disappoint me. It’s almost refreshing to find such similar circumstances.
    I just want to encourage you that you are a woman of dignity as a daughter of God!

    Posted at 18:00h, 07 August Reply

    […] fitting in as a Hasidic […]

  • Jeffrey Spencer
    Posted at 17:52h, 18 November Reply

    I can imagine its not easy, all of the time of self reflection, self realization, and barring your “soul” with the rest of us.

    There aren’t many people who can share they way you do. You a truly a “Wonder Woman”

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