August 25, 2021 #32 of Podcast: From forced head-shaving to forced injections
A trip down memory lane, remembering my struggle for bodily autonomy within the Hasidic community. What does it mean to be forced? Is coercion force?
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In today’s episode, I want to share with you a little bit about my struggle for bodily autonomy, which is something I’m thinking back now on during this period of intense anxiety about the COVID-19 vaccine mandates, testing, masking mandates, and the general struggle for bodily autonomy.
I grew up in a truly unusual world. I was born in 1985 in New York, in a New York hospital. But my family was part of this Jewish religious community called Satmar Hasidim. I am the fifth child of fifteen. And although my mother had more children than the average, the village I grew up in routinely had families that reached the double digits in the number of children they had. This village was like an insular bubble in the middle of modern America. And it was comprised of largely Holocaust survivors and their descendants who had come to America when they had no choice but to flee the communist regimes of the countries they were living in after the war, for instance, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. And they came to New York because freedom of religion had become more of a possibility here in New York then it had in their hometowns in Europe. And if there was one thing they came with that they were sure about, it was that they did not want to Americanize or assimilate. Hence, they created these very, very insular settlements of their own people.
The community I grew up in was 99% white. It was only people from our own community that I knew and had friendships with and that I went to school with. And I was almost entirely shielded from any culture outside of the ones our grandparents had brought to New York with them after the war. So, I grew up with an extremely gender-segregated world. Our schooling, our education, our roles were very different for men and women. We had gender roles and clothing that were specific to each gender and for each and every aspect of life. The number of rituals and rules were always enormous and also taken for granted as normal. We had no TV. We spoke Yiddish – even though I was raised in New York, my first language is Yiddish. We didn’t play… we had some Gameboy, but we didn’t play, no movies or none of the entertainment of the secular world, no public school, of course. And marriages were arranged at 18. There were a lot of rules around that. And because marriages were arranged at a young age, and birth control was not allowed, or at the very least, it was not introduced to the newly married couple, so you had to learn about it on your own, families ultimately were very large.
So, this was, of course, completely normal to me and to all of us. For the most part, I was always curious, I was always wondering on these rare occasions when I went to the dentist – it was before the Hasidic community had their own dentist, we would go to Dr. Goldberg, Dr. Bromberg – and my eyes would be wide with the sight of different people. But on the whole, all of our customs seemed to me to be that’s just a fact of life. It was an immutable norm.
And among these customs was the custom that married women shaved their heads. The morning after a woman got married, her mother came over. So, a couple got married in an arranged marriage, and the couple spent their first night together in an apartment that had been beautifully outfitted for the two of them. And it was the first time that a couple spends in any kind of intimacy, or this man and woman actually spends any time alone together. So, the custom is that the morning after this first initiation night, the mother of the bride comes to her apartment, they have a little bit of an intimate moment because the husband is usually off to his morning prayers. So, it’s an opportunity for the mother to sort of look after her newly flown bird from the nest, make sure she’s all right. And a part of that visit or a pretense for that visit is to shave her head and to debut her married woman’s head garb. And the married women of our community wore various different head garbs. Some of them were more religious, some of them were more Western, more modern, because they were, let’s say, a wig that looked like real hair. And whatever head garb a woman had spent months before the wedding preparing, styling, buying accessories for, would be debuted after this head shaving ritual. And I had older sisters and had seen them go through the ritual. So, for me, it was how it was. It was completely normal. It was impossible, in my mind, to imagine that someone can be a mama, a mother, meaning a married woman, that’s what a married woman was synonymous, for me, with a mother and have hair coming out of her scalp.
I remember one of those rare occasions we were outside of the community for one of those holidays where we went to an amusement park. And this was the occasional and rare and somehow routine, one of those exceptions that are taken for granted as normal that we went to an amusement park during one of those two major holidays of the year. And I remember standing in line waiting for my turn on the ride. And there was a what seemed to me gentile – she wasn’t dressed Hasidic. So, everyone who wasn’t dressed Hasidic was a gentile to me. And there was this gentle family in the line with us queuing up for the ride. And I remember noticing that the mother had hair coming out of her head. And I thought how is it possible? Physically? How does hair come out of…? It would be like someone told me that someone had a baby without their belly expanding. It was a physical impossibility that a mother would have hair.
And I saw here and there my own mother’s shaven head because when she went out shopping or on errands or celebrations, weddings, and charity parties, and so on, as soon as she came in, she would want to take off her headgear, because the headgear is this elaborate get up on the head that is uncomfortable. It’s itchy. It requires multiple pins to keep it in place. My mother wore what’s called a frizet, and it had some wisps in the front to frame the face, a wig of wisps, but on top of it, it had a whole concoction of expensive scarf that was puffed and folded in a way that was just right to really accentuate her face and her features, all the things adults talked about, especially my aunt who was supposed to be this big expert, and she would have all these comments about how to tie the scarf just right. So, when my mother went out, she would put on this big getup. But when she came home, the dress down, the sweats version of the head covering was a turban, terry turban. It’s very comfortable, you just slip it on your head, and I always liked it, and you’re good to go.
So as soon as she came home, she would go to the shpigel-closet, which is the chest with a mirror in her bedroom, and she would take off her whole wig head getup, put it on the wig stand, and it was a very smooth process. You slide the turban up from the front while the headgear system comes out from the back. It’s like changing your bathing suit back into your clothing in a public pool. You don’t want to just make a full display of yourself so you kind of slide one on. It’s an intricate dance. And my mother would perform it while we would gather around her and want to tell her how the babysitting went and who was fighting with whom and what happened in school. And I would always see during this process that her head was shaved. And again, it didn’t strike me as strange. It was how mamas were. It was how mothers were. They were different from kids. I had a ponytail, and she didn’t. And when I would get married, I would be like her.
So, the fact that I would one day be obligated to perform that custom on myself, in fact monthly in order to keep the head shaved, didn’t disturb me at all. And when it was my turn to get married, and my marriage was arranged, I really didn’t know the boy, I had much, much bigger problems in my head and worries then head shaving. I was hoping he wouldn’t be too religious, he wouldn’t be too fanatical. I was, more than anything, worried about being able to retain a degree of freedom and not to have one of those overbearing husbands. But I also was busy making trips to Williamsburg to my aunt, who was the big wig maker, who was threading highlights into my wig. It was just going to be a little bit of bangs coming down, but it was a whole to-do. So that head shaving barely, barely passed a thought in my mind when we went shopping to get all the stuff at the hardware store from the dishes to various appliances, we got an iron, and we got a blender and we got a bush machine and we got a shaver. And that was about it.
I had one close friend with whom I could talk secrets, with whom I could share little things I had seen on a billboard or on a book that we weren’t allowed to read, who had a head of the thickest golden hair. And she was very proud of her hair. Now I was a tomboy, and my hair was a pain in the neck. It was always curling and frizzing. And I didn’t really to her pride in her hair at all. So, before we were to get married, everyone was sort of getting married at the same time, she told me that she really doesn’t want to shave her head. And I said this is the fight? This is the hill you’re going to die on? This is the battle you pick? It seemed to me to be entirely vain. I almost think I judged her, thinking you have all these other things going on, and this you care about? And after her wedding, she told me that the morning after her wedding, she locked herself in the bathroom and her mother banged on the door and told her, “Open the door. I need to… I’m here for the upsheren, for the head-shaving ritual.” And she cried, “No, no, I don’t want to.” And ultimately, she relented. And it was a very, very traumatic experience for her. And I struggled to understand what the big deal was. I just didn’t understand why anyone would care any way – your head is covered, even when you’re sleeping because you sleep with a turban. So why would you care? All you’re going to have is stinky hair under the turban. Why pick your fight here?
And so it was for me. Here is my memory of my head shaving. I had just gotten married. And we had all these Israeli relatives with their overbearing presence that had come and were putting up all these parties. And we had come off a week of parties. And it was the first night after I had spent any substantial amount of time with this man. And my mother came over, and all I could think was don’t ask questions, don’t ask questions. This is so awkward. All I wanted was for the procedure to finish without her asking, “So how was it?” which just made me blush piping red just at the thought of it.
So that was it. She shaved my head, she put on my headgear. And a month later, before I went to the ritual bath, which is the custom every month after a woman’s period, you go to the ritual bath, and part of the preparation, you clip your nails and you wash yourself thoroughly, you brush your teeth, and you also go over your head with the shaver again, and that’s part of the routine. And I did that to myself by myself. And I didn’t really look; I can’t really pull off a shaved head. I’m not like one of those Hollywood celebrities like Keira Knightley who can make a shaved head look gorgeous. I just didn’t really look at myself while I shaved. That’s where it ended. And that was that.
In total, I shaved my head for five years. Every month or so for five years, my head was always shaved. I never got to put my fingers or a hairbrush through my hair. I never got to soap it and lather it. It was always pretty much my scalp. Us girls would make fun, us married women would have these self-deprecating jokes about being a kiwi head because of the tiny spikes that would come out of our heads when our heads were shaved. And so, it went for five years.
But during that five years, something really shifted for me. And it was a gradual process through exposure of motherhood, of married life, the freedoms of married life, which were a very big deal for me and gave me the opportunity to read things and be exposed to ideas I hadn’t before, especially the internet. I slowly came to learn to ask questions, to learn to articulate these niggling confusions inside my mind into coherent questions. So, something that was, well, we shave our heads because it’s a fact of life and because I can’t understand anything enough to ask questions, crystallized with time into this very enormous question: Why the heck would women shave their heads every month upon marriage? You’re not doing it for your husband. You’re not doing it for modesty. So, what’s the point?
This question bothered me so much that it’s probably my single biggest, unfinished project. I spent years after I left the community gathering information and trying to put pieces of this picture together. And it is definitely a mystery that has no easy answer. Even the rabbis don’t really understand why and how it came about that women of the Hasidic community shave their heads. All we really know is that it predates the Holocaust. It was a widely practiced custom in Eastern Europe among Orthodox Jews. There were old books from the 1700s, 1800s, in which the custom of the bride being taken like a sheep to be shorn is recounted. And we know that when the Satmar rabbi, who was rescued from Nazi occupation through the intervention of various emissaries, through the intervention of various powerful forces, as far as I understand, Zionist forces, even though he was anti-Zionist, various powerful lobbies, he came to America, and it was his mission to ensure that his community retained the custom.
I had a conversation with Nelly Grussgrott last year. She is, I believe, 90 years old, a character of a woman, and she was born in Berlin and came to America just at the start of the war, just enough that she had experienced horrible atrocities, and her father was killed in the war. She told me that she lived in Williamsburg. And even though she wasn’t a Hasidic kid at all, the local rabbis refused to initiate her wedding ceremony unless she took it upon herself to shave her head.
This was very common. The Holocaust survivors picked these fights that were very symbolic, very emblematic, and they demanded that anyone who wanted to be in the community had to comply with them, even if they hadn’t practiced these customs before the war, even if they had dropped these customs and seen them to be archaic. I would argue that, to them, it was a way to make sure that there was complete compliance, that only those who were willing to really make sacrifices were initiated into the bubble of the community. It was a system of ensuring the survival of the customs by demanding that those who join make these enormous sacrifices. Because a lot of the people who became a part of the Satmar Hasidic community weren’t originally from the original Satmar Hasidim. Most of the Satmar Hasidim died in the war. It was an eclectic bunch of survivors who had been Hasidic, but from a different group or who had been not Hasidic at all, who slowly started to morph into this homogenous Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg.
And in the village I grew up in, Kiryas Joel, the rabbis made these demands on modesty. They emphasize these things like modesty because, I believe, they intuitively understood how much these sacrifices created a cultural preservation mechanism. If people make the sacrifices, then they are symbolic, they are an investment, and they create a differentiation system between those who are serious about it and those who are not. So, in order for you to send your children to school, to belong to the Satmar community, to have your children be married off in the Satmar institutions, you needed to shave your head as a married woman. It was not negotiable. It was not explained, or even allowed to ask why? Because our parents did this. Because, to quote Fiddler on The Roof, tradition. It was tradition and end of story. If you ask more questions, then you’re a troublemaker.
So, for me, to formulate this question was in itself a tremendous act of emotional separation. When you start to ask certain questions in your life, usually at that point, you have emotionally separated yourself from the taboos, the you’re not allowed to ask this. And when you give voice and you acknowledge that the niggling thoughts in your head are valid, that becomes that moment, that break. And so, it was for me. Even though I was a young mother in the Hasidic community, entirely, only ensconced in this world with no contacts outside of it, my job was a Hasidic insurance firm, my family was from this community, my husband’s family, my child’s future education institution, everything was part of this world. But I had made this emotional break in asking this question, which I could not answer.
And the interesting thing was that once I had asked this question – why the heck do we shave our heads? – and once I realized that it made no sense, it became excruciating, absolutely excruciating, to do it. It had been so much a non-issue that I had thought in my mind that my friend was vain for not wanting to shave her head. And suddenly to turn on that shaver and to pass it over my scalp was brutally, brutally difficult. It was a ritual of self-humiliation, of subjugating myself, and making myself feel just like I was surrendering myself to an embarrassing, nobody. I can’t even put words to why it was so painful, but it was. And it wasn’t… it wasn’t vain. It was painful because it was not something that made sense to me. It was not something I wanted to do. It was something I did not want to do. And that’s when it changed from being something I could dismiss as a non-issue to being impossible to describe how great the violation felt. And that’s what made me stop to shave my head.
So, okay, great, I stopped shaving my head; you’ll say that’s the end of the story. But of course, with oppressive worlds, it doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with oh, well, my body, my choice, I’ve made the decision. There’s a whole philosophy about how everyone is responsible for each other, and everyone’s acts affect each other. And therefore, you cannot simply now stop to shave your head. You cannot simply now say it’s my body, I don’t want to do it to myself, I have chosen this, and that’s the end of it. Uh-uh-uh-uh. No because, see, your actions affect others.
So, you’re going to say how? Well, how does my head shaving affect others? Well, first of all, in a very practical sense, if I stop shaving my head, and the women who work in the ritual baths, who walk you down the marble hallway as you go to immerse yourself in the purifying water before you’re reunited with your husband – this is the whole ritual purification process – there are these staff members who make sure your nails, your fingernails are clean, just check over your back and your scalp, they notice, and they gossip, and they report, and they say something. So now, people maybe know. Maybe your husband says something. Well, my husband… And then now the reputation of the various people related to me is affected because people start to gossip. Furthermore, there are various institutions that you’ll now be excluded from. Well, maybe you won’t even be able to send your child to school. And there’s no choice but to send your child to school. This is an extremely communal world. You can’t have your child stay at home. It would… there is absolutely no system for homeschooling. There is no one to organize anything with. And furthermore, if you cannot send your child in school, it pretty much will give the community an excuse to say that you’re depriving your child of essential socializing, which I think you would because there is no network of socializing outside of these huge, very important social institutions in the community.
So, in a practical level, those around you will say if you stop shaving your head, you’re affecting me. My child is not accepted in the institution, everyone is talking about me. But on a spiritual level, I think this is very interesting, there’s always the argument that anyone’s violation of the dictates of modesty causes enormous consequences for the community’s health and wellbeing. So, if you wear something that’s immodest, if you – this is especially something that’s brought up with regards to women’s modesty – if you dress in a way, if you violate the rules, if you turn heads, then you turn God’s wrath on the community, and terrible things befall the community – illnesses, tragedy, terrible losses of loved ones.
The Satmar rebbe, as we learned in school – I haven’t fact checked it – but we would know in school, we would hear this again and again, that the Satmar Rebbe would say, ‘A neye mudeh, a neye kreynk’, which means every time there’s a new fashion trend, there is a new illness. The connection between a woman’s violations of her modesty and the suffering of the sick were very much a direct line. I posted on my blog a poster that goes up every year in which women are told and are pleaded with to please watch what they’re wearing, not to wear narrow or fitted clothing because of the number of orphans and widows in the community. And the implication or it’s very made very clear, it is said very directly, of this poster is your actions that are not in accordance to the community’s modesty standards cause terrible consequences in terms of illness.
You might say there’s no connection between COVID-19 and the Hasidic community’s argument that modesty causes illness, but I would completely disagree with that. Because you would never insinuate that a healthy person is the cause of mass atrocities, a person without any symptoms whatsoever is the cause of mass atrocities, has caused other people’s illnesses and suffering by doing everyday things like going to an event, going to a wedding, like not wearing a medical device. You would never say that if you didn’t believe a series of spiritual, of mystical, of quasi-religious ideas about asymptomatic individuals who are completely healthy, who feel completely fine, spreading some invisible juju, which then causes a whole chain of events that ends in mass suffering. You would never make these conclusions based on the empirical world.
If you look at the empirical world around you, you would never say this healthy person who went to the supermarket has caused a grandmother six connections down to be sick unless you buy into a kind of supernatural belief, which if you buy into it, can lead you to these various levels of conclusions. But in any normal situation, absent these extraordinary dogmas that require a lot of indoctrination and belief in authority, faith in authority, faith in the institutions, faith in the divine knowledge of those who declare these things, outside of that, you would not walk out on the street and say, hmm, this child who is in the stroller without something on their mouth who is completely fine is going to kill someone six moves ahead, someone who the child in the stroller has maybe passed something through the air to someone else who goes and meet someone else or passes someone else who then goes as a care worker to an old lady and kills them. You would never make that conclusion. It is an entirely absurd notion. Unless you believe in these dogmas.
And a similar dogma that is not rooted in empirical reality that requires a faith in the experts, in there are systems, and subscribing to in group exists in the Hasidic community where every action is reported on or is recognized by the divine God sphere, by God and his angels. I don’t know even how to describe it without making it sound very secular because we use a very different language to speak about these things. But in summary, there are these divine forces that notice all that happens and take note of the good and the bad, and there is a consequence, there’s a kind of karma for all of them. And I don’t think that’s an outrageous belief. I think that many people believe these things. I don’t personally, I was never a religious person, and I don’t see the world in this karmic. I tend to think of things as much more easily explained by human nature and happenstance. But I think it’s very commonplace for people to think that there is a divine hand in everything. And from there we go to that divine hand takes actions that are bad. And of course, everyone defines bad in a different way. But in very religious communities, there’s a singular focus of bad. Bad is spreading the Coronavirus, bad is spreading temptation. So, there is this bad that when the gods see the bad, they get angry, and they spread their wrath. And there are socialized consequences. It is spread to the entire community, so that an innocent child that’s hit by a bus is potentially the result of one woman’s fitted skirt, or one woman deciding to grow in her hair, even put a hair accessory in it, that’s how much it’s grown in already.
I, it never worked for me. It never made sense to me to say that someone’s suffering was because someone else did something. It was always, to me, cruel, cruel to take a moment of pain and suffering and try to look around and say who did this? It always seemed to me to be a very punitive and ungenerous and heartbreaking, a hard way to live life – when tragedy happens, instead of accepting it, to look around and say who did it? It is contrary to, well, stuff happens, stuff happens, and it’s heartbreaking. And instead of moving on from that and using the community for condolences, instead there is an opportunity for a punitive scapegoating. It was always, always, very painful for me to watch, especially as the busy bodies would turn around and say, “Let’s see who shall be the one.”
So, given this worldview, I couldn’t just stop and shave my head. I couldn’t just say, well, I decided this is not for me, I’m just going to grow my hair in. Of course, I couldn’t. I used globs of dippity-do to comb my hair away. Can you imagine how disgusting my hair was? Just so when I put my turban on, none of the stray pieces of this fresh, new crop of hair, an inch, an inch and a half, would come flying out of the turban and everyone would see. That was the most scary proposition – if they see, they tell. And if they tell, then everyone will talk, and consequences will come rolling one after the other as institutions that I belong in, I rely in, especially child caring institutions, are going to turn their backs on me.
And simultaneously, as I was growing in my hair, I was also starting to chafe against other rules and was making my husband very nervous. He was not okay with any of it. He felt like this is the tradition, this is how it should be. He could not accept that he would have that kind of wife, the wife who has hair hidden under the turban. It was a very scandalous proposition to him. And he was trying to get various people involved to agitate with me and get me to comply. And this was not necessarily agitating by pleading, but often threats.
In fact, my father came to my apartment one night, and my father is a well-known personality in the community and he’s a very overbearing, intimidating, high energy person. He’s a big personality. And he was always sort of on the periphery of my world because he was so busy. And I knew that he was one of those big people in the side of my life who couldn’t really be bothered with little me. And when all of this came down, he came to my apartment. It was terrifying. And he said, “If you don’t step in line, then I’m going to fight for custody of your child.” And I had been through hell with my son because I had a stillborn at 19. And I suffered most afterwards with the birth of my son afterwards because death had become such a real possibility in my life. And it was so hard to parent a young child under those conditions. So just as my son was turning two, and I was really, really getting a hold of those terrible fears, my father pops in and says, “Listen, if you don’t step in line – you can do whatever you want with yourself, go become a whore – but we’re not going to let you destroy your child. We’re going to fight for custody.” And I was terrified that every move I’m going to make is going to cause me to lose my child. And I was even afraid to send him to the babysitter. Every time I picked him up after work from the babysitter, I was terrified that they’ll tell me he isn’t there.
So, considering these conditions, I was especially vulnerable when it came to not shaving my head and growing it in. And so, my son turned two and a half maybe, he could no longer be in the babysitting, the babysitting has this cut off for children, and then you start to attend the formal institutions. And we signed him up for the formal institutions, the big cheydar, the big boys school, to start his career in the schools.
And I don’t think I saw it coming. I got a call from a woman, a Mrs. Fisher, who called to say that before they could process my application, they needed to make sure that my head was shaved. So that was her call. And I will tell you that I was absolutely shocked. I was not officially combative with the community. I was still keeping up all appearances. So, it was absolutely shocking to me that I would get a call to say, “I need to check that you’ve shaved your head before we can proceed with your application.” And when I ignored that call, she left a new message. And that, for some reason, I recorded that. And I still have the message, and I’ll play it for you.
Here’s the English of what she’s saying:
“Hello, Mrs. Vizel. This is Mrs. Fisher. Hello, Happy Hanukkah” – obviously it was Hanukkah – “I was contacted by the Committee of Modesty. Hillel Teitelbaum called me to check if you shaved already. So, I already called you last week. And I want to come whenever it’s most comfortable for you. So, if you can call me back. And especially during the Holy Days of Hanukkah, may this deed merit that you should see a lot of pride from your kinderlech, your little children. And my phone number is xxx. Tell me when I come because they called me again today from the Organization of Modesty, and asked if I had completed the task I was sent on, and I said so far I have not. Okay, I’m waiting for your call.”
You know, I was already at this point, realizing that I needed to probably leave, that I simply could not survive in this community. I can’t do the hypocrisy, I can’t do the lying, and I don’t have the protection from a male in my life that will help me survive. I don’t have anyone who will stand up for me. And it was at that point that I realized that I need to think of a way to leave.
But it was very, very much on my mind that if I was to try to leave now without any way of earning a living, not even a high school diploma, not even a single person of support, not even knowing anyone in the secular world, that I would be shredded in civil court in a divorce, especially as my family would side with the effort to get custody away from me. And I had not a penny to hire a lawyer. It was very clear to me that those who were in this kind of vulnerable position were easy pickings for the community as the community worked together to present a case to the legal system to say this woman is not the best party to raise the child. The child is best served by staying in this cocoon with its grandparents, its parent, and its various institutions. I knew this because Gitty Grunwald, who had been in my class was written up in a big story, a cover story for New York Magazine, where her story was told about her effort to retain custody of her daughter, and ultimately, she lost custody. I think for her, what did her in was she had a positive drug test. She was 17 when she got married. It was entirely unfair what was done to her. It was really, she was set up for failure, and she had no support. And then when she was falling apart, it was the opportunity for the community to swoop in and rescue the child. And what was doubly, doubly, unbearably unfair was that her husband Ben, after using the community to retain custody, left the community. And having watched that, I knew that I could not take on this behemoth without preparation. But in the meantime, I needed to not ruffle feathers. In the meantime, I needed to buy time. In the meantime, I needed to stay low and not aggravate anyone, and to keep my child in the system until a better moment.
And so, I shaved my head.
At the time Mrs. Fisher called me, my hair was for the first time fitting into a headband. It was for the first time not looking like a hideous Holocaust survivor. We grew up with these stories, we grew up knowing that our grandmothers had their beautiful hair shaved by the Nazis. Our idea of someone in the concentration camp, their heads were bald. And it became so symbolically painful to me to look like that. And the growth of my hair, it’s so easy to say someone is vain when you don’t understand, when you don’t understand why or when you’re not yourself in the position of wanting something else than what the collective wants for you. But when you want something else for your body, something lights up. It’s just the way; it’s so hard to explain to someone why unwanted physical contact, sexual contact can be so traumatizing. It’s very hard to understand and people who haven’t been through it think, why can’t you just shake it off? But there’s something primal in the body that says, no, this is mine. And this cannot be done to me. And it is just fertile ground for trauma, for your mind to make these marks and to create these scarred healings that then haunt you forever. It’s just so devastating. It’s such a terrible part of human beings to toy with.
So, for me, that moment when I stood at the mirror, and I shaved my head for Mrs. Fisher, for Hillel Teitelbaum, for that whole organization was a moment of standing there, just me alone. No one cares. No one hears my cries. No one gives a damn. And I’m just by myself, humiliating myself in this ritual. And I screamed. I screamed because it was the only thing I had left to say no, no, no. I don’t want to do this, especially to myself. Holding me down and do it to me would be better than making me do it to myself in this 20 minutes of nothing happened. It was just another moment in the life of a satisfied Hasidic housewife.
And my son was accepted to the school, and he went to their school, and I stayed in the community for years, I think years more. Yeah, he was five when I left. And for years more – I didn’t really shave for all these years – but for years more I had to do various things to protect myself. But throughout all of it, if I said something, I would be told no one’s forcing you. No one is forcing you. You can leave. No one, no one is forcing you. What do you mean no one is forcing me? What do you mean? If you threaten with custody, you have articulated that you will take my child away from me, what do you mean no one is forcing me? That is the definition of forcing someone. I could never understand the blasé faces on the rabbis’ wives as they said, “You’re welcome to go. No one is forcing you.” And I would rage; I would feel as my blood boil. How could you say that you don’t force me? This is coercion to make my life impossible without compliance is the very definition of force.
And you know what, we’re at this juncture again, where I’m again having conversations with people who say no one is forcing you. You don’t need to take the vaccine. You don’t need to put on a mask. The only thing we’re doing is we’re making life absolutely impossible if you don’t comply. The only thing we’re doing is we’re depriving you of life if you don’t comply. No one is forcing you. It’s a free country. Something is so wrong with a world that can use this kind of rhetoric to talk away horrible human rights violations.
Something I noticed that really bugs me is these horrible films that are made about the Hasidic community that tell the story of liberation, you’ve gone from oppression to this utopia in the secular world, like the show Unorthodox, which is huge. Everyone I meet watched it. It was huge. It came out on Netflix in April 2020. And everyone devoured it, and everyone loved it, and everyone found it inspirational. Well, as far as I know. I found it to be terrible. Everyone, as far as I know, I’m sure there are exceptions. But the story, what you’ll notice is the protagonist is not coerced into staying in the community. It’s not peer pressure. It’s not that she is dependent on the community, and therefore, she is not able to leave. She is literally forced to come back to the community. Two men are sent to make sure she doesn’t leave, and they literally have a minivan, a kidnapper, child predator, a pedophile’s minivan, and they try to force her with a gun to get into the van and come back to the community. The depictions of these movies tell a story where oppressive regimes don’t coerce. They don’t put pressure by shaming and peer pressure. No, that’s choice. They literally force. The story that much of popular culture tells about what it means to be in an oppressive regime is a story in which force is very literal. Your body is picked up, and you are returned to Williamsburg by two henchmen in a minivan all the way from Berlin. The story is always telling Western audiences to only recognize abusive tyranny in physical force. Coercion? No, no, no, that’s choice.
The problem with these mythologies about the communities we come from is instead of revealing the mechanisms of force to come out of various systems of institutions of coercion, they lie to you, and they tell you that coercion looks like physical force, that you’ll be rounded up, put into a gulag and shot. But the problem with this is that it doesn’t tell you that, actually, the most effective system of tyranny is to get people to do it onto themselves by making their lives impossible otherwise. When it is impossible to live life without complying, then you create a situation where people police themselves, they degrade themselves, they humiliate themselves, they oppress their neighbors and others. They allow for tyrants to come out, petty tyrants, and to tell everyone else to comply. And you create a suffering, paranoid, terrorized population. That’s tyranny. But you know, the secular public, the western public won’t recognize it because they’ve been propagandized for years to believe that tyranny looks like Esty from Unorthodox being forced into a van. And that story is supposedly a true story. Although the entire part with the van is fictional. Although it’s supposedly adapted from a book that’s a memoir; they just added on this story willy-nilly because why not? Because Western audiences are absolute dupes and are going to take any feel good narrative that reassures them that their world, which is closing in like a noose, which is increasingly becoming insufferable, suffocating, and without air, is fine, is free.
This is freedom?
Just as I was free to not shave my head, just as I had no choice, despite said freedom, but to stand in front of that mirror, just the same, families without financial means who can’t pull their children out of the school system, especially the vulnerable, especially the vulnerable. Low-income women, low-income families, immigrants, children, children will have no choice but to subject themselves to invasions in their body that they don’t need. This is not a sickness of the young. But just as I had to subject myself to these procedures then, so millions are being forced to subject themselves to a procedure on their own bodies that they don’t want to have but they have no choice because they are being coerced. Because coercion is not freedom. And to be forced to do something to your own body, I’m not forgetting what that means. I’m at that juncture again with my child and his schooling, and I’m not forgetting why it’s important to fight. I’m not personally out of a fight. The strange thing about these experiences is it only kindles a fight more. More strongly within you there is this primal scream that comes out of you that says bodily autonomy is important. It is not negotiable. It is not some trivial vanity. It is the line. And it is the line we must hold.