That is a hard question to answer without getting lost in the philosophical weeds of “what does it mean to be satisfied?” and “how can we really judge?”

When I was a Hasidic woman in the Satmar sect, I was often very satisfied. I feel, right now, at 6am while sitting in my goyish living room with the big screen and snoring dog, a sad longing for the satisfaction of having a freezer filled with home-baked goodies for the upcoming holiday. I remember the feeling of getting up early in late September and setting out to make another cake; the three color cake, let’s say; and the satisfaction at opening the freezer and seeing the neatly packaged product of my handiwork. It’s the same rush I get today when I write something that I’m proud of. But I’ve been suffering from writer’s block lately, but you don’t suffer from baking block as a Hasidic woman. I’d be overwhelmed and overworked if I’d stayed in the sect, but I’m overworked and overwhelmed now too. That’s not to say that it’s all the same. Only that as a Hasidic woman, I often found the kind of satisfaction that gives me the most joy, in the domestic arts. I also felt frustrated by how petty woman could be, how terribly judgmental, and how much other things I had to do that I didn’t want to.

This picture below is my handiwork, I’d say circa 2006. It was for the holiday Sukkos, which falls every year in the fall. My husband and I built this Sukkah in our porch and slept in it for a few days. I created the decorations – hours and hours of intense, hyperfocused, satisfying work – and fancy meals that were pre-cooked, down the mushroom sauce. I totally forgot all of these skills in the seven years since I left the sect. I don’t even know how to make a fan napkin with a stemmed glass anymore. And to this day I still have the planks of wood and bamboo for a Sukkah, but I can’t be bothered to put it up on my own. I’ve lost the will to be a stubborn feminist or an accomplished domestic queen, so here I am, getting the homesick feels.

(This is with me, my son and my niece: BTW, I ordered the mirror on ebay, hand painted it, bought the window shade. I spray-painted the waterfall pitchers, and it ran real water, which worked nicely with the blinking light as we lay there at night. I won’t even go into what it takes to make the other wall décor.)

Now I might be accused of being nostalgic and romanticizing, especially because you couldn’t drag me back to homemaking if you hired the mafia to, but that’s because I’ve opened the Pandora’s box. Just as you can be happy without a piece of technology before you know of it, but can’t give it up once you do, I can’t go back.

But I am almost done reading Alain de Botton’s book “Status Anxiety”, and he explains something that I think is important to remember: these women don’t live with the high bar for accomplishments that secular women do. There is freedom in knowing you can’t do big things and that your friends can’t do them either. He writes: “We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like; we envy only members of our reference group. There are few successes more unendurable than those of our close friends.” But if you are a Satmar Hasidic woman, the successes in your social circle are mostly domestic.

Alain de Botton traces the intense anxiety that rises out of a meritocratic society. As people are told they can do anything, they begin to dream of being anything, and are therefore tortured by their unrealistic expectations. While Hasidic women might feel restricted, overburdened, miserable with the work, they do have a freedom of the kind of self loathing that an egalitarian society can create.

If you know that this is all you can be, and this is all your friends can be, you’d be surprised by how quickly you settle into making the most of your opportunity. Only when you realize your potential and begin dreaming larger will you really begin to feel the sour taste of the beginning of deep, violent discontent.


Update: No one asked me for more details on this Sukkah business, but once I went down the rabbit hole of memory lane, I found more sweet nostalgia. And more on the Sukkah.

Two videos of our Sukkahs during different years:

Making the star wall decorations:

Sleeping in the Sukkah:

(I wore pajama pants… shh)

My own sukkah after we left the Hasidic community (note no man and no money makes for a shabbier hut!)

When I was in 11th grade, at 17, the administration in our Hasidic girls school organized a day for the organization Dor Yeshurim (which Elka Weiss linked to, they do genetic testing) to come down to school. We all had to bring some money, a release and we all stood in line to give a blood sample. We knew it was done to avoid birth defects. We’d heard of families here and there that had several disabled children because the couple wasn’t “compatible”. We didn’t understand the mechanics (we hadn’t had any sex-ed or understanding of how a baby is genetically connected to its father) but no one wanted to have an incompatible marriage.

Then, when at eighteen and three months my parents found me a match, I had not even met my future husband or seen any pictures of him when my parents called in our two Dor Yeshurim numbers. I remember waiting in knots for the office to open so they could give us an answer. Yes would mean I’d get engaged that night, a no would mean the match was off. At 9:15am they called to say that everything was okay. Less than twelve hours later, I was engaged.

One might say more care was taken to insure there were no inbreeding related health issues than that my groom and I were a good fit. Such is that world. Family life is everything.

As a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, I’ve gotten used to being asked this question. The first time I explained how Hasidim are educated – with all emphasis on religious learning – and I got this question, I didn’t expect it. Having grown up Hasidic I wasn’t used to thinking of education in the strictly vocational way that secular people think of it.

Apparently in the secular world, and that is everywhere (we have tourists from all over the western world) education is thought of as purely work training. People think they go to school only so they could earn a living. Twelve grades plus four years college, plus a masters, in order to peddle this skill or that product. It is fascinating that people have forgotten that you could learn things on the job. People assume that if you don’t have a formal education in something, then surely you are handicapped forever. But the world wasn’t always that way, and humans can learn things quickly.

There was a time when people learned skills on the job, and schooling had nothing to do with those skills. If you were to become a carpenter, you’d apprentice for a few years. If you had gone to the local one room schoolhouse, your elementary training would have done nothing for your carpentry skills.

It makes me ask: is work really what education is for? Just a job? Are you learning all these subjects only to sit at a nine to five? Shouldn’t education be for a greater purpose?

And why can’t people learn things without being taught explicitly how to do it? What happened to osmosis or adaptive skills or autididactic learning?

Here is the thing. In the secular world, people believe you can’t do anything if you haven’t gone through some formal training, paid money and received a paper to assert your qualification for that work. Nevermind that to get said paper you just need money for tuition and to show up. You just. Must. List. Degrees. Colleges. Proof.

But Hasidim have a different system. I was hired right our of high school without even a valid high school diploma. I was trained to do whatever work in the insurance office needed to be done, and ultimately did large group renewals. Everyone in our company had less than a high-school diploma. We operated in a world in which you were given economic opportunities just because you had a good reputation.

Some men got work through family at early ages, maybe at nineteen and by the time they were 24 were experienced and out on their own, successfully. Almost no one among Hasidim has heaps of student loans or years whiled away getting a degree. That gives these people significant advantage in the competitive economic market. Nevermind the advantage they have in their built in network that the community is.

I am one of fifteen. I’m the fifth. We have no twins.

I grew up with the cycle of the once in two years birth of a sibling creating a pattern in our lives as predictable, exciting, stressful and rythmic as the holidays. Every year in December our house was turned aglow with Chanukah, every year we built a Sukkah for the fall holiday, and every other year we took the cradle out and lined it with the white bunting with purple prayer words and birds stitched into it.

Every other year the eldest in the house got married, and left the house.

There were always reasons for beds to be passed around and rearranged as the older ones moved up to the more desirable window bed while the younger one labored to pull out the high riser.

We all were little parents, the more people you had authority over the more like a somebody you felt. At one point, it was my job as a teenager to get five boys to sleep. Every night, five boys in two sets of bunk beds, fresh pajamas and washed sidecurls. I ordered them around and felt like king.

(My brothers are now married and grown men – the youngest of them will marry this year. Since I left the faith, things are tense and awkward when I visit home but when someone mentions the bedtime stories I concocted for these wide eyed boys we all reminisce with warm nostalgia.)

When I think of large families I think…

… Of cities. How much more people share space, and yet how much less they know each other.

… Of my four year old brother in pajamas getting the two year old baby out of the crib, with the same seriousness as a toddler making himself a cup of coffee.

… Of independence. Kids who know how to take care of themselves.

…of many household chores.

… of the nights my older sister woke me because I disturbed her with my snoring. As she was older, her solution to this problem was straightforward: she was entitled to the better bargain due to seniority, so I was to sacrifice my sleep so she can save on the annoyance. It was resolved when my parents had my tonsils removed.

… liveliness.

I guess you can tell I remember it fondly. I always thought I would have my own brood like that, but things looked less joyous from the perspective of mothering all that much. I will always carry a bit of sadness for the large family of my childhood hopes.

I think these music videos (male centric, of course) will give you more of a sense of Catskills for Hasidim (a form of Orthodox Jewry) than any written description.

PS: I heard that some kids featured in these videos were penalized by their schools for featuring in something as “modern” as a music video. I don’t know all the details, but this kind of pushback against modern mediums is run of the mill.

YouTube Hasidic Music

And a less staged video, produced, I believed, for within the community. One of those internal montages.

Hasidic Camp

Source: Went to summer camp in the Catskills for many years. As a tour guide in Williamsburg, the two months of summer touring in Brooklyn are mostly dead. The bakeries we tour aren’t even open. Nearly everyone leaves town; it’s incredible.