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A Young Orthodox Girl’s Dilemma: My Good God, Let Me Be Free

Category Articles
Date June 9, 2006

Yochi Brandes is a well known Israeli author who was brought up in an Jewish Orthodox home and left for a non-religious life in her teen age years. The story she tells is a window on the inner conflict of many Jewish Orthodox youth. The text is Ms. Brandes’ as brought in the Israeli Ha’Arets, May 3 2006. Explanatory notes are my own and are indicated by italics. Some slight editing has been also done. Baruch Maoz

I have already learned that every meeting with my readers brings different questions. There are those who wish to hear about the moment I started writing, others are interested in the creative process. Many ask about the historical investigation I do before and during the writing. Two questions are always raised at every meeting: When exactly did I decide to leave the ultra-Orthodox world, and how did my parents react to this decision?

As to my parents’ reaction, it is relatively easy for me to reply. They really, but really, were not enthusiastic. But, as to the moment of my decision, I don’t know what to say because, for as long as I remember myself, from a very early age, I was always attracted to that other world, the free one.

In order to illustrate the strength of that attraction, I often relate something unusual that happened to me when I was in second grade and continued until the fourth, or perhaps the fifth, grade. My father, who apparently knew in the depth of his heart that I was not really praying even if I stuck my face close to the prayer book and moved my lips with deliberation, decided to make this important mitzvah (a practical precept, a Jewish religious duty) more palatable. He taught me the difference between prayers that have to be recited at fixed times, and prayers of supplication that can be recited when and how one wants. He disclosed to me that after reading the “Shema” prayer (a daily prayer that includes a declaration of the Oneness of God in the words of the scripture, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God”….. The name comes from the Hebrew translated “hear” -Shema) before going to sleep, it is permitted to say a prayer of supplication and to request from God whatever one wants.

This opened up the positive experience of prayer to me. Every evening I would ask God important favors, a different one every time. But one request was constantly repeated, night after night: “My good God,” I would beg him, “let my family not be ultra-Orthodox; let us be free.” Sometimes, when my childish head felt a certain tension embodied in this strange request, I would add the following sentence: “I promise you, my good God, that if you make me free, I shall continue to believe in you and to love you, for always, for ever and ever.” I must admit that God, for his part, kept his side of the deal. About my side, on the other hand, I prefer not to elaborate.

This story demonstrates in a very real way the special kind of relationship that existed between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular in Israel during the 1960s and ’70s. The very desire of an ultra-Orthodox girl to belong to the other camp, illustrates several things about that relationship that are today considered a utopian dream. First, I knew secular people from close at hand. Second, I considered them to be good people. Third, their lives attracted, enticed me greatly.

Side by side

Forty years ago, ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews lived side by side, in the same neighborhoods and the same buildings. There were ultra-Orthodox who were isolationists, crowding themselves into ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. But they were the minority. Most of the ultra-Orthodox then lived in secular towns and it never occurred to them that there was something wrong with the fact that their neighbors listened to the radio on the Sabbath or that they went around in shorts and undershirts before their very eyes.

During the week, our lives were very similar to those of our free neighbors – all the fathers went to work in the morning and almost all the mothers were home-makers Both girls and boys studied mathematics and English, Hebrew and civics, the Hebrew Bible and history. Only in the ninth grade did the ways of the ultra-Orthodox girls and boys part. The boys went to study in a yeshiva and devoted themselves to religious studies while the girls continued with secular studies until the end of high school and beyond. Almost everybody read a daily newspaper.

Quite a large number of mothers would take their children to the cinema. Almost all the girls and a large percentage of the boys had a subscription to the public library and read what they wanted, without censorship. Even in the schools, we had libraries that contained all the popular children’s stories of those days.

At end-of-year parties in school we put on plays based on world literature for children; at the end of seventh grade, I was Tom Sawyer and I, of course, wore pants; and at the end of eighth grade, I was Pollyanna. Every one of us stood to attention when the siren was sounded on Memorial Day. Quite a considerable number of families flew the national flag from their porches on Independence.

It was only on the Sabbath that a wide abyss opened between us, which left the free on one side and us on the other. Only on the Sabbath that we would call the free children “them” and would avoid them as much as possible. Only on the Sabbath would my father wear a long black kaftan (a cloak-like black festive garb worn by the Orthodox on festive occasions) with its long belt, put on his festive tall fur hat , with slow, soft paces wend his way to the synagogue while the fathers of the neighboring children remained in their undershirts and sat listening to the radio on the porch or took the family to the beach. It was only on the Sabbath that I wore a fancy dress and joined my friends in Batya, the religious youth movement for girls in singing: “We are Hebrews, girls of the Israeli people, we shall always be Israelis, we shall remain Hebrews.” The children of the free Jews who went to youth movements, however, wore khaki and played at camping, while the “good-for-nothings” wore jeans and danced together, boys and girls, in the middle of the street, shouting at the top of their voices.

True, even on the other days of the week we were actually a little different, I admit, but just a little. We studied in Agudat Yisrael (religious movement) schools – boys and girls in separately – but in the afternoon we played in the street with all the other children. We would go with them to their homes to watch TV while taking care not to eat or drink a single thing, nor drink a glass of water. The mini skirts worn by the free girls were much shorter than the ones we wore, but we also wore skirts that came above our knees. We had three, or even four or five, siblings and my family with its six children was considered extremely large. The free people would have one, at most two, siblings and, in very rare cases – three.

They despised us.

These examples clearly demonstrate how moderate the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel was in the 1970s. For the most part, it was an open and creative society that lived from the labor of its hands, conducted good and close relations with its secular neighbors and felt a deep love for this country. Their love did not stem from lofty ideology as did that of the religious Zionists but from a feeling of gratitude on the part of Holocaust survivors who had finally found refuge. In a moment of truth, my mother told me a few years ago: “My grandchildren who today sit protected in the heders (Jewish religious study halls) and yeshivas (advanced schools of Jewish religious learning) can allow themselves the luxury of not being Zionists. But I, who suffered persecution for many long years and who could not find a safe refuge, whose sister was murdered because we had no safe place to go, cannot help but thank the Lord every day and every hour for the miracle that is called the State of Israel.”

I think that sums up the matter. The ultra-Orthodox, most of whom were then Holocaust survivors, could not but appreciate, even admire, the free Jews who did not look and act like Jews should, but who had established the state, formed its leadership and defended it courageously. I never once in all my childhood heard a bad word about the free Jews. Not among my family, not in the homes of my girlfriends, not even from my teachers at school. We did not despise them. We did not mock them. We certainly did not hate them. But they did. They despised us, mocked us and sometimes also demonstrated hatred for us.

On our way home from the Beit Yaakov ultra-Orthodox girls’ school, the children from the adjacent secular school would stand in groups and tease us. It would usually start with shouts of mockery such as “religious nuts”, continue with provocation and end with blows. To this day, I almost choke when I recall the punches in the stomach they would give me for no reason, simply because I had been daydreaming and was not walking in the safer company of friends. I remember more than one occasion when I felt ill at school and wanted to leave early, but had to decide what was better – to get home early but to be punched en route or to wait for my friends and be part of a large group where I was protected.

What about Yedidya Schreiber?

One terrible Sabbath, the harassment ended in a dreadful tragedy. Three youths cursed a small ultra-Orthodox boy who was walking innocently in the street. At some stage, one of them picked up a stone and threw it at the boy’s head. He died instantly. His name was Yedidya Schreiber. A talented and beautiful boy with red side-locks and an embroidered skullcap.

Even after this horrific event, we did not hear from our parents or our teachers one bad word about the secular Jews. They explained to us that the murderers were wicked and assured us they would be punished by God, but they did not consider making generalizations about the entire secular public.

I continued to pray every night to my good God and to request that he make me free. Neither a curse, nor a punch in the stomach, not even a dead child, could reduce the attraction of the free world in my eyes. I learned that it had bullies that hit people and threw stones, but I had first-hand acquaintance with some free Jews and I knew they were ordinary, good people. The free world attracted me, pulled me toward it with its promise, even though I lived in an ultra-Orthodox world that was open and moderate.

Cut off from society

Today almost all the ultra-Orthodox live in closed areas, totally cut off from their surroundings. Their children never meet secular children and never play with them or visit their homes. The men do not serve in the army and hardly ever go to work. On no porch does the state flag flutter on Independence Day and silence is not observed during the sounding of the siren on Memorial Day. They will not let works of culture into their homes – no newspapers, no books and certainly no films. The boys who study in the heders pore over religious studies – not English or general history or science or literature but just a little arithmetic and Hebrew. The girls wear skirts down to their ankles from the minute they are able to walk and their little legs are covered with thick stockings.

At end-of-year parties in school they produce plays from their ultra-Orthodox world. They have never heard of Tom Sawyer or Pollyanna. The ultra-Orthodox families have 8 or 10 or 12 children…who are taught to feel scorn and abhorrence for anyone who is different.

…. When I read articles, from time to time, in the newspapers that announce there have been favorable changes in the ultra-Orthodox community, that new winds are blowing in the streets of Bnei Brak and the alleyways of Jerusalem, I sigh to myself in despair and know in unmistakable pain that no ultra-Orthodox unit in the Israel Defence Forces and no course in computers can bring back to us, in the foreseeable future, the kind of ultra-Orthodox who lived in this country 40 years ago.

Israeli society is at a cross roads – which way will it take? Will you pray with us for the salvation of Israel, and for the forming of a godly, kind, gracious and generous society that fears God, loves its neighbor and seeks to do all that it does to God’s wonderful glory.

[Taken with permission from MaozNews A periodic report from Israel.]

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