Sunday, September 13, 2009

(Some of) the People Who Go the Other Way

While I became less (read: not) Orthodox than I was raised to be, all of my siblings took the reverse course. I am the black sheep of my family.

That said, I am happy for my siblings. They seem happy, well-adjusted. And while, of course, the dictates of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism sometimes stress them out, overall they are mentally healthy, of sound mind. I really don't think they were pressured into Ultra-Orthodoxy; I think it made sense to them, that the customs were things that they enjoyed doing, and that they chose it willingly on their own - not because others were doing it. (This doesn't make me less concerned about the choices that my nieces and nephews will probably not have, but that's another story.)

Every once in a while though, I'll cross paths with someone who looks so miserable with the Ultra-Orthdoxy they've chosen, it just makes me want to cry for them.

I was once at a wedding where a girl I barely knew (she was probably about 22 at the time) literally cried to me for half an hour about how she hated wearing her sheitel (she said it pulled her hair out), how she felt like she'd thrown away her life, etc., etc..

More recently, though, on a trip back to my hometown, I bumped into a different girl two times. She didn't open up to me at all, but the misery was all over her face. She's about six years younger than me but looked years older. This was a girl who, in high school, was on every sports team the school offered, was full of energy and excitement about life, was always healthy, smart, tough and independently minded.

As she - I'll call her Rivky - stood before me in her snood, shlumpy clothing covering a slouching and unhealthy looking figure, telling me in a monotone voice about her kids and the yeshiva in which her husband is learning, I got this flashback I'd almost completely forgotten about.

About seven years ago, I was at my parents' house for Shabbat and Rivky's family came over for lunch. The topic inevitably turned to what Rivky would do after graduation.

"She's going to Israel, to [seminary renowned for turning out really, really frum girls]," said her sister, who (like my sisters) had attended said seminary.

"I'm not going to Israel," said Rivky, "I'm going to college! I don't want to get all frummy!"

Then she turned and looked at me.

"Actually, I want to turn out like you,*" she said, "Where'd you go to seminary?"

Well, my seminary no longer existed, but that was beside the point. In truth, my seminary had turned out as many frummy girls as [seminary x] of which her sister was so fond. It wasn't about what seminary you went to, I told her, it was about how much you understood what you wanted out of life and stuck to that. She looked at me doubtfully.

Well, in the end, Rivky went to [seminary x] like her sister said she should and she turned out exactly like her sister and my sisters, just with a lot less joy.

I don't know what will become of her and I hope she's able to feel fulfilled with the life she's chosen. I do hope she doesn't live the rest of her life out miserably because she thinks she has to.

And I do sometimes have a *little bit* of contempt for these seminaries / yeshivot that promote a singular path as the only authentic way to practice Judaism. I would never expect them to promote my version (or more liberal versions) of Judaism, but certainly there are other legitimate practices, there are ways to bend these traditions, so that people can be themselves and live there lives happily, instead of feeling forced into a mold.

*Note: At the time Rivky said this, I was more religious than I am now -- probably close to what would be called Modern Orthodox (but toward the more liberal side of that category).

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