Friday, July 18, 2008


There is a very long article in New York Magazine about the plight of a 23 year old formerly religious young woman by the name of Gitty Grunwald - originally from the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel in the Catskills. The article paints a pretty sorry picture of life in Kiryas Joel. But to be honest, this story left me with a feeling that there is nothing to cheer about. I did not have the kind of guttural reaction I thought I might when I began reading the artilce. I was left with a kind of - blah!

This poor young woman had her daughter - a young child - snatched from her by members of the Satmar community, probably at the instigation of her husband. If I recall correctly custody issues are now being adjudicated by a religious court in Kiryas Joel whose adjudication in the matter will be recognized by the state as a matter of binding arbitration. In the meantime Gitty has very restricted access to her child.

The story goes on to tell us of Gitty’s life, her struggles with religion, her ‘emancipation’ from it, her Baal Teshuva parents who were once both Lubavitchers but are now divorced - with her father becoming a raving Meshichist now living in Israel and her mother becoming Satmar and remarrying to a Satmar Chasid. Quite a journey. Her mother was a secular Jew and a Hippie at one point in her life.

It also describes her secular grandparents - her mother’s parents - with whom she is very close and currently lives with.

While I can easily sympathize with her plight and her pain at losing her child to her husband in this nefarious - kidnapping way, I cannot sympathize with her life choices which include more than abandoning her religion. It also includes dabbling with drugs and the drug culture. Nor can I blame the father for feeling that - had he not had his daughter abducted she would almost certainly not remain Frum. But that goal has yet to be fulfilled.

The whole piece is sad. No one is a winner here. Just lots of losers. I am not happy for anyone in this story. Nor can I endorse anyone of the central characters’ way of life.

I can’t help wondering, though, if Gitty had not lived such an isolated life would she have made different choices. Perhaps she might have remained Frum. I’m sure, however, that all the factors I mentioned contributed to her state of mind and not just the religiously restrictive life she was forced to live. But still...

Divorce, a Meshichist father, a mother who went from being a Hippie to becoming a Lubavitcher, divorcing, and marrying a Satmar Chasid - thus dealing with a stepfather - grand parents who are secular… all these factors had to have a negative effect on her that led her to run away from her environment. This unusual mix can confuse anyone. There was no real stability in her life. She married too young to a 17 year old. All she saw, knew, and lived were the restrictions of the Satmar life combined with the pain of a family breakup and an early marriage.

So restricted was she - that she did not know even the most common elements of the secular world. Nor did she even know that there are people who live secular lives apparently. When she found out, she was so turned off by her own lifestyle that at the first opportunity she ran – taking her child, leaving her husband - escaping to the secular world and relieving herself of the burdens of Halacha in the process.

I don’t think one can lay blame here at the feet of anyone, - not Gitty, not her husband, parents or grandparents - and not the austere life she was forced to live.

I hope that Gitty returns to observance, and gets her child back in some sort of shared custody. But the way things stand now, that doesn’t look very good. A child separated from her mother is never a good experience. Not for the mother, and certainly not for the child. That can easily cause the child to go off the Derech herself someday. Especially if there is any shared custody at all that is unsupervised. That child will contrast her lifestyle in Kiryas Joel and her mothers in the secular world. Having both influences in her life, who knows what she will ultimately choose.

There are no winners here. And there may be yet another young victim lying in wait. No result here will be anything to cheer about - unless Gitty returns to observance.