Monday, July 06, 2015

A Tale of Two Women

Rebbetzin Ilana Freedman
I guess it depends whose telling the story. Just as one might see the lifestyle of a Charedi woman as being a ‘slave’ (as does Ruth Colian) one might see that same lifestyle as a form of emancipation. *This is in fact how Ilana Freedman sees it.  Ilana comes from a secular background and was drawn to observance after an incident in a nightclub where a man she had never met slapped her on the bottom. Her reaction to that was as follows: 
“I was livid. I thought, ‘When did this supposed feminist revolution happen that someone thought it was OK to do that?’ For a long time, I’d felt that goyish [non-Jewish] culture had become over-sexualised and Western women objectified. I looked at Judaism and I didn’t see that.” 
The rest of the story is that she withdrew from that culture and started embracing an observant lifestyle - eventually meeting her husband, a rabbi of an Orthodox Shul in England. She goes on to describe what her new life is like, describing it in glowing terms. Thus illustrating that an observant lifestyle honors and respects women far more than the general culture which is so heavily influenced by feminism. Which she blames for incidents like the one that steered her away for it and toward observance.

As I have said in the past, people that convert to Judaism or become observant from a non observant background have a fascination for me.  Mrs. Freedman’s journey is illuminating. It tells me that her reason for changing her lifestyle so drastically is because she saw it as the right way to live. Not because of any philosophical thought process concluding that God exists and that the Torah is His word. I’m sure that she believes that unequivocally. As I do. But that is not what brought her in. Her life is now far more satisfying than it was as a secular woman.  I am jealous of people that find Judaism on their own.

This is unlike those of us that were raised that way from birth. We did not have the opportunity to discover these truths on our own. We just assumed them because that is what we were taught. The accusation by atheists that had rational Orthodox Jews not been raised that way, we would not be believers either - is contradicted by people like Ilana Freedman and every other Baal Teshuva that finds their way to observance.

Miriam Kliers
But then there is Miriam Kliers. Just like Ilana Freedman she too rejected the culture in which she was raised. But her story is the exact opposite of Mrs. Freedman’s: 
For Miriam Kliers, 42, the “warm bath of Haredi womanhood” is an illusion. Born and raised in Stamford Hill, she recalls being struck at a young age by the hypocrisies of an upbringing that taught women they were central to Haredi life while denying them an education. When Kliers asked permission to sit maths and English GCSEs, she was told she’d have to pay for the examinations herself.
“Of course, my parents had no interest,” Kliers says. “I was destined to be a good Haredi wife.” By her mid-20s Kliers was unhappily married, raising three children and was the sole family breadwinner. She felt disillusioned with Haredi life. 
She goes on to describe the Orthodoxy in which she was raised in the most disparaging terms.

One might think that becoming observant requires great sacrifice – while leaving it gives you complete freedom. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. It was Miriam Kliers’ new life that required great sacrifice. But she says she has no regrets. It freed her from a life she could not accept. She now attends a support group with people of like experiences. I am reminded of Shulem Deen who followed a similar path and had similar issues after leaving his observant way of life.

I have to assume that Miriam Kliers is an anomaly for that community. Most people that are raised Charedi stay that way. And most of those seem happy with their lives. But I wonder how many people have issues like her’s. And just keep them secret because the sacrifice of leaving is too great. And their choice to stay is just the lesser of 2 evils.

I don’t know the answer to that. If I had to guess, I would say that most people are legitimately happy with their lives. But I’ll bet there are more than a few people like Miriam Kliers who prefer to stay in the closet because they fear the dire consequences of leaving. (And there are probably a lot of people in between those two extremes.)

I wonder though if the past observant lifestyle of Miriam Kliers is the same as the current observant lifestyle of Ilana Freedman.  I suspect that they are not. I don’t know much about Stamford Hill. But after reading a about that community, I sense that their lives have far more strictures than those of Ilana Freedman’s. For example Ilana Freedman’s secular background gave her tools to better cope in her community. A community that accepts her background and supports her using what she learned there. 
Freedman – who migrated from traditional to ultra-orthodox Judaism – is a biology teacher and has written online about issues facing Jewish women. She is “a Facebook-hip Haredi woman. 
I doubt that Mrs. Freedman would have chosen a community that forbade those activities the way a community in Stamford Hill might.

It also occurs to me that given the chance Miriam Kliers probably could have stayed observant in a more permissive Orthodox community. Her desire to satisfy an “insatiable itch” to get an education would be welcomed in the Modern Orthodox world… and even in the mainstream moderate Charedi world. Something she was denied in her old world. 

Another example is her issue with contraception. While her old community forbids it except in cases of Pikuach Nefesh - where one’s life or health is seriously is threatened by a pregnancy - this is not the case in the world of Modern Orthodoxy and in the world of most non Chasidic Charedim. There are many instances where Orthodox women are permitted to use contraception. And not all of them involve Pikuach Nefesh.

I don’t know if she would have opted for such a life. But we will never know because to the best of my knowledge she did not try. She had most likely been indoctrinated to see Modern Orthodoxy in nearly the same light as heterodoxy. Her social skills were probably incompatible with a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. And perhaps more importantly, her negative experiences with what she understood to be the strict requirements of observance made her just want to drop everything and run away as far and as fast from it  as she could.

The stories of these two women have added to my understanding of why some people make life altering decisions of either embracing observant Judaism or rejecting it. But there is still so much left to learn. And much that can be done to help people who suffer by those decisions make better choices.

*Please Note:On her Facebook page, Mrs. Freedman said the following:
Really NOT pleased with the article. I was supposed to get quote approval. Reading through it I hate the impression it gives of me and so much of what is written I simply didn't say. Too much to list.
I disagreed with her and thought she came off rather well. Which is how I characterized her words.