While attending a major Las Vegas tech conference for work a couple of years ago, I found myself following a Hasidic couple around the convention center. Their presence at the tradeshow was not completely shocking — many religious Jews work in consumer electronics sales (just look behind the counter at B&H in New York City — but I was delighted to catch a glimpse of them. We made our way slowly through the tightly packed throng gawking at the gargantuan Intel Booth — they, making casual conversation about operating systems in Yiddish, and I eavesdropping gleefully from a few paces behind. The wife doubled back for a moment and bumped into me. “Anshuldik mir,” I squeaked. Excuse me. The look of utter surprise on her face stayed with me for weeks.
Some of my cousins happen to live in a town in Orange County, NY, adjacent to the Satmar Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel. Whenever I stay with my (completely non-religious) cousins, I feel compelled to pay a visit to the small shopping center in Kiryas Joel. I get a thrill from the supermarket, with its Yiddish signage and patrons shopping for Cholent ingredients (packaged meat is even labeled exclusively for this purpose). I stop to browse through the rack of Yiddish children’s books outside the clothing store (only children would read for pleasure in Yiddish in this community). I can’t overstay my welcome; tourism isn’t exactly encouraged in Kiryas Joel.
Yesterday on XOJane, my favorite site for a good ol’ fashioned hate-read, there’s a first person post from Chaya Kurtz, a Chassidishe married woman, who writes in the response to the waves of negative press the Orthodox community has received in the wake of the gathering of 40,000 ultra-Orthodox men at Citi Field this past Sunday in order to protest the internet. Most notably, women were not allowed to attend the rally and this fact has resulted in charges of misogyny directed at Orthodox Jews.
Chaya is here to tell us that it aint so. She’s a married, Orthodox woman with a degree in women’s studies (no less) from a large, liberal university. And she’s totally happy with her life, and would like to disabuse the masses about the perceived misogyny in Orthodox Judaism.
Some of the things that she insists on, I won’t quibble with. Yes, I certainly hope that ultra-Orthodox women find their husbands attractive and it’s unfair to suggest that they wouldn’t. I would never suggest that a hipster male is fundamentally unattractive just because I don’t find him appealing so on that point, Chaya, we definitely agree: Attraction is in the eye of the beholder.
But even within that section, there’s already a problem. She writes: “In the Jewish marriage contract, one of the conditions of marriage is that a husband is obligated to sexually satisfy his wife.” While this is all well and true, there’s a part she left out — that in that same contract, he acquires her, like she’s a possession. You see, women are a protected class within Orthodoxy. Yes, you have to treat them right, but they are still subordinate. Don’t believe me? Read the last six months of articles in the general press about agunot.
My friends and I are celebrating the news that a group of our friends — all former ultra-Orthodox Jews, or maskilim — are getting their own reality show.
We maskilim have been living on the fringes of the Jewish world, many of us navigating dramatic journeys of self-discovery as we pull ourselves free of our pasts, and try to rebuild our lives. When I left my religious family 14 years ago, I did it as a teenager, alone. But since then, a community has coalesced. Footsteps, an organization that helps cultural émigrés from Orthodox Judaism, was founded. Unpious, a website that showcases our voices, was launched. And now the momentum builds, with the publication of Deborah Feldman’s best-selling memoir, Pearlperry Reich’s television appearance (video below) and news of this reality show — all in a few short weeks.
I don’t know exactly what the TV show will cover, but I’ve got some idea. When my buddies and I get together and talk about our journeys, we’ve got plenty of stories to share about fumbling sex, our first “sin,” leaving a religious spouse behind, living secret lives beneath religious facades, visiting a strip club, choosing college over yeshiva — and that’s before we start talking about the otherworldliness of our unusual childhoods!