One time we visited my ultra-Orthodox aunt and uncle in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Somewhere among identical-looking townhomes.
Inside, their home had been redone. Gray granite kitchen countertops, stainless fridge, everything. It wasn’t a huge place so when we got the “grand tour” there were only a few rooms to see.
At a certain point, gingerly, we walked up the staircase, my dad and mom and sister and I. It wasn’t even much of a staircase, more like a couple of stairs. Anyway, we got to the top and saw bedrooms.
Almost simultaneously, the four of us sort of jumped back, if you can say that people “jump back” on stairs. It seemed a little bit much. A little intrusive.
“Well, very nice,” my mom started to say, and then started to turn around slowly. We really didn’t need to see EVERYTHING.
“No, no, I want you to see something,” my uncle said. “Take a look.”
Inside the master bedroom, was a wooden – well it was a square. A contraption of some kind. My uncle fumbled with the lock, and there it was:
A television set.
“Nu?” he said. “Well?”
I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that these super-religious people were actually hiding a TV set. After all, weren’t they…well, super-religious?
Plus the TV wasn’t all that fancy. Consider that I was the spawn of a techno-freak. If it involved computers, electronics, or any sort of gadget, my dad made sure to get his hands on it. He was the first to get a Mac computer, we had multiple Macs in fact, and our house was loaded with TVs. All of them had cable, including the gigantic floor TV in the living room. Many a rainy school day off found my sister and I glued to “Donahue” (me) and “The Price is Right” (her) along with our huge bowls of macaroni & cheese.
But then I realized it. When you’re starving, everything looks like food. And my uncle had been forced to sign a “contract” that said he wouldn’t have a TV. He wasn’t going to be forced into anything.
My father smiled at my uncle. Now he had a partner in crime. If we had escaped a Brooklyn fate, we’d been left feeling like the black sheep of the family for doing so. Now my uncle was validating him. None of us could live under the iron fist of the spiritual enforcers.
My uncle had a mischievous look to him, with his bright red hair and flashing eyes. He was a complete troublemaker. He couldn’t care less. He had flouted the rules and he was joyful!
I stood there awkwardly and watched. On the one hand my dad was back-slapping my uncle for the hidden TV. On the other, he made us girls wear our “Brooklyn skirts” so we could cross the bridge from New Jersey to this area without him being embarrassed.
I could not imagine that anybody else bore witness to these kinds of asinine dealings like I did, growing up. That they had to make sense of them.
Then a few months ago on Facebook I found a friend. She had the same maiden name as me, with a small variant. I said, “Hmm.” Because on the Holocaust registry her variant is the same as my dad’s family.
Long story short, she married a distant cousin. Also from Brooklyn.
Guess where they met? In a bar, on the outskirts of upstate New York. Somewhere in the Catskill Mountains, near where my mom was born and raised, and to where my dad had once fled the suffocating lifestyle demands of his post-Holocaust family.
I talked to my friend/cousin-in-law briefly on the phone. Same kind of history, same stories, though I walked away from it while she stayed “within the fold” of a certain kind of Hasidism.
Suddenly it became clear to me that there actually are other people who saw just exactly what I saw. Whose feet walked away. But whose hearts never left at all.
Online I found the acronym – yahooey, we merit an acronym! “OTD.” As in “Off the Derech,” meaning, “The ones who have left.” Well at least we have a name. That’s something.
Going online I found a bunch of blogs written by “OTDers.” There was one that broke my heart; it’s called “Abandoning Eden,” about a woman whose parents tried to force her to stay Orthodox until she eventually broke free. Ironically enough, she became a sociologist too, just like me. Even though her mom persisted in calling her a “social worker” because many Orthodox people have no concept of what a sociologist is, but for women being a “social worker” is something they can relate to.
Other blogs are hysterically funny. One in particular, “Frum Satire,” is so disrespectful but so perfect that you can’t help but crack up. My G-d, these are my peeps, right here, all dispersed throughout the country not even knowing who we are.
I don’t know why it should have surprised me that I found all this. History usually repeats itself and cultures are called cultures for a reason: They consist of different people repeating the same behaviors with each other over and over again, in any given place and time.
But anyway, it was gratifying. And I have laughed so much these past few days, it’s been great.
No major advice or lessons here, nothing really new. Just the reflection that life’s a little less lonely and scary when you recognize that you’re not the only one who goes through things. And if you can learn to laugh about it every now and then, well then so much the better.
If you’re reading this on GovLoop or GovInTheLab and you’re working for the government, the application is obvious. It might seem like we are going through difficult times now, and we are. But if it helps, know that there are a lot of other people going through similar challenges, and that one way or another things will eventually shake out the way they are supposed to.
Like the Christians aptly say, “Let go and let G-d.” Or if you're a Buddhist, karma, or whatever. "Every little thing's gonna be all right."
Have a good day everyone, and good luck!