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Leah Howard sat there facing Rabbi Weintraub’s empty chair, rehearsing what she was going to say to him. She was surprised by her nervousness. After all, she’d been a top marketing executive in a spectacularly successful start-up. Sales pitches were her lifeblood. And this was, after all, in the final analysis, just another product she was trying to sell, even if that product was herself.
How truthful should I be? she wondered. Should she talk about her parents? Her childhood? The FBI investigation and avalanche of lawsuits that had bankrupted her company and put her on the unemployment lines? Or should she start at the beginning, with the sleazy, deserted park where she had encountered God for the first time as He reached down and plucked her—a terrified eight-year-old—from the horror of the fate unfolding before her eyes? Or perhaps it was best to dive into the immediate present, and the two-year spiritual journey that had led her to apply now to a women’s study program for newly observant Orthodox Jews in the haredi enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn?
She opened up her purse—a ridiculously expensive mini Kelly bag from Hermès she’d purchased from her first bonus check in the mistaken belief that she could afford it—pulling out a tissue and dabbing her eyes. Why go into any of that? It would just make her sound pathetic. Worse, she’d come across like one of those typical druggie-misfit-instant-converts that usually came knocking on the doors of Chassidic outreach programs when they needed to be rescued from their lives.
The door opened and closed as a secretary in a brown wig covered by a fuzzy white mohair beret went in and out shuffling papers. “He’ll just be another minute.” She smiled, probably forgetting she’d said the same thing fifteen minutes ago.
Leah nodded, smiling back. She was in no rush. She peered out of the window into the freezing, rain-swept Brooklyn streets, catching glimpses of men in black overcoats, plastic bags protecting their large-brimmed black hats from ruin; women in staid, calf-length blue raincoats with sensible low-heeled boots hurrying past. She thought of the last conversation she’d had with her mother.
“It’s not a cult, Mom. It’s exactly the way your parents brought you up. Exactly the way my grandparents and great-grandparents lived their whole lives! The way our people have lived for thousands of years.”
“Which is exactly why I jumped into a hippie van in the eighties and disappeared! Why are you doing this, Lola? Is it because of what happened with your company? Or with Andrew? Or is it … still … Josh?”
“Leah. I’m called Leah now,” she’d corrected her, cringing. Lola feathers in her hair. How she’d always hated that name! She refused to answer, her stomach somersaulting at the questions.
“I can’t believe you are moving back to Brooklyn, sinking into everything I ran away from! I brought you up with freedom!”
“Freedom. Yeah, your generation was so big on that. And where has it gotten us? There’s a rape every six minutes in this country. And forty-three thousand people dying of drug overdoses every year. And half of all kids under eighteen have watched their parents get divorced. Some of them more than once. Forty percent are growing up with no fathers. Great job!”
There was a pause. Shocked silence? Probably not. Just a recalibration if she knew her mother.
“Do you know how these people treat women, Lola? Why would you, with your education, want to become some man’s kitchen slave and babymaker? Why would you want to be a second-class citizen? And don’t think he won’t send you out to support him while he’s drinking coffee and turning the pages of his holy books. How can a feminist buy into all that?”
“Oh, feminism, the Holy Grail! They are so bankrupt. They have no answers for women who want to be women, to be wives and mothers, to have a real life! They’ve pretty much destroyed marriage and courtship. If she’s equal, why shouldn’t she pay for dinner, hold open her own door? If she’s equal, why shouldn’t she go back to work two days after giving birth? After all, that’s what fathers do! You know what Joan Didion said about feminism? She said it was ‘no longer a cause but a symptom.’ I did the successful-career-woman bit, remember? And where did that leave me? I’m thirty-four years old, Mom. Do you even see a man around me who wants to get married and settle down and help me raise a family? Men don’t want that anymore, not modern men. They want to play with you until they get tired of you. They have no morals, no commitment, no self-discipline.
“The world I’m going into is the opposite. They respect women as wives and mothers. They don’t toy with a woman’s feelings. You go out a few times, and then they ask you to marry them—or not. But they don’t—they’re not allowed—to leave a woman dangling for years and years and years.” She felt her throat clench as she fought back tears. “They’re not running away from marriage and fatherhood. They’re running toward it. They have to have a woman in their lives. They need her. They’re committed to her. And they have to treat her well. That’s the law. Jewish law.”
“Yeah, and I just bet everybody there is a law-abiding citizen.” Her mother snickered.
Leah made a supreme effort at self-control. Honor thy father and mother. “Look, Mom, I respect your opinion, and I know you are trying to help me. You’re right. You raised me with freedom to be just like you. But didn’t you run off and do stuff that horrified your parents? Well, this is my choice. This is the life I want.”
“That’s what you say now. But it’s one thing to admire someone’s life from the outside. Another thing to live it. And when you’re inside and your eyes are opened, you’ll see the ugly truth. And you won’t be able to just swallow it, like some Stepford wife, or some pious little sheep. Not you. You’ll leave, all right, and then, when you go looking for another job, how are you going to explain that big blank spot on your résumé? You’re throwing everything away, Lola—your education, your career. You’ll regret it. You’ll change your mind. You’re just depressed, honey. I understand that. Ravi and I want you to know—”
“Ravi! Why should I care what Ravi thinks? You’re not even married.”
“Okay, not technically, but he cares.”
“Which is why he asked me the day after I arrived ‘what my plans’ were.”
“He didn’t mean anything by it! He was just concerned.”
“Yeah, concerned all right, that since I’d lost my job I’d be sponging off him, living in the basement. Admit it. You both were.”
There was a short silence.
“They prey on depressed people, you know. It’s so easy to mess with their heads. Honey, you’re all hepped up with all the brainwashing, and God knows what you went through in that year you spent in the Middle East—”
“Israel, Mom! Jerusalem! It’s not a backwater! It’s the high-tech leader of the world!”
“Whatever. But at the bottom of all those fine words, there’s a really ugly reality.”
For some reason, of everything her mother said, this rattled her. What if she’s right? she thought. She’s not, she answered herself emphatically. She’s never been right about a single thing her entire life.
“I love you, Mom. Just accept that we are very different people. Always have been.”
“You know, if you ran off with Hare Krishna, I could accept it. Just not this. It’s a tragedy.”
“No, it isn’t. I lived through a tragedy. Remember?”
That ended the conversation. They had not spoken since. That was three months ago.
She couldn’t say she was surprised. After all, her mother was the mirror image of the child her strict, middle-class Jewish parents from Flatbush had struggled to make her. According to her mother, her grandparents were square, un-American, completely unreasonable fanatics. Her litany of proofs included the fact that they wanted her to wear skirts that touched her knees and elbow-length blouses, even in the summer; that they wouldn’t let her go to rock concerts by herself in the city at night when she was fifteen, even when the Rolling Stones came to town. According to her, all the vicious fights they’d had were entirely their fault, and it was therefore perfectly reasonable for her to have jumped out of her first-floor bedroom window one night to take off with some people she’d met at a punk rock concert who were heading to California. She was seventeen. By the time they’d tracked her down, she was already of age and beyond their jurisdiction.
Her mother had never looked back.
When Leah finally got to meet her grandparents just after she turned eight, she was shocked to find two frail, elderly people with warm smiles who hugged and kissed her like they never wanted to let go. They were nothing like the powerful ogres who starred in her mother’s tales. They gave her a gold Jewish star necklace, which she never took off. And when they passed away, one right after the other when she was eleven, they left her a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to her great-grandparents in Poland. She treasured them.
She’d always envied her mother’s childhood. And her parents.
Like most people, Leah thought, her mother had tried to raise her the way she herself would have wanted to be raised. And like most people, she had gone overboard, her good intentions having terrible consequences. The lack of rules and limitations, even good advice, didn’t feel like freedom; it felt like abandonment. She was a baby gazelle wandering the savannah, open to all predators, the only safeguards those she could figure out herself from what her friends’ parents wouldn’t let them do.
“Grow up to be happy,” was her mother’s mantra.
That was easier said than done in San Jose, California, a place that attracted rootless drifters who tooled up the highway from the East and Midwest, escaping bad marriages, child-support payments, or hot pursuit by law enforcement. Throughout her childhood, she experienced a constant current of low-level fear.
While they lived on a good street, right around the corner were rows of rentals where people drove filthy pickups and had soggy cardboard pizza boxes decorating their front lawns. There were a lot of new immigrants and vagrants, people who slept on mattresses on the floor in rooms that smelled of unwashed dishes and kitty litter. There was a lot of noise, a lot of kids screaming and being yelled at, a lot of domestic abuse. The sounds of police sirens, barking stray dogs, and beer bottles smashing against their fence provided the soundtrack to a childhood filled with the repulsive backdrop of used car dealerships and strip malls that went on for miles and miles on El Camino Real.
Once she’d read a newspaper story about a woman whose car had broken down on the highway. She hadn’t been waiting more than five minutes when a supposed Good Samaritan picked her up. Of course, he turned out to be a rapist-murderer who just happened to be passing by. The police found the poor woman’s body a few hours later. As young as she was, Leah had been shocked by the possibility that the people tooling up and down the highway right near her, who knew how to drive and who looked perfectly normal behind the wheels of their cars, were actually monsters.
She longed for safety and stability, a conservative, conventional life, like The Cosby Show or those old fifties sitcoms that she’d found on video—Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show—half-hour morality lessons with canned laughter and commercial breaks where mothers wore aprons and fathers came home to the suburbs wearing a hat with their suit jackets flung over the shoulder of their white, starched-collar shirts. She would watch episode after episode after school in the empty house as she waited for her mother to come home from her job in the hair salon, the doors double-bolted and the windows locked.
Most of all, she longed for a father, someone wise, strong, and lovingly protective.
Her stepfather, Don Howard—the only father she remembered—had died suddenly when she turned four. He’d been a ball-tosser, a let’s-all-go-out-for-pizza-and-bowling type. She hardly remembered him. The rest, all the boyfriends, were strangers.
And then one day it had finally happened, the thing that happened—more or less—to the child of every negligent parent. While she had gotten off incredibly easy, the experience was indelible, a point from which there could never be a return to an innocent trust in her mother’s ability and wisdom to keep her safe.
* * *
The door opened. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” Rabbi Weintraub smiled.
She stood up, alert, her hands reaching back to make sure her hair was still held in severe check by clips and bands. Making her natural strawberry-blond mass of outlandish and uncontrollable curls look respectable was such a hopeless task that she’d once seriously considered cutting it all off or dyeing it brown and having it straightened. She’d resisted the impulse, refusing to succumb to the self-hatred she’d encountered all too frequently among other newly observant women. There was a limit to what she could do and still remain herself.
She tugged at her already mid-calf skirt. Although it was new, it was already straining at the seams. Ever since stopping her daily run, the weight had larded her body like a fat suit. It disgusted her, but at the moment, she felt helpless to do anything about it. Putting on trainers and jogging up the street would be looked down upon as immodest and attention-seeking, for a man or a woman, among the people whose respect and acceptance she craved. And even if she was doing it among strangers in Manhattan who wouldn’t give her a second glance, it didn’t seem honest. If she sincerely wanted to be part of this community, she needed to make an honest effort to conform to its rules.
He wore a long black coat, glasses, a black hat with an impressive brim, and a beard that, if it had been white instead of coal black, would have made him a dead ringer for Santa Claus. His eyes were an intelligent, sharp blue.
She had been living long enough among religious people not to be offended when he didn’t offer her his hand. Religious men didn’t touch women other than their wives, daughters, or granddaughters. She had always found that stringent regard for strict boundaries admirable, a surprising oasis in a world rife with sexual harassment and abuse.
“Please, sit.” He gestured affably, lifting the sides of his long black coat and sitting down behind his desk. “And so, Miss…?”
“Leah,” she helped him. “Leah Howard.”
“Of course. Leah. What brings you to us today?” He looked at her expectantly.
“I want to enroll in your women’s program.”
He nodded. “Very nice! Can you tell me a little about yourself?”
“I’ve been in other study programs. I started out with Chabad—Bais Chana—and I spent some time in Ohel Sara in Israel. When I got back, I started going to the Beginner’s Minyan at Washington Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.”
He sat back. “You went from chassidish to yeshivish to modern Orthodox, and now you are back here with us black hats?”
She was confused. Was that what she’d done? “Listen, Rabbi,” she told him honestly, “the truth is I went from knowing nothing to knowing something—about HaShem, about Judaism, and mostly about myself. Along the way, I found out what I wanted and what I didn’t want.” She paused. “That’s why I’m here, at your school, in your community. This is what I want.”
He rested his elbows on his desk, pressing his palms together. His eyes were searching, she saw. But also amused.
“Tell me why.”
“Well, as I mentioned, I started out with Chabad. It was something I came across online. A ‘summer camp for adults,’ they called it. The ad said no matter what your age or background, if you were a Jewish woman, ‘this is the right place for you.’ I’d just lost my job and my boyfriend. I couldn’t afford my Manhattan apartment anymore. And my family made it really clear that they didn’t want me moving in with them. The camp was in Minnesota, and they offered me a scholarship. And I thought, Let me take some time to think about my life.”
“So Chabad was not for you?”
She hesitated. “I really enjoyed it at first. They were all so friendly. I loved the singing, the beautiful Shabbos rituals, the feeling of sanctity and closeness with others and with God. I learned so much … everything, really. But then I hit a wall.” She hesitated.
“Please, be honest.”
“Okay, I got tired of all those stories about how the simple man or woman with terrible problems goes to the rebbe, and how the rebbe tells them exactly what to do, and how his advice is always perfect and solves everything. I couldn’t see where that left me. After all, the rebbe died more than twenty years ago. And even if he were still around, what kind of way is that to live, to ask someone else to make all your decisions for you? To be afraid to have a single thought, or idea, of your own? I shared this with one of my teachers. He was actually very nice about it and steered me to another program in Jerusalem.”
“How did that work out?”
“I’d never been to Israel before. It was overwhelming. I saw people, whole communities, actually living their daily lives according to the rules I’d only read about. Many of my teachers invited me to their homes. They had these big, noisy, happy Jewish families with everyone from the tiniest toddler to the great-grandparents living totally committed Jewish lives rooted in traditions that went back centuries. That somehow made it real for me. It showed me how such a thing was possible. It didn’t feel primitive or reactionary. It felt homey and right. It felt holy.”
“So why didn’t you stay? I’m sure Ohel Sara had plenty of matchmakers looking out for you.” He smiled.
She smiled back, a bit uncertainly. “Ohel Sara was good. I enjoyed some of it.” Again, she hesitated. “But it was so big! I was one of something like seven hundred women. I got a bit lost there, I think. And also, by this time, I felt I wanted to deepen my intellectual understanding of the laws, the lifestyle, not just to be told: do this, don’t do that. Many of the classes weren’t geared for that. Many of the women had just taken out their tongue rings—” She blushed fiercely, looking up. “I’m … I…”
He waved dismissively, his blue eyes mischievous. “Believe me, we’ve seen everything here, too.”
“Well, anyway. They went straight from that into trying to imitate everything their teachers said and did, even if they didn’t understand a thing. And they were very judgmental toward one another. It was sometimes like high school and the mean girls. Still, I had some very inspiring teachers, and I went up a few more spiritual rungs there. But I was running out of money, and honestly, I wasn’t ready to leave America. So I came back and looked for work. A high-tech company in Manhattan hired me. I rented an apartment not far from where I used to live. I was terrified of falling back into my old lifestyle; I didn’t want to forget everything I’d learned. So when I got involved in the Washington Avenue synagogue, I was relieved. Here was a modern Orthodox congregation where people had a similar education to mine and were working in top-notch professions. Many were baale teshuva, and quite a few were single. They were so much less restrictive than either Chabad or Ohel Sara. They had television sets, went to movies and the theater, and read the latest New York Times bestsellers. They were exactly like I used to be, except that they were Sabbath-observant and ate kosher. With them, I didn’t get the highs I got in Jerusalem or even Chabad, the spiritual uplift from prayer, the sense of being in conversation with God. It reminded me a little too much of the Reform and Conservative style of abridging God’s demands to make them easier and more popular. But I wasn’t looking for easier. I wanted something true and tested. Something eternal. But I was also tired of searching. I was hoping it would be enough even if the fit wasn’t perfect. Part of that, I’ll admit, was the fact that there were quite a few eligible men in the congregation. I wanted so much to settle down and have children.”
She paused, self-conscious, suppressing an audible sigh. “I met someone there. He was my age. A systems analyst. He was also a baal teshuva. We went out for six months, seeing each other two, three times a week. I expected, I hoped … But then, someone else from the congregation took me aside and told me that I wasn’t the only member of the synagogue he was going out with. There were at least two other women.”
She looked up, staring across the impersonal desk in this nondescript Brooklyn office at the bearded stranger facing her, his brows creased with sudden pain. He understands, she saw gratefully.
“So, there was a little too much ‘modern’ in the Orthodox.”
She nodded wordlessly. Like Venetians who had fled an enemy right into the ocean, building houses on stilts, she had run from modern morality and modern business practices, finally reaching the edge of America, a world as alien and opposed to everything “modern” as one could possibly imagine.
“Rabbi, I am thirty-four years old. I want to stop running. I want to live here, build a Jewish home, find a good husband, have children. I know that the women who finish your program find shidduchim in this community. I am hoping…”
“Leah, what is your current level of observance?”
She knew what he meant. He wasn’t talking only about her faithfulness to the laws of the Torah but also to the stringencies imposed upon those laws by thousands of years of rabbinical decrees and custom. Truthfully, she’d never met two Jews who were on the same level as far as observance. It was endless, depending on what you had observed at home and been taught in school. She had been privy to neither, randomly picking up customs and stringencies here and there and doing her best.
Just be honest, she told herself, trusting those kind, intelligent eyes that looked at her so intently. “I pray every morning, but in English. I don’t know enough Hebrew yet. I’m strictly observant of Shabbos and holidays: I don’t use electricity, and shut off my phone and computer. I don’t use money, or carry or drive. I light candles and go to the synagogue even though sometimes I’m the only woman there.” (The more Orthodox the shul, she’d found to her surprise, the fewer women attended. Why was that?) “I prepare or get invited to festive meals. I’m very careful to buy only foods that have proper rabbinical certification. But most of all, I try to be careful about what I say to and about other people. I try never to hurt anyone’s feelings or be dishonest with my words or with my actions. When I can, I try to do good deeds.”
He straightened in his chair, noting her long skirt and modest blouse. “I don’t know if you need any more lessons, Leah. You seem to have learned all the most important things already!”
She relaxed. “I still feel very ignorant.”
There was a short silence. “There are many places you can take shiurim. But, to be honest, I don’t think this program is right for you. You see,” he said very gently, “most of our students are under twenty-five.”
His words pierced her heart like pincers, plucking out what was left of her hopes. Too old! She was too old. She nodded wordlessly, gathering her things together. “Thank you for listening to me, Rabbi. I’m sorry I wasted your time.”
He didn’t respond, staring at her.
Abruptly, she stood up.
He gestured impatiently. “You’re in a rush? Sit, sit.”
She fell back into her seat, confused, her face flushed with humiliation and disappointment.
“Tell me, Leah-le, what really happened to you before you went to Chabad?”
She sank back into her seat, clearing her throat with difficulty, aware of the rabbi’s intense, discerning vision resting on her without judgment but also without pity. “The company I worked for, PureBirth, was a start-up that produced a revolutionary genetic screening test that promised to detect cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and all kinds of other genetic diseases through a simple blood test. I worked in the marketing department, helping to sell millions of these test kits all over the world. We were making huge profits. Everyone got bonuses and stock options.
“And then one day, I went into the office and there were police everywhere. People were standing by their desks filling cardboard boxes, crying. My boss, Juliana Hager, a woman I admired and looked up to more than almost anyone I’d ever met, was taken into custody. They actually handcuffed her right there in front of everyone! Our ‘revolutionary, cutting-edge’ product was a fraud! Dozens of couples all over the world had started having children with genetic diseases we’d guaranteed they were free of. The lawsuits began, and then a criminal investigation.”
She twisted the tissue in her hands. “I know it wasn’t my fault. I was just a small cog in a huge machine. But if I hadn’t convinced the buyers in drugstore chains to stock our product, maybe those couples would have gone to doctors and had reliable tests done. Because of me, they’d had access to this fake test. They’d trusted it. And now, they and their children are going to suffer for the rest of their lives.” She dabbed her eyes, the tears that had slowly built up beginning to fall. “And the worst part, the very worst was this.” She held up her purse. “I got rewarded for it! But God was watching, Rabbi. He punished me. Not only did I lose my job, but a long-term relationship I was sure would lead to marriage and children suddenly ended. I’d invested five years of my life—my youth—in it. I was left with nothing.”
He nodded. “God is certainly trying to get your attention, Leah Howard. Sometimes this kind of personal crisis is His way of pushing us to look inside our hearts and then outside to Him.” He tapped the desk thoughtfully with a pencil, leaning back into his chair, sighing. “Leah-le, Leah-le,” he said, shaking his head and looking her over. “What are we going to do with you?”
Copyright © 2019 by Naomi Ragen.