What does an Off the Derech Chassid Miss Most?

What does an Off the Derech Chassid Miss Most?

18 years ago, I left behind the bright lights of the secular world for the holy glow of Torah and Shabbat and the dream of creating my own, personal Mikdash Me’at.

And the truth is that, since becoming religious, I’ve rarely considered those formerly observant Jews who passed me as they were making a mad dash for the exit while I was just pushing my way in through the turnstile.

But occasionally, I do wonder how a human being could possibly give up all THIS.

Don’t they miss it?

So I was pretty fascinated to discover two personal accounts this week of the post-Orthodox life of 2 Off-the-Derech Chassidim, and to hear what they missed most from the lives they left behind…

Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Chassid, a divorced father of 5, and a TOTALLY awesome writer. Last week I read a fantastic article he wrote for Tablet Magazine on his mixed feelings about his newfound standoffish non-Chassidic neighbors in “Hipster” Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Deen writes:

“What I wouldn’t give these days for one nosy neighbor. For someone to chat me up in the hallway, ask where I’m from, what I do for a living, and how much I earn per week. Or at least for someone to knock on my door early one morning looking to borrow some milk, a cup of sugar, a few eggs for breakfast.

I’m not a lonely old man living alone in the middle of nowhere. I am a 36-year-old New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn, and I have many friends scattered throughout the five boroughs. It’s just that I’m not used to meeting neighbors and sharing no more than vague and grudgingly polite pleasantries with them. Where I come from—the Hasidic communities of Borough Park, Brooklyn, and New Square, and Monsey, N.Y., northwest of the city—the neighborly indifference that most New Yorkers are used to doesn’t exist.

In the past, each time I moved to a new home my fellow Hasidic neighbors came knocking. They brought piping hot pans of potato kugel, plates of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and rolls of cinnamon cake. Then they would ask for my name and occupation and spend a few minutes trying to place me within an appropriate sphere of mutual friends, relatives, and acquaintances. In my case it was usually, “Deen? I don’t know any Deens, but I know a Deem. You sure your name’s not Deem.” I was sure it wasn’t.

Several years ago, I decided to discard religious observance and the austere lifestyle with which I was raised…[and] I decided two years ago to move to Bushwick—Brooklyn’s newest bastion of hipster faux-bohemianism. There are many many differences here, of course, but I was most struck by the standoffishness of my new neighbors… Read more of “Too Cool” by Shulem Deem.

A few days after I read this article, I came across the far more troubling story of a 26-year-old ex-Satmar Chassid named Luzer Twersky. Twersky had a traumatic childhood, got married at 20, had two sons, and was divorced by the age of 22. Following his divorce, Luzer Twersky was homeless for six months and bathing in public bathrooms in Brooklyn.

Today, Twersky is non-observant, but he goes back and forth in terms of dress. One day he looks like any other Chassid you’d pass in Williamsburg. And the next day, he’s wearing jeans, a green T shirt, and his head is bare. But no matter what he’s wearing, he’s chain-smoking and throwing around a lot of four-letter words. Looking at him, I felt that something is deeply wrong here.

In an episode of “New York Style Stories,” Luzer Twersky paints a mixed picture of his new life:

“It’s just a kind of freedom that most Americans couldn’t imagine what it feels like to get it at the age of 22. It’s enormous joy, enormous joy. I’ve never felt better in my life…in that part. On the other hand, what’s more difficult? Well, there’s financial difficulties. And there’s social difficulties, blending in. And then there’s the guilt. And there’s also the homesick. It’s what I’m familiar with. All I’m really, really familiar with is being Chassidic. And that keeps on popping up in my feelings and my emotions and in my mind, all the time. It creates a sense of yearning, you know. And it can take a toll some times. But on the other hand, when that’s not there, life is good! Life is ****ing good!…You live for the purpose of being happy!”

He said this final line with a big toothy smile.

But to me, Luzer Twersky doesn’t look so happy. Not at all. He looks sad. He looks confused. He looks like a lost boy who no longer knows where home is.

His mouth smiles, and his eyes tell such a different story.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.com user Smart Destinations

Related posts:

Reining in the Destroyer by C. Saphir
The Woman with 12 Kids by Varda Epstein
Smiling on the Roller Coaster

7 comments

  1. so sad….but in my heart i truly believe that they will both return home…every dog does…most of the time with their tail between their legs…hope its out of love and true thirst for spiritual fulfillment that is the ultimate fulfillment in life and makes life….good.

    • Israeli Eema

      Most people that leave frumkeit leave because they see the imperfection of frum Jews. Calling them dogs or comparing them to dogs [something that is problematic hashkaficly if not also halachically] is not helpful to the conversation or to convincing anyone to return. Sometimes the thirst for spiritual fulfillment is not enough when it is mixed with physical or sexual abuse, hypocrisy, or a myriad of other imperfections that human beings are capable of. I hope that the two men who were written about find a community and a way to express themselves as Torah-observant Jews even if they never have anything to do with chassidim or a chassidish community again.

      • I think she meant dogs in the context of loyal servants, loyal members of the household, relating to the positive aspects of the species: that our neshamas are loyal to Hashem and even when we go astray we know we can return to our “Master”….

  2. i can’t help but think of the wives and children left behind while these men “live for the purpose of being happy”

  3. I appreciate the lack of negativity in this article, I’m used to seeing trash-talking and name calling by frum bloggers, but you’re quite neutral and honest, and I appreciate that.

    It is my firm belief that everyone should live the type of life that suits them best. Orthodox Judaism works for you, it didn’t work for me. That is all that matters. Religion does not make people happy, people make themselves happy. Happiness is a choice, not a circumstance. But in certain situations that choice becomes more difficult and one must put themselves in a place where it will be easiest to attain happiness. We are not all at the madregah where we can always be happy.

    I always get asked “are you happy now?” And the answer is, “no, but I’m HAPPIER.” When I was frum and married I was on a cocktail of various psychiatric drugs just so I can get through the day, I haven’t needed any of those drugs since I left. Nuff said?

    As for you, I’m glad you found happiness and fulfillment in your life, and as much as I think your beliefs are wrong, I’m still happy for your happiness.

  4. Luzer,

    You sound so bright and curious. There is so much to learn. Please make time to really study Judaism–authentic real Judaism. And then help us make it better and ease others’ pain.

    Raisy

  5. It’s true Satmar is known for its extremism and insularity. Nevertheless, no self-respecting Jew with a basic knowledge of Jewish history would eat pig meat or associate with nonJewish women. Such behavior shows a lack of understanding of Jewish values and a troubling lack of solidarity with the Jewish people.

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