Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Actors in the Attic

We all got together because we loved this world and we wanted to grow with it rather than away from it. We all got together because there were things we didn’t understand about our world, and it was important that our world made sense. Because this world is hard to live in. Because we’re Orthodox women, and every day, when we wake up in the morning, we make the choice to be here, to remain Orthodox. And we needed to understand that. So we sat on floors and beanbag chairs and uncomfortable carpets and we thought about what made us what we were. And no one minded because we were just talking and talk is harmless.
Then we wondered who else thought this way. Because we can’t be the only ones. Because Solomon tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. So we could not be new. We could only be saying what others had already thought. So why hadn’t we heard it before? Were people scared? Did women believe, as we had before we began congregating in bedrooms and on living room floors, that they were the only crazy Orthodox women who wondered and questioned and contemplated and second guessed the decision they’d made when they’d woken up in the morning? And we thought perhaps we should write down these thoughts because they meant something. And no one minded because we were keeping to ourselves and, as long as we kept to ourselves, we were harmless.
Then we thought, perhaps we could contact these others, these women who thought this way. So we wouldn’t be alone. So we could all know that we all questioned the decision we’d made that morning. So that we could all know that we were looking for that answer together. And we thought that, perhaps, we ought to take these thoughts that we’d written down and show them to others. These stories of different women and different thoughts and new ideas that weren’t new because there is nothing new under the sun. Only thoughts that we’ve all had and are afraid to say out loud for fear of being told that no one else has had them. And we thought that, perhaps, we could let these ideas out. Make them a play. Make them a forum. Make them a movement. Let the thoughts fly out across a stage and attach themselves to new ideas in other women’s brains so that we’d all know that we weren’t alone.
And then someone minded.
Because it wasn’t just talk.
Because we weren’t keeping it to ourselves.
Because it wasn’t harmless anymore.
And people came to us. The good people. The kind, well intentioned people who loved us and didn’t want to see us hurt. They told us not to do it. They told us that, if we did, that we would no longer be welcome in the community. They told us that those of us who weren’t married ran the risk of never being married, and those of us who were married ran the risk of our children’s children’s children being pariahs forever and ever and our siblings not being able to marry because of us. They told us that, perhaps, not all ideas should be spoken of. They told us that, perhaps, it’s better for us to forget the other women who doubt the decision that they made when they woke up in the morning. They told us that, perhaps, it would be better if we went back to bedrooms and living room floors and kept this one tucked under our headscarves because the world in which we live is not quite ready for us. And then no one would mind because we would be harmless again.
But we live in this world and we are ready for us because we have all spent moments in our lives wondering if we are crazy for asking questions and wondering if we are the only ones. We live in this world and we have all spent time being convinced that we don’t, that we are not the members of this world that matter. We are of this world. We are in this world. We are this world. And we will say what we think. Because we love this world. Because we want to grow with this world, not away from it. Because we don’t want to second guess that choice we make when we wake up in the morning. We want to embrace that choice. We want to wake up and embrace this world of Orthodox women that we live in. We want to know that we are not alone.

Ghost Children

Hi! I'm a forty-something frum Mom, ffb, who is becoming increasingly worried about the state of frumkeit and its future if we continue down this road. I think that many of us are feeling this way, but we're afraid to speak.

I see ghosts.
Admit it; you see them, too; much as we all would like to deny them.
I’m talking about our children, the ones who have opted out of frumkeit. These are the sons who “went away” to Yeshiva and never seem to come home; the girls who are living “out of town,” who rarely visit. We use the deliberate ambiguity, because we are afraid to admit that our kids have strayed out of the land of frum living by going “off the derech.” Occasionally, we may catch a glimpse of these wraiths as they flit in and out of the “frumme velt.” They come out to haunt lifecycle events, weddings and funerals in particular. You can detect their presence by the knowing looks, the susurrations of scandalized whispers.
“Can you believe she actually went to B.J.J.?”
“I hear that he’s married to a shiksa.”
Used to be that the “oylam” claimed that these apparitions were a rarity- the atypical results of family failure, the begotten of Baalei T’shuva, kids whose backgrounds predisposed them to ”problems.” Can’t call it an aberration any more though. There are too many “at-riskers” with illustrious family names, high on the “yichus” ladder, day school education, yeshiva high schools, two-parent families, many of them with brothers and sisters who appear to function happily within the frum spectrum. I suspect that’s why the “powers- that-be” have finally created a nice, pareve label for it- “at risk youth.” How’s that for creative euphemism? Our kids are getting stoned, pregnant, living on the streets, getting into crime and rejecting Judaism in any form. Yeah, I guess you could say that they’re “at risk.” Don’t want the outside world to know how badly we are botching it here, so let’s minimize the extent of our problem. The hierarchy may have just deigned to notice what’s happening, but this problem been growing steadily for nearly twenty years now.
Want proof? Just stand observe the street corners where the “bad” kids congregate, m’dear. While you’re there, count the ratio of male “at-riskers” to females. Ten to one, maybe? A frum friend of mine in the psychiatric field told me that, from personal observation, she reckons that the frum drop-out rate for boys is about fifteen to twenty percent, for girls, three to five percent. That was nearly ten years ago. Fast forward to today and think about the current shortage of available frum men. Make the correlation. Our daughters' basherts have left the building, hon, and doesn't look like they're coming back.
Ironic, isn’t it? For all of our much flaunted self-congratulation about the flocks of folks who are returning to Yiddishkeit, we are dying of spiritual hemorrhage. Yet, it seems that so much of our communal resources are focused on bringing new people into the fold, not giving our kids the education and love of our faith that will make them want to stay. Our schools are failing badly, graduating an increasing number of kids who are spiritually numb or at worst, hostile to a religion that seems to be a cult of ceaseless strictures to them.
Remember the Mishna about the bed of Sodom? Seems that the folks in Sodom had bed reserved for those who wanted the community’s help. If you were too short, they stretched you to fit it. Too tall? They hacked off your legs until it was just right; the original one size fits all. It seems that’s the model for day school education today. If you’re a boy and you don’t have a “gemara kup” forgettaboutit. Girls who want to be other than a Mommy/morah? Well you won’t get a shidduch if you’re too smart/educated. Just get enough skills to support some young guy in kollel, but don't excel, or you’ll make him feel inadequate.
We seem to believe that by stigmatizing or amputating their talents, we can make them immune the outside world. Keep them ignorant, and maybe they won’t be tempted. Suppress the original, scorn the creative, disparage the gifted, then wonder why they abandon us to wander among the frumdead. We seem determined to homogenize our children into a generation of boors, barely literate and culturally inept. In a way, our ghetto is coming to resemble the inner city ghetto, where secular education is treated with contempt and actively discouraged. You think I lie? Compare yeshiva SAT scores today with those twenty years ago, even ten years ago. Ask long-term secular studies teachers what is happening on the other side of the desk and then stand back because you’ll get an earful. I guess it’s so much easier to put the blame on television and now the internet. Far better to attribute the decline to impersonal outside forces than to confront our own culpability.
Answers out there? I don’t have any. All I know is what I see. There are new faces out on those street corners all the time, friends of my kids, kids of my friends. I see the frum spiritual dead. They’re everywhere and we don’t want to admit that they’re dead. Still, I’ll play the game and keep on pretending. I won’t mention your child, if you keep quiet about mine.
No wonder Rochel is weeping for our children.