By Tamar Rotem • Ha'aretz
One cold night in Jerusalem about two years ago, I fell into a deep sleep. After what seemed like just a few minutes, I woke up. Terrified. In the twilight between slumber and wakefulness, a hand was placed over my closed eyes in an unmistakable gesture. It happened in an instant, but that recollection of the specific gesture that accompanies the recitation of "Shema Yisrael" - of four fingers covering one eye and the thumb covering the other, like a roof - shook me up. After all, the last time I said the prayer before going to sleep was over 25 years ago.
I have since forgotten most of the text, except, of course, for its impressive beginning: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is your God the Lord is one," which I would probably be able to recite even if I lost my memory.
In the darkness, after the confusion had passed, I tried to understand the significance of this message, risen from the depths of my consciousness. It was not a pleasant memory or a kind of childhood nostalgia, but rather reflected distress I had felt in the past, provoked by the fear that I had fallen asleep without saying the "Shema." I wondered what else remained there, deep inside the drawer of the life experiences of the child with the long, pinned-back braid that I used to be. Through the curtain that had lifted momentarily, I discovered the traces of fear that had been an inseparable part of my religious life. Fear that was constantly inculcated in the pure souls of the girls at the Bais Yaakov seminary in Tel Aviv where I studied - and in me as well.
One lesson in the spirit of the philosophy of mussar (ethics) that was seared into my consciousness dealt with the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple on Yom Kippur, cloaked in white. As it says in Ecclesiastes Rabba: "At all times your clothes should be white." In other words, at all times you must think that you will die on this day. You must repent and atone for your sins, so that you will die pure and spotless. At an age when the world is seen in black or white, this call for purifying the heart and fearing death, at the same time, seemed to me the essence of true religious aspiration.
Toward the end of high school, this ideal was translated into a decision to adhere totally to the religious education I had received at the seminary. Perhaps I would have had a glorious future had I stuck to that decision for the long term. But, truth be told, my period of righteousness - during which I tried to observe all the commandments, and mainly embittered my mother's life with a demand for strict observance of certain religious laws - was one big fake.
I never really felt spiritually uplifted, not even during the period when I tried to daven devoutly, with the right bodily movements. My eyes stayed dry even when the cantor sang the mournful piyyut (liturgical poem) "Unetaneh Tokef," considered the spiritual high point of the Yom Kippur liturgy. I had a hard time with the fast and hated every second. In general, I was unable to decipher how God or observance of his commandments was significant for me. As I grew older, the gap between the rhetoric and the social hypocrisy also mounted, in my eyes. Ultimately, my "identity project" as a rank-and-file Bais Yaakov girl fell apart in a feeling of disgust that was simultaneously overwhelming and liberating. Along with it went my observance of the Torah, of halakhot (religious laws) and both forms of commandments.
That was a point of no return. In its wake, I severed the emotional and social ties with the community in which I had grown up in Bnei Brak. And after I crossed the bridge, I never looked back.
My subconscious experience in the middle of the night did not surprise Dr. Yehuda Goodman, a psychologist and anthropologist of religion, who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Also formerly religious, Goodman offered an anecdote of his own. Years ago, on a very cold and snowy day abroad, when he was wearing a wool hat on his head, he recalled feeling uncomfortable. "That was years after I had removed my skullcap," he says, "but for a moment I was sure it was there, in the way. The skullcap becomes part of your skin, and is there years after you have left [religious life]."
Filmmaker Meni Philip, formerly a well-known famous Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) singer, who recently presented his short film "Sinner," at the festival in Venice, says he is sometimes suddenly "thrown back" to his previous self. For example, when he choked up upon hearing a song by Haredi singer Mordechai Ben David on the radio. Philip himself recently embarked on a journey to learn about secular music, and discovered the Beatles and classical music. He has also shed any "religious jargon," as he describes it, in his own singing. But, in spite of everything, he admits, there is Haredi music that touches him deeply, "because of your childhood. It makes your stomach do flip-flops."
I met with Philip, who has been "outside" for nine years, to discuss a heartrending scene in his documentary film "Let There Be Light" (2007), which recounts his personal story and that of his brother, who also left religious life. The scene takes place at a Purim party organized by Hillel, a nonprofit Israeli organization catering to those who leave the ultra-Orthodox community. Philip performed one of his melancholy hits from the past - "Rabbi Ishmael Said" - before an audience of people who were no longer Orthodox. Dressed in totally secular clothes, in some cases to an extreme because of Purim, they sang along with him, in tears.
"Usually those who have recently left religion refuse to hear such songs," says Philip, "but it was Purim and it was appropriate. After all, I used to be their singer, when they were ultra-Orthodox. They simply melted."
Popping up in dreams
Nobody can understand such forays into a prior culture, a previous life, except perhaps for immigrants. More than nostalgia, it's a kind of return in a time machine to an identity you have shed, prompted perhaps by emotional stimuli, smells, sounds, a chance picture. The other identity pops up in dreams from the depths of your consciousness, even when you try to suffocate it. It took me time to acknowledge the existence in my new life of the shadow world of my childhood and adolescence. During the years that I was busy building my new identity in Tel Aviv, the transformation I had undergone in order to be a secular woman seemed to be complete. The memories, the voices and the names attached to the familiar faces of my childhood slowly but surely dissolved and with them the biblical verses, the stringent commandments, the rules and the typical cadence of the speech of the community I had left. I severed all contact.
But over time, some of this reappeared in connections and contexts that were both surprising and moving. Gradually I acknowledged the fact that certain parts of my personality had formed during those critical childhood years. My critical way of seeing things, my subversive thinking, had strengthened in the years when I had been a citizen of a dictatorial regime. My restraint, my apparent serenity - these are a result of a Spartan education in a society where you are not allowed to get carried away. My body language is still partially "dossit" (a derogatory term for "religious"), say those close to me. For example, the way that I shake my hands after washing them, as after the ritual of washing before eating bread.
Philip, who is 40, balding and wears round glasses - and thus fits the typical secular-leftist stereotype - reports that recently he started praying again. He engages in "personal prayers," in his words, in making wishes.
"When you wish for something for yourself, you have to have a listener. And you want the listener to have power," he explains. "It's like the way we always want to speak to the person in charge, the director, because then there's a chance that something will happen. All that has no connection to belief in God. There's something childish about it. Naive. Between us, even those who believe in him know he's busy. They know [their request] doesn't really reach him, but they still ask."
Philip is currently the cantor of a Reform congregation in Kiryat Ono, outside Tel Aviv, and lives in Ramat Gan. He has also been recording a new album of religious music that is a far cry from the old "Oy, voy, voy" style. And it is thanks to these new compositions and his return to prayer that he says he can allow himself to look back and accept the process he underwent.
"When you leave religion, first of all everything falls apart. Mainly the connection between belief in God on the one hand, and religion and ethics on the other. At first you become a nutcase. After all, there's nobody to punish you. Then you go to look for new ethics. During the first years you don't pray either. You try to understand your limits. But after a while you say to yourself: There's no God, f--- it, but I want to feel."
The preoccupation with shaping a nonreligious identity and determining its limits is far more natural and better understood today than when I left my Orthodoxy in the 1980s. For the constantly expanding group of people who call themselves "datlashim" - a Hebrew acronym for "formerly religious" - the prolonged search for a new identity that still corresponds in some way with the old one becomes an end in itself, because they do not consider secularism an appropriate alternative. These are mainly young people in their late twenties, or thirty-somethings, who come from religious-Zionist circles, who do not lead a religious lifestyle and do not consider themselves bound by halakha (traditional Jewish law). This phenomenon was portrayed well in the television series "Srugim" (literally, "Knitted") in the character of Hodaya, who during the entire first season deliberates as to whether to give up the religious life.
"The past decade was the decade of identity," observes Goodman. "In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, there was a shattering of the reigning hegemony, of the old political divisions, of the old religiosity, with various available alternatives such as Shas or Gush Emunim, in the 1980s. In the following decade there was a kind of marketplace of identities and legitimization of many groups organized around identity."
The formerly observant, he continues, are yet another group seeking a new era, and perhaps looking to strengthen the turn back to traditional Jewish literature, and to support the various secular batei midrash (study houses).
These people do not seem to look back in anger or pain, perhaps because they have not severed - and are not interested in severing - the fine threads that tie them to the religious community. In the eyes of anyone who, like me, is familiar only with the options of all-or-nothing, of either-or, their refusal to relegate themselves to the familiar categories of religious or secular seems strange, to put it mildly. Indeed, this is another basic difference between us: After the high-pressure society in Bnei Brak, I inhaled fresh air after I moved into the heart of anonymity in New York - whereas they seek recognition and support from other formerly religious people.
Today several hundred people are registered in three large communities of datlashim on Facebook. In Jerusalem there are several circles, whose members know each other from high school. Most live on the margins of the so-called "Jerusalem swamp" of educated religious singles; recently a similar community has been forming in Tel Aviv. Several dozen datlashim have participated in special Sabbath activities organized there by psychologist Dror Golan, who is himself no longer religious.
I ask Golan - who is 33, completed a doctorate at Bar-Ilan University about people who leave Orthodoxy and is married to a formerly religious woman - whether religiosity is characterized more by affiliation with a community than by faith. He agrees that the difficulty and alienation involved in the process of leaving religion make people want to share that challenge with others similar to them. But those people, he explains, do not typically try to get the best of both worlds; rather, they are still characterized by the same seriousness they had when they were religious.
"Those who took religion lightly in high school remove their skullcaps in the army, and that's it. We don't hear about them again. However, many datlashim removed their skullcaps only after finishing a full course of religious study and attending hesder yeshivas [combining military service and Torah study], or [in the case of women] a midrasha [Torah study institute]. Postponing one's abandonment of religion reflects the searching and difficulties inherent in making the decision."
Yossi Samet, 32, until recently a counselor for the Taglit-Birthright program, says that what he calls "the narrative of the datlashim" suits his stage in life. But nothing is final and definite. At the prestigious modern-Orthodox Hartman High School in Jerusalem where he studied, exposure to the question of identity was intense and natural. In any case, he adds, "I wasn't so strong at being religious."
Samet says he always felt that religious practices were devoid of content, no more than routine. Art, music, books and films move him today, not the synagogue. But on the other hand, belonging to the religious community has a very emotional component, he notes. Samet adds that his group of datlashim, graduates of Hartman and Himmelfarb High School (also modern Orthodox) in Jerusalem, still play soccer once a week, along with some religious men.
"Religious people are people with whom it's easy for me to communicate," he admits. "Secular people are more heterogeneous. I have to learn to understand them."
Although he no longer wears a skullcap, he apparently does not reject what can be called the religious ideal.
Samet: "Rabbi [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik [the late, leading Orthodox rabbi in the United States] said that being religious is an ongoing struggle. As a rule, religious identity is strongly established, but based on uncertainties. Most secular people have not examined their secular identity carefully. Their lives are lives of convenience, and I find them less challenging."
He admits that for now, it is convenient for him to sit on the fence; he enjoys the dissonance created by his image as a secular person and his deep knowledge of Judaism. But he would not hesitate to take a religious woman as a partner and resume religious observance.
Lilach Rubin, who left Orthodoxy and is 38, has a different opinion: "In high school we were always told that secular people have no freedom of choice. That's an outright lie! Not a day goes by when I don't think: How could you have lied to me? I get up every morning dealing with the question of identity. What questions does a religious person have - which minyan [prayer quorum] should he attend? He sits and someone else chooses for him, arranging his life for him."
Rubin, who works in communications and is an entrepreneur, may seem defiantly secular. She is the mother of a three-month-old child and lives with a partner whom she did not marry in a religious ceremony. She does not observe Shabbat and will not fast on Yom Kippur. "And it doesn't bother me that they tell me I'm 'anti.' Yes, I'm anti any ritual observance of any kind."
And yet Rubin does not feel secular either. So what is she? On the one hand, she was educated in national religious institutions and was a counselor in the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement, but she never felt comfortable praying.
"I didn't feel a need to speak to God. At the age of 17, I already asked the rabbi's wife at school: Why are you forcing me to recite the same passages every day? She threw me out, of course."
The crisis took place afterward, Rubin relates, when she was studying at Bar-Ilan University. "I started to go on dates and felt it didn't suit me to keep playing the game. I had to decide what could and could not be discussed, where I was in terms of religion." On the other hand, she didn't "find herself" in Tel Aviv, and moved to Jerusalem.
"From your first moment in secular society, you understand that you're not part of them and never will be," Rubin declares. "You can adopt the jargon, dress or behavior codes, but it's not the real thing. Strangely, because I grew up in the center of the country, in Petah Tikva, I felt I was anonymous in Jerusalem. I had the freedom to do what I wanted, that there was room for everyone. Maybe because it's the Holy City, you don't have to be religious and can be whatever you feel like."
The definition of "formerly religious" is apparently steadily expanding. Ari Engelberg, 40, a doctoral student in the department of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University, defines himself as a "traditional" datlash: In other words, a Shabbat-observer.
"Even if you renounce it and decide to check other options - it's impossible to deny that a religious lifestyle is embedded in you and is part of what you are, part of your soul," Engelberg says.
He observes that datlashim feel they possess a great deal of "cultural capital," as defined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu - in other words, that their knowledge of Judaism and of two different "languages" (religious and secular) has special value.
Currently writing a thesis on the aforementioned swamp and the problems of singles, Engelberg claims that, not surprisingly, datlashim are interested in finding partners like themselves, because they believe they will be understood better. It's clear that a formerly religious person's entire inventory of associations gets lost when they are with a secular partner. Furthermore, even more difficult problems can arise when they are dealing with secular people, involving misunderstandings regarding the codes of behavior between the sexes - apparently because of their gender-separated religious education. One young woman admits that she had sexual relations against her will because she was afraid the secular guy would make fun of her for being religious.
So, after all this, what's preferable: to make a clean cut or to poke at the wound? It is not always a matter of choice, and in both cases, there is pain. Rubin describes leaving religious life as a prolonged and difficult process.
"You're preoccupied with questions about God, trying to decide whether the path you're now choosing is the right one. There's a lot of loneliness in the process. As long as your self-definition is stuck, everything is stuck. Work, a partner, friends. It took me time to feel comfortable with myself," explains Rubin. But she adds that she wouldn't give it all up, and wouldn't have done things differently.
Some formerly observant people like Rubin, who are beginning to start a family, say they would like their children to be datlashim, too. They say this with a smile, aware of the contradiction in this statement. And yet, it also contains a certain amount of logic, to them.
For their part, Engelberg and Golan feel the formerly religious community is "a new sector that's bubbling beneath the surface" and is being created both out of critique of the old ways, but also out of nostalgia and admiration, too. And they believe that when young datlashim start families, they will also start their own school system - and be fruitful and multiply.