Wednesday, August 31, 2011

sorry bout that

My blog has been down all day because of some malicious code that someone attached to the atheist blogroll (which used to be in my sidebar). Apparently some hacker has nothing better to do but hack a whole bunch of atheist blogs (and the atheist blogroll I used was not the only blogroll hacked). But now it's fixed! Part 6 will be posted tomorrow morning!

Monday, August 29, 2011

How I went OTD and left the Jewish community for good: Part 5

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 6

My way out of the Jewish community I grew up in, and away from my parents,was full financial independence, which I got on September 1st 2004, the day I moved away to the city my graduate school was located in. Graduate school, and the stipend that came with it, was my ticket to freedom.

Living on my own and not getting any money help from anyone was definitely not easy at first. $15,000 a year (minus taxes) is not a ton to live on, even though technically it is above the poverty line. At first I lived in a small studio apartment in a big building in a terrible neighborhood near my school that cost $500 a month, the cheapest apartment I could find. My first day there I looked across the room to the kitchenette and said to myself "did I drop something in the kitchen?" Nope, turned out to be a cockroach the size of my hand, come to welcome me to the building.

My neighbors in the shitty apartment building I lived in turned out to be some of the more interesting people I have met- the painter (not the art kind, the walls kind) who had been kicked out of the navy for dealing cocaine and who once told me a long rambling story about how he had been sexually abused by church elders as a kid, the older African American dude who lived next door and played the drums for a jazz band (and was REALLY good), but who would occasionally blast Britney Spears (once I found a joint in the hallway outside his apartment). On the other side of me lived a nice older Mexican lady who was always carrying buckets of roses around, which I think she sold from the side of the road somewhere. Across the hall at first there was a law student, but later he moved out and this white dude who was a parolee who had just gotten out of jail for selling drugs moved in. The couple who lived on top of me fought constantly (which I could of course hear through the thin walls/ceiling), and once I had to call the cops on them when I heard lots of loud crashing noises and yelling and what sounded like people getting hit, at 3am.

Didn't really feel safe going out at night. Constant roach and mice infestations that were never taken care of no matter how many times I called the landlord. Once there was a fire alarm and everyone came out with cats in carriers, so I finally figured out I could get a cat even though it was technically against the rules, which took care of the constant parade of mice running from under the stove to behind my futon couch somewhere. My cat (that one, I have 3 now) is an excellent roach killer too- I found a whole bunch of half eaten roaches when I was moving out.

My first semester in grad school sucked, as major transitions often do. I didn't know a single person when I got there, it took me a while to make some new friends, adjusting to the insane work load and expectations of grad school was hard, as was going from being the top of my class as an undergrad to being an average grad student. Going from a very diverse public college to an elite private ivy league university gave me culture shock all over again.

I was living in a shitty apartment in the middle of a terrible area where hearing gun shots was not terribly unusual. I had no car, no air conditioning- the bars on the windows made it impossible to get a window AC unit, so I used to spend the hotter days working in my grad school office and late afternoons hanging out at a local coffee/cigarette shop shooting the shit with local people. That last part was actually pretty awesome.

In graduate school I participated in the local jewish community at first, but it was not orthodox (or at least the one I participated in was not orthodox). I tried meeting jewish-but-not-religious people to date on Jdate and at these events (grad student/young professional jewish networky things), and had several short relationships with men I met there and on jdate.

None of these mini-relationships lasted very long, and a few ended pretty badly (although in retrospect, hilariously). One somewhat-promising relationship ended when the man in question brought over a bottle of wine for dinner about 6 weeks after we started dating, and then drank most of it. He got very drunk and confessed that he owed his credit card company over $5,000 and that creditors were harassing him all the time for the money. And why did he owe them this much money? Because when he was in Italy two years before for a study abroad program, he had gone on a 3 week cocaine binge, and paid for it all with credit card cash advances. After confessing this he dropped a bottle on the kitchnette floor, stepped on a piece of glass, and got blood all over the carpet of my shitty apartment. After helping him clean up his foot I let him drunkenly moan about how "I'm dying, don't leave me, I'm dying" on my couch all night and ended the relationship in the morning.

Another relationship ended because the guy refused to be exclusive- he claimed he really wanted to get married (he was 29, I think his goal was to get married by 30) so he couldn't settle down with one person and stop dating other people until he was SURE he was going to marry them. Seems like a horrible strategy to me (and he's still not married at 35 now). I dated him about a week more after he declared this (which he declared about 5 weeks into dating him), but when he started hitting on one of my grad school friends in front of me, I ended that too.

I went on several spectacularly bad first dates, all with jewish men. One told me a story of how he had posted naked pictures of his ex gf to the internet, in which she was tied up to a chair with a broken leg (WTF???? NOT first date material!). One man called and planned a second date and never showed up for it (Um, why not just NOT plan a second date?). One man started serenading me with (really bad) "opera" in front of my school building. One guy started shouting at me in a bar about how women shouldn't pay for drinks, because I offered to buy him a second drink (he had paid for the first round). I turned down second dates with two men because of their jobs- one programmed missiles to kill people (not in the military, he worked for a place that had a defense contract, directly programming the missiles), and the other wrote papers for college students for a living (i.e. a professional cheater). Not every date/mini relationship was horrible, some were ok, but the ones that weren't horrible all ended with us being friends for various reasons (and I did make quite a few friends this way too).

I stopped going to my parents house on shabbas or for yuntif (holidays) entirely the day I moved to grad school. Once I was no longer forced to go to my parents house for shabbas every weekend, my remaining observance dropped off rapidly. At first I celebrated holidays with the local jewish young adult professional/grad student scene- sometimes at hillel, sometimes at chabad, sometimes at other places around town. I went to conservative services for the high holidays for a few years. I also celebrated quite a few holidays with a classmate's reform family. Even though I met some great friends through this crowd, including a later roommate, I felt less and less of a connection to Judaism and the Jewish community as the years passed. I started eating more and more non-kosher foods.

I can't pinpoint an exact moment, but around this time I realized I had stopped believing in god entirely, for reasons discussed in yesterday's post. As I came to see religious rituals as man-made rather than anything god wanted anyone to do, following those rituals because less and less compelling to me. Eventually as my beliefs about religion coalesced, it came to a point where I felt like a complete phony going to these young Jewish professional network things, since everyone there was really into the religion (or at least it seemed to me) and assumed I was too. But I wasn't. I enjoyed hanging out with people my age, and the opportunity to network, but not the services or the rituals or talking about religious ideas. I didn't feel like I fit in with them, even in a highly diverse crowd of young jews my own age. I just wasn't INTO it the way they were. I wasn't a believer. And the meat market nature of these young jewish events and the extent to which some event organizers (especially Chabad) would push us to get drunk and hook up with other jews so we could mate and make more jewish babies...well that also got to me. And I started to look upon these events with dread.

I was having a kind of existentialist crises I guess. At one point about a year after I got to grad school I started having panic attacks before going to jewish events. Then I started having them before EVERY jewish event or service like clockwork, about an hour before I was supposed to leave the house. I started going to a therapist because of these panic attacks, and went through a year of talk therapy.

In therapy I decided that after some really pretty bad dating experiences with several men met through Jdate and this young jewish professional network over my first year and a half of grad school, along with going through almost weekly panic attacks before jewish events, I needed a radical change in my life. About a year and a half into grad school I started a year long "happiness project" in which I decided to take a year off from internet dating and cut way back on the young adult jewish events (just about my only social activity at the time, which I was going to almost weekly my first year of grad school) to explore what it is that makes me happy. After being in a relationship for 4 years in college and then jumping from bad dates to a mini relationship to more bad dates and more bad mini relationships, I needed to take the time to myself to not think about dating and to figure out who I was, what I liked, and what I wanted in life. And after spending my whole life in the jewish community, I wanted to explore other social communities.

During that year I grew dreadlocks, took classes at a local arts collective on yoga, figure drawing, watercolor, and tai chi (in addition to finishing up my masters in grad school and teaching my first class), joined a gym and went all the time, took up biking again, quit smoking (which I started in late high school), went to about 30 shows and 5 music festivals and became a regular part of the local hippie music scene, and wrote a LOT in my other blog.

My year of dreadlocks

About half way through the year I stopped going to all organized jewish events and services, and started limited myself to smaller gatherings at people's houses, like the shabbas night potluck my reform friend hosted every month or so. The panic attacks stopped immediately when I stopped going to big Jewish events, and I haven't had one since. I concluded that Jewish community events, especially those that revolved around services and religious discussions, were making me miserable, and the only reason I was still going was out of a misguided attempt to find some kind of a Jewish community I fit into and that I actually got something out of. And that my primary motivation for doing that was because I felt obligated to my parents to try to find some kind of Judaism I'd be happy with, rather than getting any personal enjoyment or benefit out of it. I realized that after 5+ years of searching I still was getting little out of any of the jewish services or community events I had gone to, other then a bunch of panic attacks and miserable/boring experiences. I did find many friends there, but I had learned to make friends outside of the jewish world too. So I stopped going entirely.

The other thing I decided after much thought and writing was to stop limiting myself to dating only Jews, but that I didn't want to date someone who was part of another religion. I went out on a date with my first non-Jewish guy around September. The date was about the same as every date I had been on with a Jewish guy, except less Jewish geography. But I didn't find that guy particularly interesting, so I turned down a second date with him.

Somewhere in there I told my parents I wasn't religious a few more times, until it eventually started to stick, but I don't think they fully accepted that it wasn't still a "teenage rebellion phase" until I met B (and maybe not even after that). After my year long happiness project in 2006/break from internet dating, and being bored over winter break when a lot of my friends in grad school were off visiting their own families, I joined okcupid right around new years 2007 and limited the people who could see me to jews, atheists and agnostics. About a week later I got an email from a young man named B. After several hours-long instant messenger conversations, we met in person a week later. Like most internet dates I scheduled it for a couple of hours before I had to be somewhere else, so our entire first date was about 45 minutes long, in which we just talked the whole time. Later that night I went to my next plans- one of those shabbas potluck dinners. That entire night I kept thinking...hmmm....that guy I went out with today was pretty neat actually...hmmmm.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Intermission: Why I don't believe in religion and god

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” - Marcel Proust

I tend to like to write narratives and stories instead of long philosophical treatises (after all I'm a sociologist, not a philosopher), but I'll attempt to outline my thought process in which I stopped believing in god and a god-made religion.

It basically goes like this: We have no empirical evidence for god- all we have is a bunch of stories written down around 3000 years ago that clearly violate our modern knowledge of how the world works. So how could I believe these specific stories, when not only is there no independent empirical evidence for any of these stories happening prior to a certain time period (around the second temple), but those stories clearly violate scientific laws of nature and would be laughable if told today? Why are they any less laughable for having been written down 3000 years ago, when people had much less of an understanding of how the world works and so of course attributed all sorts of thing to "god"?

And if there is a god, why is Judaism the right religion? Every religion says THEY are the right religion, so what makes judaism more right than any other religion?

The more I thought about it, the more the idea of a personal god who cares about religious rituals just didn't make sense- why would god care if I ate a piece of bacon? What possible reason could an all knowing omnipotent being have for requiring these obscure rituals? If there was a god, and god was good, wouldn't it be more important for people to treat their fellow human beings nicely vs. following a bunch of obscure rituals while acting like assholes, which I found to be common among the jewish community? If god was so into these rituals, and those rituals were more important than how you acted towards your fellow humans, then he must be very petty. And if god is so petty, why should I follow god?

I eventually came to believe that no person can know what the hell 'god' wants if there is one, there is no evidence at all for god existing, and even if there is a god, the best bet is to just be a nice person and treat people well, rather than follow any specific religious rituals. Eden's wager if you will. Or like the quote from Kurt Vonnegut I have on my sidebar- "Live so that you can say to god on judgment day "I was a very good person, even though I did not believe in you." I started reading more about humanism, and realized humanist ideas were much more in line with my personal beliefs about life and how people should behave.

A big influence on my thought processes was Emile Durkheim's book The elementary forms of religious life which I read for my classical soc theory class my first semester of grad school. I loved his ideas so much that the cat I got at the end of my first year of grad school is actually named after him (his name is Durkheim).

Durkheim (the sociologist, not the cat) was also an OTDer, who lived in late 19th century France- his dad was a Rabbi. He argues in his book that religious rituals were a way of increasing group solidarity in the ancient world, designating things as sacred or profane and therefore designating people and objects and behaviors as "us versus them." This served an evolutionary purpose in that designating things as "us versus them" increased solidarity among the "us," and therefore increased safety in the ancient world. He also argues that an important function of religious beliefs is to give the believer strength and motivation to keep going in the face of adversity, and that in order to gain this benefit, religious people must constantly engage in rituals in order to renew that feeling of strength and motivation they get from religion.

The more I peered behind the curtain of jewish religious rituals and thought more and more about what some "latent functions" (underlying purposes) of those rituals may be, as I used this new Durkheimian framework to understand my upbringing, the more I became convinced that religion was man made, and that while the purposes of these rituals are beneficial to many people in contemporary society, to a non believer like myself they do not carry the same benefits.

I do believe religion serves an important purpose in society that has an evolutionary purpose- it still encourages group solidarity, which results in dense social networks willing to give social support, which therefore increases the probability of survival and reproduction. Some religious rituals - the niddah laws for instance, and modern prohibitions against birth control- increase the probability of reproduction directly.

Other benefits such as social support are still present in religion, but not necessary to survival the way they used to be. As any orthodox jew knows, if you run into an orthodox jew anywhere in the world they will probably be willing to help you out and invite you over for shabbas. You can get jobs and other social support though your jewish networks. These are all examples of the results of group solidarity.

I also think, as Durkheim points out, for some people the idea of a god, an afterlife where everything is just and assholes like JP get punished while good people get rewarded and you can meet up with your lost love ones- well it's a very nice dream. It would be great if it were true. It's especially important for people who are facing overwhelming adversity, which is why you always see tons of churches in poor neighborhoods. I think I get extra sad these days when people die (compared to how I felt when I still believed there was a god / olam habbah [afterlife]) because I just don't believe it's true.

On the other hand I know my parents draw a lot of comfort from that idea- for instance when my grandfather died, my mother told me that he kept talking to his dead wife on his death bed. To me that's just the result of someone with alzheimers hopped up on morphine and in the process of dying, and of course talking to the person who was his companion for over 60 years and had just died a couple of years earlier when his alzheimers was already starting to advance, but to my mom it was proof that my dead grandmother was in the room with them. I can see why that idea is very appealing, and I can see why it's a major aspect of many popular religions (A great movie about this point is "The Invention of Lying").

I just can't bring myself to believe in it personally, since ideas of the world to come seems to be based on pure speculation and desire for it to be true, with no empirical evidence. And since I don't believe in it, it doesn't give me comfort.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How I went OTD and left the Jewish community for good: Part 4

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5 and Part 6

I took sociology 101 having no idea what it was about, because it fulfilled a social sciences gen ed requirement and when I was trying to figure out my schedule for my second semester of college my friend said "Take Professor Battle's Soc 101 class, I had him this semester and he's really funny!" How different my life might have been if she had never said those words.

Professor Battle opened my eyes to a completely different way of viewing the world, a way that made SENSE and involved LOGIC and DATA and EVIDENCE and in which questioning was welcomed and respected. Quite unlike the evasive way my Rabbis avoided my tough questions in HS, I discovered sociology above all is about exposing the TRUTH about society, as best as anyone can measure the 'truth,' no matter how unpleasant that truth is, no matter how much it may challenge social conventions or make people uncomfortable. Professor Battle also made us all do an assignment where we looked up the application requirements for PhD programs in Sociology. And he shared some even more important information- the best PhD programs in sociology will pay YOU to go to school! (tuition/health insurance + a stipend).

At the end of the semester I went up to him and said "I'm declaring my major as sociology and I want to be a sociology professor." He kind of laughed and gently tried to tell me that not every sociology class will be exactly like his, and I should take more than one class before I made up my mind, but my mind was made up. I love learning about sociology, every day in that class was an epiphany, and the idea that I could actually make a (semi)decent living as a professor, learning about and discovering things no one has known about our society and the way it works, and then teaching them to other people, was the greatest epiphany of all.

I had recently discovered that I was actually good at school. After almost flunking out of high school I was shocked to make deans list my first semester of college, once I was able to take classes I actually was interested in taking and that were more challenging to me. I threw myself into school like I never had before, and throughout college I became entrenched in the mini-society that is academia. I served on the school senate as a student representative (a great place for people like me who love to debate/argue), on several school committees, was president of the sociology club, and took every sociology class I could. I got into the honors program and won several awards, both for academic merit and service to the school. I got a job as a peer adviser and ran student orientations and gave tours of the school to prospective students, and helped them register for class. In short, I fell in love with academia. The idea of being a professor fit right in with that.

To get into a graduate PhD program you have to have research experience as my Soc 101 Professor informed me. So the next year he helped connect me with another professor who was doing a project related to a topic I was interested in. And I started researching graduate programs for serious. My original idea of going to college, getting my degree and becoming a stay at home mom went out the window. I was going to be a sociology professor.

My ex fiance was not super thrilled by this idea. My parents weren't either- my dad (who also has a PhD) seemed genuinely confused by the idea of a woman having a career, and asked why I would want to go through all that training if I wouldn't stay in a career long term, and how I would ever be able to keep my job once I had kids and wanted to stay home with them. Cause the assumption in my household, and the one I had grown up believing in since it was so taken for granted, was that every woman wants to have kids, and wants to stay home with kids, and that the only women who don't stay home with their kids are the ones who can't afford to. He could not comprehend that not every woman wants to be a stay at home mom and was convinced I would later change my mind when my 'biological clock' kicked in. You know, cause every woman just drops their careers once they have babies- except for the 75% of them who keep working when they have kids.

But once I had broken out of that bubble and gone to college where people with a different set of assumptions about life, I thought more about staying home with kids all day, and the idea was not appealing at all. I mean I understand that some women like it, and that's fine, but I think I would go completely insane if I only got to interact with infants and toddlers all day long. My problem is not that some women are stay at home moms, but the assumption that EVERY woman wants to be one, and would be happy doing it. Once I began to question that assumption too, and thought about what being a stay at home mom would actually entail, the idea became very unappealing. I wasn't even sure if I wanted kids at all.

My mom also did not take my grad school plans very well. One of the first research projects I was an RA on involved stay at home moms, and I was more and more vocal about not wanting to be one myself once I graduated. My mom (who I don't think really understood what my research was about- she also called my field social work instead of sociology for YEARS) took the fact that I was doing research on stay at home moms to mean that I disapproved of HER being a stay at home mom (not true at all), and seemed to feel that I was rejecting her lifestyle by deciding to go to grad school instead of aspiring to be a jewish mother like her. After many years of being fairly close- in my teenage years my dad was the scary religious one and my mom was the one on my side- our relationships flipped. My mom started being kinda hostile towards me and we started fighting more and more. At the same time I got closer with my dad as I went through the application process and later grad school, since he had been through a PhD program himself and we suddenly had a lot more to talk about as a result.

Eventually my ex fiance and I had been dating 3 years and my parents kept 'gently suggesting' we should get married once I was done with school. So the summer after my Junior year we got engaged, had a le'chaim (engagement party) with all our family and friends and then started planning the wedding for the month after I was going to graduate college.

We started fighting more and more after we got engaged- I wanted to go to grad school and leave the area entirely, and then move on to who knows where after I was done with grad school to be a professor. Most professors end up moving to a random place anywhere in the country to get a job (which I did last year when I moved to the south), since colleges aren't all that common, and professorship jobs that fit our field and specialty are even less common, so we end up with very little choice over where to live until/unless we become more famous later in our careers. I was fully aware of this going in but I wanted to do it anyway- in fact the idea of moving off to random new places for grad school and then a job was thrilling to me (and in retrospect I'm very happy I did, everyone should try living in a different region of the country than they grew up in for at least a while). He wanted to stay in the same area and maybe have me move into his place, which I knew meant staying in the same Jewish community and going to shabbas and yuntiff at my parents house all the time, since he still was living 3 blocks from my parents. Although he was also OTD to some extent in practice, unlike me, he still believed in Orthodox Judaism, at least at the time (my impression is that he is completely OTD these days but we aren't really in touch anymore).

I also started having huge fights over the wedding with both my parents and my ex, frequently at the shabbas table. He and my parents wanted a completely orthodox traditional wedding. I did not. I was still in my "angry at religion and religious people" phase. I did not want to circle around him 7 times which I felt was like a dog circling its master's feet and challenged my dad to find a halachic (jewish law) source saying this custom was necessary to be halchically married, which he couldn't. I didn't want to have an entire ceremony in which I didn't get to say a single word. I didn't want my father signing me away to a binding engagement without me even being in the room in the chosson's tish. I wanted to give him a ring under the chuppah too. These were the main sticking points. I also wanted a simple ceremony somewhere outdoors like in the woods, with maybe a hippie jewish band (my choice was Soul Farm) but my parents refused to get that band and eventually talked me out of the woods thing too, cause you can't have a huge traditional jewish wedding with every relative in existence in the middle of the woods. We compromised by finding a hotel with an outdoor area for the wedding.

But eventually the fighting over grad school + the wedding was too much, and after he consulted with a few rabbis (but not me) my ex dumped me one day with no warning, the Fall of my senior year of college, the day after I sent out my first grad school application. I think that until then it hadn't been "real" to him, just something I had been talking about hypothetically for 3 years at that point and which we fought about all the time...or maybe he was hoping I would decide to pick him over grad school...but when I sent out my applications it became real and that was the final straw. This is pure speculation on my part, as he didn't really give me a clear explanation as to why he was ending our engagement. I was devastated that the relationship ended- for all our fights I still loved him very much at the time, enough to have committed to marrying him. Another important life lesson learned- love isn't the only important thing in a relationship. Having compatible goals and expectations about how you will live your life is equally important.

The breakup sucked majorly in a number of ways. Apart from breaking up just being hard and sucky in general, this breakup was PUBLIC. We had already had a le'chaim, gotten a huge stack of presents for the wedding, and my parents had put downpayments on almost everything for the wedding already. Like this wedding was PLANNED even though it wasn't supposed to be until around 7 months after that. My ex disappeared for a while after we broke up, leaving me to cancel reservations and wedding plans, return gifts and write checks out to people who had sent us money for a wedding present. Having to tell everyone I knew that we had broken off the engagement was humiliating and embarrassing and made me feel like a failure at life. The worst was the random people who didn't know we had broken off the engagement(/he had dumped me), and for months and months afterwards would ask about the wedding, which of course meant I had to tell all these people (lots of random strangers from shul) that we had broken up too.

About a week after we broke up my mom took it upon herself to inform me that "Now that I'm single again, I better not be bringing any non-orthodox men around the house and thinking that would be ok." We had a pretty big fight in which I basically said (again) that I'm not orthodox, I never will be again, and that I have no reason to date orthodox men who follow a religion I don't, so don't expect me to.

After my ex and I broke up, I had little reason to keep following Jewish laws. Until then he had been a conservative force on my OTDness since he still believed in everything even if he didn't keep it all, and wasn't comfortable with going 'further' than we were-- eating non-kosher vegetarian and dairy and fish (but not shellfish, like tuna and salmon), watching tv and playing video games in his apartment all shabbas long. A little over 2 weeks after we broke up I ate my first piece of non kosher chicken in Applebees in times square- it wasn't planned, we just happened to go there after me and my OTD brother and some friends couldn't get into a sold out pink floyd cover band show at BBKings, and I impulsively ordered buffalo chicken wings (with blue cheese dressing!) instead of my usual fish/vegetarian food. A few months after that I had my first non-kosher beef- a delicious empanada made by one of my dorm friends. The next year (when I was in grad school) I tried my first cheeseburger, and the year after that my first shrimp and the year after THAT bacon, crab, lobster, and scallops.

Each food was scary to eat the very first time- I had a physical reaction in which my heart would start beating really fast, my palms would start sweating, almost like a fight or flight reaction. I now use this as an example in class about what happens when people first break strong norms that they have grown up with. Norms are unspoken and spoken rules about how to behave and appear that are enforced through social sanctions, which are social rewards or punishments. Like when people look at you funny when you do something weird, you know that thing is "weird" and you don't want people looking at you funny, so you avoid doing it again. Norms are anything from "don't kill people" to "stand facing the door when you are in an elevator instead of facing the back wall" and "say sorry when you bump into someone" and vary from culture to culture. These norms then become embedded in your brain and neural pathways grow that tell you DO THIS or DON'T DO THIS, which are hard to change later on. Hence the physical reaction when first breaking major norms- that's your brain's way of telling you "WAIT, this is one of the things you learned NOT to do!! STOP or there might be social consequences!!" From such neural processes all of society and civilization is born. I still haven't been able to bring myself to try oysters, they are so foreign and disgusting looking and I can't get over that normative barrier in my brain. Maybe one day...

Getting back to the story, despite feeling devastated about the break up, I continued sending out my grad school applications. We broke up in November, I sent out applications and finished a very challenging Fall semester (I was taking 2 graduate level classes to help improve my grad school applications even more). I finished sending out applications in early January, after which I collapsed into a depressive episode for like a month since the break up finally 'hit me' when I didn't have work to throw myself into.

It was winter break and I stayed in bed most of the day and couldn't even bring myself to walk to the grocery store, so I lived off of muffins and ice cream from the dorm vending machines for a few weeks. I found a great cognitive therapist during that month and went to about 10 sessions in total, which in retrospect completely changed my outlook on life for the better. She helped me get over some major self esteem issues I had and taught me another important life lesson- that when people act like dicks, 9 times out of 10 it's cause they have some crap going on in their own lives, and it's not personal.

But being depressed for a while didn't matter, because all my grad student applications were out. And then I started hearing back. With (at that time) 2 years of research experience and high grades, I got into 8 out of the 9 programs I applied to, and every single school I got into offered me full funding. I could have moved as far away as Austin, Texas or Madison, Wisconsin, or stayed closer to home at NYU. In the end I chose to move to an ivy league university a few hours away from home, where I accepted full funding, including tuition, health insurance and at the time a $15k a year stipend.

I think going through that break up influenced my decision to not move TOO far away- Wisconsin all by myself with no partner seemed very scary, even though it was the #1 Sociology program in the country. The school I chose was only a few hours train ride to my friends/back home, but far enough away and expensive enough (over $100) that my parents couldn't try to force me to come home every weekend anymore.

I moved back to my parents house the summer after I graduated college for a very awkward few months during which I was now entirely open about not being religious anymore (although I still didn't openly violate any rules in front of them) and my mom told me not to talk to my youngest brother so I wouldn't be a bad influence on him 'the way I had corrupted my other brother' (really, me and my other OTD brother just went OTD together at the same time-he hung out in the same local OTD crowd I did, and he even ate non kosher meat before I did). My mother said after I left home at the end of the summer that was it, they wouldn't be giving me any more money help, and I couldn't move back home again, so I should go through everything in my room and take it with me because everything I left behind would be thrown away. I spent that summer biking everywhere to get out of the house as much as I could (would take long 10-15 mile bike rides), sorting through my entire life to decide what to move with me and what to throw away or donate, and getting ready to move to grad school.

After I moved my mom kept her word and threw away everything I left behind- my knee high steel toed doc martin lace up boots (those were expensive, mom!) and all my college artwork- I took a bunch of drawing classes in college for fun and took a class on figure drawing she disapproved of, which is why I think she threw all that stuff out. The next time I came to visit was Thanksgiving, at which point I discovered she had painted my entire room a different color and rearranged all the furniture, and as I said, threw out every single thing I had left behind. I felt like I had been erased from the house completely. The only thing to indicate I had ever lived there was my 8th grade class picture up on the piano.

To be continued...

One of my old figure drawings that I took a picture of before my mom threw it out.

Monday, August 22, 2011

How I went OTD and left the Jewish community for good: Part 3

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6

In college for the first two years I commuted back and forth to Hunter, 4 hours on a train every day. It was actually great for studying- I got so much work done on the train (and later by reading at home when I was stuck there for shabbas) that I ended up graduating summa cum laude. My level of observance at this time was at a level it had been stuck at for years. I didn't believe in orthodox judaism (but still believed in god...kinda), I didn't keep shabbas at all, I ate non-kosher vegetarian food and cheeses, ate fish (but not shellfish) out, but I still did not eat non-kosher meat. I bought a secret pair of jeans and every morning I would leave my house wearing a long skirt with the jeans rolled up underneath, and on the walk to the train station would whip my skirt off when no one was around and stuff it in my bag, and roll down my pants, and go to school.

While in college I also started 'experimenting' with other forms of judaism. The thought occurred to me that perhaps I hated judaism because of my parents/HS/whatever, but that other sects would be less horrible. I became very involved in Hillel and my college's jewish (non frum for the most part) community, and was on their programming committee for years where I organized many fun (IMO) jewish events like jewish movie viewings and a hillel open mike night with brilliant people performing various things every week for a year. I even was co-VP of Hillel for a semester. I went to chabad lunch and learns every other week and had long discussions with other hillel folks about whether the documentary hypothesis might be true and how we could prove it wrong, the various beliefs and practices of people in various sects of judaism, life in general. One of those folks was Malkie S., the woman who started the organization Footsteps, an organization for OTDers which she was just starting while we were in college together. She later tried to get me to join in my senior year, but I never made it to a meeting.

Meanwhile I went on birthrite Israel with hillel during winter break of my freshman year and meditated with hippie jews on the top of mountains in sefat. I went to my first reconstructionist shabbas services when they told us we had a choice of which services to go to and had ones of all stripes. While I did enjoy the guitar and being able to understand what we were saying, it was very foreign and kinda offputting to me because it was similar and yet so different from what I had grown up with. On birthrite I also got really drunk for the first time on Ben Yehudah street at Mike's Place, and after the trip was over I paid a $50 to delay my ticket home and spent 2 weeks crashing with my friend who was doing a year at Bar Elon University near Tel Aviv, where I got my belly button pierced. I visited with my cousins in Beit El in the west bank. I went to shabbas dinner at my friend's cousins where they had a traditional friday night shabbas dinner, after which we sat around watching tv. My first exposure to "cultural jews."

Back at college I had many long conversations with the reform rabbi-in-training at hillel and some conservative friends. I started identifying as conservative and then as a cultural jew. I also started taking yoga which led to reading some buddhist philosophy, which I liked. Through some of my clases I learned more about christianity, which I knew almost nothing about at that point. I had long conversations with non-jewish people at work at my college (who were mostly Muslim and Hindu, with a couple of Christians and some other Jews) where we compared our religions and their various beliefs.

It was the first time I had non-jewish friends, and really talked to anyone of another religion in depth about what their religion believed. I went to one of the most diverse colleges in the country (#3 in the country) and being in NYC and working to help run freshman orientation, I met and talked to people from all backgrounds and from all over the world. It was heady times. I went through a bit of a culture shock when I first got there but after a childhood in which I never had a conversation with someone who wasn't jewish, I loved all the different kinds of people I was meeting. I had to struggle to catch up with things my professors took for granted, like that we knew what the protestant reformation was (I didn't, and wikipedia wasn't really around yet). I also had to train myself to speak straight english instead of yinglish, as I soon realized once arriving in college that a lot of the words I used in regular speech were actually a foreign language.

I was still dating my ex fiance (we went out for 4 years- from fall of my senior year of high school until fall of my senior year of college). For around a year and a half after my parents found out about our plans to spend a weekend away (around 6 months after we started dating) there was a family stalemate, during which I refused to stop dating him, and he was not welcome in the house. After 9/11 happened during my sophomore year in college when I was 19, my parents decided they would be cool with him again cause "life is short." He was invited over to the house again for Thanksgiving 2001. My dad and him even eventually came to be pretty close.

The summer after my sophomore year my ex's own parents decided to move to another part of the country and since he was making a decent wage at that time, he decided he would stay in the area and not move with the rest of his family. He got an apartment about 3 blocks away from my parent's house. As you could imagine this was AWESOME for me since I had a place literally 3 blocks away where I could go violate shabbas all I wanted, with no parents around! Me and several other OTDers in town started hanging out at his place friday night after dinner and shabbas day after lunch, watching cartoons, and he started coming to my house for almost every shabbas meal. I was 20 at the time.

That summer something else happened- my school started opening up a very limited number of dorm rooms, after they were closed for renovations for several years. The dorms had very limited space-only 600 rooms at a school with 16,000 undergrads- so they were mostly for athletes, honors students in a new program, those on exchange programs, with a few "emergency rooms" for students who had major issues at homes. I desperately wanted to move there. I went to the vice president of the school and asked to be let into one of the emergency rooms on the basis of that I was spending 4 hours every day commuting, and that I was having problems at home. I explained the massive fights my parents and I were having over religion and how I was living a double life. I was also an honors student in the old honors program (and they were letting honors students from the new program in so why not me?). I told her every reason I could think of and every argument to get in. I got a room.

The next step was convincing my parents. The dorm rooms were incredibly cheap - around $250 a month (no meal plan) to stay in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan (the dorms are on 25th street and 1st ave in Manhattan). My parents were paying around $250 a month for all the NJ transit train, path train and subway fees to get me to school each month. I worked out all the numbers and proved to my parents that it would be cheaper to let me dorm than to make me commute.

I think the deciding factor was my ex moving 3 blocks away from my parents- my parents wanted me to go off to the dorm so we wouldn't be "tempted into sex" in his apartment or something (which they probably convinced themselves we weren't already having- we had lost our virginity to each other a couple of months before my 18th birthday). My dad definitely mentioned something about how he "knew I wasn't going to be sleeping around with a bunch of guys at my dorm cause your boyfriend is right here with us." Lovely, dad.

We worked out a deal where my parents would pay for my tuition + dorm and I would pay for everything else -food, clothes, the phone line and DSL internet connection my senior year- out of the three jobs I was working while in college. I was then working as a paid research assistant, a peer adviser and later admin in the school's student center, and an occasional statistics tutor. I also promised (in writing on another one of those damn contracts my dad was always making up) to come home every single shabbas and yuntif (holiday) to stay with my parents, or they would stop paying my tuition and dorm fees immediately.

I still hadn't escaped completely, and at the time I was working 30+ hours a week and taking 5 classes a semester, living in a room that was 8 feet by 12 feet while sharing a bathroom and kitchen with 60 filthy people on my floor, but I was on my own for almost 6 days of the week, and it was completely glorious and I loved every second. I wore pants every day but Friday when I went to my parent's house after school was over. I ate whatever I wanted- although still vegetarian non-kosher food for a while, so I rarely ate meat except on weekends. I ate a lot of tuna fish and bean burritos from taco bell ($1.06 and very filling!).

Every Friday I would take the 2 hour train home, spend as much of shabbas as possible at my ex's house, and every Saturday night my ex or my dad would drive me back into the city. That moment when you are on the George Washington Bridge and first see all the huge lights and buildings of NYC- that was always the greatest moment every week, I would sigh a huge sigh of relief for being FREE again, at least for a week.

Meanwhile over these years I had learned a very important lesson- as long as I still depended on my parents for money, they would always be able to control my religious life. They were able to force me to come home every single weekend to celebrate shabbas (which was very much against my will), which I hadn't kept in like 6 years, but they could do it because I needed their money. I was still forced to miss class to come home for holidays. As long as I needed their money I would have to live this double life, pretending to be nominally religious so I wouldn't piss them off so much that they would cut off my college tuition. So my new goal was financial independence.

Fortunately something even more amazing happened at the end of my freshman year- I discovered sociology. Not only that, I discovered the possibility of becoming a sociology professor.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How I went OTD and left the Jewish community for good: Part 2

Read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6
After being grounded over the summer for meeting up with my no-longer-a-secret BF, I went back to school and called him from the payphone down the block from my school for a few months, but we didn't meet up in person again. Eventually we broke up when I heard he had been seen holding hands with another girl (awwww, young 15 year old me, so sad and convinced I would never love again).

After 4-ish months my parents finally un-grounded me. I still hung out with that group of friends my secret now-ex boyfriend had introduced me to in my town- a group of people my age who secretly were OTD. We started hanging out nearly every single weekend, and I got involved in NCSY (like they were) as well- we were the kids hanging out outside the building chatting with each other while the NCSY (brainwashing) "sessions" were going on inside. we were probably the ones they were referring to as "kids at risk" in the late 1990s.

At home I learned that if I turned the speakers off my laptop I could spend all shabbas playing video games and my parents would have no idea. My parents had no idea the extent to which I was not keeping shabbas. I kept counting down the days till I turned 18.

Years passed. When I was 17 and a senior in HS I met my ex fiance at an NCSY shabbaton (actually simchaton for those who know what that is). I was completely open with my parents about dating him, as I had been about another boy I had dated for a few months right after my 17th birthday. However my parents didn't like that my ex fiance was a convert, even after checking out his conversion papers and talking with the head (orthodox, very respected) rabbi involved. They tried arguing with me about it and even consulted with the rabbi about their rebellious teenage daughter who is always dating people they don't approve of. He advised them to 'ship me off to Israel' for a year (my mom's words). They had me talk to my grandmother, who told me she was praying for us to break up (also because he was a convert). I told her not to hold her breath. She didn't talk to me for several years after that as a result (although we eventually made up and she was remarkably accepting of B many years later).

At some point my parents put a tracing program on my computer that would track everything I typed. This program might have been on my computer for years, but I didn't find out about it until many months after I had started dating my ex fiance, when my parents confronted me about my plans to go away for a weekend with my him (which we had discussed over instant messenger). It was basically an exact repeat of what had happened at 15- I wanted to go away for a weekend and stay at someone's house, he was going to stay at someone else's house in the same area, and we would meet up for meals and to hang out. Only this time I got caught before it even happened.

After they confronted me on this, they decided that based on this weekend thing and everything that had gone down when I was 15 (or rather, everything they knew about), I must be a pathological liar (who only lies about weekends away with my bfs?), so they sent me to family therapy. I was a bit too old to be grounded again (almost 18), and it wouldn't have really worked out since I had a job after school I had to go to, so they told me they would stop paying for my flute lessons as a punishment for lying again, but that they would start paying for them again if I broke up with my ex. I ended up giving up on flute. Which was a shame, since my teacher had been encouraging me to apply to Julliard so I probably wasn't too bad. My ex fiance was also no longer allowed in my house, although he stubbornly kept coming to the front door to pick me up (my mom would look at him through the peephole and then go get me, leaving him standing on the stoop).

In family therapy, when I first went in to talk to the therapist alone, I told him I had secretly been breaking shabbas and kosher for several years and I didn't believe in the religion at all. He insisted I tell my parents this, during therapy. I was soo uncomfortable and scared, it was probably one of the scariest things I've ever done, but I told my parents "I'm not religious anymore." My dad started tapping his foot (the way he always does when he's freaking out, he never yells, only shakes with anger) and was like "What does that mean? Do you eat shrimp? Do you eat ham?" Of course I had to answer no, since at the time I was still only eating vegetarian non kosher food. My parents were so relieved, didn't question me any further, and they instantly dismissed it as a "teenager rebellion phase."

That was the last time we went to family therapy. But from then on we started having huge fights about religion almost every shabbas meal. Not about my level of observance per se, but about the things I thought were stupid and evil about religion, the things that didn't make sense, and the thing my dad couldn't come up with a good enough explanation for. When we weren't having fights it was because I had brought a book to the table and checked out of the conversation entirely while reading from my lap (which I did throughout my teenage years during shabbas meals after I started going OTD and which drove my mother nuts, she was always yelling at me to put my book away). In retrospect I can see I was going through the "angry at religion, lashing out at religious people" phase that I've seen several OTDers go through.

Around this time I was also figuring out what my college plans would be. I grew up in a household where education was highly valued and everyone had a college degree, and most men have a graduate degree. The women in my family have always gone to college. They have always gone to college, worked a few years, gotten married, and then become stay at home moms when they had either their first or second child. So that was what I assumed would be my life. I would go to college, finish my degree, get married and get some crappy job, and eventually become a stay at home mom when I had kids.

When it came time to picking a college, my parents really wanted me to go to Stern. Actually, they really wanted me to go to Israel for a year, especially after consulting their rabbi about me dating my ex. But I flat out said to them "I'm going to be 18 by then, you can't force me to leave the country against my will, and I'm not going." I think my dad was partially relieved because it was so expensive. So they told me to apply to Stern college and maybe Touro and a few local backups. I begged my parents to let me go AWAY to college, but they said they would only help me pay for college if I lived at home.

So my dreams of escape when I was 18 were put on hold. I didn't know much if anything about student loans- I thought you could only get financial aid if your parents were poor, and my parents weren't poor, so I figured I wouldn't be eligible for anything. I had a job at the time, but it was for minimum wage, and was part time besides, and there was no way I could just leave my parent's house and set up my own apartment on that level of income, especially not in the NY area. And I had no idea how to get a better job. And I couldn't NOT go to college, that's what everyone in my family did, and like going OTD was before I was 15- it just didn't occur to me as an option. But I wasn't particularly thrilled by the idea either. Once I knew I wouldn't be able to move away to go, college seemed like just something else to get through before actually starting my life. At least until I got there.

I applied to Rutgers, CUNY and NYU. I didn't get into NYU (not surprising since I skipped a bunch of my jewish studies classes in my junior and senior year of HS, so I had a whole bunch of Ds and Fs in those topics on my report card). I got into Rutgers and CUNY, probably purely based on my unusually high SAT scores- scores that came as a complete shock to me and every administrator and teacher in my HS. I told my parents I was applying to Stern College, and even filled out an application to show them, but I never mailed it out. I really didn't want to go there, so I made sure it wouldn't be an option. By the time they found out about it, it was too late to apply.

My choice was between Rutgers, closer to home- but which would make me more dependent on my parents since I would need their help paying for a car to drive there, or Hunter College- CUNY, which was a 2 hour commute each way by train/path train/subway, but I could walk to the train from my house and would not need a car at all (I also got into some other CUNY schools but they were even further away). Plus it was in Manhattan! The big city!

I chose Hunter.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How I went OTD and left the Jewish community for good: Part 1

Elsewhere in some of the several new facebook OTD (Off the derech - former orthodox jews) groups, people have been discussing their escape stories. How they escaped their parents. Some of these stories are incredible- people leaving home with nothing but the clothes on their back, moving across the country and staying with virtual (very kind) strangers so that they can get away.

My story is not nearly so dramatic, and took place over several years. Seven years to be exact. But I don't think I've ever fully told it in one place here. So here it is. In it's entirety. Well not exactly it's entirety, I wrote out the whole thing and it's *really* long so I've broken the story up into 6 posts which will be released over the next few weeks.

Part 1:

Like many OTDers, I was always a skeptic of those in authority, was always a bit of a trouble maker and rabble rouser, but I had never before turned my skepticism on religion until around my 15th birthday when I had an "out of the box" moment. Before that, everyone I interacted with regularly was an orthodox jew. I knew there were jewish people who were not religious at all, and I knew there were jewish people who were not orthodox but were part of another sect (which to us was also "not religious" since OJs love to confuse orthodoxy with religiosity), but the possibility of transitioning between these states just never occurred to me.

The weekend of my 15th birthday, which was towards the end of 9th grade, a friend from school invited me to her house for shabbas. That weekend changed my life in a number of ways. Her family being more "modern" orthodox than mine was, after dinner on friday night a bunch of her friends came over to visit- which included some young men.

So friday night after shabbas dinner all of us-a group of MO young men and women start wandering around the town, just talking and roaming around. Something that I was to repeatedly do for years afterwards- wander around on friday night talking to my friends, not really doing anything cause it was shabbas, not really going anywhere cause we had nowhere to go.

So we talked and walked. And one of the boys there, M, blew my mind with this information: He keeps shabbas, but sometimes if he comes up with a really good poem (He was writing poetry at the time as many teenage boys do) he will write it down on shabbas so he doesn't forget. Mind blowing! Here was a boy who was raised modern orthodox like me, but was actively violating a rule that I had never even considered violating! Within weeks I was tearing toilet paper on shabbas and eating vegetarian food without a hechsher at a hospital where I volunteered (the previous summer I had used my volunteer $5 lunch voucher to get horrible kosher hospital food. The non kosher food was still horrible, but much less so).

The other important thing that happened that weekend was that I met my first boyfriend, and had my first kiss, on my 15th birthday (the kiss occurred on motzei shabbas when the same group from friday night got together in someone's basement to watch a new Highlander movie that had come out). It wasn't M, it was a friend of his, let's call him "Avi" since that was his name, and it's generically jewish enough.

Avi was my first boyfriend. A few weeks after we first met and kissed, he came to my town for shabbas and stayed at the house of a boy my age who I didn't know. I told my parents I was going to visit a (girl) friend of mine and went over to visit him instead. That was my introduction to a group of people in my town who were also secretly OTD. The boy he was staying at turned the TV on when his parents went off to visit some friends on shabbas afternoon.

Throughout that summer Avi would come to some guys houses in my town for shabbas, I would go to his town for shabbas a few times, and my parents had no idea. I would tell my parents I was going to take the bus to the hospital I volunteered at, and more often than not I would take the bus the opposite way, to Avi's house, where we would make out while his parents were at work (never had sex with him though). I didn't tell my parents about my boyfriend because I knew they would not approve-they only wanted me to date for "tachlis" (marriage) and when I asked when I could start dating they said when I was 17. Since I was 15, I knew it wouldn't be a good idea to tell them. So I continued this secret relationship for a few months.

Eventually my parents caught on that something was going down and started being suspicious of my 'good friend' Avi, and in early August I went to visit my friend for shabbas, my dad made me sign some document saying Avi wouldn't be there cause he was so suspicious at this point (he was always making me sign written documents of things he wanted me to promise), Avi went to stay somewhere down the block from my friend and ate all his meals at my friend's house, my dad came to pick me up and my friend's mom was like "Oh can you take Avi home too?" So I was caught. That was a super awkward 40 minute drive home.

When I got home my parents grounded me indefinitely. No phone, no tv, no computer, no leaving the house or my room except for meals, and no volunteering either (I'm not sure if they knew I wasn't actually volunteering all the times I said I was, or if they were just trying to keep me at home). It was early August and school didn't start for another month, so the first month of what turned out to be more than 4 months of this, I was trapped in my house without even school for social contact. As you can imagine I fell into a depression and at one point towards the end of the first month when I felt like I was trapped in my room forever and I would never be able to be happy again, I ate a bunch of Tylenol to try to kill myself. I did not take enough and basically slept for 2 days and then woke up ok. As far as I know my parents didn't notice- since I was depressed and grounded, I was spending most of my days sleeping anyway.

At that time I pulled out a calendar and started adding up the days until I turned 18. I naively thought that my 18th birthday would be the day I would finally be free of my parents and religious life forever.

To be continued...

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6