Sometimes it seems that those of us outside the ultra-Orthodox world see it in very stark terms — as if it’s as black and white as the clothes many of its men wear.
Too often, it seems that to the rest of us either it’s a world of happy, dancing chasidim, arms flung skyward, eyes rolling up too, beards and glasses framing ecstatic beaming smiles, or it’s a cesspool of unwashed schnorrers, living off food stamps and welfare, having child after child after neglected child.
Neither of those extremes are true, novelist and memoirist Judy Brown tells us.
Ms. Brown grew up in that world; she has chosen to leave it, but much of her family is still there, and she writes of it with a clear-eyed love. The stories she tells — her semi-autobiographical first book, “Hush,” was about sexual abuse, and her second, a just-released memoir, “This Is Not a Love Story,” is about growing up with an autistic brother — are not always flattering to the community, but they reveal it as a world full of recognizable human beings, in some ways far removed from the rest of us and in other ways absolutely indistinguishable from us.
Both Ms. Brown’s books are written in a child’s voice — a smart, self-aware, limit-testing, often obnoxious little girl, self-centered as happy children often are, secure in her parents’ love and her place in the world. “Hush,” published in 2010, conflates three stories of sexual abuse that she had heard when she was a child. “People find it politically incorrect to say that sexual abuse is endemic in the community, but the simple fact is that the more denial there is in any given society, the more freedom the pedophiles have,” she said. It is not a subject about which most people are particularly forthcoming in most places, although the silence around it in the outside world is lifting somewhat now, but in her time (she was born in 1980) and place (Brooklyn), it was shrouded in ironbound silence.
She does not think that there are more pedophiles in ultra-Orthodox culture than anywhere else, she continued, but those there are find themselves more enabled by the silence.
The title of Ms. Brown’s second book has to do with the place that romantic love has in ultra-Orthodox culture. That place, in short, is no place. God has arranged all matches, and it is up to rebbes, parents, and matchmakers to figure out who belongs with whom. Romantic love, as the Western world knows it, would be disruptive, getting in the way of God’s plan. “It is taboo,” Ms. Brown said. Stories from the outside world are dangerous because they often traffic in tales of love; Ms. Brown’s alter ego in “This Is Not a Love Story,” 8-year-old Menucha, gets her hands on a book of fairy tales, ingests them, revels in them, and is exposed to contaminating ideas through them.
Menucha is one of the five children of Israeli-born parents. (Although this is a memoir, most of the names have been changed.) Her father, born poor to Holocaust survivors, is self-made and wealthy; her tall, red-haired, fierce mother is the youngest daughter in a dynasty of chasidic rabbis and scholars. Neither is average in any way. Eventually, Menucha learns that her parents had fallen in love, and that their marriage was a result not of matchmaking but of that love.
Her fear is that her autistic brother was born with that syndrome in punishment for their parents’ legal-but-still-illicit love.
“This Is Not a Love Story” in fact is a love story; a story of the love that binds together families, that makes parents fight for their children, that allows families to heal. Not only do Menucha’s parents love each other, her mother’s love for her son pushes her to find if not a cure then at least a better way of life for him. “My mother is a larger-than-life person,” Ms. Brown said. “God really did know what he was doing, giving her this child.”
As Ms. Brown carefully does not say, either in print or in conversation, but the Internet makes clear, her mother is Ruthie Lichtenstein, a direct descendent of the Gerer rebbes and the publisher of the English-language edition of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia.
What she does say, though, is “My mother grew up with a kind of confidence and self-worth that nothing can break. Nothing would convince her to give up her son. Nothing on earth could break though that. It became her mission.”
In pursuit of her goal — to help her son live the best possible life — Ms. Brown’s mother sent her son to Israel, a country with a long tradition of caring for children with special needs, which then had (and perhaps still has) cutting-edge programs for autistic children and adults. “There was no way that you could raise an autistic child and five other children,” Ms. Brown said. “It was him or us.” Instead, he went to live with an aunt and uncle and their two adult daughters. “They worked with him for years. They are beyond ultra-religious, and it was so clear to him that this was the right thing to do. My cousin slept in the same room with him for years, until he didn’t need it anymore.”
Between his relatives’ love and the therapeutic programs he went to, something happened. “Something clicked,” Ms. Brown said. Her brother still is autistic, but he looks her directly in the eyes, talks to her, jokes with her, is emotional with her, and openly loves her. Today, he lives a somewhat curtailed but still high-functioning and happy life in Israel.
Meanwhile, Ms. Brown’s writing separated her from the world in which she grew up. “Hush” first was attributed to the clearly pseudonymous “Eishes Chayil” — a Woman of Valor. She had written it because she felt compelled to write it. “The only thing worse than publishing it would not have been publishing it,” she said. “There really was not a choice for me.”
She had written for ultra-Orthodox newspapers, though, and her family was widely known, so “it took maybe two or three months for people to realize who I was. I got threatened,” she said. “And then I dropped the name soon afterward, and it started a whole downward process.”
The end of that process was her discovery of modern Orthodoxy, “which to me is a place of complete freedom,” she said. “When you are raised ultra-Orthodox, you can’t leave completely — but then you have children and you realize that it just can’t work. I have such an appreciation of modern Orthodoxy — the idea that you can be both Jewish and somewhat normal.
“We were raised to believe that there was no bridge to anywhere for us — you were either Jewish the way that we were or you were not Jewish, or maybe, I don’t know, you were on drugs — and you absorb that over a lifetime, and it is very hard to get out. To discover the modern Orthodox world was a miracle for me.”
Although there is a great deal of good in ultra-Orthodoxy, “the best of people can get caught up in a system that is impossible to sustain,” she said. “Ultra-Orthodox adults often are the victims of their own society. It’s like any subculture — there is a high price to pay for crossing any line.
“Books are censured because the threats they pose are real,” she continued. It is exposure to outside ideas, through books, libraries, television, or more recently the Internet that has caused “huge chunks of those people who leave either in body or in mind.
“That number of people leaving it is growing,” she said. “Those who leave in mind but not in body are a vastly growing group. Once you get to a point where you have more than three children, you cannot leave. You are bound. And if you are a woman, with five children — where are you going to go? What will you do? Who will support you? The rules are stronger than any bricks. You don’t need any physical restrictions.”
The ultra-Orthodox world is poor, she said. “It is one of the poorest communities in the country. It survives because it is an ethnic socialist world. They created something really beautiful there — but it also keeps you poor.”
It is supported by a few rich families, she said. “That’s who keeps the safety net going.”
Now, though, there are so many children, and proportionately fewer rich families. What will happen? “That’s the discussion that is starting to happen on the inside,” she said. “How will it maintain itself? It is a constant back-and-forth, as more practical people try to create other options, create some courses that can allow some people to get jobs.” As it is now, few people are trained to work in the outside world and bring home enough money to keep their families going.
“For some people who do not believe but stay, the economics are part of what keeps them there.”
Still, despite some of the strictures and insularity of the chasidic world in which she grew up and about which she writes, “people are still the same, and this is more a book about family than it is about ultra-Orthodoxy. The strain in the family — that was not an ultra-Orthodox thing.
“I come from a very complex world,” she concluded. “I was never a rebel. I loved my world, and I compartmentalized most of what happened in it. It’s still a shock to me, what happened.”
Save the date:
WHEN: Tuesday, October 20, 7:30 PM
WHERE: Paramus, New Jersey
Judy Brown will talk to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Women’s Philanthropy group, as well as the rest of the community, about her memoir, $20. Includes a copy of the book and a light dessert. The federation’s offices, 50 Eisenhower Drive. RSVP: www.jfnnj.org/judybrown