Ex-Orthodox Narratives: Are they all the same?
If there exists a single inalienable right of the artist, it is the right to tell his or her own story, and ex-Haredim, if events of recent months are any indication, have begun exercising that right with enthusiasm. From print media to radio to television, these stories are being told and retold, testing the public’s appetite and tolerance for a new, and perhaps soon-to-be-over-saturated, genre. While the influx of these stories promises something new, they also deliver something that at times feels repetitive, the same narrative arc, from first secular book to first cheeseburger, endlessly recycled rather than reinvented. Perhaps, then, it is time for a re-evaluation of the theme.
Tales of struggle in which ultimate redemption comes from the telling of the tale itself—which is true for many of the ex-Orthodox narratives—are not new. The most memorable encounter of such was, for me, in the book “Push” by Sapphire. It was the Summer of 2010, and the book’s film adaptation, “Precious,” was then playing in theaters. At the time, I was balancing summer courses, an internship, and a weekend job, so when I had a rare day off, I chose to indulge in what a friend called a “light read,” and picked up the book. At the Lincoln Center courtyard I sat down on a bench facing the angular void between the Metropolitan Opera building and the home of the New York City Ballet. Legs folded beneath me, I curled the soft cover of the book into the palm of my left hand, and found a quote from the Talmud on the very first page:
“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers: ‘Grow, grow.’”
I was surprised to see the Talmud quoted there, a familiar face in a book in which I expected a world of strangers. I knew the outlines of the story: a young African American girl named Precious who was raped and impregnated by her father. I expected to read with voyeuristic interest, looking in on an experience so vastly removed from my own. Yet there, setting the tone for the pages to come, was a quote I had heard many times throughout my Hasidic childhood.
Much like the marathon Talmud study sessions of my yeshiva days, I finished the book in one sitting. The book ends with Precious, HIV-positive and mother of two children by her own father, joining a support group, making up for her missed education, and writing poetry. Despite the unforgiving world presented in the book’s pages, Precious’s sense of redemption and triumph was palpable.
Precious couldn’t undo anything that had happened to her, but Precious’s triumph, like the triumph of many heroes and heroines of literature who lived to tell the tale of their journey, rested on the idea that creating and formulating your own personal narrative is the ultimate expression of freedom and empowerment. That all the struggles and hardships experienced along the way are given meaning when they are part of your own final story.
Releasing the back cover from the tight clasp of my thumb and forefinger, I got up from the bench and walked towards the circular fountain in the center of the courtyard. With shows about to begin, ticketholders began filing into the open space in pairs of two, heading towards the theatres at the three sides of the plaza.
Rethinking the story, I thought about how Precious’s desire to tell her tale is both the desire of every artist and also the desire of every human being with personal experiences and insights. And it is that same desire on the part of many ex-Orthodox individuals that has brought their stories to a wider audience. What seduces these storytellers to tell of their experiences is the knowledge that others would give up something of their own, either money or time, to read or to listen to their personal narratives of struggle and redemption. Perhaps, then, the quote from the Talmud at the beginning of the book was wrong. What every blade of grass wants to hear is not an angel whispering, “Grow, grow,” but an audience cheering, “Congratulations, you have grown.”
And that, I see now, is where this desire, like every other deep desire, has its dangerous slope. The ex-Orthodox archetype that the media demands, and which we have been eager to feed, is the same blade of grass grown with the same formula; the skeptical child that becomes the eager library visitor that becomes the carnivorous porcine enthusiast. These stories give us an opportunity to hear an audience say, “Congratulations, you have grown,” but they offer only tales whose characters are fungible and whose events are simple variations on a single theme. These stories don’t tell those who struggle with finding their own narratives, the growing blades of grass that haven’t yet determined which way to bend, that their own stories, with their own unique memories of their pasts and hopes for their futures, those stories, too, can be written and told.
In our desire to broaden our audience we must be cautious not to narrow our voices. Too often, our tales descend quickly to the banal drama of buying our first pairs of jeans, or of wondering who the hell the Beatles were, or any of the other shared experiences of encountering for the first time that which most people take for granted. These episodes are often designed to capture the outsider’s fascination, but contain, in the larger journey, only a blip of significance. As a result, the tales of our journeys feel as if they are dictated by the outsider’s fascination rather than by the complexity of each storyteller’s unique experiences.
When the movie “Precious” was nominated for an Academy Award (along with “The Blind Side,” another story about a young struggling African American kid), Cornel West, the noted scholar and Princeton University professor, remarked, “With all the richness in black life right now… the only thing Hollywood gives us is black pathology.” What he meant was that all these stories, while, ostensibly, reflective of the lives of contemporary African Americans, are more specifically about what is wrong and faulty in those lives rather than what is rich and nuanced and multi-faceted. Perhaps a similar concern can be said of the emerging portrayals of ex-Hasidic life, especially as our stories move to television audiences, where the entertainment value lies in showing our pathologies rather than celebrating our often chaotic journeys that don’t necessarily provide made-for-TV moments. The narrative of struggle, of individual quests for meaning and personal identity, of pursuing dreams and making tough choices, risks being replaced with the pursuit of cheap laughs at those who get it wrong. To paraphrase Dr. West: With all the richness in ex-Orthodox lives… what we are given is ex-Orthodox pathology.
Perhaps, as we tell our stories, we should try to be less like the blades of grass quoted from the Talmud and more like the bent over angels doing the whispering. By now, the formulaic version of how an ex-Orthodox grass grows has been told and retold many times; from chulent to cheeseburger, from sex in the dark to sex in the park. It is time to tell the story of how different and how bendable every blade of grass is and its unique potential for being not one among indistinguishable blades but with its own characteristics and variations, with its own speckles of brown and the heights to which it alone strives. Perhaps even, our stories can shift from being the recycled description of the vulnerable and pitiful strands of grass we have been portraying, to being like the bent over angels that whisper, “Grow, grow.”
It was these two words that I most longed to hear that evening as I stood near the Lincoln Center fountain preparing to leave. The performances inside the theatres surrounding the plaza soon reached intermission, and the open-air terraces above began to fill with theatre-goers enjoying the cool summer night air, leaning against the railings, champagne flutes sparkling against the lights of the plaza. Returning my book to my backpack, I realized how, like the strict ultra-Orthodox life and like the media portrayal of the ex-ultra Orthodox experience, these performances, too, tell carefully orchestrated tales to captivated audiences. What none of them have is someone, without a preconceived idea of what a story should be like, who would bend over and whisper to the boy silently leaving the plaza: “Grow, grow.”Printable Version