Leading double life in ultra-Orthodox world

Young hassidic man tells of the difficulties he faces as an atheist masquerading as haredi; 'I don't want my kids to grow up in escapeless place,' he says

Ynet News, Israel/March 10, 2012

His name is Yanki and he looks like any other Hassidic man – shtreimel, long side locks and black-and-white attire included. But the appearance is just a façade, covering up an identity disconnected from any religious calling. He mixes meat and dairy whenever he likes, turns on the lights on Shabbat when no one is around and does not believe in any kind of god.

Yanki is a secular man disguised as an ultra-religious one.

Deep inside haredi society, a secret sub-community of unknown size leads a double life, its members facing complex, sometimes insurmountable dilemmas. Some fear losing the family they have built. Others are concerned about how the family they were born into would react. Others yet fear losing the jobs they hold in the haredi sector, dreading the meager prospects they might face in the outside world. Many lack the education and Western life skills. Most don't speak English, and some speak nothing but Yiddish.

As per Yanki's request, I meet him far from his neighborhoods, in an anonymous coffee shop where he doesn't run the risk of being seen by anyone he knows.

Peeking into outside world

He belongs to an especially conservative and strict Hasidic movement, and tells of a "hellish childhood" in a family that was considered "problematic" by the rest of the community. But he never questioned the righteousness of the haredi lifestyle. Until he got married, that is.

"I always believed, as a kid and as a teen," he says. "As a yeshiva student I would sit 24 hours a day studying the Torah. The outside world wasn't something that I had access to.

"The crisis came when I got married when I was 19, and for the first time I had the opportunity to see what goes on out there. At first, I developed a deep aversion towards two things: the extreme behavior of the Hassidic movement that I belong to, and the superstitions.

"At the time I didn't think that the faith itself was problematic. I focused on the overstated extremism that was attached to it in the conservative circles where I live."

But with time, Yanki found himself growing interested in the life beyond. The Hebrew University's library became his second home. He would spend hours sitting in his own corner, reading countless literary and philosophical texts. He began re-examining the principles of his faith.

"I secretly listened to the haredi channels on the radio, and to the rabbis who answered questions," he recalls. "In the Hassidic sector, questions like 'where does God come from' and 'what was here previously' are forbidden. They are absolutely illegitimate."

Two and a half years ago, it became clear to Yanki that his world view is very different from the Hassidic one.

It isn't just the theological issue that burned inside me," he says. "There were many other issues that bothered me in Judaism. For example, (Abraham's) sacrifice, the idea that a son is prepared to kill his own son for God.

"Take Purim, for instance. I'm bothered by the traditional celebration of a day where a mass killing took place. I find the status of women unacceptable, as well as many other issues related to the social aspect."

Love was the trigger

But what became most traumatic for Yanki, an issue that in retrospect he considers the impetus for his soul searching, was the basic human need for love.

"I married whom they told me I must marry," he says. "It was an arrangement with a good family that has a standing in the community. Love was never part of the deal.

"I really wanted to love her, I hoped we could live together as a couple, but in reality it didn't happen. She's introverted, very loyal to the community, and all my attempts to create some kind of togetherness have failed. To this day she knows nothing of my true identity.

"I found my way out of the religious faith because of this. I wouldn't have come as far as I have if I had love. A happy man does not challenge himself in life. My nonexistent relationship was the trigger.

"Today, in effect, we don't live together as a couple. She wants to keep having children and I think that the five we already have together are more than enough. I have no desire to bring more children into our shaky family life. You can live without sex. You cannot live without love."

But despite his newfound views, the ability to cast away the Jewish practices took longer to arrive.

"I couldn't stop putting on the phylacteries," he says. "I knew that it meant nothing to me, but there were still days I couldn't stop myself. I would run like crazy to the phylacteries case before sundown, putting them on hastily. It was a process of quitting and addiction. When I let it go, the rest came easily."

Kids keeping him behind

So why doesn't he just up and leave?

"Because of my sweet kids," he says. "I know that they would remain in their mother's custody within the Hasidic community. Even if I'm allowed to see them, the movement will make sure to poison their minds about me. They will be taken away from me mentally.

"Moreover, as the kids of divorce parents, they will go through their own trauma as rejects in the community, as second-rate individuals with a heretic for a father. I look into their innocent and trusting eyes and I don't have the heart to infringe on this peace. That being said, I have no doubt that it will eventually be disturbed.

"Israeli society must understand that those who leave the religion must pay dearly," he adds. "There is no awareness in the secular world to the emotional difficulties inflicted upon those who want to be themselves. We will forever be torn between two parallel worlds."

In an era of ever evolving technology, the lives of the members of this clandestine group are becoming a bit more bearable. Forums in the Tapuz social network, and a page on Facebook titled "Forced Haredim" provide them with support from those who have found themselves in a similar situation.

Not that it's ever enough. Life in a costume has began taking its toll on the young and scared Yanki.

"I am one man who lives with two identities, a secular atheist under the hat and the suit," he attests. "I must deal with this insane division all the time, and my strength to do this is running out. My biggest fear is that my children will grow up into the same escapeless place where I still live.

"And yet, I don't lose hope that the day will come and they will be able to get what I was denied."

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