In this essay we visit individuals who were born into one community and have subsequently refurbished, reinvented or reclaimed their bonds to Jewish life.
[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]
By Batya Ungar-Sargon
Vincent has a message. “The Jewish world is failing its responsibility to hold ultra-Orthodoxy accountable for the sins it commits,” she told me recently over tea in a café in Williamsburg.
If anyone is an authority on the subject, it’s Vincent. Her memoir Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After my Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood (Nan A. Talese, 2014) chronicles in harrowing detail the loneliness, hunger, suicidal desperation and repeated sexual assaults she suffered after being thrown out of her parents’ ultra-Orthodox home and left to fend for herself at the age of 16. She is a proud member of the OTD community – a group of individuals who have gone “Off the Derech” or path, making their way out of the cloistered Hasidic and Yeshivish (non-Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox) worlds and into secular society. The challenges of this exit are enormous. Many struggle with such basic needs as housing, which is particularly horrifying for those coming from a world where your community would never let you go homeless or hungry. Suicidal ideation – and even suicide – is all too common. Many struggle with financial security after a childhood in which secular studies were neglected or nonexistent.
Unlike many who choose to leave the ultra-Orthodox community, Vincent was pushed out. Perhaps for this reason, she still understands the allure of the world she left behind. “Life is terrifying and very difficult and the more we progress, the scarier it gets,” she said. “I would love to be able to outsource every decision to someone who would tell me what God wants – it would be such a huge relief!”
It’s from this unique vantage point that Vincent was able to identify a powerful if dangerous myth that has shaped American Jewish identity, namely, that Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy are more authentic forms of being Jewish than Reform or Conservative. It’s a myth that has never been challenged and yet, to Vincent’s mind, must be. “If you care about Jewish identity, you should care about what other Jews are doing, especially the most visible and most quickly growing demographic of Jews,” she said. This means that less fundamentalist streams of Judaism must hold the ultra-Orthodox world responsible for its shortcomings, such as the treatment of women, the right to a self-determined life, and the way the abuse of children is handled.
Vincent herself has a strong Jewish identity, as a cultural Jew – evidenced by the issues she cares about as well as her eccentric wardrobe. Vincent tends to dress like an ultra-Orthodox male, donning a black fedora and tsisis as a way of manifesting her ethnic identity. Since leaving ultra-Orthodoxy, she has earned a graduate degree from Harvard. She is currently at work on a novel, and is teaching a class at City College on female sexuality in Judaism with a focus on modesty. The class takes students beyond the binary options of whether modesty is oppressive to women or a feminist choice.Vincent hopes to question what needs the laws of modesty fulfill in a world full of danger to women, and how else might those needs be addressed.
It’s a danger Vincent has experienced firsthand, one which she details in her book. In many ways, her story fulfilled the prophecies she’d been told as a child: that if she strayed from the ultra-Orthodox path, she would end up a victim of sexual violence and even suicide. In fact, she worried that the book would be viewed as evidence of that prophecy fulfilled.
But Vincent had a powerful need to get her story out, especially after years during which no one wanted to hear it. “A big part of what damaged me is my parents’ insistence that my story is a lie,” she explained, an insistence that culminated in her father’s note to the press alleging that the memoir was full of falsehoods and that Vincent was mentally unstable. “To rewrite it in my way instead of adopting their experience of it was an incredibly empowering experience.” She went on, “To be honest, a lot of my motivation was selfish. I wanted to let that child speak and tell her story.”
Her hope is that the book encourages other women to speak their truth, and that it starts conversations about “the cost of modesty and patriarchy and ultra-Orthodoxy, for women in particular.”
Recently, Vincent found herself trying to explain to her three-year-old daughter the difference between being frum – religious – and frei – secular, literally free in Yiddish. “If you’re frum and you’re a girl, boys make all the decisions for you,” Vincent said. Then she explained the strict dress code that divides the genders. Her daughter, who loves dresses, said, “I want to be frum!” To which Vincent replied, “That’s the great thing about being frei. You can choose whatever you want.”
An Open Community
Christopher McCannell is a Jew by choice.
Born in Portland, Maine, McCannell was confirmed as a Catholic and went to a Jesuit high school and college. Though he respected Catholicism, he never really understood it, and throughout college and his twenties, he went to a number of different services – Episcopalian, Lutheran – trying to find a spiritual home, but nothing felt quite right. His spiritual journey was further complicated when he came out as gay at age 29.
Throughout this time, McCannell was attracted to the seasonal rituals of his Jewish friends, their Shabbat dinners, their seders, the rhythms of their practice and the value placed on community.
After college, he worked on Capitol Hill, first as chief of staff to Congressman Joseph Crowley, then for (former) Congressman Michael McMahon. Throughout this time, he continued to pursue social connections in the Jewish world.
“I was always doing more things that were Jewish, but I wasn’t authentically or halachically Jewish,” he told me over lunch in Brooklyn. In 2012, at the age of 42, McCannell finally went to talk to a rabbi “to see if there was something there that I wanted to pursue.” It was then that he decided to convert with the help of Reform Rabbi Aaron Miller.
“What’s great about Judaism is that there are so many entry points,” McCannell said, of the religion’s draw. “I wanted to be part of a community, part of something bigger than myself.”
It felt very natural, he recalled. “I already knew a lot about it from beforehand from going to Israel, reading a lot, being engaged.”
Back when he was in college, before coming out, McCannell participated in a program called Volunteers for Israel. He received $1,000 to go to Israel, where he lived on an army base. It was a formative experience, and one McCannell very much wanted to replicate. He went back again when he was working for Crowley in 2001, and then again with A Wider Bridge – an organization devoted to building connections between LGBTQs in Northern America and LGBTQs in Israel, funded by hedge-fund manager and philanthropist Paul Singer, whose son is gay and who has played an important role in the movement for marriage equality.
“Being gay in Israel these days is super positive,” McCannell said. “In Israel, they support equal rights.”
Well, except for marriage equality, McCannell admitted when pressed. That’s because they don’t have civil marriage in Israel. The only way to get married is through the Rabbinate, an organization led by ultra-Orthodox Jews that cleaves to strictly Orthodox standards.
Nor is he considered Jewish by Israeli standards – the Rabbanite, also in charge of conversion, only recognizes Orthodox conversions.
“Doesn’t it bother you that in Israel you’re not considered Jewish?” I asked.
“It’s unclear,” McCannell answers. “Under the law of return I am.” And he says it doesn’t bother him that he couldn’t get married there either. “A lot of people get married in Cyprus or Canada or the U.S.”
The gay, Reform-converted McCannell is an unlikely choice as a spokesperson for Israel’s openness. While he concedes that pluralism is still a challenge in Israel, that hasn’t stopped him from spreading the gospel of Israel’s progressivism on Capitol Hill, where he can be found talking up Israel’s treatment of gays to Congress’s six gay members and other progressives who may be disposed to be critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. This method has been called “Pinkwashing” – using Israel’s treatment of LGBTQs to divert attention from what’s happening in the West Bank. But McCannell doesn’t like that term. Israel’s policies reflect the will of the people, after all. And furthermore, “Israel let gays serve in the military in the 1990s, when the U.S. was banning gays serving in the military.”
Now McCannell works on Capitol Hill for a public affairs firm. He’s been a Jew by choice since 2013 and lives with his partner of fourteen years, an Indian American who supported his conversion. He attends Washington Hebrew Congregation where he is in charge of the Couples Club.
McCannell hopes to draw attention to the community of Jews by choice – people who convert just because they have a desire to belong to the Jewish community. “Being a Jew by choice is often told as a relationship narrative rather than one of discovery,” McCannell said. “Jews by choice are not really a vocal voice. I think for Judaism to be relevant we need to talk about the openness and the opportunities.”
ITTA WERDIGER ROTH
Itta Werdiger Roth has a dream for a restaurant, and it’s this: “You build a reputation of a place people trust, they relate to the concept and the values and they know that the food will be good but they don’t know what it will be and it’s on a blackboard that’s low down and small. Not high up,” she insists. “It makes a big difference! See that blackboard?” She points to the blackboard of the café in Ditmas Park where we are sitting. “Someone has to get on a ladder to write there, so you can’t change it that much. I want to have a menu that changes a lot.”
Australian-born Werdiger Roth – in a breezy dress, sandals, and a turquoise scarf tied loosely about her short-cropped hair – is a chef and restaurateur who is revolutionizing not only kosher food, but artisanal Brooklyn cuisine.
Her career kicked off at the same time she started having children. “I landed my first chef job when I was pregnant,” she said. “That kid is now seven.” That first job wasn’t originally posted as a chef job. “Some rich people were looking for someone to do stuff for them,” she remembered. “They were offering 25 bucks an hour.” She whistled. “It was an assistant job – she’d give me a list for Target, or ask me to fill up her car with petrol, or to make her GPS work. It was really unpleasant for me. But I really enjoyed the cooking part!” Werdiger Roth asked if she could just do the cooking, and could they find someone else to do the other parts of the job. “And they liked me and liked my food, so they did that, and I became their cook.”
“I think I’m a really flexible person,” she mused. It’s not always a good thing. Sometimes it means compromising too much, giving up too quickly on fantasies in order to get things done.
And sometimes it’s a great thing. Werdiger Roth’s next venture was The Hester, a speakeasy and supper club with live music. “We ended up buying a house that is too big for us, and I would turn the playroom into a bar once a month,” she explained. With food options like stuffed patty pan squash with figs, feta and capers, or macerated-laroda and yellow-shiro plums with rosemary and lemon zest, and drinks like watermelon-rosemary granita, Werdiger Roth was bringing to Jewish cuisine a rustic, artisanal flair the likes of which had never been seen before.
Her next venture was a cozy café in Prospect Heights called Mason and Mug. The creative twist on smoked fish, relishes and cocktails brought in a mixture of Orthodox and non-Jewish clientele. It was like a tiny microcosm of Brooklyn with all the diversity cultivated by the café’s casual culture.
“There’s a lot of pretention in the food world, especially the kosher food world,” Werdiger Roth said. “Good food is synonymous with table service, dressed to the nines in your sheitel and makeup and high heels, eating a really expensive steak. But there’s not really a connection between good food and being fancy.”
Werdiger Roth was four months pregnant the night before they opened. She spent the first year pregnant and then breastfeeding, taking breaks to pump in the tiny office. The hours were grueling. After a year, she and her partner, who also had a newborn, decided to sell, despite the fact that Mason and Mug was turning a profit, which is almost unheard of for a new restaurant. Now she’s doing catering and looking for her next project.
“I grew up in a world where people are obsessed with food and really good cooks,” she said. Obsessed sometimes in a bad way. She is the third of seven children and three of her sisters had eating disorders, Werdiger Roth said. Her grandmother is a really good cook, as is her mother, but they always cook the same things. She remembers flipping through cookbooks thinking that she wanted to try new things. She remembers the first time she decided to try “this thing called a curry – it was so spicy and amazing. I remember taking butter, sautéing veggies, adding flour and water and all the spices.” She closed her eyes like she could still smell it.
When I ask if she had always been interested in food, Werdiger Roth laughs and says, “I was interested in eating it!” She went on to clarify in her raw, charismatic yet humble way: “I love eating. Why else does someone get into food? You’ve gotta love eating. That’s the main prerequisite, I think.”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.