Breaking Away: Former Hasidim find Fulfillment in the Secular World

Deena Chanowitz

[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By Shulem Deen

One block from the ritzy waterfront properties of North Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in a high-ceilinged, dark wood-toned living room – tastefully converted from a former warehouse loft – Deena Chanowitz sat on a sofa with her legs folded beneath her and explained to me why she often said no to prospective clients: “School is my priority. I figure out how much I need per month, and I work that many jobs. The rest I reject.”

As proprietor of the acclaimed culinary shop Chef Deena, which has been featured in magazines like Elle and Vogue and referred to as “New York’s Best Kept Culinary Secret,” Chanowitz often caters to the rich and famous, although to her they might as well be Joe Nobodies. She doesn’t have time to watch TV or keep up with pop culture. She isn’t familiar with popular new brands. Once, Warby Parker, the trendy Manhattan-based eyeglass company, contacted her to cater an event. She was about to say no – she’d never heard of them – until a friend, incredulous that she would reject such a high-profile client, convinced her to take the job. Another time, she was hired by a well-known film and television actress, but she had no idea it was a famous person until she saw her assistant’s jaw drop when they arrived on site.

During much of the week, Chanowitz, who is 34, attends medical school in Burlington, Vermont. She’d had a late start with school and is determined to stay focused. The oldest of 11 siblings, Chanowitz was raised within the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, where secular studies take second place to religious instruction and where college education is anathema. She had a troubled adolescence, though, and dropped out of school at age 14. Now, she’s making up for lost time in double strides.

Chanowitz and others like her buck the most common narrative about those who exit the closed, modernity-shunning world of ultra-Orthodoxy, which often focuses on loss, isolation and the overcoming of deeply internalized handicaps, rather than on the strengths and successes of those for whom the road eventually smoothens. To be sure, the journey away from an insular religious lifestyle entails significant hardship, and there are those who fail – who fall into depression or poverty or addiction, or who simply flail along with a variety of handicaps and dysfunctions. In recent years, there have been several instances of suicide, which have deeply rocked the small community of former Haredim. A far greater number, however, find their way to purposeful endeavors – schooling, career, creative work – not unlike people of any group across the country.

Narratives of success or normalcy, however, aren’t told often, and as the story of struggle remains dominant, it feeds a parallel narrative within the closed world of ultra-Orthodoxy. Those who leave, it is said, are left not only spiritually bereft but also materially destitute and psychologically damaged. It is a convenient tool wielded for ideological purposes; the ultra-Orthodox world relies in great measure on fear and disdain of the outside world to keep people within, and this narrative of doom serves that purpose well. In a 2013 essay, “The Post-Ultra-Orthodox Death Prophecy,” Leah Vincent, author of Cut Me Loose, a memoir of her exodus from the ultra-Orthodox world, described the pervasive messages of misery and failure destined for those who choose to leave the community. “We are taught – in stories, teachings, songs and gossip… [of the] prostitutes, heroin addicts and the psychologically imbalanced, who, we were told, made up the community of former ultra-Orthodox Jews.” (ZEEK, October 7, 2013)

The cautionary tales abound – real, exaggerated or imagined – and as a result many who wish to leave don’t, and those who do spend a lifetime trying to prove the doomsayers wrong. Success, however, can be measured in various ways, and what can be said for certain is that what former Haredim might lack in stunning material achievement, they more than make up for in passion, grit, idealism and the search for resonance and meaning.

Chanowitz, too, could’ve ended up a cautionary tale. At age 14, her parents, deeming her rebellious and deviant, demanded that she leave home. She had started wearing denim skirts and socks instead of tights, which her parents thought modern and secular. She also got hold of a radio and began listening to secular music.

Eventually, Chanowitz found people to care for her – a woman she was acquainted with offered her a place to live in exchange for working in her clothing store. But she’d also had periods of homelessness, and struggled with trying to find her way in the world without the anchor of family and community. The experience left her scarred. “I felt that, to my parents, my value wasn’t in the fact that I was their daughter, or just a human being. It was only in how useful I was.” Her identity at home had been formed around the care she gave to her younger siblings. “I was the cook. I cleaned. I did all the kids’ homework. I got them dressed in the morning. I didn’t think my mother could function without me. Then I started wearing a denim skirt, and I was garbage.”

It took years for Chanowitz to regain a sense of her own worth, and it wasn’t until her late 20s that she applied to Hunter College, part of New York City’s CUNY system, to catch up on her schooling.

Last spring, she graduated valedictorian with a degree in biochemistry. It was during her time in school that she started Chef Deena, but she was determined from the outset not to take on more than she needed. She had a passion for the creative possibilities in food preparation, as well as for nutrition and the healing power of well-chosen ingredients, but she also had a passion for learning and to be of service to others. At one point, she spent six weeks volunteering at a rural hospital in Ghana. After that, she knew she wanted to be a doctor. Specifically, a general practitioner.

“I want to be a GP, not because it’s a particularly high-paying field,” she is quick to note, “but because I still take some tenets of Judaism with me, and one of them is the idea of giving. When I’m of service to others, that’s where I still find my value most.”

Zalmen Labin

The drive to be of service is also what animates Zalmen Labin, a 38-year-old former Hasid from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, whose family is closely connected to the rabbinic elite of the Satmar Hasidic dynasty. Labin left the Satmar world in 2008. “I felt like it wasn’t even about God anymore,” Labin told me, speaking of his former community. “It was about your neighbor. It was about stature and family prestige.”

As a Hasid, Labin worked as a real estate contractor and building developer, but as he moved into the outside world, he left real estate and opened Loom Yoga, with one studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn’s latest hipster/bohemian settlement, and another in North Williamsburg. It was the cutthroat ruthlessness of his earlier occupation that Labin found so alienating. “You basically have to terrorize people to get anything done in that business,” he told me. He wanted an occupation in which he did just the opposite.

“This place,” he said to me, as we talked in the reception area of his Bushwick studio, “is like a laundry. People come in after a full day, you see the stress in their faces. After an hour, they walk out and they’re like, heeeyyy.” He dimmed his eyelids and his head went slightly limp, like someone hitting the sweet spot after a toke. He straightened his head and laughed. “This is where I feel fulfilled.”

“Part of this journey is an inclination toward creativity and self-actualization,” says Phin Reisz, a 31-year-old entrepreneur who sits on the board of Footsteps, a New York City-based community of those who’ve left the ultra-Orthodox world. “With the journeys they’ve undertaken, those who’ve left have also shown a significant amount of chutzpah and conviction and persistence and definitely a whole lot of resourcefulness.” That, Reisz believes, is vital for success.

Malky Lipshitz and Melissa Weisz

It is that chutzpah and resourcefulness, perhaps, that Malky Lipshitz and Melissa Weisz, founders of Malky Squared Productions, demonstrated when deciding, with little experience in film production, to start their own filmmaking company. They also set themselves a high mission: to tell the stories of women from their former communities.

The duo – who declined to give their ages but who appear to be in their twenties or thirties – were both part of the Hasidic world before leaving it in early adulthood. Lipshitz, who was raised in Israel before her family moved to Brooklyn when she was a teenager, had been something of a rebel all along and had a secret boyfriend at 16. At 19, her parents insisted she marry a boy of their choosing in a traditional shidduch – the system of arranged marriages. Lipshitz was expected to take “bridal classes,” in which she would receive instruction on sex, procreation and the laws of family purity required by Orthodoxy. Lipshitz didn’t need sex instruction, but she went along with her parents’ wishes and turned it into a kind of project. “I took notes on everything, because it was all so comical and absurd.” She wrote detailed descriptions of each session – the clinical descriptions of the act, the euphemisms, the instructor’s awkward fumbling when a topic required a description a tad too explicit. Malky couldn’t help laughing as she read her notes later. “This,” she thought, “would make a terrific movie.”

Weisz, too, was influenced by film – though she never thought she’d make one. She, too, was supposed to marry a boy proposed by a matchmaker, but before meeting the boy, she was expected to meet his parents. Weisz freaked out. For advice, she went to her married older sister, who, something of a rebel herself, owned a DVD player, and who suggested they watch the movie “Meet the Parents,” the comedy starring Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro.

It was Weisz’s very first movie.

“After that I met the boy’s parents,” she says. “It was nothing like the movie.”

Both women left their marriages early on and, each for her own reasons, decided to leave the world of Orthodoxy. Now, working together, they have three films in various stages of production, and have procured a decent amount of money for a number of other projects, although funding remains a constant challenge.

When I met Malky and Melissa recently to speak about their work, I pointedly avoided asking the obvious: does their vision have a path to profits? Their company is new and their films have yet to be released, so it is fair, perhaps, to wonder: is it all just a fanciful dream? Will they be making movies five years from now? A year from now?

It is also fair, perhaps, to see viability as beside the point.

What’s unique about Malky Squared is not its ambition, or its potential success, but its very ordinariness. These women are doing what young creative people are doing in all parts of the country, often under challenging but optimistic circumstances. The process brings considerable challenges, the same ones that would be faced by any doe-eyed filmmaker with dreams: 20-hour workdays, the stresses of learning on the job, the inevitable misunderstandings and occasional interpersonal blowups.

In fact, one episode contains all the elements for a movie. As Malky and Melissa tell it: On the set of their very first movie, there was a person allergic to nuts. It was Melissa’s job to make sure there were no nuts anywhere. Malky, who was in charge of costume design and set design, had her own workspace, and one day an assistant brought in a package of nuts. Malky told him to hide it atop a closet. Later, Melissa found the nuts anyway.

“I’m freaking out that someone’s life is on me,” Melissa told me.

“And I’m, like, this is my space. Nobody walks in here and takes control,” Malky said.

We were at The City Bakery, a popular lunchtime spot near Union Square in Manhattan. It was early afternoon, and the clamor around us was so loud I could barely hear them speak. Malky and Melissa, however, were animatedly shouting different parts of the story, speaking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences.

“She’s like, you can’t have nuts. I’m like, I heard you. She’s like, you’re being passive aggressive. I’m like, stop treating me like this. She’s like, stop screaming. I’m like, I’m speaking in your tone.”

“Then we didn’t talk the rest of the day.”

“That night I cried.”

“She cried.”

“I was like, I’m not doing this anymore.”

“She wanted to leave the set.”

“Did you work it out in the end?” I asked.

“Oh, we didn’t go to sleep before we worked it out,” they said, almost in unison.

They laughed now, as they told the story, and I tried to pitch the idea as a movie: two ex-Hasidic women form a film-production company, only to have it almost derail over a package of nuts. They both shrugged. It’s all in a day, they seemed to say. They were on to telling me about the next project, and the one after that, and where they were with post-production on the first film, and the festivals they hope to submit to. It struck me that throughout all of this, they spoke little about challenges relating specifically to their pasts – either their upbringings or the transitions they had undertaken. It wasn’t that they’d forgotten, only that it wasn’t the story they were telling. This was not a narrative of struggle, nor was it one of success. It was just about two women making movies, and the tears and laughter that came along with it.

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about his life in the Hasidic world. He is a columnist at the Forward, and his work has appeared in The New Republic, Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.