A Response to Shfran’s Musings of an ‘Orthodox Counterpoint to OTD Books’

The following is a response to Rabbi Avi Shafran’s Op-Ed piece about why B’allei Teshuvah in the Chareidi Community have not published their own counterpoint stories to the now multitude of ‘off-the-derech’ memoirs. His article, “Where’s The Orthodox Counterpoint To All These OTD Books” was published online last week on Forward.com

I very distinctly recall one of the rare instances when my B’al Teshuvah father openly criticized and took a shot at his traditional, Long Island Jewish parents. It was something along the lines of them not being accommodating enough to his very rigid religious lifestyle, which he began exploring quite suddenly at the age of eighteen.

This very rare occurrence took place several months ago, in a very emotionally- jarring disagreement which I had with my dad about the fact that I was seeing a non-Jewish girl at the time whom I met in a cultural anthropology class at community college. He had kicked me to the curb because of her, and I very tearfully challenged him over the phone about why he was so unlike his parents, who for the most part, made every compromise and adjustment in the book to always graciously accommodate the various special needs and restrictions of their son and daughter-in-law’s ultra-orthodox lifestyle.

That was early this spring.  That was also the last time my parents and I have had anything to do with each other.

It certainly bears mentioning that Grandma, my father’s mother, for as long as I can remember, would schlep out in her car to the kosher butcher some four towns over, and pay three times the price for kosher turkeys which my dad would cook in the designated kosher oven she had in her kitchen for our family’s annual Thanksgiving dinners.

Or, how about the countless times that Grandma and Grandpa had specially arranged for full kosher catering for myself and two siblings at the various dinner parties held in their honor for their positions held within their community’s leadership board and local legislature? (My Grandpa, may he rest in peace, was the mayor of his town for several years.)

Yet, Rabbi Avi Shafran, in his latest opinion piece in the Forward, wants to know why in contrast to the “sheer number of memoirs by young Jews who have chosen to leave the Orthodox community of their upbringing,” there isn’t a “counterpoint flood of essays and books by some of the many who come from other Jewish places to orthodoxy?”  And why there are “no tales of the parents who deprived their children of even a rudimentary education, who responded negatively to their progeny’s exploration of their Jewish roots?

Excuse me please, Rabbi Shafran, but with all due respect, what precisely might be the motive for such a brash, and frankly ill-advised query of Ballei Teshuvah such as my dad? Are you suggesting that they themselves unleash the same harsh criticism of their elders – just as we off-the-derech children have in desperation for our own survival?

Are you perhaps in some peculiar fashion “jealous” of the “free-shot” which we OTD folk get to take at our moms and dads?
Maybe the unavoidable fact that off-the-derech Jews like myself who have progressed into a vibrant community and Jewish cultural movement in the past decade with the emergence of organizations like Footsteps – and are no longer just the mere unfortunate few who have lost their way – is beginning to scare you, as it has many Orthodox rabbis in the recent past?

You reason that the B’al Teshuvah Orthodox population, in being in-line with Judaism as it should be, feels no need to “settle scores and engage in pointless negativity – particularly towards parents” – yet you yourself seem to want to suggest that B’allei Teshuvah such as my father should publish memoirs and essays denouncing his own parents for not being gracious and hospitable enough when he wandered off into the scary world of religious fundamentalism?

Hypocrisy, anyone?!

Would such not be the absolute epitome of what you very conveniently bashed the OTD community for – of our publications being “condescending, even cynical, embodiments of the perennial phenomenon of intrepid youth discovering truths to which their parents are lamentably oblivious?”

Oh, and let’s please clarify something while we’re at it: The many volumes of essays and books from the OTD community, who have at times greatly reprehended their ultra-religious parents are not “pointless” as you’ve chosen to reference it. They are but a cry for help and a call-to-action by a group of Jewish brothers and sisters who have endured terrible pain and injustice at the hands of Jewish fundamentalist leaders — many of whom have had no regard nor empathy whatsoever for the countless souls inflicted with atrocities such as, forced marriages or their children being taken from them.

One thing is for sure: I myself, like many fellow members of the OTD community –together with our parents who are still devout members of their ultra-orthodox communities – have created tremendous resolve and compromise in many areas of our lives so that we may live peacefully once again as a Jewish people – despite our sometimes very conflicting ideologies and belief systems.

In fact, just last week on the third night of Chol H’amoed,   I  had dinner with my family for the first time in several years. Our pseudo-Yom Tov meal was very conspicuously arranged for the intermediary days of the holiday so as not to generate any conflict with regards to traveling on Yom Tov, or me having to head off to work the next morning.

I very much enjoyed this very first step in reuniting with my family who still loves me very much – as I love them – despite our many differences.

So, Rabbi Shafran, b’allei teshuvah like my dad refrain from publishing scathing accounts of their transitions into orthodoxy – not because they “feel no compulsion to look back because they’re just happy to be home” – as you speculate. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. That’s irrelevant. But perhaps it’s because they’re not fighting for their lives as we the OTD are, and frankly, they’re not as unappreciative of their parents – nor as plain-ungracious as you are.

Either way, I think the little Chol Hamoed dinner I had with my family last Thursday evening might be a far better measure for the Chareidi – and the off-the-derech communities at large to explore than those Shafran speaks of. Let’s try to be about peace this High-Holiday season – not further conflict and divide.

Chag Sameach!