After the Enlightenment, many Jews feared assimilation.
To protect their identity, a group of Eastern European Jews developed a new stream of Judaism: Haredi Judaism (otherwise known as ultra-Orthodoxy)—they kept Jewish law strictly by segregating themselves from the outside world.
Those who have left are often referred to as ex-ultra-Orthodox (XO).
In May 2015 in Israel, I met Bar Mayer, an XO photographer exploring her own exile through a series of photographs of others who had abandoned belief.
We were just outside the Old City’s walls in a gentrified area of the capital, where beautiful students linger in the centuries-old streets, where all but the overheard political debate seems as any other city, though we were just minutes’ walk from the Temple Mount—where it is said that Jesus preached, Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son—where two months after Mayer and I meet, on Tisha B’av (the Jewish day mourning both temples’ destruction) Israeli police would barricade Palestinians inside for throwing stones and firebombs.
It was in this city of chaos that Mayer arrived after leaving the closed ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Tifrach, in Israel’s arid south, at 17. Insulated by 12 siblings, the still of nature and the cradle of religion, she had never been to the cinema, touched a boy or shown her bare legs. One oppressively hot night while scrubbing the floor—a contribution expected of her as a female in an ultra-Orthodox family—she illicitly removed her socks, relishing, if only for a moment, the cool breeze on her feet. When her mother discovered Mayer’s crime, she was furious.
Now, in leggings and singlet, a cigarette dangling from her hand, Mayer appears like any other secular Israeli: a long day of classes at Bezalel Academy, yoga in an hour, this weekend, Midburn—Israel’s Burning Man festival in the parched Negev. Mayer is among hundreds of Jews abandoning Orthodoxy, but, externally, shows no trace of heritage. “You don’t go around with a sign: ‘I am ex-ultra-Orthodox’.” Unfortunately, she sighs, the past is relentless. Perhaps it cannot be read in her demeanour, but Mayer’s upbringing in opposition to modern culture is inscribed on her soul.
My Jewish history is written differently: four Holocaust-survivor grandparents, a boat to Australia; hence a clinging to tradition, not God. At 25, I have moved from Melbourne to work as a journalist in Italy and for the first time in my life, am living solely amongst non-Jews. To some of them, I am the first proof that a “Jew” is not always locks and a black hat. That a Jew can be blonde, eat prosciutto; that a Jew can be conflicted about “Israel” even if to them, that word means only the murder of Gazan children.
When my parents visit, we host Shabbat dinner in my apartment. My mother and I light the candles, but the prayer escapes me. A friend needlessly apologises for bringing unkosher wine. Once, Mayer forgot to bless an apple before eating it. Her mother’s expression suggested someone had died.
Perhaps it was a premonition. When ultra-Orthodox leave, their families often “sit shiva” (the seven-day Jewish mourning ritual for death). Mayer is not dead to her parents, but they speak only when necessary—a few times a year at most. The radicalism ensures exiles do not contaminate their former communities, which are founded on rejection of the outside world.
Ultra-Orthodoxy, otherwise known as the Haredi stream of Judaism, evolved after the Enlightenment, trying to ensure continuity through segregation and strict adherence to Jewish law (halacha). In communities in Israel and the diaspora, television, newspapers and the internet are forbidden. Anatomy pages and unholy animals, like pigs, are torn from books, kippot are sketched in; there is no mention of dinosaurs. The dress code is black and white. The uniformity is no accident; women are expected to bear and raise children till their bodies’ defeat, while the man’s duty is lifelong study of Jewish law. Yet external influence has always crept in, and increasingly so, with the progress of technology. Numbers of XO are steadily rising into the hundreds per year. Often, those still “inside” will make first contact through social media, especially Facebook: “How do I leave?” “Where will I live?” “Can I work?” “Where do I buy normal clothes?”.
The district of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem is just blocks from the outside world, but residents rarely leave—aside from the occasional excursion to a shoe store or the Arab market (where modest attire is a shared practice). A “kosher” phone store sells only internet-free mobiles. Posters ask visitors not to enter in “immodest clothing”; the suburb has become something of a tourist attraction. Boys are taught to avert their gaze from girls, and girls learn the laws of tzniut (modesty). Because the ultimate act of God is procreation, men must never spill their seed (Genesis 38:9). Contraception and masturbation are forbidden—a formidable task for teenage boys. Layer-upon-layer of regulations are plastered to the walls, but slowly, they are peeling; their edges flail in the wind.
A number of XO I speak with describe traumatic psychologial and physical experiences. Organisations like Hillel in Israel and Footsteps in the United States provide psychological and practical support to help leavers cope.
Founded on the secular ideal of Zionism, the State of Israel is opposed by most ultra-Orthodox. Like the Palestinians, they treat Israel’s Independence Day as one of mourning. In 2007, the Neturei Karta (one of the most extreme Haredi sects) met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad to build a “united front against Zionists.” Most ultra-Orthodox, who make up 12 per cent of Israeli society, are excused from conscription and secular work, burdening the economy and creating endemic resentment among the secular. According to the 2012 Israeli census, the average Israeli woman has three children, while the ultra-Orthodox has between six to seven. More than half live below the poverty line, receiving state allowances. Some XO enter “normalcy” in their teens and later with the mathematical skills of 10-year-olds, or knowing only the English alphabet. Mayer is among a group of XO suing the state—which funds the strictly religious seminaries—for their deprivation.
The trial (set to take place later this year) is just a part of Mayer’s struggle to make peace with her “lost years.” From arriving alien in Jerusalem, to joining the army, to Germany where she spent eight years working in Israeli security and her return to Israel, where she now studies art, Mayer has battled with her identity as an ex-ultra-Orthodox. “I took these photos as part of a long process of self-healing,” she says.
“The identification with each XO and their stories, at the beginning, freaked me out. I never liked the XO community; I wanted to distance myself from it. This is part of the self-acceptance for me. I’m not sure I’m trying to say anything to anyone—these are just my own fears that I’m working out in the best way I know how, through my art... In this photo series, as in life, you can’t see we are ex-Orthodox.”
When they discover her devout past, the first thing people always ask Mayer is, “So you were ultra-Orthodox, and now, you don’t keep anything?” Total rejection baffles the secular, but for many XO, nothing else makes sense. Jewish law dictates one’s every thought and feeling; Religion is inextricably bound up with the forbidden.
When I first meet Sara (one of Bar’s subjects, and friends) she’s recovering from an LSD trip the night before and regrets shaving half her head. After leaving her community, Sara tattooed a rose across her calf to make sure people would know she was not Orthodox, even if she wore a skirt. Now a couple, Yossi and Racheli are going to a nudist festival that weekend. They regularly swing and engage in ménage à trois. “In my mind, whether I wear a T-shirt, or go naked in the street, there is no difference!” says Racheli. “Once it’s broken, it’s broken.” Mayer has photographed them naked in an attempt to elude categorisation.
In the “free” city of Tel Aviv, clothing with lurid statements of self-declaration are in fashion: “AMAZING,” “YOU ARE WHAT YOU BELIEVE YOU ARE,” “HERE AND NOW,” “IT’S NOT ME IT’S YOU.” A young man slouched on a bench scrolls aimlessly through his phone at the Carmel Market. His T-shirt reads, “Boogie On!”
“After you go out, you realise, everyone, everywhere has problems. Everyone is unhappy about something, searching for something. You and I are the same. What hurts me, hurts you, maybe less, maybe more, but it hurts,” says Mayer. “I wish that at home, we could have talked about our feelings more… It was like, ‘For God’s sake! Just tell me what you feel!’”
On November 4, 1995, Israel’s prime minister at the time, Yitzchak Rabin—who two years previously had shaken hands for the first time with a Palestinian leader—was assassinated by a extremist-right-wing Orthodox Jew. I was five. One of the many who venerated Rabin as a genuine chance for peace, my mother cried in front of a television in Australia, as much for his death as for the death of the dream of Israeli unity. In Israel, a 12-year-old Mayer and her siblings jumped on a bed in celebration. Mayer had been raised to believe the state was temporary; that a savior would come and build the House of God. “I don’t feel like an Israeli, not at all,” she says. “I hardly have any feelings towards this place as part of my identity.” Later, after a few glasses of red wine, she speaks hotly—like any other Israeli—about the day’s political news.
While I was in Israel, my housemate in Italy was busily preparing for her arranged Indian wedding. Meanwhile, some of my Australian-Jewish friends were getting engaged. My Facebook feed was filled with ideals of “success” and “happiness.” Religion seemed, amidst all this, such a straightforward path: a set of rules, a structure to adhere to, the promise of unconditional identity. One day in Jerusalem, I go to yoga with Mayer. “I’m an animal,” she laughs; it’s her second class today. “Maybe, I’m religious about this...” I go to another class, and then another. By the time I return, I am up at the crack of dawn for yoga: every morning, a devout ritual.
On the tucked-in streets of north Italy, the littered footpaths of Mea Sharim; in the new developments of Tel-Aviv, the chaos of the West Bank or the quiet of the Golan, people wander hungry—every world has its beauty and disgraces. Jerusalem, so impregnated with thousands of years of conflicting beliefs, is the pinnacle: where believers come to find themselves and the chained, to be unshackled. Amongst the chaos—here more strongly than anywhere else—people cling to belief and cynicism, liberty and freedom, right and left, order and anarchy. Extremes. Absolutes. What else to do when the moral order is crumbling around you?
Weeks later, when I had returned to Italy, an ex-ultra-Orthodox woman leapt to her death from a rooftop bar in Manhattan. Just a week earlier, Faigy Mayer had posted to Facebook: “Anyone wants to read first draft on my opinion article on why the internet will cause hasidic judaism to cease to exist in 20 years or so #knowledgeispower.” “IF PEOPLE WERE ALLOWED TO THINK, THEY WOULD NOT BE RELIGIOUS,” she wrote in the piece, (posthumously published by Tablet Magazine). Like many XO, Faigy Mayer used Facebook to communicate the pain of her journey. “I’ve sort of lost all my family… I do not have any baby pics of myself. I don’t think it’s human to withhold your daughter’s photos from most of her life,” she posted in March. “I hope to be an inspiration for others who leave, although given my story, I’m not sure I recommend it for everyone.” I wrote to the other Mayer on Facebook, asking for her thoughts. She was saddened by the news, but not surprised. Over the past few years in Israel (which has a relatively-low suicide rate) a number of XO have killed themselves.
In New York City, that other city of dreams, people sipped their cocktails as Faigy Mayer stepped off the edge. That something lost in twenty floors, that ineffable something, the loss of which changed Faigy Mayer from a person to a body, must have been why her final words were: “Where is the east deck?”
East is the direction of prayer towards Jerusalem.
1 — Bar
One morning, I turned up at my brother’s in Jerusalem: “Good morning, this is it. I’m not going back.” I had left home at five in the morning, so they wouldn’t find out.
At the time, my brother was selling black hats for religious people in the city. He was 21, and had already left the community four years earlier. It was crazy how I threw it on him. Immediately, he called my aunt. A week later, I was living in her secular home, completing my last year of high school. I did as much as I could, but I had to go back after the army to finish my education—most of our studies at school were about religion.
My family didn’t mourn (as some do according to Jewish religious law). They called, maybe once or twice a year. We were all deeply hurt, but once I had understood that the ultra-Orthodox path was one of getting married, having kids, and staying in the community for the rest of my life, there was no other option. I think I never had it in me… belief. Not in God, for sure.
Going to the army was a dream. It was the purest form of freedom: secular, forbidden. Somehow, I’m grateful. It helped shape my ideas about Israel— I served in the West Bank and saw things that today, bother me a lot. At the time, I was blind. I left the army for another system—airport security. They were looking for someone to move abroad to work at El Al in Germany. It was my ticket out of here. I wanted to delete it all. Start fresh, explore the huge world…
Only much later, when after eight years, I came back, did I see how wide the gap between my family and I was. On Yom Hazikaron (the memorial day for Israel’s soldiers) in Tel Aviv, everyone goes to Rabin Square (where I was living near to at the time). There is a sense of togetherness—which I had never related to due to the education I got as a child. Till today, I don’t have it in me. I called my mum, to tell her I was in pain.
I had been back in Israel three months and hadn’t seen her. She was hurt to hear me suffering, and after a long conversation, I asked her,
“Where were you as a mother when I left? What did you feel?”
At 17, there had been no fight, no chasing, no trying to solve it. She just let me go. She said, “You wanted to go.”
At 30, I was no longer looking to blame or judge—just to understand. I could hear her pain in the silence. Talking about feelings was not a part of our community life. I was stubborn, but if they had taken it in, tried to accept a different approach to the system they believed the best for us, it would have been different.
There was no way I was going to relive that abandonment, so if only in small steps, we tried. Maybe I spoke to her once or twice a year—only when I really felt there was no other way to solve the feeling of missing her; that the phone call must be made. Sometimes it was a one-minute conversation, sometimes, it was an hour. Depends what I heard on the other side, and how much of it I could take in. I imagine it was similar on her side. Being alone in the lowest lows and the highest highs had taught me nothing would be there, unless I let it in.
One Passover, three months after I left, a rabbi from the neighbouring community crashed his car into a tree, with five of his family members inside on his way back from Jerusalem in the middle of the night. All of them, dead. I heard it on the radio. His wife had been my teacher at school. I called my mother. Eventually, she said, “Don’t you think you played a part in this?” That’s how they see it when people leave the community; bad things happen when you break the laws.
If I talk today with my sisters about belief, they get stuck after the third sentence; they can’t tell me what it is they actually believe.
The amount of things you do daily to keep yourself busy worshiping God means you can’t stop even for a minute to think, Why? It turns you into a machine.
There’s no “you” in the orthodox community. When you put so much weight on how it looks from the outside, what is on the inside gets lost.
Today, when I think about the rules, they seem like any other obsession. Specific bones must be covered, so they don’t arouse desire: collarbones, elbows, legs must always be covered, except when you are sleeping. I always questioned these borders; five centimeters more or less, seeing if anyone would say anything. On Passover, we used to watch eight-millimeter films from my mother’s childhood in Germany. She was about three; ice-skating. I never understood why an adult would stand in front of the machine and cover it up every time my mother slipped, and her tiny little skirt flipped up.
The village where my parents live, Tifrach—this tiny ghetto—may as well be on the Moon.
After 13 years, I stayed in my parents’ home for a whole weekend to take photographs. On Shabbat, you can’t drive, so you can’t leave. I sat on a chair on the road at the front door and watched people coming back from synagogue, kids playing. It was surreal.
I think belief in God is the reason for many of our problems; it solves things in your mind that can’t be solved otherwise… He will save you. God is like Pepsi, Coke or McDonalds—a big invention with great marketing (even though you might know it is probably not that good for you).
I often think about the awareness that is required of oneself to manage in this chaotic world. We should dare to question: What is it that you believe in? Why do you do things the way you do them? Questioning everything is one of the greatest lessons I learnt from leaving.
My mum used to say, life is just a corridor towards something else. Yes. It is a corridor, but why not let it be a very beautiful corridor, filled with the things you like to do, because who knows what’s coming next…
I think less and less about the fact that I left, because as time passes, I’m living something else. But, every once in a while, especially with this project, I explore the effects of coming out from this isolated community, getting rid of fears and self doubts. It could be me in any of these images.
2 — Anne
A woman cannot be a scribe, because we are not pure, we are not “clean”. As a child, I would watch my father work— it just seemed like the most perfect thing in the world. Before my father became religious, he studied art. But he burnt it all when he moved to Mea Sharim.
My mother grew up in Tehran, wearing a burka with one eye showing. Her eldest sister was married off at the age of nine, and had her first child by 14. At 18, my mother ran away to London. At 34, she had moved back to Israel and married my father. They had only known each other about two weeks. They didn’t love each other. The rabbis told my father it was the best way to “fix” himself.
After my mother married, she erased herself. Before that, she was a strong, opinionated woman. They became really religious, and then, it all got fucked up. After three years, my mother had us, triplets. When my father heard that he had three children, he didn’t know what to do and ran away, but he was back and forth. I grew up in a strongly believing home. My father was Yeshivah all day while my mum acted as the woman who doesn’t leave the house. It seemed like a normal religious environment, but there is a dark side in Mea Sharim—I would come home to see people who had overdosed, dying in the yard. This was normal.
We had the burden on us; the expectation that we would be the correct, normal, religious kids.
I was really jealous of my brother. My parents were proud of him, of his studies. When he was a little boy, he had already started his pilgrimages to Uman in Russia to visit Rabbi Nachman’s grave. I hadn’t even left Mea Sharim. My teacher once mentioned Yaffo St [a main street in Jerusalem]. I didn’t know where it was. I couldn’t understand, why we were different? Why did he get everything? What did I do wrong? But every time I would ask questions, they shut me up.
When we were five, my brother molested me. My mother walked in and shouted, “Why did you take off your panties?” The man can do everything, but the woman is always responsible. It is always her fault. When recently, I confronted him about it, he told me, “Well, I was molested by my rabbi.”
As a child, many religious people molested me on the way to school—people with families, and children.
I felt that they could smell my fear, that it attracted them. Nobody knew what happened to me. I was always modest, caring, quiet… I always wanted everything to be okay, I wanted everyone else to be happy. I was very religious. I was sure God would come soon. I was sure there would be salvation.
At school, we learnt about modesty, not to draw men to our “forbidden areas.” They put it in your head that if you’re not modest, they will become immodest.
When I started wearing my brother’s clothes my mother was angry, insisting that I wear my own. But I wanted the strength of a boy. One time, a religious guy tried to rape me, and when he realised I was actually a girl, he was shocked. That’s when I realised that not even my brother’s clothes could protect me.
From the age of seven till 14, I blacked out. Then, at 14, I was raped by a religious woman—a friend of my mother’s. By that time, I was dressing like a girl, but this woman always said to me, “You’re so pretty, like a little boy.” She was considered very spiritual by the community, speaking about salvation, about the holiness of the religious heart. It was on Shabbat, no one in the house…. very violent. Till then, I had believed in the fragile place of a woman. Then I realised I was also wrong about that. That’s when I discovered the female evil.
After that, I felt angry. I had been hurt in every possible way. That same year, my father again left the house. I got kicked out of school. Then, I started leaving religion.
I remember, the day they threw me out from school, I was wearing a hoodie with English on it; my mother flipped out. She kicked me out of the house in the middle of the night and refused to open the door. I couldn’t believe my mother could do this to me.
It was my first meeting with Jerusalem. There, I understood that I could never go back. I felt exiled. I thought I would kill myself, or just die from the guilt…
All the time, I feel that I am in between: the holy and unholy, family and loneliness, the clean and dirty, a man and a woman. When I was 19, I went to a sadomasochistic club in Tel Aviv and after that, went home for Shabbat. I had been in a dungeon; my body was blue with bruises. I sat there, aching, and felt, so strongly, in this middle nowhere zone.
In this image, the Kohelet appears, large, on my body. When Hanan painted me, I felt as though I were my father’s parchment. An object. The woman who sits still while the man finishes. You take something that is not pure, like the skin of the cow, and you make it holy, with scripture. If the religious can do it, I can do it, on my own body. Despite everything, I still respect this holy writing.
There is a story by Rabbi Nachman about a king who goes mad and decides he is a chicken. Everyone tries to fix him, but one person gets naked under the table with him, and begins making the sounds of a chicken. He says, “Okay, but why do chickens just eat worms?” So they eat food. “Okay, why don’t they get dressed?” They got dressed. “Why don’t chickens sit at the table?” They sat at the table, ate at the table… In this way, the king becomes human again. When I was 17, I met a schizophrenic girl. She was very religious. I walked with her for hours. When I went home with her to her family, they were shocked—who was this non-religious girl? But I had gotten their daughter to speak. This is the power of Rabbi Nachman. I still respect the strength religion gave me.
I tried, once, to tell my mother what happened to me as a child, but she didn’t want to hear it. She is in a smaller place than me. I have tried to understand, and to forgive; I have no idea how else to deal with it.
3 — Yossi
This weekend, I am going to a nudist festival. I heard about it on Facebook. There are a lot of ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews who go.
The first time I went, I felt outside of the experience; like an observer. In the first hours, people arrive wearing clothes. But slowly, the borders dissolve. You feel like a boy, you play. It’s simple… direct. It’s a place where you can let go of all the rules; it’s purifying. I feel that there, I really meet people—the way you speak to each other is different: “Are you happy?” “How do you feel?” Not, “What do you do?” There is nothing to separate you. Without clothes, we are all the same.
I never thought I’d end up in a place like that. But comparing it to the world I come from—it’s all forbidden. In the orthodox community, you are not even allowed to wear red.
I grew up in a house where my parents missionised people to come back to religion, so I understood the outside world a little bit. My father was from Chicago—all his friends wore one kind of hat, and he wore another. My skin was dark, so the other kids thought I was Sephardi and refused to play with me. I have always felt outside.
The first time I got married, I was 19. Four years later, we were divorced. I married again at 24, for another seven years. My second wife wasn’t Ashkenazior very religious (it may not seem like a big deal, but in that world, it was a huge shock.) Marriage to a non-religious girl, for my family, was worse than my first divorce. She was on her way to becoming religious; she had studied anthropology, which is how she’d learnt about the religious world.
In my last three years in the community, I began praying less and less in the synagogue. I prayed alone, in my house. All the time, my soul was searching. I felt that I didn’t think like everyone else. The things that occupied people didn’t interest me—my connection wasn’t with the community, but with God.
Now, my God is Google. I read a lot. If it’s something new, I have to try it. I don’t feel comfortable in places with rules, places without honesty, so I try not to enter them anymore. I want the courage to feel like myself in every place. But it is hard. Community gives you legitimacy, and sometimes you need to play the game, because you can’t be honest, but at least then, you play the game with awareness. I believe all human beings have this capacity.
I am still ambivalent. I am standing alone in the desert. I am looking at the sky, listening to the wind. In my hand, I am holding my passions, but at any moment, they may fly away. I am very vulnerable. I’m trying to hold on to reality.
I hope that in 10 years, the balloons will still be there, and they will be bigger, and of all different colours…
4 — Racheli
As a child, I closed my eyes every time I was naked. I never looked down at my own body. I was disgusted by it. I felt it was a sin.My parent’s idea of a good life was that I would marry a religious guy, and have babies, so I got married at 17. I was really happy; it was the only way to leave my parents’ home.
Before you get married, you learn the rules: how to keep negiah, how to check when you are during your cycle, or not. In three months, there are two classes where they teach you about sex, but on our wedding night, we realised neither of us had a clue. My teacher had told me that he would know, but he didn’t. Why does it hurt? What is happening? According to Jewish law, you must have sex in the missionary position, unless you get special permission from the Rabbi. There’s a rule that you’re supposed to kiss at the end, so we did, once. After the first time you have sex, you are “unholy,” so the man can’t be with you, or touch you. He must leave the bed immediately.
I hated it. I would avoid going to the ritual bath to “purify” myself for the month, because I was terrified of having sex again. After half-a-year, I went back to my teacher. “I am really suffering,” I told her: “I can’t. It hurts.” She said, “What, you don’t feel something in your stomach?” I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I realised something must be wrong with me. Not once, in six years, did I enjoy it. She would say, “Don’t move! Don’t move!” In our whole marriage, he climaxed twice. I had no idea what that was…
I spoke to many, many, people, hoping someone could help. I hated sex. I couldn’t get pregnant. I felt terrible. I felt guilty. But I believed I needed to keep it going, to maintain the house, so we stayed together. My womb was my mother’s measure of me, and I also felt that way. So I started fertility treatment. The community prayed for me and gave me mercy. I never felt accepted. I prayed to God.Then I met Yossi on Facebook. I started asking him, “How do you leave?” How does it work?” He gave me the courage.
I was working as a kindergarten teacher at the time. First, I quit, and started completing my exams to finish high school. It was really hard for me to leave my students—what would happen to them, they saw me leaving religion, I was their teacher…
My parents knew I wasn’t working, but I was always busy, so they wondered. They didn’t believe I needed an education. At that time, I was living a double life. I notice the differences all the time. I am 24, and I don’t understand anything, every connection I make is hard. Closing the gaps between my old and new life is very difficult.
In my mind, whether I wear a T-shirt, or go naked in the street, there is no difference! Once it’s broken, it’s broken.
Now, I am totally open about sex; it isn’t weird to me, because I don’t know any different. I’ve worked on my relationship with my body a lot.
I still have a long way to go. It’s no different from girls who feel they are fat or whatever… I’m still trying to understand that I am okay. I’ve been tested, to see if I can have children. Everything is fine, but it doesn’t matter. I still carry the burden. I have never told anyone. I didn’t have children. I didn’t succeed. I still feel that I failed.
5 — Hanan
When I told my mother I didn’t want to be religious anymore, the first thing she said was, “But what will the neighbours think?” My whole world had crashed, but she wasn’t worried about how I felt. I said, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going. This place is not good for me.” It was very tough conversation. She cried and cried.
Half a year before I understood that I wasn’t religious, I changed my clothes. It was a war with my parents. I hated the clothes: black and white, black and white, black and white. It makes you crazy.
You can only wear a little bit of grey, a little bit of blue. People aren’t supposed to look at you, you’re supposed to be quiet. It’s not here “I am,” but here “we are.” You’re a group. One day, I went shopping and came to my parents’ house in new clothes. I said, “Okay, this is new Hanan, nice to meet you!” It was the first time I bought jeans. We made it through... of course, there was screaming and shouting, but it was okay.
Before I left, I started questioning, What do I want, in 10 years? Twenty years? When I imagined my friends getting married and having children I thought, It’s not for me… So I started to dig, in my head and my heart, to think, What do I want? And why? All the questions I’ve had since I was a kid came up, all the things I didn’t agree with came up. I realised that all my life was a big question: Why am I living this way?
On Shabbat, when you sit with the whole family, everybody thanking God, hoping for God… I would hint; say things I wasn’t supposed to. Once I asked,
“Okay, but why God?” It’s you. If you just wait for God to do things for you, maybe they won’t happen.
It’s been very hard for my parents to understand their only son doesn’t believe in anything they’ve taught him. But slowly, slowly, I started to say things like that, and they realised, something has happened with Hanan. Then I took my mum, not my dad, and I told her, “I don’t believe in all these things,” that I was going to change my life, that I was leaving… that’s it. In that moment I decided I don’t feel Jewish, I don’t feel anything. I am just a person in the world.
I moved to Tel Aviv. I had money cause I was working, so I was independent. I rented an apartment. For the first time in my life, I was in a city, alone. I walked the streets, alone and I loved it. I had money, I was healthy, and I could do whatever I wanted to do. At that time, walking in the street, everything was new. Looking at a coffee… in those days, a coffee was new, everything was new. Everything! The street! In those days, I looked at everything as though for the first time. Something in my head had changed, so the whole world had changed. I had to look at everything twice, to be sure. Suddenly, I remembered the drums. As a child, I was always drumming on the table… so I decided to learn. I went to Amsterdam, I saw a concert. Wow! It opened my eyes. I ate some things I’d never eaten. When you come out, you’re not ready. It just surprises you. I worked very hard to create an agreement with my parents where I could go, and spend Shabbat with them. For a few years, I didn’t go at all.
When I understood there was no God, I felt relieved.
If there is nothing to fear, no to punish you, you can do whatever you want to do. But with the relief came responsibility, like a stone on my shoulders: I am responsible for every choice I make, everything that’s happened and that will happen.
Until that point, the responsibility had been with God. That was it, like a switch, and once I understood, there was no going back.
6 — Sara
In the ultra-Orthodox world, it’s less of a big deal to get a tattoo than to wear pants. When you don’t keep Shabbat, no one knows. When you don’t keep Kosher, no one knows. But wearing pants? One day, everybody sees you as religious, and the next… It was the last thing I did.
My first tattoo, on my leg, was a step towards that. I wanted to show that I wasn’t religious: She is wearing a skirt, but she has a tattoo. Today, when I wear skirts and dresses, I still feel afraid that people will think I’m religious.
When I was young I prayed, I went to school, I didn’t feel conflicted. I didn’t think about it. That’s what you need to do. Religion was natural. I thought it was the truth. The leaving didn’t happen in one day; it’s not as though I woke up and said, “No it’s not for me.” It was a process. Five of my six siblings aren’t religious… in some way, I think it was always going to happen. Everything around me pushed me in this direction.
My parents are from Russia. My mother wasn’t born Jewish—her father was, but her mother wasn’t—so she converted. I always felt less because of this. All my life, we were moving: apartments, cities, countries… We moved from Israel to Canada, to Israel, then back to Canada again. The first time, because my father was studying a PHD in mathematics. He had only become orthodox later in life. My father was always quiet; we didn’t sense him in the house. My mother was dominating, and she was always nasty about my father, “Your father is not normal.” We thought she was just saying it. Later, I understood he was truly unwell.
My parents had an arranged marriage and I never saw any love them. Actually, we never showed any affection to one another at all. I don’t remember my mother ever hugging me. It may seem like I don’t have a problem with my body, but I do have big problems with touch. When I see friends, I don’t hug them, I don’t kiss them…
My mother was a fanatical about everything; about the details, about the technicalities. Religion was stronger, in her head, than feelings. The Torah says to bring children, so I bring children. If you do it because someone said, not because you want, than why should you love them? Once, she said the only reason she had me, was because it was a mitzvah to have children. I’ll remember that all my life. I’m not the fruit of love. I’m a fruit of religious fanaticism. She didn’t love us. That’s the reason now she lives alone.
Did she really mean that? If she did, my existence is only because two people are supposed to procreate?
I’ve been asking myself why my mother converted. I don’t know why people do it. Maybe she had a hard life; maybe she was searching for meaning. I haven’t seen her in three years. I don’t love her. She doesn’t love me. It’s not that. It’s not the person, it’s the idea. I want a mum, but not this mum that I have. Sometimes on Facebook I see families, happy together. I will never have that.
If you met me two or three years ago, I didn’t know how to function… I don’t think I believe in God any longer. I believe in myself. One thing that’s missing is love.
Of course, there are things in the religious world I miss. Even if I didn’t believe, I still felt part of the community.
Today, I went to my father. I visit him once a week, he lives in Jerusalem in a home for people with mental illnesses. He is manic-depressive. He is still religious and he doesn’t know that I’m not. Maybe he understands, but we don’t speak about it. No way I would ever go to see him in pants.
I told him I had been in Germany and he asked me, “On Passover, you eat matzot?” I said, “Yeh! Sure! They bring it.” You know what I ate? Meat, cheese and bread together. On Passover.
7 — Yosef
In my parents’ home, I am orthodox. Outside, I am normal. I change my appearance and can belong to either. It doesn’t bother me to lead a double life.
My father knows, but he doesn’t say anything. When it serves me to be “religious,” I am religious; I didn’t have to do the army. I’m also a personal trainer, and being in the community gives me opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise, because they trust me.
I love training and fast cars… But the orthodox world is like a factory, where everyone has the same mission—to sit and learn Torah all day. But each person has their own gifts. It’s not possible that everyone is made for the same purpose. In the orthodox community, wanting something different alone is wrong.
Why, in religion, do I have to follow other people’s thoughts, as though they are my own? At the Yeshivah, you learn the interpretations of what’s written—it’s like researching the truth. But eventually, I understood what I thought.
I don’t need the middle-man to be in a relationship with my own god: a rabbi, a teacher, a friend… God is in everything, which means I can decide what I keep and what I don’t. We are all made from the same stuff.
At the end of the day, I have a few goals that drive me: Do what I love, become the best I can be, and make money from it.
For now, I enjoy the challenge of leading both lives. Perhaps, in the future, I will choose one…
8 - Mariya
From the outside, my family looked like a typical religious family, but inside, it was a big mess. My dad would drink all day. My mum would cry. My father spent most of his time in America going from house to house collecting money “for the yeshivah.”
One day when I was about 10, my father said: “We don’t have a house.” Mum was pregnant with her twelfth child; days from giving birth. I remember walking around the neighbourhood looking for an apartment. It was summer. It was hot. We just had to laugh: “We’re going to live in the street!” “I will sleep in the garden!” “This is going to be my bed!” Eventually, a family going on vacation let us stay in their home.
I was 15 when my father kicked me out. It wasn’t about religion, but because I told him to stop drinking. He said, “You’re not allowed to be here anymore.” I was like, “Okay.” I went to Jerusalem and lived in a squat with hippies and freaks. I met a guy who was also from a big religious family. We moved to Hebron together. Within a year, we were married. I was 17. My parents came to the wedding in a bulletproof bus.
We really wanted kids, and tried to have them. Thank God it didn’t happen. After a year, we were divorced. One day, married, the next, homeless. I ended up living on a religious ecological farm for a few months. It was very quiet, except for the pigs at night. I almost went crazy and ran away. I had no money, no ID, no phone. Hitchhiking, I came to a crossroads: north or south. I’d never been to Eilat, so I went south.
I remember seeing the ocean and thinking, This is it. I met a guy who took my huge bag and I on his motorcycle to smoke a bong. We crashed on our way back. I was too high to feel pain, but the guy was crying, “Don’t go to the hospital, please!” There was blood everywhere. Later that day, I bumped into someone from the street in Jerusalem and I ended up living in his tent on the beach for three months.
During that time, I didn’t speak to anyone except tourists. That’s where I learnt English; I didn’t learn at school, I had never seen a movie. All the tourists asked my name, they heard Mariya when I said Miriam—so it became my name.
After a few months, a rabbi that knew me from Jerusalem turned up. He had heard I was a whore. I barely had clothes than—just had a bikini and a t-shirt! After that, the guys kicked me out, so I moved to a nearby mountain. I spent the next three months completely alone in a cave. I ended up working at a restaurant on the beach and renting a room in Eilat, but I felt very empty. One Saturday, I just thought, Fuck, look at all these people sitting and eating like cows, what am I doing? I want to be religious again. I ran into the street crying. I saw a synagogue. I sat on the floor in front of The Holy Ark and cried and cried. When I was a child, my parents would say, “If you don’t feel good, you just need to believe.” So I thought, If I become religious again, everything will be fine… I was desperate for Shabbat to finish so I could call my mum and tell her, I believe again, I’m coming home. We hadn’t spoken in months.
I went home. I prayed all day. But after two weeks, I woke up. I went back to Jerusalem and finished school. I worked two jobs and studied hard, but then, the police caught me selling a few grams of hash. They wanted to make an example out of me,and sent me back to my family for 10 months, under house arrest. When I posted about what had happened to me on Facebook, I became sort of famous—people sent gifts and money. They thought I was an activist. I got three new guitars! After that, had to do social service, and when that finished, I thought, Okay, now I can start my life.
All my life, I start something, build it up and then, back to nothing. Now, I’m really afraid that I will find myself crashing again…
Now I work on a cybersex site. People watch me. It’s a crazy job, but it is very good money. If I didn’t have that, I couldn’t study. I can work whenever and wherever I want. It’s legal. I get my pay every month…
People really like me, because I really try to talk to them. Usually, I don’t even do anything. I have two regulars, they pay so much just to talk to me, and sometimes, I feel bad. One of them is religious.
Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian writer living in Italy on a fellowship with Fabrica Research Centre. Previously the deputy editor of Dumbo Feather magazine, she also covers social and environmental issues for various international publications. You can read more of her work here.
Bar Mayer is an Israeli photographer who left the ultra-Orthodox community at 17. She is currently a student at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
The interviews within are firsthand accounts, recorded in May 2015, Israel. Parts have been translated from Hebrew to English, and all have been edited for readability (with subjects’ approval). Last names omitted to protect privacy.
The eight people profiled originally appeared together in a play by Evgeni Mesteschkin and Yulia Mesteschkin, Out of Mea Sharim. The Israeli-German iact initiative showed in Hamburg and Jerusalem (May 2015).
Additional thanks to Hillel, an Israeli non-profit helping young adults who have left the ultra-Orthodox world, and to Alona Albeck and Amit Ezra for their support.