Losing My Religion Why I Left My Orthodox Community in Buenos Aires
I spent so much time watching and trying to understand secular women that I never bothered to try to understand the others, the ones who never left.
It is an impossibly beautiful Saturday morning in Buenos Aires; in Barrio Once, to be specific, the neighborhood where I live. Barrio Once, where most Orthodox Jews live in Buenos Aires, is practically downtown—it takes about thirty minutes to walk from my mother’s house to the Argentine National Congress building—yet the neighborhood feels like its own little world. Today the streets are not empty, but they are silent; the various communities that inhabit the barrio have taken a break from the screaming and selling that dominate our sidewalks on weekdays. It is the Sabbath.
As Orthodox Jews, my family are not allowed to exchange money or use any kind of transportation, so we walk to temple. Like every other girl my age or younger in the community—I’m eleven—I wear a hideous long skirt, opaque stockings, and Mary Jane shoes. Maybe I also have a matching twinset that makes me look like a toddler and a grandmother at the same time. We wear our best clothes on the Sabbath, though the clothes we wear on regular days are not so different. Our tops have to cover us down to our elbows; our skirts, down to our knees. Pants, for girls, are not allowed. Wearing tight clothes is kind of cheating, but many get away with it; I try, but I’m too skinny. There’s not much room for originality, I think. Everyone looks the same. In a way, to my eleven-year-old eyes, everyone is the same.
The morning service, Shajarit, has just ended. We are supposed to be going home for lunch, but most people are meandering. My friends from temple yell at me. They are walking fast, shaking their intricate Sabbath hairstyles, their carefully crafted systems of braids. I pretend not to hear, lingering behind at the storefront of a home appliance shop. I am hypnotized by a girl inside, one who barely looks older than me. She is wearing a tank top made of a very thin fabric—you can almost see the shape of her nipples. Her hair, long and luscious, is dyed blonde. Her father offers her a Walkman, and she puts the headphones on, looking disinterested.
I’m not the only one looking into the store, though I may be the only girl. Orthodox men of all ages, all with their black suits, their big hats and their knit kippot—Ashkenazi Jewish men wear those, at least in Buenos Aires—are standing around me with tense faces and clenched hands. A redheaded boy of around ten screams in excitement; his father grabs him by the arm and tells him to shut up, though he is smiling through his fiery beard. There is an important soccer match going on, but you can’t turn on the TV on the Sabbath. You probably aren’t supposed to stare at a TV through an appliance store window, either, but nobody is made of stone. Most of the modern Orthodox Jews I know in Buenos Aires are rabid soccer fans; it occurs to me this may be because soccer is one of the only Argentinian traditions modern Orthodox Jews can take part in.
Everyone looks the same. In a way, to my eleven-year-old eyes, everyone is the same.
My girlfriends from temple don’t understand why I look so angry, and I do not explain. How can that blonde girl be bored ? I ask myself. Look at her exposed, gleaming skin, her Walkman, her clothing. She doesn’t know what boredom is, and she never will. She will never experience the Sabbath, a whole day without electricity, or know what it feels like to enter a clothing store and automatically reach for the only skirt you are permitted to wear. Her perfectly tanned arms and legs amaze me, but I am not thinking about melanin—all I want is to feel the caress of the breeze on my shoulders, on my knees as I walk through the city.
As a child, secular life in my own country felt as alien to me as international affairs. Growing up Orthodox in Buenos Aires, Argentine culture seemed like a culture of physical contact I could never share in. My nonreligious friends, used to kissing each other hello or grabbing people by the waist even if they only just met, didn’t understand; to many of them, refusing to accept a kiss was considered strange, even rude.
In Barrio Once, we had our own news that traveled from mouth to mouth, as stories would in a medieval town: Who was getting married? Where would the couple be moving to? Whose family was paying for the apartment? Which rabbi’s son had been seen running around with a prostitute, and to which yeshiva in Jerusalem they were sending him? Which girl had trouble finding a husband, and was now contacting a matchmaker in another country before it was too late? I think there was also a great deal of talk about stores being sold—there was an economic crisis, after all—and kosher meat that was later discovered to be not kosher at all, but such topics held no interest for me: I only cared about marriage news, mostly because I cared about sex.
All I want is to feel the caress of the breeze on my shoulders, on my knees as I walk through the city.
My community’s sexual language seemed utterly cryptic. Since unmarried men and women were not allowed any sort of physical contact, temptation was barely on the horizon. Our teachers did not speak to us about the sins of the flesh, as some do in other religious schools. The only visible sign of sexual activity was the mikveh, where married women went to bathe and purify themselves after menstruating so they could lie with their husbands again. When I found a book in my grandmother’s house explaining all the rules for purity, I read it over and over like it was porn.
This was the ’90s, before the internet was massive in Latin America, so television was almost my only source of knowledge about life outside my community. I read anything I could get my hands on, but most of the books I found around my house were classics from times and places far removed from mine. I remember devouring an erotic novel by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, about a stepmother who had a sexual relationship with her preadolescent stepson. When it came to TV, I didn’t know enough about the rules of the secular world to grasp how realistic the shows were. Did teens actually make out all the time? How common, really, was premarital sex? Were tank tops considered slutty or just everyday attire? And, most importantly: Would I ever get to try any of these things? Unlike most of my schoolmates, I was certain that I wanted to.
It wasn’t easy to escape, but I did, and education was my alibi: At twelve, with the support of my mother, by then a widow, I started a preparatory course to enter a reputable nonreligious high school in my city. Throughout that year, what I did most—far more than studying, more than daydreaming, more than crying—was stare at women. I stared at my new friends, at their modern clothing and the easy way they carried their bodies. I stared at them sitting on the floor, their legs wide open, or moving their hips to the cumbia songs I didn’t know. What I did most was stare at women. I stared at my new friends, at their modern clothing and the easy way they carried their bodies.
I even stared at my old friends back in Barrio Once, who were starting to grow breasts and straighten their hair. Twelve was an important age for us, the age at which we became women in the eyes of God and everyone else. Most girls I knew in Barrio Once’s Jewish community were married by eighteen or nineteen; to make sure that happens, you have to start looking early. It was hard for me to remember that, in a strictly biological sense, the secular girls I was meeting and the religious ones I had always known were the exact same age. I obsessed over their differences, spent hours thinking about how different the same sweater looked on a religious versus a nonreligious girl; how I could recognize an Orthodox girl by her walk alone (it had to do with wearing long hemlines all the time, I decided); how girls in my community pronounced consonants differently from girls born just minutes away. Curiosity and lust mixed strangely in these fantasies of mine: Sometimes I was like a biologist, at other times, a fetishist, and usually some combination of both.
One day that fateful year, on my way to school, I ran into a neighbor in the elevator, a woman in her early twenties with milky-white skin and wide, sensuous hips she couldn’t hide under long skirts. I had seen her many times before; she was the mother of a baby my sisters and I liked a lot, and I liked her a lot, too. She was always very nice to me, less stiff than most of the other women I knew, though she always wore a wig and covered herself to her ankles and wrists instead of just the required knees and elbows. That day she had her baby in a stroller, playing with a tiny rattle that was shaped like a bird. The baby dropped the rattle, and before I could reach it, the mother bent down to pick it up from the floor. Her sweater was too short, and from where I was standing I could see her lower back, just a sliver of light between her dark, heavy clothes. Except it wasn’t all light: There was a dragon—a black, minuscule dragon—tattooed there, right above her tailbone.
Since it was our Bat Mitzvah year, we girls took a special class—Dinim Labat, which roughly translates as “precepts for women”—while the boys studied the Talmud. I remember hoping we’d learn about wedding nights or guidelines for courtship, but mostly we just learned some simple recipes and the rules of keeping a kosher home. That day we were being taught how to wash lettuce thoroughly, in order to make sure there are no bugs on it—Jews cannot eat bugs by mistake, because they are not kosher. Strangely enough, our teacher told us we should wash lettuce with a mixture of water and bleach, so we put on our rubber gloves and proceeded. When I thought nobody was watching, I took a bite from an unwashed lettuce head. It was dry and very dirty, but I tasted the earth with relish. One of the other girls looked at me, alarmed; I stared icily at her, so she said nothing while I kept chewing. I will never know if I actually ate a bug that day.
With that strange taste fresh in my mouth, I thought about the little black dragon I’d seen. I didn’t have to ask my mother how it was possible. The young woman must be a baal teshuvá, someone who had not been born into Orthodoxy but had chosen it. It was beyond my comprehension how someone could choose this life; I was too angry at my luck to even try to imagine it.
It was beyond my comprehension how someone could choose this; I was too angry to try to imagine it.
Instead, I imagined her learning what I was learning: how to wash vegetables, how to make meals ahead so you wouldn’t have to turn on the oven on the Sabbath, how to keep your milk utensils separate from your meat utensils. Before she got married, she would have had to go with her husband to buy two twin beds instead of a queen-sized bed, so they could sleep apart when she had her period.
I don’t think she noticed that I saw her tattoo; she didn’t try to cover it up. She probably thought about it some days, but, it occurred to me, maybe she just forgot she had it most of the time. That night, in my bed, I thought about her lying in her bed a couple of floors below. In her dreams, would she always be dressed in long skirts and a wig, or would she sometimes see herself in jeans and a tank top, or even a thong? In those dreams, would she still have her tattoo?
Many years have passed since I left Orthodoxy. First I changed schools, then I stopped going to temple, then I started to go out on the Sabbath. I made an effort to hide this from our neighbors for a while, but eventually I stopped trying. At the time it felt like leaving took forever, but now I’m almost like the milky-white girl—I don’t often think about the past, except when I’m writing, or when I encounter something I’ve never heard of that all my secular friends learned about as children.
The only thing I keep from my old life—my own little black dragon tattoo—is my habit of women-watching, as I like to call it. I’ve learned a lot by watching secular Argentine women; this was key in my adaptation to non-Orthodox life in Buenos Aires. I’ve carefully copied my friends’ slang, dropping the Hebrew, Yiddish, or Arabic words I used to hear in my old neighborhood. I’ve learned how to style my clothes, how to tuck or untuck my shirt in order to look like everyone else; I’ve learned to pretend I don’t find it erotic when a man greets me by kissing me on the cheek or placing a hand on my waist. I’ve learned to flirt, to be friendly, to dance. I’ve learned all of this carefully, studiously; not naturally at all, but naturally enough.
Still, there is something I haven’t learned, I’ve lately realized—I spent so much time watching, admiring, imitating, and trying to understand secular women that I never bothered to try to understand the others, the ones who never left. Those who decided to stay there, where all of us were born. There is maturity and compassion to be found in understanding, and maybe one day I will reach some truth about these women that is not tainted by anger at how we were all raised.
My mother still lives in the old neighborhood, so I go there often. An unknowing observer would imagine little has changed in Barrio Once, but I see the differences. For one thing, it’s not so common to find men staring at TVs in storefront windows. The people who wanted to leave and had more flexible families have left; the ones who stayed, from what I gather, lead stricter lives now. The fear of assimilation is greater than ever; so is the protection against it, enforced by religious leaders.
Maybe one day I will reach some truth about these women that is not tainted by anger at how we were raised.
Last month, while visiting my mother, I ran into her again in the elevator, the milky-white girl with the dragon tattoo. She was accompanied by a teenager as fair-skinned as she. I was struck by what was different about her, what I’d once heard in her voice—a sort of less structured flow of joy. I have come to think it is not because she was raised differently, but because she chose this life, and is genuinely happy with her choice.
Since then, I’ve started to notice that some of the women I’d always thought of as “trapped” sound a little like her—but also not like her: like themselves, all different. I’m trying to watch them now, from a distance, just like I used to watch the secular girls. They might all wear the same twinsets, but that doesn’t mean they are all the same. To my resentful child’s eyes, their lives seemed like carbon copies—since there was no deviation, I thought, there could be no desire, no dreams, no life beyond the collective life we all led. But I can see now, when I cross paths with them in the street, that even without great outward deviation you can still have resistance, in the most literal sense—something that pushes against the norm, something that grows like wild vegetation, sprouting little pieces of green among the hardest of rocks.