Losing My Religion The One About the Orthodox Jewish Woman and the Rabbi’s Wife
“I saw that God I’d been so determined to believe in not as an absolute, but as a construct that couldn’t take a joke.”
If this story were a joke, it would go something like this: A newly observant Jewish woman, a rabbi’s wife, and a priest walk into a wedding.
Okay, there was no priest. But I needed a third person to make the setup work, because comedy comes in threes, and priests are standard in jokes like these. You know what? Forget the priest. It’s just the newly observant Jewish woman and the rabbi’s wife.
I’m the woman.
I grew up Reform, but my family was always more ritually observant than our liberal Jewish peers, and after my brother got involved in Chabad on his college campus, my younger brother and parents became more religious, too. By the time my husband and I first met as undergrads at the University of Chicago, I too had started exploring and forming a deeper connection to Jewish religious traditions. When my husband converted from Catholicism to Judaism before we were married, he did so with the guidance of an Orthodox rabbi. In our wedding pictures with my parents and brothers, we look like a typical Orthodox Jewish family—unless you knew us, you’d never know the circuitous route we’d taken to get there.
My husband and I moved to New York after we both graduated college so that he could briefly study at yeshiva . After a year and a half we came back to Chicago and settled in the religious neighborhood of West Rogers Park. I got a job teaching English at an Orthodox Jewish girls’ high school, and a few months later was asked if I would help out with their annual “Production,” which was supposed to be a simple revue-style song and dance show.
I had been a rising star in my college’s theater department and improv team, but had abandoned all that when I became religious, partly because of the restrictions on my weekend activities due to my Sabbath observance and partly because, in the strict circles in which I ran, women could not perform in front of men. I remember sitting in the University Theater green room weighing an audition for Second City versus attending an Orthodox seminary for the summer, and choosing the latter; like Frost’s traveller in the yellow wood, I doubted if I should ever come back. But now, as a teacher, I’d been given an opportunity to write a show for an all-girl cast performed for the women of the community. It felt like a second chance at something.
I dove into the project, writing a new musical about a teenaged girl who wasn’t feeling as inspired about her mission in life—the explicit mission of our particular Orthodox Jewish movement—to be an emissary of God in the world. Despite pushback from a very involved parent who said the whole story was inauthentic since clearly all of these girls were enthusiastic and pious (she also suggested casting her daughter as the lead), the girls took to our show with enthusiasm. It ended up being hit among the all-female audience, mostly made up of mothers starved for entertainment, and the girls, feeling like real actors, were deeply proud. I was tapped to write another Production the following year, and even started an improv club for the more enthusiastic performers in order to further satisfy our mutual theatrical cravings. For the first time since my husband and I had become religious, I felt a sense of integration within myself—an alignment between my spiritual mission and my personal passions.
If I had remained irreligious my whole life, perhaps I would never have considered the question of my ultimate purpose in life, since to believe you have a purpose at all presumes some sort of intent behind your creation in the first place. The poets I read in college often wrote of their vocation, but as a cynical nineteen-year-old I found their belief in the significance of their own existence naïve. Now, only a few years later—ironically, during a time when I would have considered reading those poets an act of religious rebellion—I clung to a similar belief with my whole being.
I wasn’t asked to write Production after the second one. No one told me why, but a friend who worked at the school with me said I’d been referred to as a “rabble-rouser” at one faculty meeting I had not attended. A student intimated to me that there was an implied warning from the administration to the girls about spending time with me outside of the classroom. Though my interests and talents seemed to me to serve an important purpose—to move people; to give young women a way to connect with themselves and each other; to help me work through my own identity issues and make sense of my world—I started to wonder if they weren’t, instead, just some sort of test, a trick of my evil inclination to tempt me and others away from God’s path.
In mid-November of my third year teaching at the school, I got a call from a parent at the school. At the park, watching my young children climb up and down the sprawling play apparatus, I heard the panicked voice on the other end of the line: They had no Production—no script, no songs, no plan—and were wondering if I could help. I was indignant that they’d rejected me only to beg for my help at the last minute, but I also didn’t want to leave the girls without a show. I told them I couldn’t write a whole play in the time we had, but I could help the girls write a revue-style comedy show based on the ten-point mitzvah campaign started by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
The kids chose the topics they wanted to write about, I filled in the gaps with sketches of my own, and in a few weeks we had a show. And it was funny, or at least it was to those who knew the source material—jokes always rely on context and prior knowledge, hence all the backstory in this one (I haven’t forgotten about the rabbi’s wife and the wedding; I promise I’ll tell you about it soon).
The funniest sketch was about the mikvah (ritual bath), in which a married Jewish woman is supposed to submerge after her menstrual period. Mikvahs are run by a community of (usually older) women, “mikvah ladies,” who open the mikvah each night and oversee the immersions to make sure they are both safe and ritually correct. Preparing for your immersion involves thoroughly cleansing your entire body, scrubbing off dead skin, cutting your nails, combing your hair to make sure there are no knots; performing any of these steps incompletely can render the immersion un-kosher, and so mikvah ladies do a lot of waiting as the women prepare in the bathrooms adjoining the ritual bath. In our sketch, the mikvah lady waits onstage for a young bride who is offstage, preparing to immerse herself in the mikvah for the first time. The mikvah lady is wearing a robe and a scarf as a head covering and reading to herself from a book of Psalms. She grows increasingly annoyed as the bride continues to take her sweet time. Then, finally, after over a minute of silent pacing and grumbling and Psalm-reciting, the bride emerges—not in a towel, as one would expect, but in full scuba attire—and announces, “I’m ready!”
At the first full run-through rehearsal, it brought down the house. Maybe you had to be there? Some jokes are like that.
Which brings us to the wedding.
The rabbi’s wife found me before I’d even entered the hall and asked if we could talk. We sat at a small table in the foyer. “That skit you wrote about the mikvah . . .” she began.
I winced. (Comedians hate when you call them “skits.”) “I didn’t write it,” I replied with an armored smile.
“You must have, because the girls don’t know about the mikvah,” she said.
I was confused. Did she mean they didn’t know that mikvahs exist? That they didn’t know that married women go to them monthly? That many of their own mothers were actual mikvah ladies? “Well, maybe they haven’t learned about it formally, but I assure you they know what it is ,” I said with confidence.
“But those details, you must have told them all that,” she insisted.
I was indignant, not just on my own behalf, but for the girls she was so intent on misunderstanding and underestimating. I grew steely. “I think you’re being a little naïve about what these girls do and do not know,” I said.
She smiled and shifted in her seat. “The show . . . it seems like it’s judging these things rather than celebrating them.”
“I mean, that’s what satire is ,” I said. “It’s putting a mirror to the status quo and highlighting what’s funny about it. We’re not saying the actual practices are bad. Everything has something funny about it.”
“Yes,” she said, “I think that’s the problem. You see, these girls, they’re at a very vulnerable stage. You’re already an adult who’s solid in your belief, so you can make jokes about these things and it’s okay. But they need to be solid first , and then later they can do things like this.”
“So,” I said, “you want propaganda, not art?”
I hoped she would recognize the out, take the opportunity to reframe her argument. But she didn’t. Instead she clapped her hands in delight. “Yes!” she beamed. “ Now you understand.”
And that was the moment I lost my faith in God. At least, the God I’d believed in for the last five years. Just like that, he was gone.
It’s a pretty good punch line, except that it wasn’t a joke, it was real, and I didn’t know what would happen next. I told my husband about the encounter on the drive home. He’d had his own run-ins with leaders in the community who didn’t think we’d been behaving as model citizens. We might have seen this coming, but we had still been holding steadfast to a belief that we could reconcile our own identities and our concerns for the identities of our two young children with the commitment we had made to living a strictly religious life. Now that belief was starting to unravel.
In the weeks that followed, my husband and I would check in periodically; one of us would ask the other, “How are things ?” and we both knew what “things” meant. Individually, we toyed with behaviors outside of our community norms—I’d wear a scarf to cover my head instead of a wig, a bit of hair peeking out the front or back or both; he’d turn a light on during the Sabbath. They were nearly imperceptible rebellions, testing our own personal boundaries but not outing us yet.
I remember sitting on a swing set with my mother at the park one day trying to explain to her what was happening to me, how I had changed. In what seemed like a last-ditch effort on her part, she asked why we couldn’t just stay in the community despite our misgivings. “Be the quirky ones,” she suggested, “who do your own thing on the side.”
But this, to me, expressed precisely why we had to leave. “Why would I want to be part of a community that doesn’t celebrate or even understand something so essential to who I am?” I asked.
Though my mother supported me then, as best she could, and continues to love and support me now, I know in that moment I broke her heart.
The version of the story I usually tell people is much more serious and weighty—I always objected to some of the more regressive Orthodox beliefs around topics like homosexuality or feminism, I explain to them, and I realized it wasn’t fair to subject my daughters to the strictures of a fundamentalist lifestyle to which I myself was not subjected growing up. I tell them that my husband and I simply came to the intellectual conclusion that formal religion no longer conformed to our philosophical understanding of the universe.
It makes for a more believable story than the truth, which is so often the case. It can be hard to believe that our biggest choices are often made based on the most insignificant-seeming events. But it is often in such simple moments that we see most clearly.
In that one argument over a silly little sketch about a mikvah, I no longer recognized the God for which the rabbi’s wife claimed to speak—a God who would reject something my students had written with such love and reverence and joy and humor and deep, abiding faith. I did not want to believe in a God who was so insecure that even the gentlest critique from some of his most ardent supporters would be met with suspicion and fear. It might not have been fair to judge God based on this particularly humorless spokesperson, but I also knew that hers represented the mainstream views of the community.
There are those in that community, I know, who would read this and argue that my evil inclination simply got the better of me in that moment. I prefer to say that the tension between who I was and who I was being asked to be finally, suddenly snapped. I saw that God I’d been so determined to believe in not as an irrefutable absolute, but as a construct that couldn’t take a joke.
There’s a famous Yiddish saying that goes, “Man plans, God laughs.” My family and I live in Boston now. We’re not religious, but I still write and perform and direct, and I still teach improv to high school students at a non-denominational, mixed-gender Jewish school.
Last year, when I was visiting Chicago, the girl who’d played the father in that first Production of mine reached out to me on Facebook and asked if I’d like to meet up. As I sat in her living room with my uncovered hair, wearing pants, so far from the person I was back then, this girl—a woman now—told me of impact I’d had on her life; told me it was so important to have someone around who truly understood what she was going through, who treated her like an equal and encouraged her to express herself.
She was now in the same position I had been in when we first met: newly married, with a baby, covering her hair, living in the same religious neighborhood my husband and I had been welcomed into over decade ago. She seemed genuinely happy with her life. I wasn’t sad that I’d once lived like that, or regretful of anything I experienced when I had. We had met once at one point along our journeys, and now this young woman was right where I had been while I was somewhere else entirely—but here we both were, in this moment, together. In comedy, it’s what we call a callback. And I feel like the God I’d want to believe in would appreciate it.