Family fractured by faith

Chaya Deitsch’s memoir tackles her exit from the hassidic community and attempts to stay connected.

Chaya Deitsch (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chaya Deitsch
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How do you forgive your parents for the pain and anguish they have caused you by refusing to allow you to become who you want to be? Parents who insisted you remain embedded in the Lubavitch Hassidim community in which you were raised. How do you stay close to a family that you know you must leave? A family that you desperately love. How do you nurture some sort of connectedness that still allows you dignity and respect and breathing room?
Chaya Deitsch, who is now a 52-yearold financial writer in Manhattan, has spent a lifetime trying. Her first book is an exquisitely tender memoir that chronicles her journey towards independence from a world that was stifling her. For the past few decades, Chaya Deitsch’s adult life has included romance, occasional boyfriends, travel, close friends and stimulating work, but none of the essential markers of Lubavitch womanhood. She has never been married or had children.
Deitsch describes herself now as a humanist, and it is an apt term, because she approaches her past life with a gentle humility and desire not to hurt those who nurtured her throughout her childhood.
This same kindheartness is not always reciprocated and her seeming lack of bitterness feels bittersweet.
Deitsch grew up the eldest of five girls, and always loved her parents – but prayer and God and even the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom her parents worshiped, never really got hold of her heart. She remembers an often joyous childhood filled with “art classes, piano lessons, home-baked cookies, paper dolls, and trips to Miami, but also with gut-busting Shabbos meals, morning prayers, Chanukah gelt, and wondrous tales of miracle-making rabbis...”
But trouble was always brewing close beneath the surface. She was a poor eater and a big talker and resented the submissive role the women had in synagogue.
She loved her aunties, who would tell her stories about their horrifying times in Russia, and then in displacement camps after World War II, where they awaited visas to the United States. She marvels at their bravery and has trouble squaring this with the submissive docile roles they now seem to embrace contentedly. She remembers thinking at a young age that she would never be able to become one of them.
Things with her mother were hard, too.
She writes movingly that their attachment was “deep, but uneasy, resting on my belief that there could be no graver sin, in my mind, than transferring my love from her to someone else.” It strikes the reader as incredible that she was able to summon the strength to do so.
About her father, she says very little.
She describes him as a deeply religious man whom she would argue with in adolescence about the infallibility of the Torah. He would turn red and look at her in disdain; furious at being challenged.
There were warm moments with him when she was a little girl. She would accompany him to synagogue, but as she reached puberty, this connection waned and they drew further apart. Still, Chaya Deitsch never doubts that both of her parents loved her and her sisters and did their very best. They found the structure and belief of Lubavitch life spiritually comforting. But she never did, often going through the motions of prayer absentmindedly and without feeling.
There were pivotal moments growing up that she remembers as igniting her passion to leave. One was finding some Ms. magazines and Gloria Steinem’s feminist manifesto, under her mother’s bed.
Her mother’s friend had lent them to her.
She also read a book her mother bought, Crazy Salad, by the provocative Jewish writer Nora Ephron, that was filled with “unmentionable subjects as the shackles of ladylike behavior and the problem of feminine hygiene sprays.” Chaya found the writing captivating; it spoke directly to her angst and encouraged her to think for herself. She writes, “I was terrified, but I learned from Ephron and from Gloria Steinem that you could joke about embarrassing things, and maybe even scream or stamp your feet about them, and that was okay. To me, these women were slivers of light shining through a door that had been opened just a crack. I couldn’t even imagine what was on the other side, but I was beginning to think that it was where I’d find myself someday.”
The other liberating factor was the fact that her parents brought her up in New Haven, Connecticut, away from the peering eyes of the Lubavitch in Crown Heights, and took liberties other Lubavitch wouldn’t dream of. She was allowed to watch television and read what she liked, and even had some non- Lubavitch friends who were modern Orthodox. The reason the family was in New Haven was due to her father’s prosperous manufacturing business, but this distance allowed Chaya to see more of the outside world than a Lubavitch girl normally would in Crown Heights.
When she finally left for Barnard University, she knew she wasn’t ever coming home. The wheels were in motion for her transformation. But it proved harder than she thought. She admits to feeling often as if she were “floating in some sort of middle space, ‘Nisht ahin and nisht aher.’” She found visits home uncomfortable and guarded. She felt more and more despondent about having to lie about the life she led. Much of her new self remained safely hidden from their view and resentments on both sides festered.
She found dating difficult and writes movingly in the book about her first awkward experiences with men, where her desire was squelched by fear of the unknown.
She remembers making out with a guy in her college dorm room and found herself unable to “cross the line into deeper intimacy. Underneath the jeans and the vintage blouses, the funky jewelry and the cigarettes, cowered a frightened hassidic girl who just wanted to be left alone…” The boy soon stopped calling.
The one flaw in her otherwise jewel of a memoir: the last chapters where she discusses her new life. She hints at certain problems without elaborating. She discusses the joys of independence, but seems to leave much out; including the anger and grief she still clearly carries. One hopes her next project will explore these themes, because her reinvention as a modern woman is a miracle of sorts, and her writing is riveting. We sense she is a wounded duck, but a resilient one who still has more to tell us.
Chaya Deitsch still needs her parents’ approval. I guess we all do, which is why all parents have such a responsibility to nourish the souls of their children even if the path their children choose disturbs them. That is the only moral course, as any young person struggles to find solid ground. When she hands the still-unprinted manuscript of this book to her mother, hoping she will read it and understand, her mother smiles and shakily takes it from her, nodding apprehensively.
When she hands her father his copy, he turns from her, refusing the manuscript, and jokes that he hopes she sells a lot of copies. It is a stinging slap to her face, but Deitsch still holds back from castigating him, writing softly, “It was not his thing; I understood.”
But I never will.