Escape from Israel's Ultra-Orthodox The High Price of Religious Defection

By in Tel Aviv

Part 2: No Preparation for Puberty


Puberty was a time of great anxiety for Mayan. As her breasts began to grow, Mayan thought she had cancer. The taboo about anything physical was so great that she snuck off to the doctor rather than having to ask her mother what was happening. Her first period brought renewed panic and shame. Mayan hid her dirty undergarments. And when her mother found them, she was scolded rather than given an explanation. What if her stepfather had found her dirty panties?

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Photo Gallery: Leaving Ultra-Orthodoxy Behind

Mayan first began to doubt her lifestyle when she switched to a school in central Jerusalem. She saw fashionably dressed young people and noticed that the boys "from the other world" looked at her with interest. At 14, she hatched a plan together with some other curious school friends. They told their mothers that there was a study-group meeting. But then the girls used money they had earned babysitting to take the bus to Luna Park, an amusement park in Tel Aviv. Even today, Mayan beams when she talks about the lights and the music. "I felt like Cinderella," she says, "like I was in a dream."

No More Contact with Family or Friends

Still, the second expedition Mayan organized with her girlfriends ended in disaster. They took a trip to the beach, but their fresh tans gave them away once they arrived home. The result -- for Mayan, at least -- was a three-year odyssey through various ultra-Orthodox reformatories and foster families. Her insubordination had to be driven out of her -- if need be, by lies. "We were contantly told that the secular world was only waiting to turn us into prostitutes or slaves," Mayan explains, "that there was nothing but drug addiction waiting for us out in the modern world."

With help from Hillel, Mayan eventually managed to make the leap out of her religious life. The organization helped her financially so she could go to a boarding school and get her high school diploma. Mayan then completed the obligatory military service that all Israeli women must perform and, today, she is studying special education in college. She no longer has any contact with her family, and she suspects that her sisters have paid a high price for her defection. "When my sisters' marriages are arranged," Mayan says, "they won't get the men they deserve."

'Staying Would Have Meant Death'

Every week, 25-year-old Shimy Levy gets to re-pay the price for abandoning his religion. The rabbies in the ultra-Orthodox divorce court granted him two hours a week with his two children. And whenever they are up, Levy realizes once more the price of his freedom. "But leaving was still the right thing to do," Levy says. "Staying would have meant death -- and I couldn't kill myself for the sake of my children."

Levy grew up in the Orthodox faith, and -- like Mayan -- he began to have doubts when he reached puberty. The rules of the religious school he was supposed to spend the rest of his life in were increasingly getting on his nerves. "With the help of the Bible," he says, "they manage to control every small detail of everyday life." Then he begins to count the ways: In the morning, you have to put the right shoe on before the left shoe. Then the shoes had to be laced up the opposite way -- left shoe first, then right. On the Sabbath, you could only eat fish if you managed not to touch any bones. At most, a young man was only allowed to meet his potential bride in an arranged marriage twice -- and then only for an hour during a chaperoned conversation. After that he had to decide whether he would marry her.

Eventually, Levy bought a small radio with earphones. At night, under the covers in the communal sleeping hall of the yeshiva -- the male-only religious institution where he studied -- he would eavesdrop on the outside world. But, like Mayan, he was caught and spent time in reformatories. At 20, he was married -- in another attempt to tame his desire for freedom. For four years, he played the role of the strictly religious husband and father before coming to the decision that he couldn't live like that any longer. He confessed to his wife that he had lost his faith, and he asked for a divorce.

'If God Exists, He Wouldn't Want This'

Then, without any particular regrets, he cut off the long, traditional sidelocks he had worn his whole life. "It was already clear to me that all of these rituals were just empty gestures," he says.

For Levy, the last year has been one long attempt to catch up on what he's missed. At breakneck speed, he has developed his taste in music -- everything from Abba to techno -- and he's gone from a being a television novice to owning an iPhone. His first sneakers, his first movie, his first pork chop. "Every day I tick off another thing that was previously withheld from me," Levy says. He is already concerned about the indoctrination that his children will be exposed to. "Every time I see them," he says, "they tell me that the whole family is praying for my return to the faith."

Irit Paneth of Hillel hears stories like those told by Mayan and Levy with mixed emotions. Of course, she says, she is as proud "as any mother" when her charges find their way in the modern world. "But what about the many others," she asks, "the ones not strong enough to tear themselves away?" They have to adapt to a life of pretending to be pious, she explains, and of following the rules of a religion they don't believe in. "If God exists," Paneth says, "he wouldn't want this."

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