September 21, 2021
The New Yorker explores a dilemma in Ultra-Orthodox divorce: What about the children?
Writer Larissa MacFarquhar is drawn to stories that help her sort out issues that have no clear solutions
Throughout her stories, she drills away at fundamental questions about morality, personal agency, and fraught choices. Such themes comprised the building blocks of her latest feature, “When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids?”
Here, MacFarquhar introduces readers to three couples who identify as Haredi Jews, or Ultra-Orthodox. One partner within each pair has decided that he or she no longer wants to pursue a religious lifestyle. And when a couple’s belief systems diverge, it raises a lightning-rod legal question: What about the children?
Her sources grapple with the sweeping questions that any parent wrestles with, regardless of background or creed: What kind of world should my child grow up in? What happens when we disagree? Who gets to decide? But her story explores a perspective that readers rarely hear from — with depth, nuance and empathy — and highlights a community that can often be misunderstood, or oversimplified, by the secular press.
Storyboard connected with MacFarquhar to discuss the animating tension that pulled her to this story, how she developed sources amid contentious disputes, and the ways she brought to life the impossible choices her subjects faced. The interview, which is followed by an annotation, has been edited for length and clarity.
What typically informs the subjects that you cover and the types of stories you take on?
I like to write about issues that I don’t understand or can’t make up my mind about — questions I can’t answer. I find myself drawn to issues where I am not sure what I think and write the piece in order to figure it out.
I came to this piece because I thought that this was an incredibly difficult question: How do you, as a judge or as mediator, deal with a situation where you have two parents who inhabit mutually incompatible worlds, whose beliefs are irreconcilable, who have children together? What happens to the kids?
If you talk to the secular side, people will generally say, “Well, kids are resilient. They can cope with different worldviews. They will figure it out when they are grown and decide for themselves.” But that is not compatible with the religious view. I couldn’t understand how you figured out this problem.
How did you go about finding sources for this story? I understand that trust is a big issue when writing about this particular community, especially given that mainstream media coverage usually has lacked deep knowledge or nuance.
I was hoping to write a story in which both parents, in a series of cases, explained how they saw things so that the reader could see this question in its full difficulty and appreciate the agonies that must be felt by both. I was not able to do that because it’s very difficult to persuade someone in an Ultra-Orthodox community to trust a secular reporter.
I did manage to get the view of Faigy (a pseudonym), in the end. But originally, Faigy didn’t want to talk to me and I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. In that case, it wasn’t such a dilemma because the couple is together and Faigy’s husband adores her, and is also a very perceptive guy. I felt reasonably confident that he was able to present her point of view as she saw it, because they had talked about these things so much. Before COVID, I went to their house and met Faigy, who was lovely. I knew she had given him permission and that he really understood her point of view.
As you may know, The New Yorker has a very rigorous fact-checking process that really involves re-reporting the piece. When the fact-checker first asked to talk to Faigy, she said no. And she said no again. Then she said yes. Faigy confirmed what I had heard from her husband about her feelings on various things. She added a few things, too. I owe this entirely to the brilliance of my fact-checker, Teresa Matthews.
The other two cases were extremely contentious. The religious husbands in both cases would not talk to me. I talked to Marie’s husband’s lawyer, who revealed very little. I wasn’t able to get court transcripts, but there were judges’ decisions which had a lot of quotes and descriptions of what was said.
Were you writing this piece primarily for people within the Ultra-Orthodox community, or trying to reach those outside of the community?
I didn’t think that people in the Ultra-Orthodox community would read it. As far as I understood, most people in those communities do not read much secular journalism or books. It actually did circulate in that community more than I thought, partly because Isaac and Faigy were sending it around, but I did not imagine that I would change anybody’s mind. This story was more for people outside the community to see what seemed to me to be a surprising and unjustifiable bias toward the religious parent on the part of the secular court.
In many counties, judges are elected. That affects, inevitably, the way they adjudicate. In some counties, Ultra-Orthodox people are a very disciplined and active voting bloc, and are able to elect judges who sympathize with their concerns.
There was also a sub-issue — it’s so much a subject in itself that I couldn’t treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves — which is the question of schooling. Of course, a parent’s number one desire is to have access to their children and share custody, but another very important issue for the secular parent is the schooling of their kids. Most secular parents cede control because it seems hopeless to even try to get their kids into a secular school. But in a lot of Yeshivas, the education is extremely rudimentary when it comes to secular subjects. This was another issue I felt people didn’t know about — and although this was a tiny detail in the article, it felt important to highlight.
You jumped back and forth between characters and their stories in a very direct way, in a sort of braided narrative. Can you share more about your thought process when you were thinking about the scaffolding of this piece? Is this a structure you typically use?
I don’t do this typically, as I’m always conscious of how many times you can restart with a new story. You don’t want the reader to get exhausted. And it was very important to me to end with Faigy and Isaac’s story, because it moved me. I didn’t want theirs to be the third story that no one read because the reader had had enough.
There was a similar dramatic inflection point in all three stories: What are they going to do? You’ve set up the incredibly difficult situation they find themselves in. Just as some choose to leave the community publicly, others choose to stay and hide their feelings. They could have suppressed their beliefs and gone through the motions, because leaving is incredibly costly and hard. So I thought that these tension points would keep the reader interested in all three stories.
People at Footsteps always remind me that leaving the community is so costly and hard, you have to be desperate. You have to feel like it’s a matter of life or death. You lose your whole world — including, in many cases, your family. It’s a huge thing to do, but it is a choice. By having a kind of cliffhanger halfway through each story, I wanted the reader to see that while this is a story that took place in the past, it could have been different. These are not passive victims. These are people who had to make a terrible, terrible choice.
In a single sentence, what core idea or animating tension were you trying to illuminate?
The tension between these two irreconcilable ways of life — and how you, as a judge, are put in the position of having to reconcile those irreconcilable ways of life and decide how a child will live, split between two worlds that cannot compromise.
What was the most surprising part of the reporting process, for you?
The fact that Faigy and Isaac managed to make it work. Footsteps was actually ambivalent about me writing about them because it didn’t want to create the impression — by having Isaac and Faigy as one of three — that this is a plausible other path for people to take. Faigy and Isaac are very, very rare. I certainly don’t want to create the impression that this is a path people could take, if only they were loving and empathetic enough. The worldviews really are irreconcilable, and I respect the difficulty of that. But what was most surprising was talking to Isaac about their marriage, about their love, and how they figured out how to make a life that’s not ideal for either of them — but is worth it because they love each other.
Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; MacFarquhar’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button on your device.
When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids?
The irreconcilable differences between Orthodoxy and secularism increasingly end up in court.
It’s true that leaving is traumatic. Many people do fall apart at first. There are suicides, and near-suicides. Some who lose their faith would give anything to have it back. Others who think about leaving can’t bring themselves to do it. Leaving means giving up everything you know, and a close, enveloping community where you are never alone, with little sense of what could replace it. Your spouse might divorce you, your parents reject you. You have to be desperate. What effect were you trying to create by not using traditional attribution here? All of these assertions are based on my interviews and research. If I attributed them to their sources here — so-and-so said this, or so-and-so described this in the following book — it would put the reader again in the position of spectator, sitting back and watching as a neat pile of facts are assembled for their benefit. What I was hoping instead was that the reader would experience these sentences as thoughts — the kind of thoughts that go through the mind of someone considering leaving — and thus begin to feel the overwhelming emotional difficulty of that decision.
Twenty years ago, those who left could feel that they were stepping into a void. They might know no one else who had done what they were doing. There was a network of blogs written by people who no longer believed but continued to go through the motions; some called themselves Reverse Marranos, for the Jews in medieval Spain who faked renouncing their religion in order to survive. But many Haredi communities—their preferred term for ultra-Orthodox, which means “those who tremble before God”—restricted access to the Internet.
Then, in 2003, Malkie Schwartz, who had left the Lubavitch group in Crown Heights, founded Footsteps, an organization for people who had left Haredi communities. She started it as a support group, but she found that people who had left were usually in need of help with practical things as well: improving their English, since Yiddish was often their first language; figuring out how to go back to school or find work with few secular qualifications; finding somewhere to live. Over the years, Footsteps expanded into a fully fledged nonprofit. In 2010, Schwartz was succeeded by Lani Santo, who had a master’s degree in nonprofit management from N.Y.U. At that point, around five hundred people had gone to Footsteps for help; by 2020, around eighteen hundred had, and still more had contacted other groups that had sprung up. By then, Footsteps had become notorious among Haredim, suspected of preying on vulnerable people who were struggling in their faith. Some who sought its help first heard of it when they were accused of being members.
One of the most painful difficulties that leavers faced was the risk of losing their children. In the early days, the few who left had not attracted a lot of attention, and some got custody of their kids without much of a fight. But, as more people defected, communities alarmed by the prospect of so many children lost to Haredism mobilized to keep them. What a straightforward and powerful summary sentence. Secular courts were called upon to determine the best interests of children who were being torn between two irreconcilable ways of life: what to one parent was a basic human freedom might be, to the other, a violation of the laws of God. To many Haredim, the loss of a child to secular life was unbearable, because it meant that the child’s future, and that of all his descendants, would be ruined, not only in this world but also in the next. You do a really nice job of clearly spelling out the stakes, and presenting why this conflict is so emotionally urgent for both parties. Chavie Weisberger grew up in Monsey, a hamlet in Rockland County, just north of New York City, with a large Hasidic population. Her grandfather Rabbi Moshe Wolfson was the venerated founder of the Emunas Yisroel Hasidic group to which she belonged. Emunas Yisroel, like all Hasidic groups, traced its lineage to an eighteenth-century charismatic movement in Eastern Europe. Hasidism valued joy and emotional connection with the divine as much as Torah study. It also concentrated power in its rebbes, who acted as intermediaries between believers and God.
Chavie was the fifth of ten children. Again, a break with convention when you refer to Chavie by her first name throughout the story? Why? Partly because it is such an intimate story, and one that begins in childhood when she had a different last name, that using a first name seemed appropriate. But also because the story involves her ex-husband, who has the same last name, and so I would have needed to use first names anyway in order to distinguish them. She saw herself as a good girl, a rule-follower, but she never really believed that the rules were important. When nobody was looking, she would put on the lights on Shabbos, or turn on the air-conditioning. She never really prayed; she just mumbled the words. She knew that she ought to be ashamed of this, and she was, but she wasn’t afraid of God; she was afraid of getting caught.
Her community believed the secular world was sinful, but she was curious about it. She sneaked glances at the TV in the doctor’s waiting room; she stared at people in the mall. In high school, she discovered that she was attracted to girls, and she slept with a few of them, especially at summer camp. She knew that what she was doing was wrong, because it was immodest to show your body to another person, but she didn’t think of it as gay sex—she didn’t know that it was sex at all. She certainly never connected the experience with the fact that in a few years she would be married to a boy.
A matchmaker paired her with Naftali Weisberger, a boy from her neighborhood, and they married in 2002, when she was nineteen. The wedding night was horrific. It felt to Chavie as though they were violating each other. It wasn’t that he was rough—he was meek and shy. But they had been told that they had to consummate the marriage that night, and if they were having trouble they should call the rabbi, so they did. For her, there was no way to come back from that night. She couldn’t imagine loving the person who had put her through it. Was Chavie reluctant to share such emotional, intimate details with you? How did you put her at ease? Chavie wanted to tell this part of her story — she feels that it is important to share these details in order to understand what she went through. I have no special technique for persuading people to share intimate details with me, nor would I want one! And although she had not previously connected her relationships with girls with marriage to a boy, now she thought, This isn’t love. I know what love is, because I have felt it.
After a year, Chavie told her parents that she was unhappy in the marriage, and they sent her to a Hasidic therapist. The therapist told her that people became gay because they were abused in their childhood. When she told him that she hadn’t been abused, he hypnotized her to try to get her to remember, and taught her to self-hypnotize when she was having sex with her husband. Six years into the marriage, Chavie and Naftali had three children, the youngest a few months old. That summer, Chavie, Naftali, and the kids went away to a camp in the Catskills. Being back in that place, Chavie remembered vividly what it had been like to be there as a girl—how fun and innocent summer camp had been—and she felt more than ever that her husband was dragging her down.
A few months later, early one morning, Naftali was changing the baby’s diaper when she fell off the bed and broke her leg. Chavie bolted upright in bed when the baby screamed and said they had to take her to the hospital right away, but it was Saturday—Shabbos—and they were staying with her husband’s family for the weekend. Her father-in-law asked a neighbor, who was an emergency medical technician in the religious ambulance corps, to examine the baby, and the technician concluded that the baby’s injuries were not serious enough to warrant driving on Shabbos. (A lawyer for Naftali Weisberger declined an interview requested on his behalf.) All through the day, as Chavie held the screaming baby, she grew angrier and angrier. As soon as Shabbos was over, the family went to the hospital, but the doctor was so disturbed by the broken femur, and by the fact that they had waited nearly ten hours to bring the baby in, that the hospital called child-protective services. That night, while Chavie slept in the hospital with the baby, she was watched by a child-protection worker, for fear of abuse.
Not long after, Chavie decided she was done. She knew that husbands were often reluctant to give their wives a get—a religious divorce—so when Naftali agreed to give her one and they went to the beis din, the rabbinical court, she readily signed whatever papers she was given. She didn’t pay much attention to a clause requiring her to raise the children Hasidic. In March, 2009, they were officially divorced. Later that month, Naftali married again. After he remarried, he told Chavie that he needed to focus on his new wife, and he stopped seeing their children regularly. Sometimes he took them out for pizza, but he didn’t have them over to his new house. He didn’t pay child support. Throughout your reporting, did you uncover whether there are rules about this? Was Naftali legally required to pay child support? Yes, he was required to pay child support, but initially he did not. Soon he and his wife began having babies of their own.
It was at this point that Chavie allowed herself to think, If I am raising these children alone, how do I want to do it? And what do I actually want in my life? She consulted a Modern Orthodox rabbi, hoping he would tell her that she could be both gay and religious, but he said that if she was really a lesbian she had to be celibate. And so her choice slowly became clear to her: she could be celibate; she could live a secret life and lie to everyone; or she could leave the community. This last possibility was so extreme that it took several years to form in her mind.
Outwardly, she was still a good girl. She worked at a community magazine, she was involved with the PTA. But she must have had some kind of air about her, because people started confiding their own weird stuff. This one wished she could wear shorter skirts; that one wanted to go to the movies. Some women were meeting strangers they had found on Craigslist. One day, she heard her co-workers gossiping about a woman named Chani Getter. Chani was a little older, but Chavie knew who she was—she had grown up on the next block. Someone said, Did you hear? Chani is a lesbian now, and she’s running crazy wild retreats for lesbians, and she takes her kids there. The co-workers were horrified, but Chavie went home, Googled Chani Getter, and called her.Marie was an Army brat—she grew up half in Germany, half in the U.S. (“Marie” is a pseudonym.) Why did you choose to use a pseudonym for Marie, but not Chavie? What privacy considerations were involved? At the time I interviewed Chavie, her court case was mostly over, and she had been very public about her story already, so there was no need to protect her with a pseudonym. Marie’s case was not yet over, and she and her lawyer felt she should use a pseudonym. Her father was a Christian, an American soldier; her mother came from a Haredi German family. Neither was religious, and they celebrated holidays in an irregular fashion—a bit of Hanukkah, a bit of Christmas. When Marie was a child, her mother told her stories about growing up Haredi, and the one that stuck in her head was about how if she used the wrong fork and made it un-kosher she had to go outside and thrust it into the ground, and sometimes it was so cold and the ground so hard that it was difficult. At the time, Marie thought this sounded crazy—something that only bizarre, mean parents would force their children to do—and certainly her mother was very bitter about her religious upbringing. But, as Marie grew older, her mother’s stories piqued her interest. She was looking for a way of life that was more spiritual and structured than the way she’d grown up, and, after moving every three years from place to place and country to country, she wanted a community to belong to. By the time her parents settled in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, when she was in high school, she had found herself wanting to become Orthodox. I find the contrast between Chavie and Marie to be fascinating — one confined by a life of structure, and seeking to leave it; the other attracted to a structure that could help her make sense of an upbringing that felt chaotic. Did you intentionally stack these two sources back-to-back in the copy to create this stark comparison? Yes. I wanted to make it clear that, while the rigorous structures of Haredi life were not for Chavie, others feel that they offer support and comfort.
She couldn’t force her family to keep kosher, so she ate vegetarian. She babysat and mowed lawns in order to earn money to buy an extra set of dishes, so they wouldn’t be tainted by her family’s non-kosher food. She stopped wearing pants. Her mother was appalled; she said that Marie was spitting on her family’s way of life. Eventually, this caused so much strain that Marie went to live with a religious friend she knew from her synagogue. After graduating from high school, she went to Baylor to study premed.
While she was in college, Marie met a rabbi from Monsey. He told her that in Monsey there were men who were a little older than she but still unmarried because for some reason they weren’t considered a catch. If she wanted to marry a Haredi man, he said, she should look for a man like that, because with her dubious religious background she wasn’t a catch, either. It took her a while to get used to the idea of marrying a man she didn’t know, but she believed that she should trust God without questioning, so she did. She met a twenty-seven-year-old man in a religious chat room, and left college to marry him in the fall of 2001.
When Marie first arrived in Monsey, it felt wonderful to her to be in a place where nobody thought she was strange for being religious. There were kosher stores everywhere, lots of people were modestly dressed. People in the community spoke Yiddish, but Marie understood them because she spoke German. Early on, a woman walking near her on the street grabbed her shirt and yanked her over to let a man pass by, so that he wouldn’t have to walk behind or between them, and that startled her, but she told herself that she was new to this, and there were bound to be customs she didn’t know about. Why did you include this anecdote? What did it represent to you? It represented to me what it represented to Marie: a realization that by moving to Monsey, she was moving to a completely different culture — a change as profound as if she were emigrating to a different country. It wasn’t just a matter of adopting certain theological beliefs, but of becoming part of a completely foreign way of life.
The marriage, though, was difficult from the start. She wanted to go back to college—she still hoped to become a doctor—but she was scolded for trying to overthrow her husband. (Marie’s husband, too, declined to be interviewed.) She saw that as a bride she had not received the same kinds of gifts as other daughters-in-law; her husband told her that she should be grateful that his family took her in after the way she had been raised, like an animal in a zoo.
When she and her husband had their first child, a daughter, she became absorbed in being a mother and felt happier. A couple of years later, they had a son. But the marriage grew worse. Her husband controlled the household money, and told her that in order for him to give her some, even to buy basic items such as sanitary napkins, she had to deserve it. He called her names, and when their daughter was around six or seven he started calling her names, too—ugly, fat, stupid. Finally, in 2012, they went to the beis din to get a divorce. She got custody of the children; he was to see them for dinner a couple of times a week and every other Shabbos.
After her husband moved out, Marie began seeking out family and old friends. Before she had kids, she had been estranged from her parents, but now they travelled from Texas to visit her. Her family knew that she hadn’t had a minute to herself during the more than ten years that she was married, so they gathered together some money and told her to take a vacation. One of the friends Marie reconnected with was an Indian-Jewish woman whom she’d met in college and who had moved back home afterward, and this friend invited her to visit. Marie arranged for the kids to stay with a family in Monsey for two weeks and bought a ticket to India.Issac was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the ninth of ten children, in what would become the Bobov-45 group. (Issac is not the name he usually goes by.) You jump between sources and their stories rather quickly. Tell us about that structural approach. I wanted to introduce all three stories early in the piece for two reasons. First, I worried that, if I told them one by one, the reader might stop reading after the second, feeling that they had already gotten the point, whereas to me the stories were very different from one another and all important. Secondly, by pausing each story at a crucial inflection point, I wanted to emphasize that these are stories of choices: They could have played out very differently. His father was exceptionally devout and rigid about rule-keeping, but Issac was always getting into trouble. When a teacher hit him, he called the Fire Department. When one of the school principals made him angry, he squirted ketchup and mustard all over all the principals’ lunches. He was bullied by the other kids. When he prayed, he tried to feel a connection to God, but it never worked. Mostly, praying meant nothing to him. His father was always telling him stories about people burning in Hell, and those would frighten him for a while, but then it wore off. He didn’t doubt the existence of God, exactly; he didn’t have a strong belief one way or the other. Thus far, you’ve rarely used dialogue but instead choose to describe your sources’ experiences as a semi-omniscient, third-party narrator. Yet it’s clear that these are their personal thoughts because they are such intimate details. Why did you avoid using direct quotes and instead employ this writing approach? I believe that narrating a person’s thoughts, rather than quoting their speech about those thoughts, is a more intimate way of conveying them. This might seem odd, because what could be more intimate than someone’s unmediated speech? But my hope is that, if you read a narrative of a person’s thoughts, you come closer to a sense of what it is like to be inside that person’s head, thinking them. Whereas, if you read quotes, you are in the position of a spectator, watching the person speak.
He was sent to sleepaway camp for the first time when he was nine or ten. On visiting day his father came to see him, and while the other parents played games, or took their kids out boating, Issac’s father took him into the empty shul and said, Let’s review what you have studied these past two weeks. The summer that Issac was fifteen, he had a rough week at camp and decided to kill himself. Luckily, he didn’t know how to do it—he took forty Benadryl pills and went to bed. The camp nurse gave him water the next day to flush his system, but apart from that no one did much; mental illness tended to be hushed up, because it could affect the marriage prospects of everyone in the family. Issac didn’t see a therapist until about six months later, and that was to deal with attention deficit disorder. He was advised to tell nobody about the therapy, not even his brothers and sisters.
When Issac turned eighteen, in 2006, it came time for him to marry, and matchmakers started getting in touch. Normally, a person had only one shidduch—one match. Eight of Issac’s nine siblings married the first person they met, but Issac met five girls, and five times he was rejected. Part of the problem might have been that he wasn’t a yeshiva boy anymore—he worked in an office-supply store—and having a job was less prestigious. One matchmaker told him that she’d fibbed on his behalf, saying that he learned with a study partner every night, but it made no difference. He was told that one girl rejected him because he talked too much. By the time a matchmaker suggested a sixth girl, he no longer gave a shit. He agreed to go through with the meeting only to pacify his father. The matchmaker didn’t know him or the girl personally—presumably, she had picked a girl for her failings, to go with his. I found myself rereading this sentence several times — what a sobering, striking, powerful line.
His father mentioned the girl one day when he got home from work, and Issac drove up to Monsey to meet her. He was done trying to make himself look good—he thought, Let’s just get through this and go home. But he liked her. She was devout, but not stiff or judgmental. She was very attractive. She had had a difficult childhood and wasn’t living with her family. They talked for about an hour, and, fifteen minutes after Issac left, the matchmaker called both of them and told each that the other wanted to meet again, although in fact neither had said anything about it. They met the following afternoon, and then a third time. At this point, Issac had begun to think that something might actually come of it, so they talked seriously for four or five hours. He asked the girl, Faigy (a pseudonym), if she had any questions for him, and she fetched a list she’d drawn up. Faigy told him about her childhood, and he asked her if she was in therapy. She admitted that she was. Issac told her, “If you weren’t, there is no way I would consider this.” She said, “I want to marry you.” This is the first instance of direct dialogue in the story. Why? This is the turning point in Issac’s story where we switch from Issac alone to Issac and Faigy as a couple, so it seemed right to mark the moment with the first truly significant words that they said to each other. If they had not said these words, they might not have married. As you point out, this is also the first moment of dialogue in the whole piece. I didn’t think about this when I was writing, but this seems fitting since it draws attention to the difference between Issac and Faigy’s marriage — which is so deeply one of ongoing conversation — and the other marriages, which were not.
The first year of their marriage was easy. His wife was the opposite of his parents, he thought—she never told him what to do. He felt that life with his parents had been a constant struggle, and now the struggle was over. Nine and a half months after their wedding, he and Faigy had a daughter. But being happily married to a religious woman didn’t change Issac’s feelings about religion, and, left to his own devices, his observance started to slip. He still did the basics, showing his face in shul when he had to, but he wasn’t praying every day.
Everything changed when his daughter, the summer before preschool, was rejected by the Bobov yeshiva because, he and Faigy were told, Faigy, who had been brought up in a community with slightly different rules, drove a car. He and Faigy had been pleading with the school for months, and finally they asked for a meeting with the grand rabbi in Borough Park. The rabbi didn’t understand why Faigy insisted on driving. Couldn’t she give it up for the sake of her children? Issac said that maybe the Bobov school was the best school, maybe it wasn’t, but he wasn’t willing to chain up his wife to find out. Afterward, as he and Faigy walked away, down Fiftieth Street, he didn’t feel angry; he felt peaceful. He said to Faigy, “It’s over—the book is closed on Bobov.”
The next day, he realized that he was done with more than the school. He said to Faigy, “If I don’t have to follow the rules for the yeshiva, then why do I need to follow them at all?” He told her, “I think I can keep Shabbos, I think I can keep kosher, but beyond that I’m not sure.” This was intensely painful for Faigy, who was deeply pious. Issac had been untethered from religion inside his head for a long time, but to her it felt as though everything she knew about her family had suddenly exploded into pieces. How did you balance how much of each partner’s perspective to incorporate? Ideally I would have given each partner’s perspective equal space and weight, but as in most pieces, some people were far more willing to share their thoughts with me than others, and that limited what I could do.
Up to this point, whatever Issac had done or not done at home was between him and Faigy. Outside the house, he still looked and behaved more or less like a religious man. But now he felt an urge to go to the barber and have his beard shaved and his payos—sidelocks—cut off. At that point, his apostasy would become irretrievably public. He wanted to do it right away, but he decided to think about it, to make sure that he would have no regrets. So he set a calendar reminder in his phone for four weeks from that day, to give himself a chance to change his mind.Chavie had been afraid to talk to such a wild-sounding person as Chani Getter, but on the phone Chani was very friendly. She invited Chavie to attend a retreat for L.G.B.T.Q. Orthodox Jews. At the retreat, Chavie was asked to speak about herself, and she saw that people were moved by what she said, and she thought, This is real, this is actually who I am. At the retreat, she met many queer parents who were there openly with their children, not hiding or lying to them. She thought about how she had been behaving with her own children, putting them to bed and then locking herself in her bedroom and watching a movie. Her children were four, six, and eight, so it wasn’t too hard to keep them in the dark, but she thought that as they grew older it would be impossible to keep lying and be a good parent. At another retreat, one of her new friends said to her, “I dare you to take your wig off.” Chavie was shocked—this felt even more exposing than being naked, especially since, unbeknownst to anyone, she had let her hair grow out into a Mohawk and dyed it in rainbow stripes—but she did it. I love this detail. After that, things started moving very fast. A month later, she went to the friend’s house for the weekend and rode in a car on Shabbos and ate bacon, and it didn’t feel frightening or sacrilegious—it felt normal and right. And she realized, I guess I never believed in any of this.
She began introducing her children to her new friends—a lesbian couple, a trans woman. She felt that she and her kids were pushing open the door of their ghetto together, and it was both scary and thrilling. Also a beautiful line — simple, yet so evocative. She thought that, since she was abandoning the values of the community, she should come up with alternatives, so she started a “values wall” in her house, and when she read a book with the kids they would extract a value from it and paste it up: kindness, inclusivity, social justice. She believed that a family should have rituals, so for every ritual she abandoned she invented a new one to take its place. A lovely detail to include. She was worried that when the community saw what she was up to it would try to turn her children against her—she had seen that happen. But the key was she had time. Outwardly, they were still a good Hasidic family, so no one was paying attention.
For three years after the divorce, Chavie didn’t tell her children that she was queer. But then, in 2012, she thought that her older daughter suspected it, and Chavie told her that she was. That fall, a transgender friend of hers had a fire in their apartment, and she invited them to stay with her, at her home in Borough Park. They brought their cats; pets were not exactly prohibited in the community, but they were a tell. Chavie grew bolder. She allowed the kids to eat non-kosher food a few times. She let the girls wear pants inside the house. She let the kids watch a movie called “How the Toys Saved Christmas.” She told them that certain Hasidic beliefs were sexist and homophobic, and that she was an atheist. Finally, she thought, I am done trying to please people. One day, she impulsively went outside in her neighborhood wearing secular clothes, with her hair—now short and blond—uncovered for everyone to see. She walked past a group of mothers waiting at a bus stop. At first, they didn’t recognize her, and then they did, and grew very quiet, but she kept walking.
She decided to come out publicly as a lesbian, and was promptly fired from her job at the magazine. The community was horrified that Rabbi Wolfson’s granddaughter had turned out to be such a shocking person. People wrote her letters telling her that she was disturbing the soul of her father, who had recently died. But she never imagined that she would run into custody problems. Her ex was busy with his new children. She figured that, even if he did take her to a secular family court, the judge would side with her, because she was progressive and wanted her kids to get a good education.
It turned out that she was wrong about this. In November, 2012, she received an emergency order to show up in Kings County Supreme Court. The judge told her that she was confusing and harming her children by making such drastic changes in their upbringing, and ordered them removed from her and sent to stay with their father that very day. This is a startling, and significant, piece of information. But you state it matter-of-factly, without delving into Chavie’s train of thought or emotional reactions. Why? I think it’s easy enough to imagine how Chavie reacted to this ruling, and I think the effect is more powerful if you leave it to the reader to react by themselves. At certain points, it works best to guide a reader through a story, and at other points the thing to do is to abandon the reader to experience the story for themselves — especially when the story itself is about abandonment and loss. A few days later, the judge issued a temporary order decreeing that Chavie’s children could live with her for three nights a week, on the condition that while they were with her, and whenever she was in Borough Park, she dressed and acted like a proper Hasidic woman. In a subsequent hearing, Naftali told the judge he had assumed that Chavie would have relationships with women after the divorce, but he had expected her to keep them secret from the children. Chavie said that a parent who hid her authentic self from her kids, and raised them according to values that she didn’t believe in, was not a parent but a nanny, and to deprive children of a parent was a terrible thing.
The judge summoned several experts to give testimony on the family. A therapist testified that, ever since Chavie had begun openly flouting Hasidic rules, her older daughter said that she could not have normal friendships with her classmates in school, and that she and her siblings were afraid of being seen in the streets with their mother wearing secular clothing. A psychologist testified that her son’s behavior in yeshiva had grown disruptive and defiant. Both said that Chavie’s criticisms of Hasidism had left the children deeply confused. A forensic psychologist testified that although Chavie was a loving mother who had a strong bond with her children, by disparaging the Hasidic way of life in front of them she had put her own needs ahead of theirs; she should have shielded them from anything that could turn them against their father and his community. The judge, appalled by what he felt was Chavie’s “remorseless” violation of her agreement to raise the kids religious, made his temporary ruling permanent.
Chavie appealed, and, two years later, the ruling was overturned, on the ground that a religious-upbringing agreement could be enforced only so long as it was in the best interests of the children. The appeals court was more impressed by Chavie’s care of the kids, and by Naftali’s spotty visitation and child-support record, than by Chavie’s rogue behavior. The appeals judges accepted Chavie’s argument that it was not in the children’s interests for her to conceal her beliefs from them. They pointed out that the plain language of the agreement required a Hasidic upbringing for the children, but did not specify any requirements as to the behavior of the parents; nor was it acceptable for a court to compel an adult to practice a religion. The solution was to split the difference: Chavie was to make sure that the children dressed and acted like Hasidic kids when visiting their father or attending school, but she could dress or act as she liked.
Chavie had been lucky, but she had also had help. Around the time of her appeal, in 2017, Footsteps hired Julie F. Kay, a human-rights lawyer, who began recruiting attorneys from top Manhattan firms to represent Footsteps members in custody cases pro bono. For a long time, Footsteps members had been at a disadvantage in court because they couldn’t afford to pay lawyers. Many Hasidic parents were also poor, but they could turn to the community for help, raising money in crowdfunding campaigns:
To all Jews and Community Leaders:
Since my friend, a father of 7 children is unfortunately fell into a bitter situation after his wife was unfortunately caught in the bitter net of FS (Footsteps) . . . . I don’t understand how can it be that there is a group that cuts from us pieces and pay monies and more monies to catch souls from the Jewish people and how can it be that the world isn’t shaking from all of this? . . .
I think to myself what kind of face will the Jewish nation have if right by the breakthrough in this case they will God Forbi[d] they will take over the kids with two hands—This can never be allowed to happen—How shameful will that be?
Chavie’s case had established that courts could not compel a parent to follow religious strictures; Kay hoped next to convince the courts that compelling a parent to monitor her children’s observance was not significantly different from compelling her to be observant herself. There was, of course, a long history of decisions in religious custody cases. For instance, a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had written, in 1990, in Zummo v. Zummo: “The government is inherently and constitutionally incompetent to determine whether stability or instability in religious beliefs would be in the best interests of a child.” But state courts were under no obligation to defer to precedents set by other jurisdictions, so each principle that Kay hoped to establish had to be litigated in New York. One of the problems with Rockland County courts handling custody cases, Kay believed, was that their judges were elected, and no group in Rockland County voted with such discipline and unanimity as the Haredim.
In the years after Chavie’s appeal, and with the assistance of the pro-bono lawyers, Footsteps members became more assertive: they regularly claimed that it was unconstitutional to force them to adhere to religious practices they didn’t believe in. These tactics could backfire, however; judges in custody cases were apt to become irritated by lofty arguments about parents’ rights, and didn’t like to get involved in disputes about religion. For this reason, lawyers for the religious parents tended to frame their arguments as commonsense pleas for stability. Courts placed enormous value on stability—as much value, sometimes, as on the preservation of a relationship with both parents. Going back and forth between households with irreconcilable customs and beliefs caused the children to feel bewildered and lost, the lawyer for the religious parent would say. The secular parent had become so caught up in the journey of her evolving desires that she jeopardized her children’s mental health. It feels notable that the status quo, in the secular court’s eyes, is a religious upbringing — and that the deviation that potentially disrupts a child’s mental health is a secular life — rather than the reverse. The Footsteps lawyer might argue that children were resilient, that they could cope with change. But the lawyer for the religious parent would point out that, if the children lived in a household that did not conform to the norms of their group, they might be shunned at school by their classmates, and possibly expelled, which would remove one of the few constants from their already rocky lives. And this was true. By the time this paragraph closes, you’ve now spent a decent amount of space on this exposition and legal history — the lengthiest deep dive thus far. When it comes to structure, why did you choose to integrate these points here, specifically? I wanted to wait until the reader was sufficiently invested in Chavie’s case to be surprised and distressed by the problems she faced in court. Once you’ve seen Chavie live through her case, you can imagine the pain involved in other such cases, even if you don’t know anything about the people involved.
Another factor was the feelings of the children themselves. Once children were old enough to express their views, judges were inclined to listen to them. Chavie’s case was unusual: because her ex-husband had been preoccupied with his second family during the years she was moving away from religion, she had had time to bring her children with her. Others were not so lucky.While Marie was in India, she spent time with a cousin of her friend’s, who had a Jewish mother but a Muslim father. She had met this cousin before, when he visited her college, in Texas, but he was several years younger than her and she hadn’t taken much notice of him. Now they bonded over family troubles, and over the difficulty of being Jewish while having a non-Jewish father. After she returned home, they stayed in touch. Back in Monsey, Marie felt hemmed in by scrutiny and gossip. She believed that her ex-husband was trying to find dirt on her, in order to get the kids back, and that people were watching her on his behalf, looking to see if she had stopped being observant, or if she was entertaining men in her house, getting drunk, shooting up drugs. He told people in the community that she didn’t keep kosher, that she didn’t keep Shabbos. People rammed their shopping carts into hers at Rockland Kosher.
She found work as a home health aide for elderly people, and tried to focus on being a mother. She had custody of the kids, but the one important thing that she had no control over was their education, and what she saw in the yeshivas alarmed her. In the long school day, little time was devoted to secular subjects such as English and math. Many Hasidic children spoke Yiddish at home, and might leave school without being fluent in English. Marie wanted her kids to be able to go to college, so she hired Elana Sigall, an educational consultant. Sigall had found that most judges had almost no understanding of what went on in a yeshiva. They seemed to have a vague sense that Jews valued education and therefore Jewish schools must be rigorous; but several yeshivas had told Sigall that by the conclusion of their education their boys were typically reading English at a third- or fourth-grade level. This was not regarded as a failure by the yeshivas: from their point of view, no more was necessary to live a pious life.
In Haredi divorce cases, judges almost always ordered that the children should stay in the same school, partly to insure that one feature of the child’s life remained stable, but also because it was extremely difficult for children to be part of a Haredi community if they went to a public school, or even the yeshiva of another group. Yeshivas required adherence to a code of conduct that dictated nearly every aspect of not only the children’s lives but those of the parents as well. Children attended yeshiva six days a week; older teen-age boys might be at their yeshiva from eight in the morning until eight at night, eating all three meals there, going home only to sleep. In many ways, the yeshiva was a child’s third parent, with more authority than the other two. Where did most of your sourcing come from in this section? And why did you put this exposition at this particular place in the story? These details of yeshiva life came from talking to the parents I interviewed as well as from Elana Sigall, who has conducted extensive research into yeshivas and testifies about them in court. Yeshivas are a very important and emotionally fraught topic in their own right, and I could only scratch the surface in this piece. I put the brief discussion of them here because I thought it was helpful to see the yeshivas through Marie’s eyes, since she is the only spouse in the piece who had a secular education to compare them to—although Chavie and Issac had some of the same objections that she did.
Meanwhile, as Marie’s educational petitions were pending in the court, a year after her first trip she went to India again. She spent more time with the cousin, and they became engaged, and, a year later, they married, although, for visa reasons, her husband did not move to America for many months. Her children were upset that she had married a man they had never met, and Marie’s ex-husband began telling people that Marie had married a Muslim and was no longer Jewish.
Once this got around, the elderly people whom Marie had been taking care of didn’t want her in their homes any longer, and she lost her income. At the same time, in the late spring of 2016 her landlord gave her thirty days’ notice to move out of her apartment. Her government housing subsidy allowed her thirty days to find a three-bedroom apartment in Monsey for fifteen hundred dollars including utilities, which was nearly impossible. She called friends of her ex-husband’s and begged them to help her find somewhere to stay, but nobody did.
This was, as she thought of it, her in-case-of-danger-break-the-glass moment. She had nowhere to live and no money to pay for it; the only place she had friends or family was Texas. She had full custody of her daughter, but she was not allowed to take her son out of the state for more than a brief trip. She considered going to a shelter, but she figured that a court would hold that against her, too—it was lose either way. So she called her parents. Her plan, she told the kids’ yeshivas, was to make some money in Texas over the summer, then come back in time for the next school year.
She had to be out of her apartment by Sunday. On Friday afternoon, there was a knock on the door, and she was served with a restraining order forbidding her to take her children out of New York. Her parents were already on the road, driving from Texas in a U-Haul; she had intended for them all to leave Monsey the following evening, right after Shabbos. In a panic, she called her lawyer, who told her that there was no room in the shelter, but that she should on no account leave the state with her kids. But she thought, Where else can I go? The next night, she piled the kids into the truck with her parents and left.
The day after they got to Texas, the police arrived early in the morning. Marie’s ex-husband was with them. The police got the children out of bed and took them away. Marie went to stay with her brother, in Pennsylvania, and commuted to court dates in New York. The judge was outraged that Marie had ignored the order not to leave the state, and agreed with her ex-husband that the sudden eviction had been traumatic for the kids. It’s wild, to me that she was punished for her own eviction — as if she created it, or chose it. How did you get inside the judge’s head here? Throughout your reporting, how did you gain access to sources like the judge? Judges would not speak with me about specific cases, resolved or not. My sense of a judge’s thinking was derived solely from his or her written opinions. In this case, the judge used harshly critical language and sarcastic scare quotes to describe Marie’s decision to go to Texas — “lacks any insight,” “extremely poor decision,” “the severity of her actions,” “the Court does not credit the Mother’s testimony that she took a ‘trip’ to Texas” — and repeatedly described her as “admitting” things rather than stating them. As for Marie being punished for her eviction, it’s true that her situation was extremely difficult and it seems unfair to punish her for it. On the other hand, taking children out of state without their other parent’s permission is one of the worst things you can do in the middle of a custody case. When Marie first told me that she’d taken her kids to Texas, I remember covering my face with my hands — I knew how bad that would look to the court. The court awarded her ex-husband temporary sole custody of both children.
In court, Marie was pressed to prove that she hadn’t married a Muslim. Her ex-husband’s lawyer displayed photographs of her at her wedding wearing traditional Indian clothes, with wedding henna on her skin. The judge, saying that she needed to assess Marie’s credibility, told her that she should produce a valid ketubah to prove that her wedding was Orthodox. Although the judge had ordered both parents not to disparage each other in public, an associate of her ex-husband’s posted a video online, soliciting money to pay legal fees. “He woke up and found himself alone,” a male voice narrated, in English, over dramatic music. “No wife; no kids. Thousands of miles away, his wife converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. He almost lost his children forever. After a lengthy battle in the courts, he now has his kids back. But that may change soon if he doesn’t come up with two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for his lawyers.” Then Marie’s ex-husband appeared and pleaded, in Yiddish, “Dear brothers, it is not easy to turn to you, but what doesn’t a father do for his children. I’m begging you, help me.”
All the time she wasn’t seeing her kids, Marie kept texting her daughter, asking her what was going on, and her daughter told her that her father’s family was asking, Why is your mother texting so often, is she stalking you, is she crazy? Soon the daughter began echoing the same words: Are you stalking me? Let me breathe, leave me alone. Marie found out in court that her ex-husband’s mother had told her daughter that if she talked to Marie she would be stabbing her father’s family in the back. The last time Marie talked to her daughter on the phone, her daughter said that she was a bitch who had married a goy. This is heartbreaking.
For a while, Marie’s son tried to please both of his parents. He told Marie, I say whatever I have to say to Tati to make him happy. But then a rabbi at her son’s yeshiva told the boy’s therapist that if he continued to visit his mother he could be expelled from school. The therapist told Marie that her son didn’t want to come for visitations anymore. Marie told the therapist this wasn’t true, that her son had told her how much he liked coming to see her. The therapist said, “Talk to him, he’ll tell you.” Then Marie did something that, she realized later, destroyed the fragile balance her son had tried to maintain: she confronted him. As her son sat sadly, not looking at her, she let her grief get the better of her and said to him, “What would I be without my children? A mother, her days, her nights, her life—everything is her children. How can I live without you?” Later, her son’s therapist testified that, because the boy loved his life in the community, awarding custody to his mother would be, for him, “a death sentence.”
After both of her children stopped seeing her, Marie lost any lingering attachment to Hasidism. She stopped observing holidays except when her husband wanted to—he was more observant than she was now—although they always made an effort to have a nice Shabbos dinner. But she kept a kosher home, to make sure that, if her children ever came to visit her, she would be able to feed them. This detail really tugged on my heartstrings. After a while, she realized that she no longer believed in God.
By the fall of 2020, she hadn’t seen either of her children in more than two years. In theory, she still had the right to visitations, but the judge had decided not to force the children to see her if they didn’t want to. Marie realized that her children had been put in the position of choosing between her and everybody else—their father, their grandparents, their cousins, rabbis at the temple, neighbors, friends, teachers at school, even God. She was their mother, but she was just one person. It was either her or their whole world. You illustrate the stakes here in such clear, powerful terms. Issac’s crisis came to a head in the late summer of 2014. He and Faigy had met with the grand rabbi in May; he had cut off his payos about six weeks later. Then, one weekend in August, he and Faigy were in Brooklyn to spend Shabbos with his family. They walked to a friend’s house to celebrate the birth of his baby, and afterward they walked the mile or so back to Issac’s parents’ house to join them for lunch. It was a sweltering day, and by the time Issac got there he was so hot that he took off his fur hat and coat. His father, calling him by a childhood nickname that he had always hated, said, “In my house, you wear that for the meal.” His father said it quietly, but for some reason this command was the one that broke him. He thought, My father liked me when I was a child; he doesn’t care for me as I am.
He ran upstairs to his childhood bedroom and broke down sobbing. Faigy ran up after him, and although it was Shabbos, right in front of her he went to the air-conditioner and turned it on. Then he took out his phone and texted a private Facebook group he was part of. Faigy was shocked by these violations of Shabbos, but she didn’t say anything. She had never seen him cry like that. He stayed in his room for the rest of the day, and when Shabbos was over they left the house.
During the next couple of weeks, they talked about his not wanting to keep Shabbos anymore, and Faigy grew increasingly distraught. Her therapist asked Issac to come to an emergency session and told him, “You know what, do it for your wife. You can manage twenty-four hours without a phone.” Issac thought, She’s right, and he didn’t want to break up his marriage, so the next Shabbos he put his phone away. The following day, Faigy said, “Never keep Shabbos for me.” She had seen how miserable he was—not at being away from his phone but from the feeling that he had been free and was now caged again. You weave in both of their perspectives here with an emotional, fraught and respectful balance that is beautiful.
Issac had friends who violated Shabbos all the time, watching sports, and just lied to their families about it. But he didn’t want to lie. The key, he realized, was his not having given a shit when he and Faigy first met. Because he had shown her who he really was, right from the beginning, he wasn’t afraid to tell her what he was thinking, even when he knew that it might upset her. As a result, they talked about his wanting to break the rules before he did. Years later, Issac would get phone calls from other men who’d been pulling away from observance but had never talked about it with their wives, and by the time they called him there was such a vast gulf between the person their wives thought they were and the person they’d become that Issac thought there was no chance of the marriages surviving, because they were built on lies.
For years, Issac and Faigy talked about Issac’s problems with religion. They had many painful conversations, and they avoided other conversations because of how painful they would be. When Issac stopped observing, it had felt, to Faigy, like the end of the world. She had been raised to fear a vengeful God, and to see her husband breaking God’s laws was to her incomprehensible and terrifying. But then she went to a rabbi for advice, and the rabbi told her that she was wrong to think of God that way—that God was a loving God. A mentor asked her, “What is there in you that you cannot accept your husband?” Gradually, she came to believe that the rabbi was right, that God was indeed a loving God, and that her terror was just another demon from her past. She came to believe that God had given her Issac for a husband to make her understand what faith was really about.
The rabbi advised her to compromise for the sake of her marriage, and, over time, she let some things go. She stopped worrying if a little of her natural hair was visible under her wig. She bought food with a more lenient kosher certification. But she didn’t feel, as Issac did, that Haredi rules constricted her freedom—she felt that God’s commandments were given in love, as guideposts, to form a structure for her life. To her, it was a joyful thing to be part of a community and a religion that were larger than she was, that had been around for thousands of years. I really like the way that you articulate what this structure means to her, and why she equates that sense of structure with freedom to live the life she wants. How did you strike this balance of explaining how a religious life could feel so oppressive to Issac and yet so liberating to Faigy? When I set out to write this piece, I had hoped to show both worldviews in all of the stories, so that the full impossibility of this situation, the irreconcilability of the two ways of life, could be understood in all its complexity. Unfortunately, though, the fathers in the other two cases were not willing to talk with me, so I was all the more grateful to Faigy for explaining what her faith meant to her.
Faigy never told Issac not to do something, but she asked him not to do it in front of her. Once he started going to Footsteps meetings, he made secular friends, and she feared that they would pull him away from her. It was especially frightening that he had female friends; in her world, there was no such thing as a grown man being friends with a woman. But, after a while, she said it was O.K. with her if he brought these secular friends to their house. To her, their lives seemed very hard, and she felt grateful that she had God to support her.
As time went on, Issac became more and more awed by her. He saw that she loved and accepted him even though many religious women would have thrown him out of the house and barred him from seeing his kids. He knew from talking to other people that his situation was vanishingly rare. He saw that, because of her miserable childhood, Faigy appreciated his being a loving husband and father, despite his apostasy and whatever other failings he had. She remembered how, at the beginning of their marriage, when she was having nightmares about her past, even though he hardly knew her then, he supported her and loved her and encouraged her to go back into therapy.
Faigy believed it was worse for the children to think that their father was evil than for them to doubt that a person who broke the rules would go to Hell. She and Issac explained to the kids that there were rules they had to follow, but that when they were grownups they would be able to make their own choices. She bought the children journals and told them that if anything bothered them they should write about it before they went to sleep, and every night she read the journals and wrote back. What a lovely ritual. You interweave so many details, but with subtlety — almost so much so that I barely notice that they’re there. How do you decide which details to include, and which to scrap? I think that many of us, religious or secular, take our family rituals for granted — not in the sense that we don’t notice or value them, but in that we don’t often think about what it would mean to give them up. Most of us have no reason to give them up! But the parents in this piece had to think very consciously about every ritual, every habit, every way of doing things, in order to decide what they would keep, what they would throw off, and what effect that decision might have on their children. I wanted to show what that looked like — a thoughtful person constructing an entirely new way of life.
Issac tried not to do anything that would desecrate Shabbos for the rest of the family. He would have preferred to have the kids go to public school, but he didn’t push it—he knew how important it was to Faigy that they be brought up to love their religion. But sometimes he would poke at it, just a little. If the kids were praying and addressing God as He, he would say, “How do you know God’s not a She?” But in the end he didn’t mind too much if his kids were religious. Even though the blessing sung after a meal had always annoyed him—he thought it was too long—he loved to hear his children sing it. The bottom line was that he felt he had no right to force anything on his kids, any more than he had a right to force anything on Faigy, or she on him. A few people had told him that he should write a book, and though he doubted that he would, he had a title: “You Don’t Fucking Own Nobody, Nobody Fucking Owns You.” I love this. Me too!
At some point, they decided to buy a house, and, because Issac was sick of parking his car fifteen minutes away so that if he wanted to drive on Shabbos he didn’t rile up the entire neighborhood, they ended up buying a house in a part of Rockland County where there were very few Jewish families. There was one observant family nearby whose children were similar to theirs in age, and they had had a meal with them once, but then the father saw Issac driving on Shabbos and that was the end of that. They didn’t have a synagogue community, because Issac didn’t pray anymore, and women in their neighborhood didn’t go to synagogue except on special occasions. They still had a few friends from Borough Park, and Issac had some secular friends from Footsteps, but they didn’t know any couples like themselves.
They wanted to find a place where there were like-minded people living nearby—people they could say hi to on the street, families whom they could have meals with sometimes, who had kids that their kids could play with, and whom they didn’t have to put up a façade with. To Issac, it felt like a lot to ask. They looked at Teaneck, New Jersey, which felt right from a religious point of view—the families there were mostly Modern Orthodox—but the Teaneck Jews all appeared to be upper-middle-class. It seemed that everyone had gone to college, many were doctors or lawyers. Issac had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education and worked in a supermarket; he felt that he and Faigy wouldn’t fit in with people like that.
After Issac stopped being religious, he decided that he didn’t want to have another baby. It was hard enough to work out the religious conflicts with the two girls they had. And what if a third child was a boy? He knew that Faigy would insist on circumcising him, and he couldn’t tolerate the idea of a synagogue full of people celebrating the cutting of his son’s penis. Then, when the boy was older, people would expect Issac to take him to synagogue on Saturdays, and he wasn’t going to do it, and that would be another source of misery for Faigy, every single week. But he told Faigy that if she wanted to talk about it they should talk about it, and, every now and again, they did. He saw how much she wanted another baby, and sometimes he would say to himself, or to his therapist, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I told her we should have one?” But then he thought, I don’t want another baby, and it’s not right to have an unwanted baby—pleasing Faigy is not a good enough reason. For a year, he thought about it and thought about it, working through his own objections. He thought that if they had a boy they could circumcise him in a doctor’s office, with no people. Finally, he realized that he was ready, and he told Faigy. The baby came, and it was a girl.
The experience of having the baby astonished him. It was different from anything he had experienced before. “It’s amazing,” he kept saying, as he looked at the baby’s face. “It’s amazing.” He thought, I guess this is how it is meant to be—making a baby with love. He and Faigy had loved each other before, but having the first two babies hadn’t been a decision—they did what they were supposed to do and the babies came. This time, it was conscious. Issac remembered that his father had told him before his wedding that during sex you should think of holy things, so that your child would be holy, and he thought, This baby is the culmination of our five-year struggle. Every day I see her and I think, She is our love. What did you hope to leave the reader with by ending this way? I found Issac and Faigy’s story intensely moving. Partly because I think we are often told that it’s harder for people who come from unhappy families to form a happy family themselves — whereas it seemed to me that Issac and Faigy cherished each other not in spite of their difficult childhoods, but because of them. I also found it moving that Issac found it so astonishing and joyful to make a choice that many of us take for granted: to have a baby out of love. The problem with this ending is that it is somewhat misleading. It could leave the reader with a sense that the difficulties of Haredi-secular marriages could be solved if only the parents loved each other enough — whereas in fact there are deep, unbridgeable conflicts between those ways of life, and Issac and Faigy are extremely unusual, possibly unique. Nonetheless, after so much pain and bleakness in the rest of the piece, I wanted very much to end with them.
A previous version of this story misidentified the speaker who asked Faigy why she could not accept her husband.
Published in the print edition of the December 7, 2020, issue, with the headline “Solomon’s Dilemma.”
Larissa MacFarquhar, a staﬀ writer at The New Yorker, is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help.”
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.