Chapter 1: Leaving the nest

Love of family had kept me in Israel for the first 33 years of my life, but now I was leaving my native country—and leaving my family, as well. Although I was still single, I had been a student, a soldier, a teacher, and a dutiful daughter, the traditional path of an Israeli woman. The path I now sought was one that would lead me to a life based not on family or cultural expectations, but on my own inner truth.

Yet, what that truth was, I did not know.

Just a few days before my plane was to depart and carry me to my new life in the United States, I joined my family at my parents’ home for the weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner. Shabbat, or holy (Sabbath) day, always falls on a Saturday, but in the Jewish tradition a new day begins when the sun sets on the previous day. Friday night therefore begins Shabbat, which is marked by the family gathering for a traditional dinner.

In the dining room of my parents’ home, the Shabbat table was dressed with a white cloth to honor the holy day. On it sat a silver goblet of wine for the traditional Kiddush blessing and a loaf of challah bread to be broken before any of the feasting began. Everything was ready for the arrival of the men from the synagogue where they had been observing the rituals of the holy day.

My mother was casually dressed, prepared to get messy from the household chores of serving the meal and cleaning up after it. Before the special dinner, she played with the grandchildren, enjoying her role of grandmother that gave her life purpose. She had been raised to be a mother and a wife, even though she had a talent for business that was later discovered when helping her brother to care for his property. But she was more than happy to support her married children as a grandmother, a role which was her greatest joy.

My younger sister and my brothers’ two wives, all in their 20s, sat on the sofa in the living room chatting about the family. In contrast to my mother who dressed to serve, the three younger women were dressed in their best outfits to honor the holy day; they even had special wigs they wore for Shabbat. All three shared the same lifestyle as orthodox Jews, following the ancient laws as transcribed in the Jewish book of God’s law, the Torah, and so they had much in common.

I, on the other hand, sat alone in a corner chair, observing the family tradition that I was about to leave. Like my mother, I wore comfortable clothes rather than anything special. But in my case, I chose to dress simply so as to distinguish myself as a secular, modern Jew. The orthodox, more strictly traditional and religious views of the rest of my family, I did not embrace.

Growing up in Jerusalem, I could never, in my wildest imagination, have pictured my family being as religious as they were now. Back then, we were a secular family, celebrating Shabbat by watching special programs on TV and chowing down on sunflower seeds like a normal Israeli family. The Friday night family gathering for dinner used to be fun and engaging, but after we moved out of Jerusalem and began living in a political, right wing community of 60 families in the Jordan Valley, my family adopted a stricter religious lifestyle. We were living in the settlements, connecting us and other Israelis with the Biblical right to occupy the land which had been won in the 1967 Six-day War. Here, we no longer chose to disturb the holy essence of Shabbat with unholy TV programs. Such activity was considered “work,” undermining Shabbat’s obligation to be a day of rest.

What had happened to my family? I wondered, sitting by myself in an environment that had come to feel alien to me.

I remembered one day when I was home visiting from my job in the Israeli army. My father walked through the door with bags of groceries, much like he’d done nearly every Friday for as long as I could remember. He placed the bags on the kitchen counter for me to put the items away, and when I was done, my brother Samson took an apple to the dinner table along with a knife. He cut a slice out of the apple and then threw the slice into the garbage can.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“I’m conducting maaser,” he said. “It’s a custom based on Torah law.”

“What sort of law tells you to throw away food?” Ronit’s father asked from the kitchen counter as he chopped cucumbers in preparation for the Shabbat dinner.

Samson then explained how Maaser is a ritual in which we must let go of 10 percent of our produce as dictated by the books of Numbers and Leviticus in the Old Testament.

I was puzzled when he explained this, but I didn’t say anything.

The first tithe—the Maaser—was indeed described as a sacred act of devotion in the Hebrew Bible, but its purpose was not to throw food away; it was to take 10 percent of one’s produce and give it to those in need. But Samson’s purpose was to fulfill rituals for the sake of rituals—a blindness that would never sit well with me. And really, who was going to chase down some needy person and give them a piece of apple?

In spite of the weird ritual that my brother introduced to us, my father agreed with his values, and we all got use to accommodating his demands. t wasn’t long before everyone in the family started to follow my brother and the rules he laid down as dictated by the Torah. Even my father, who tended to object to Samson’s demands, conceded his authority over the household. I, on the other hand, continued to live my secular life, unable to agree with the rituals that to me made no sense.

Even though I was the only secular member in my family, they didn’t care much if I wore mini-skirts or jeans with tank tops. After all, they were the ones who changed their dress style when they turned from secular to religious, not me. My mother, who had adjusted willingly to this lifestyle, still wore pants on occasion for comfort. To her, there was nothing holy about a long skirt. According to religious tradition, however, women should wear skirts because men wear the pants in the house! Men are the ones who manage and control the family.

Although Jewish men treat women with some respect, they also treat them as temptresses. Therefore, women are forbidden to sing in public and are not allowed to expose skin so that they do not attract much attention. Men must keep a clear distance from impure women, who are only allowed to board in the back of the bus. Men even express their superior attitude with a daily prayer: “Blessed are you God, the king of the universe, for not having made me a woman.”

My siblings accepted my appearance and my behavior as a secular, especially since I made it clear that I was not interested in theirs. I believed that as long as we both respected each other’s choice, we could live peacefully. But in reality, it turned out, that wasn’t enough.

All my attempts to interact with the family and be part of their lives since they had become orthodox had failed. Even my efforts to sing children’s songs to my nephews and nieces were discouraged, even prohibited, as my brothers’ children were only allowed to sing verses of prayer about worshipping God. I couldn’t even buy toys for them, since stuffed animals like bunnies and teddy bears weren’t kosher and therefore not permitted in their homes.

Why would they have a problem with toy animals? I wondered. It was understood that non-kosher animals like the pig and rabbit were forbidden to eat because of health reasons. But my brothers took it to another level, as though the toy animals were real animals, and so they would never welcome the unholy into their homes.

I had stopped trying to figure out what was right and what was not. Although I wanted to share childhood memories with my nephews and nieces, almost everything that I did was unholy and unwelcome; perhaps, I, too, was a non-kosher creature. How could I be an aunt for these children who were shielded from the reality that I was part of?

As I watched my sisters-in law and my younger unmarried sister engage in conversation about raising the kids, I had nothing to say about the subject or any other topic that they would talk about. It seemed to me that it didn’t matter if I were there or not.

I was in my early 30s and still single. In the last year, I had resigned from my job as a schoolteacher since my unconventional teaching style was not welcomed in the old-fashioned school system of Jerusalem. Being a single woman at 30 and walking away from my future had made me an oddity in my family, someone who was swimming against the current. I felt like the ugly duckling who could never fit in.

Shabbat Shalom (Peaceful Sabbath!)!” my father announced when he opened the door, having returned from the synagogue and looking like a bridegroom dressed formally in his suit. He sat down at the table, opened his Siddur, or prayer book, and began humming the Shabbat songs while waiting for my two brothers to return from their synagogue.

While my father and brothers all strictly observed the Jewish traditions, they worshipped in different ways at different synagogues. My father followed the Sephardic style that was loyal to his ancestors who came originally from the Middle East countries, in his case the Kurds. My two brothers had broken this ancestral chain and joined the Chabad community where they honored the European Ashkenazi tradition of their descended Rabbi, even though they were Sephardic Jews by blood. Both of my brothers had full beards and wore the long black coats that complete the appearance of Chassidic Jews, marking them as part of a sect of Judaism that tends to be more extreme in religious customs.

Shalom Aleichem (Peace be upon you),” my brothers announced with an Ashkenazi accent when they showed up for the dinner 40 minutes later. They joined my father at the table, but instead of humming, they began loudly intoning the nigun chassidim, a melody without words that consisted of a single repeated syllable: “Nay, nay, nay….”. Their voices overwhelmed my father’s humming, and he had no choice but to join them. The abrasive sound of their nigun got the attention of all present in the room, and we quickly gathered around the table for the Kiddush ceremony, putting an end to the annoying nigun.

“On the sixth day, the Heaven and Earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day, God ended his work, which he had made. …” With these words, spoken in Hebrew, my father started the Kiddush prayer while the rest of the family stood around the table and replied Amen. My father then held the Kiddush cup and said the blessing over the wine, while we all replied Le’chaim (To life), leading us closer to the meal.

But first a mitzvah, or obligatory ritual, needed to be performed. Everyone was expected to line up for netilah, a hand washing ritual that required a special jar for pouring water to avoid putting our hands directly under running water.

Why? I’d stopped asking questions for all the ridiculous customs that didn’t make sense no matter how they were explained. In fact, my hands were perfectly clean, so I stayed at the table and waited for the others’ return.

Next was the blessing over the Challah bread, which is the last ritual before the feast. My father waited impatiently for the family to return back to the table, obeying the rule that no verbal communication was allowed until everyone had taken a bite of the bread, which could only happen after the blessing. At this point, I heard my father make a long Ummmm… sound, urging their return to the table. When we finally finished the Kiddush ceremony, I breathed a sigh of relief.

In the past, when we were a secular family, we still had a Kiddush ceremony on Friday nights to welcome the Shabbat day. The Kiddush ceremony is a tradition among the secular Israelis, too, but it is intended simply to bring the family together. The ceremony back then was shorter with no attention to the many mindless rituals. But now that the family had become orthodox, the ceremony had turned into a full-blown religious production that I could not miss, as much as I might want to.

After the Kiddush was over, my mother put the traditional first course of the Shabbat feast, a fish dish, on the table. The food continued to arrive: four types of meat, six different types of salad, rice and potatoes. It was like a Thanksgiving meal every week. We sat at the table for four hours, mostly eating, but from time to time we talked about the children. My brothers interrupted the family chat again and again with their nasal intoning of Nay, nay, nay …. getting louder and louder in an attempt to maintain a holy presence 100 percent of the time.

My sister and my sisters-in-law were all kindergarten teachers; they followed the professional course recommended by the Rabbi who claimed that teaching was the perfect occupation for women.

Teaching was my calling, too, but I hadn’t chosen it as a profession because of any benefit for my future. Rather, it had been my passion since I was five years old and pretended to write on an invisible chalkboard while teaching my baby brother math and reading. I didn’t play with dolls, since my mom told me they were for babies. Maybe that is why I didn’t develop the motherly instinct necessary to follow the path of marriage and motherhood as I was expected to do.

As soon as I started to teach, I realized I would be an unconventional teacher, one who, by all appearances, was constantly looking for trouble. One day I took 40 students on the public bus to the White Dome at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I wanted them to come up with their own version of the story of the Qumran people who lived in the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. When they arrived at class the next day, we compared their stories to the story in the textbook, making their experience of history more immediate and relevant, not just something they absorbed by rote.

Another time, I held a mock election day with students presenting speeches and propaganda in the spirit of the Roman Empire. This not only gave them more involvement in the history, but it turned into an entertaining talent show that was enjoyed by all.

My ability to invent new approaches for learning always earned the students’ enthusiasm, but I never scored points with the principal. Clearly, he cared more about grading the students’ abilities than encouraging them to enjoy the process of learning. Eventually, I started to explore other schools, searching for a more liberal framework in which to teach. I joined the staff of an experimental school that had all the promising components, but the school itself didn’t last, and so I was once more out of a job.

All of my attempts to accept a life of tradition and follow God’s plan had failed after 30 years of effort. I lost interest in teaching as I was unable to compromise on textbook lessons. I crushed my parents’ hopes for me having a normal life when I ended a one-year relationship and also lost the job that would secure my future.

How could a person like me who thrived on change and newness ever hope to live in a capital city of tradition?

My love for my family was the only thing that had kept me in Israel, but now that they had left the secular life, I had very little in common with them. I couldn’t even be a good aunt to my nephews and nieces, since we didn’t share the same lifestyle or agree on the same concepts. All this was lying heavy on my heart as I sat among them at this my last Shabbat dinner in Israel, and all I could feel was so very much alone.

It was very clear to me that I had no reason to stay.