One year ago, Sam fled his isolated Satmar upbringing for the secular world. This fall, he’s starting college. And you thought your first year was tough.
Sam’s name has been changed and certain details have been obscured in order to protect his family. None of the Satmar pictured are in any way associated with the story.
Plenty of college freshman have a hard time fitting in during their first few weeks on campus. Sam is having a harder time than most. For one thing, he doesn’t know how to talk to girls. In fact, he can hardly look them in the eye. He also doesn’t know much about politics or television shows or celebrities or video games or popular music. As a result, he doesn’t say much. His roommates know very little about him. They think he’s pretty weird.
When I met Sam, he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and was practically indistinguishable from the other students milling about during the lunch hour at his public residential college in New York. Indistinguishable, that is, until I heard his Yiddish accent. The outdated identity card that he carries in his wallet tells the rest of his story: it shows a sullen Sam, somehow older looking, with a shaved head, long, curly payot, and a black silk coat.
Satmar Hasidim are an insular, tightly knit Jewish sect. Among the various Hasidic groups that proliferate in contemporary Brooklyn, the Satmar are notable for their extreme isolation from secular culture. With roots in what is now Romania, the group emigrated from Europe after the Holocaust and established fast-growing communities in enclaves in Williamsburg and upstate New York. Today it is the largest Hasidic group, with an estimated 120,000 members. The lives of the Satmar are characterized by rigid devotion to Torah learning, observance, and tradition. A minor deviation from the Satmar lifestyle, such as reading a secular book or newspaper, stepping outside of the neighborhood to shop at a store owned by a non-Jew, or visiting a public library, is enough to warrant strong censure from the community.
At 20, Sam walked out on his strictly observant Satmar life, leaving behind friends, family, and years of religious training. Now, just one year later, as he begins the college career that he hopes will lead him to a new secular future, he remains in a sort of limbo. He is clean-shaven and eats non-kosher foods, but still sways over his biochemistry textbooks as if he is reading a tract of Talmud. When he speaks with his mother on the telephone, she reminds him to be careful of his non-Jewish roommates, who she assumes will try to kill him in his sleep.
A Red Sox Fan Who Had Never Seen A Bat
Growing up in his Satmar neighborhood, no one would have picked Sam out as a turncoat in the making. He was obedient, a strong student, and a hard worker – a typical yeshiva bocher with an unwavering faith in God. His family, like many Hasidic families, spoke only Yiddish at home. They were sympathetic to the Neturei Karta, a group of vociferously anti-Zionist Hasidim who enjoyed broad support in the community. The curriculum of Sam’s cheder, or religious day school, was dedicated exclusively to prayer and religious topics. The only course material was ancient Hebrew text and commentary. Mathematics and science barely existed, and history and literature were deemed secular and strictly forbidden. The yeshiva that he attended for high school was not accredited, and as such did not award any diplomas. This was not a problem for the students, who were not meant to have aspirations outside of their Hasidic world.
Corporal punishment at school was expected and tolerated by the community. Students were commonly hit with belts for violations as minute as losing one’s place in the text while it was being read aloud. Sam recalls brutal treatment from his teachers, whom he grew to fear and despise. He still bears the scar from a pen jabbed into his hand as punishment for being late to class when he was four years old.
Sam says that while he remained compliant on the outside, he began at an early age to question the life that was proscribed for him. He wondered why he was forbidden to enjoy such simple pleasures as playing sports with friends or shopping in certain stores. He was confused when his best friend was expelled from school for riding a bicycle, when he knew that such behavior was permissible among more lenient Hasidic groups.
Sam’s first act of rebellion was buying an English newspaper and a radio, forbidden objects which he had been warned were potentially corrupting. Finding refuge in bathrooms and on rooftops, he would pour over the newspaper. He knew very little English, and says that at the beginning it took a week to read each paragraph. He was persistent, however, and worked until he had learned enough to move on to books, which he borrowed in secret from the library.
The radio became Sam’s most valued porthole to the outside world. Hiding on the roof, he would listen to baseball games, arbitrarily choosing the Red Sox as his favorite team. He soon became a loyal fan, catching every game he could, learning player names and baseball terminology. He was a knowledgeable Sox fan months before he ever saw glove or a bat.
As he learned more about secular life, Sam grew increasingly disillusioned with his upbringing. “I felt totally and completely lied to,” he says. The depravity that his parents and teachers had told him pervaded the secular world was not apparent in the glimpses he had been so furtively pursuing. The community’s self-imposed isolation seemed newly strange. “It is comfortable to stay there and assume you are the best,” he says. “If there is nothing else but you, life is easy.”
Sam’s silent rebellion marched onward. He stopped believing in God and violated the Sabbath in private, without guilt. “I felt too controlled. I wanted to get out,” Sam says. The last straw came at the age of 19, when community leaders decided that he was ripe for marriage and began the search for a suitable wife. He was expected to accept a matchmaker’s decision, and would have met his teenage bride in a carefully chaperoned situation once or twice before the ceremony. An arranged marriage to a complete stranger, followed immediately by multiple children, seemed to Sam an empty life – one that he had no interest in beginning.
It was around this time that a classmate approached him with a story about a book that glorified renegade Satmars who had turned their backs on the community. That book, Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (Beacon Press, 2005), follows a number of young Hasidic men and women as they leave their communities to start new lives. Sam nodded along as his horrified friend condemned the book, but soon after hurried out to find a copy. “I was so happy to finally see that there were people in similar circumstances,” Sam said. “I saw a picture, saw a story. Of course I had known that these people existed, but when I read the book, it opened me up to the possibility [of doing it myself].”
It was through Unchosen that Sam learned about Footsteps, a New York-based organization that assists young people who choose to leave Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities. Footsteps helps these newly independent and frequently troubled youths secure housing, jobs, and an education, so that they can succeed in the secular world. Sam held onto this information for two months, all the while delaying marriage, creating excuses to buy himself more time. Finally, he took action.
After months of careful consideration, Sam called Footsteps. With secret arrangements in place, he shared his intention to leave with his family. At first his parents did what they could to intervene, sending him to visit far-flung Rabbis who urged, cajoled, badgered, and ordered him to go back to his yeshiva. He declined, and after one particularly aggressive encounter stopped the meetings altogether.
As soon as Sam was living away from home, he chopped off his payot, the locks of hair growing in front of the ear that religious men leave uncut. He saw the cutting as an irreversible act, a definitive move that would serve as an endpoint to the discussion. When his family next saw him, he was surprised to find that he was met with laughter and inquisitive stares. “They [were] more shocked than angry,” Sam says.
Meanwhile, Sam was engaged in building a new life from scratch. Through Footsteps, he took GED classes in order to receive the high school diploma that his yeshiva had been unable to provide. The organization helped Sam find a place to live, a part time job, and most importantly, offered a new circle of friends in similar circumstances. Within a year of living independently, Sam had received his GED and been accepted into a prestigious public college on scholarship. This September, he moved into the freshman dorm on campus.
Sam shook my hand when we met on his school’s campus, a simple gesture that was in sharp contrast to the practices of his previous lifestyle. He did the social thing pretty well, and aside from the Yiddish accent, it was easy to fall into conversation and forget about his background. That was up until he told me that he “sleeps with two men.” It was clear that he was referring to his rooming situation, and I told him what he had implied. “You see?” he shouted. “This is what I was talking about! This is why people think I’m gay!” His face was red. The three roommates do sleep in the same room, and how could he be sensitive to the sexual innuendo contained in the phrase, having learned English from sports radio?
Like most college students, Sam hardly sleeps and drinks too much coffee. Unlike his classmates, his new habits are not a result of too much partying, but rather due to the hours he spends in the library, struggling to catch up. Before leaving his community, Sam had never heard of subjects such as algebra. Still, Sam did not hesitate to take on a full course load in his first semester at school, filling his schedule with topics that he had not been allowed to study just a year ago.
While Sam struggles through writing and chemistry, the social aspect of college has been most challenging. Sam says that when he first got to school, he tried to tell some people about his past, but that they “didn’t understand.” He decided that it would be less complicated to keep it a secret. Of his roommates, he says that “they hear me speaking Yiddish and they know that I am different, but don’t know any details.” When I asked to interview them for this piece, Sam refused outright.
Throughout his life, Sam was taught that non-Jews were to be hated and feared, and that one who associated with them risked physical harm. Any non-Jew was by definition an anti-Semite. He had socialized only with the boys in his school, and had been forbidden from having any contact with women who were not close family members. He is awkward with girls, and struggles in conversation when popular culture comes up. “When people talk about a TV show, I pretend to know what they are talking about, but I really have no idea. I know the names of two actors and maybe one artist,” Sam says. Topics as diverse as the Iraq war, Seinfeld, presidential politics, celebrity gossip, or the latest music or movies, are all uncharted territory.
Today, Sam calls himself an atheist and observes none of the proscriptions or commandments that he studied day after day in yeshiva. Out of habit, however, he often washes his hands in the ritual manner before eating his non-Kosher meals. He insists that his complete rejection of Judaism stems from an embrace of reason, and not out of a sense of rebellion or lingering resentment.
Unlike many who leave Hasidic communities, Sam has managed to maintain ties with his family, speaking with them on a regular basis. He is careful not to hurt them, and so sometimes shades the truth, misleading them about his level of religious observance, telling them what they want to hear. When he returned home for a sibling’s wedding, he helped his parents keep up appearances by dressing in Hasidic garb. Fiercely protective of his family, Sam was unwilling to subject them to the shame they would feel at having his story made public, and so was was hesitant to share any details with me that might reveal his identity.
Sam says that it is often tempting to leave this foreign world, to go home and slip back into his previous life, to be with his old friends and family and enjoy Shabbat and his mother’s cooking. “It would be easy to go back,” Sam says. “If I decide tomorrow to be a Hasid, they would let me back.” He tries not to think about it. “I am not a fighter,” he says, “If they challenge me, they will win.”
Sam says that he is no longer bitter or angry toward anyone in his old community. He tells me a story of a family member who was abused by the teachers and resents them greatly for it, yet sends his children to the same school, dooming them to the same experience. Sam says that by leaving, he is challenging this cycle of abuse. He doesn’t hate the teachers who tormented him and who he feels pushed him to abandon his way of life and his religion. “They were hit, too” Sam says. “They don’t know anything else.”
Sam’s fierce determination and curious spirit continue to guide him through an exciting and, at times, confusing new world. Now a freshman in college, Sam is focusing all of his energy on getting through his classes, meeting new people, and enjoying his newfound freedom. Formerly tied to Neturei Karta, Sam is considering touring Israel with birthright.
A month after our initial conversation, I spoke to Sam again on the phone. He says that he feels more comfortable at school now. “It is still hard, but I am different than I was last year,” he says. “The change from a few months ago is enormous.”
After graduation, he is leaning toward a career in the sciences, perhaps biochemistry, which is his favorite subject. Would he like to start a family? To find someone special? “Maybe. But I want to find myself first.”