I am a Datlash—and Talking About It

I am a Datlash. From the day I was born until the age of forty I lived my life as an Orthodox Jew. I attended Jewish schools (including four years at a Haredi yeshiva) and for seventeen years I lived in the somewhat liberal, but mostly rigid and homogenous town of Efrat.

And for the past ten years I have been living the life of a secular Israeli.

The term for someone like me is “Datlash”—a Hebrew acronym for Dati LeSheAvar—formerly religious.

And now I am writing about it. I’ve tried to do this a half a dozen times in the past and each time I changed my mind and dropped it. You see, for me a large part of my datlashiyut is the complete and total denial of the existence of the black-and-white, the absolute truth. I can always see another side or two to any issue.

When I started writing on previous occasions I ended up questioning my motivations and the possible impact of my words. Was I being sensationalistic? Exhibitionistic? Was I even sure that this was my truth? And how would this affect the people around me?

There is so much I can, and plan to write about and so many reasons to write. It seems reasonable to me that anyone who moves from one lifestyle to a very different one goes through a wide spectrum of experiences: humorous, ironic, sad, revealing, insightful.

I could write about how other people relate to me as a Datlash; the discomfort of the religious person or the fascination of the “hiloni” meeting a former alien.

I could write about how deeply ingrained religious habits are. After comparing notes with other Datlashim I realized that we all share in experiences like this: you’re sitting in a restaurant on a Friday night, and you lift a glass of non-kosher wine to take a sip, your hand wobbles, something inside tightens, you panic and ask yourself, “Did I make kiddush? Oy, I didn’t even make a bracha!”

I can write about what caused the change. That will be a long and winding entry telling of family tragedies, free-floating alienation, guilt-ridden self-loathing and more.

I could write about the effect on my children and other family members and their response (I doubt I’ll be putting that one out there too soon but I’d be happy to discuss it with you over a cup of coffee).

I could write from a psychological or philosophical perspective—does it ever become a non issue? Does a Datlash ever become just a secular Jew and not a formerly religious Jew? And what factors really determine one’s religious identity?

I could write about the state of orthodoxy today, the molesting rabbis, the disenchantment of many, the phenomenon of the Dati Lite.

But none of those topics seem to justify a public discourse about my datlashiyut. The factors that leave me feeling like there is no choice, that I must write stem from both conversations with friends and my belief that people can, and should, be at peace with themselves.

Let me explain.

About seven years ago an old high school buddy “came out” to me (the first of about a dozen to show up at my confessional over the years). He did this in an obtuse way over lunch one day and it took me a few minutes to understand what he was trying to say. “Ya know,” he said, “you’re lucky that you got divorced and moved to a new city because it gave you an opportunity to make other changes.”

I scratched my head, “Huh?”

He looked at my hand resting in the middle of my scalp, “Exactly!”

“Ah, ya mean not wearing a kipa anymore!”

He said that his issues with Judaism were purely intellectual: he’d become convinced, based on textual inconsistencies, that the Bible had multiple authors. Because of this he wished he could stop all religious practice but felt that he couldn’t “because of his children”. How surrealistic, a year later, to attend the wedding of his child who married the child of a well-known rosh-yeshiva, separate seating and all. What was going on in my friend’s head that evening? In his heart? I hope he was at peace with himself.

Another friend, visiting Israel from the European city where he serves as a leader of the Jewish community, made a point of telling me that he doesn’t judge me or think negatively of my life style. I could sense that his acceptance was total and sincere. It made me wonder about the source of his non-judgemental serenity, after all, he is an orthodox rabbi.

My friend went on to tell me about the married woman, a member of his community, with whom he was romantically involved. As he pointed out, one of the Ten Commandments was being violated. He told me how he loved her and was looking for a way to make a gracious exit from his career and his marriage.

Is he at peace with himself?

No.

I hope he will be one day.

And so I am writing for those friends, and for others who are struggling and searching, but have no one to discuss it with. In fact, I’m writing this for anyone who is skirmishing or battling with their religious identity.

I am writing to let you know that you are not alone.

I am writing to let you know that living with a silent, internal war can be fatal—to you and to those around you.

I absolutely do not know what your authentic truth is but I am writing in order to encourage you to search for it, wherever that leads you — deeper into your religious practice, further away from it, or back at the same place.

But isn’t finding one’s authentic self-truth a near-impossible task? Isn’t self constantly evolving and changing? Isn’t truth elusive? Isn’t it easier to have someone else tell us what the truth is?

Yeah, much easier.

My guess is that if, over the years, about a dozen of my friends have approached me with doubts about their religious identities, that there are many more like them walking around with torturous debate consuming their insides.

So, I will continue to write about being a Datlash. I will write for me…and for you.

*A couple of notes on anonymity:

1. I have blurred some of the details about my friends to assure their anonymity, but the essential details of their stories are authentic.

2. It’s really cool that the Times of Israel uses Facebook for its talkback comments, but it also means that there is no option to comment anonymously. If you’d like to communicate with me directly, feel free to write to me via Facebook. If you would like to make an anonymous comment in a public forum, send it to me and I will post it on a Facebook thread related to this article.