“Mrs. Leitner! Mrs. Leitner!” I came running to my fourth grade teacher — and let the record show she was the secular studies teacher at my Beis Yaakov elementary school — full of righteous indignation. “Right, the sun is a star? Batsheva doesn’t believe me!”
The dumbfounded look I received from Mrs. Leitner gave the impression that I had just asked her to confirm the existence of unicorns. “Of course not!” she laughed. “It’s a sun!”
Batsheva gave me a self-satisfied grin. “See?” She flounced off to play dodgeball with the rest of the class. I could almost smell the air of ignorance she left wafting in her wake. I felt defeated, deflated. They were wrong! They were wrong! I was right! And I had no way to prove it. My one fail safe — asking a knowledgeable adult, a teacher, for God’s sake — had failed me.
Welcome to Lakewood.
When people ask me where I’m from, they are always shocked at my response. They look me up and down — short sleeves, a hank of hair falling in front of my face from under my hat — and I don’t fit the description of a “Lakewood girl.” But this is what I wish I could tell them, when they ask where I am from: I’ll tell you where I’m from. I’m from a place where the scene I just described was far from an isolated incident.
Over the next few years, it was made clear to me that there was a lack of common knowledge among the teachers, principal, and my friends’ parents. We learned math and science and social studies, but the underlying message was that these things were not important. Or, they were not as important as Chumash and Navi and Hilchos Shabbos.
We learned about fossils. The delicate imprint of a feathery fern appeared in the margin of the textbook. A miracle! How could something practically weightless make such a deep impression on solid stone? The caption below the picture was run through with black Sharpie. Unreadable. “What was crossed out?” we asked.
The teacher waved her hand dismissively. “It just says how old they think those fossils are. But we know it’s not true.”
We know. Us Jews. Us frum Jews. We know better than those goyim. Those non-Torah-keeping people who wander aimlessly about the planet trying to make sense of what we’ve known to be true since the dawn of time, fifty-seven hundred some-odd years ago. That’s what they told us. Well, they didn’t say those exact words, but that’s the message we gleaned from their words, their actions, their lack of interest in anything that didn’t appear in Hebrew in a text that was at least a thousand years old.
Torah is life! God and the Jewish people and the Torah are one. That’s the song we sang. Torah is light! Give thanks to God!
It says in the Torah, they said, that you are allowed to steal from a non-Jew.
It says in the Torah, they said, that women are not as smart as men.
To deny the Torah, our rabbis have taught us, would be to deny our very existence. We are one entity.
I was 8. I was 13. I was 17. I was so very naive. I asked and asked and asked, and the answers I received were so unsatisfying. But it was my fault. Because, obviously, I was not a good enough Jew to understand why these answers should be satisfying. I wanted to integrate my understanding of the world — how it worked and the people who inhabited it — with what I was being taught, but it was just impossible. Were the intelligent women I knew really not as smart as I thought? Was every single non-Jewish person in the world really deserving of this contempt?
Maybe it was because I loved to read. Maybe it was because I watched movies in a theater. Among goyim. Maybe it was because I had a crush on a boy. I wanted his attention. All these things, the wrong things that were against Torah, and therefore against my very existence, were pulling me down a path of ruination. My mind was polluted with secular knowledge.
It took so long, much longer than I care to admit, but I will say I was already married before it finally occurred to me that it was not I who was wrong all these years. Even now, I struggle to separate what I know to be true and good and right — Torah, God, a meaningful life — from all that I was taught goes with that — nonchalant racism, blatant sexism, utter denial of basic scientific facts.
Because I understand now that I was not taught Torah. There was so much that was omitted, so much that was glossed over because it didn’t fit with exclusive, elitist, fire-and-brimstone view of Judaism they wanted us to swallow.
The truth is, I don’t even really know why I’m sharing this. Is it a story of self-discovery? Is it a cautionary tale? I don’t know. I guess I just want people to know where I come from.