How I Escaped from a Golden Prison

Moishy* name changed* is 28. He left the Hasidic community three years ago.

“Growing up in Stamford Hill, I used to see non-Jews walking through, in their jeans and t-shirts, or riding on their bicycles by the River Lea. For me, they represented something grounded and real – something I was very attracted to. My life was all about being ‘elevated’, being a devoted servant of God by studying the Torah. I craved something else. But I don’t think I ever actively thought, ‘I want to leave,’ and I didn’t know a single person who’d left the community. There was just a general sense of dissatisfaction, of not belonging and wanting more. I couldn’t articulate it because I was brought up not to think about my feelings – to disregard them – not to listen to my body or my instincts because that would lead to sin.

I suppose I did have a sense of being part of something bigger – a team pride. To me, though, it was a golden prison.

The Charedi world is very patriarchal, and as the eldest son, one of 10 siblings, there was pressure on me to be an outstanding scholar, which would give me status and the ability to marry a girl with an equally high status. Mum ran a small business from our cramped house and, like most of the men in the community, Dad studied all day. The school I went to was illegal – unregistered – and we did no secular studies at all. I wasn’t taught to read and write English; I taught myself a few words by learning the alphabet from shop signs, and the numbers one to 12 from a clock. A friend, who came from a slightly more liberal home, also helped me and, for a couple of months before I turned 13, I had some English lessons. The things I learned in those few hours made sense to me; I could relate to them, far more than to the 2000-year-old scriptures I was made to study at school.

I never felt safe or nurtured. Everything was based on fear, the fear of hell if I thought the wrong thoughts or looked at somebody the wrong way. At school, we would be hit daily. The teacher would be reading and he’d randomly pick a child to ask, ‘What word am I at?’ If you were daydreaming and got it wrong, he would tell you to put your finger on the table and then he would hit you hard on your fingernail. It was incredibly painful, not to mention against the law.

Although I didn’t choose to be born into the community, there is a certain stability to that life because you know you’ll never be homeless or alone – there are lots of organisations set up to provide everything. I suppose I did have a sense of being part of something bigger – a team pride. To me, though, it was a golden prison. There was no freedom whatsoever to feel, to explore, to be myself. I had no passions or ambitions because I wasn’t even allowed to get to the point of discovering them, let alone developing them.

Sex education was non-existent. All we were told was: stay away from the opposite sex. Don’t look at girls in the street. Don’t think sexual thoughts. Ironically, the result was that we became hyper-sexualised – in constant conflict with ourselves, always feeling guilty, repressing thoughts we didn’t understand. I wasn’t allowed to speak to my female cousin, or my female next-door-neighbour and, from the age of 13, I had no contact whatsoever with anyone of the opposite sex.

The night before their wedding, a bride and groom are separately given a one-hour sex education lesson, which instructs them in the mechanics of sex, and tells them what they can and can’t do.  For example, the room has to be completely dark. Marriage isn’t about love or romance, it’s about fulfilling God’s commandment to have children.

From 14, I gradually stopped believing in the Charedi way of life. I still believed in God and the Torah, but I began to reject the focus on status, on how the way you dress or behave indicates how devoted you are. I wanted to be normal and modern, even though I didn’t know what that entailed.

My very first act of unconscious rebellion was to become a Zionist.

My very first act of unconscious rebellion was to become a Zionist. The community is very anti-Zionist because it’s a secular idea – the idea of Jewish nationalism – not a religious one. At my school, my teacher actually told us that the Holocaust happened because of Zionists! For me, growing up in this very conservative place, nationalism made a lot of sense to me. I thought, why shouldn’t the Jews have a state? I admired Jews who stood up for themselves, who took their destiny in their own hands, because I couldn’t stand up for myself. But I couldn’t share this with anyone – it would be like a secular child admitting they felt sympathy with ISIS. I used to doodle the Star of David on my exercise book during lessons, then cross it out, because the symbol was seen as impure, sullied by its association with Zionism.

I was married at 20, after I had studied at a Yeshiva in Israel for nine months. My parents and my wife’s parents arranged the marriage, and I met her on the actual night of our engagement party. I remember arriving, and seeing our cake on the table before I saw her. Six months later, our wedding took place. In the meantime, we were not allowed to communicate in any way. Unfortunately, I found my wife very unattractive, which was not a good start. Although I wasn’t being forced to marry, there was never any chance to back out. Everything was already organised, which put a huge amount of pressure on it to succeed. So, I tried to ease myself in, to tell myself it was about personality, not looks, and I’d grow to like her, even to fall in love.

Finding love was my unconscious dream – I suppose I was a romantic, even though I didn’t know that concept. Maybe it was because my mother was completely unavailable in every sense, and I craved love and affection. But ultimately my wife and I weren’t a good match. She was chosen for me because of her status – she was the niece of some rabbi – not because we had anything in common. And I disappointed her and her family because I was seen as not religious or studious enough.

During our three-year marriage, we had only one child together. Even though I tried to make my marriage work, I quickly realised it was hopeless and, once I’d decided, I said I wouldn’t have any more children with her. But funnily enough, although I wanted to leave, in the end my wife left me. Her reason was because I got a job in a community office. A woman worked there and, despite the fact there was no contact between us, my wife said she couldn’t be with me any longer.

That’s when I decided to leave the community. But divorce is unusual, and hard. I was terrified of the outside world, which I knew nothing about, and I knew no-one. I got hold of a smartphone, which I kept hidden, and I would use it in the toilet – even on Shabbat – using my Hebrew to navigate the Internet. In the few weeks before I left, I started growing out my hair, which is totally unacceptable there. People would come up to me and ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I didn’t care anymore; I had already checked out mentally. I began living a double life. Twice, I went to the pub with a friend – dressed in my long coat and  hat – and hid on the top floor so people couldn’t see us from the street.

A few weeks after I left, I stood in front of the mirror and cut off my peyot. It felt symbolic and very sad, but it was also a huge relief

And then one day, during lockdown, I just got up, left and moved to North London. I had a little bit of money from my job, but I had no education, no English, no qualifications or skills. I made contact with someone I met online who had left the community five years before, and he helped me to find a room, get a job (which didn’t last long, as I didn’t know what I was doing) and put me in touch with GesherEU. A few weeks after I left, I stood in front of the mirror and cut off my peyot. It felt symbolic and very sad, but it was also a huge relief – like hanging up my old life on a hook.

GesherEU has given me so much. They gave me a tutor and helped me to get on a college course to study functional skills (for people who have English as a second language). Three years on, and I’ve done five GCSEs, including maths and English, and I’m training to be an accountant.

Gesher also introduced me to other people who had left, so I have a social life and events to go to. In the community, you’re brought up not to feel okay by yourself, but to be part of something bigger. It’s hard to create that in the outside world. Forming real friendships and friendship groups takes a lot of time. It’s been so good to get to know people who understand my background, who don’t treat me as an outsider. Most regular people either regard me with curiosity or pity – not like a normal person – but at Gesher, I feel comfortable, at home. It gives me the sense of belonging that I’ve lost.

I’m not in contact with my family, but I have been back to Stamford Hill a few times. Most people don’t recognise me. My divorce has gone through now, and I’ve had a few relationships, but nothing serious or long-term yet. Leaving my son behind was the hardest thing I did. I want to be a dad to him, to bring him up and give him the love he deserves. I miss him terribly and constantly think about him and wonder if he’s happy, and if his needs are being met. But there’s not much I can do. I haven’t seen him for a year, and I am currently going through the family courts to get access to him.

The journey I’m on is long, profound and sometimes very difficult. While I’m now a completely secular Jew, and intellectually I don’t see anything wrong with eating pork, I can’t escape my emotions, which are often conflicted. For example, on Yom Kippur I always feel extremely strange and guilty. The way I was brought up still resonates very deep inside me. But even at the hardest point, I have never regretted leaving. I just couldn’t live like that.”

Posted in Members Stories.

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