For Israelis who flee the ultra-Orthodox fold, a brave new world

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For Israelis who flee the ultra-Orthodox fold, a brave new world

The Hellers, before leaving the community. Courtesy of the family

Evening was beginning to fall on the playground that one sees from the
balcony of the Heller family home in Beit Shemesh. Six-year-old Pini entered
the house excited, his cheeks flushed. “Mom, I played with the ball,” he
declared, speaking in Yiddish. There was an unmistakably triumphant tone in
his words.

Yisrael Heller and his wife, Rachel “Cheli” Heller, exchanged a quick look.
They were sitting at a table on the balcony, their 1-year-old baby cavorting
between them. It looked like another ordinary day, as though a boy coming
into the house holding a ball was an everyday event. In fact, it was one
more sign of the revolution the family is undergoing.

In the closed Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community in which the Hellers
lived until not long ago, children only came home from school at this time
of the day, playing with a ball was beyond the pale and Hebrew was the
language of the “Zionist heretics”: To speak it was strictly forbidden
(other than as the holy tongue).

A few months ago, the Hellers and their four children left Ramat Beit
Shemesh, a Haredi neighborhood within Beit Shemesh, a city between Jerusalem
and Tel Aviv. They stole out from their apartment late at night, without
telling family or friends. Their move had been preceded by an ugly wave of
rumors, accompanied by pressure that pushed them into a corner and made
their lives intolerable, until they were forced to leave ignominiously.

The target of the firestorm was Yisrael, head of the household and a man of
power in the community. He had trimmed his beard and had gradually started
to deviate from the community’s stringent dress code, referred to as the
Yerushalmer [that is, “Jerusalemite,” which is also the name of the sect]
style. The members of the community are quick to spot the slightest change
in shirt style or hat size; such behavior is considered a gross infringement
of the rules and traditions to which it adheres.

The Hellers, a year ago. Courtesy of the family

“Within a single day, rumors spread that I was becoming a ‘questioner’
[giving up the religious life],” Heller relates now. “That I was studying
‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ [a forbidden text even though it is by
Maimonides, the 12th-century Torah scholar] in Jerusalem every Sabbath eve,
that men and women attended the tisch [a gathering of Hasidim around their
rebbe] I went to, where I was playing a musical instrument. I started to
receive threats, questions from functionaries. I realized that I was under

In their former small, insular community, identified with the most extreme
sects of Haredi society, the disappearance of the Heller family is perceived
as desertion, the crossing of a red line. Still, everyone expected them to
return. Within hours, all 12 employees of his consulting firm resigned.
Heller was not surprised: The move was intended to signal him that his
livelihood would be harmed if he didn’t return to the straight-and-narrow.
But he did not yield, nor did he beg for mercy.

“There is a great deal of fear. But after you contend with it, you feel
good,” he says, a thin smile on his lips.

Brave new world

For good reason the Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhood where the Hellers
formerly lived is known as the Casbah. The so-called Taliban women walk the
streets here, together with their daughters, their faces completely veiled.
Yisrael Heller, 32, and his wife Rachel, 31, had been an integral part of
this conservative community. Yisrael’s family is well-known among the Haredi
public as one of the most zealous, over many generations. His father, a
rabbi, moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh from Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea
She’arim neighborhood when Yisrael was a child, and became a leader of the
so-called sikarikim – an extremist group that is behind many of the violent
demonstrations by Haredim in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh over desecration of
graves, army service and other issues.

Yisrael, the second oldest in his family, is a media expert and strategist
who gained a reputation when working on various campaigns launched by closed
Haredi communities. Is it conceivable that someone like him, the scion of a
deeply rooted Jerusalem family, would leave the community? Now all the
evidence has led his former neighbors to one logical conclusion: that Heller
has become a Christian, God help us.

Members of the so-called Haredi burqa sect. Alex Levac

Well, hardly. He and his family simply fled into the adjacent Haredi
neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh. To ease things, Heller initially
informed everyone that he had become a Hasid of the Bratslav sect, and
inwardly he hoped that something of the Hasidic feeling would cling to him,
but in vain.

“As long as the children don’t speak Hebrew,” Heller’s mother warned him,
when she grasped that his decision to leave was irrevocable. For her, if the
grandchildren speak Hebrew, they will have severed every tie to Judaism. In
fact, after they moved, the family did not stop speaking Yiddish or sitting
down together around the Shabbat table. Not to please other people, but
because “you don’t leave a good thing – that’s something you learn as a
child,” Heller says.

The new neighborhood is a different world. The population, though Orthodox,
is moderate in its views and behavior, and immeasurably more open than the
one they left. The new apartment, where they live in complete anonymity –
none of their neighbors knows them or their parents, and no one asks
questions – is like a refuge for them. It’s a first stop on their migration,
a first foothold in the world outside the walls.

Contrite mercenary

Yisrael Heller is not the first person to leave Haredi society, nor will he
be the last. But his move is more resonant, in part because he took a whole
family with him. He’s a former editor of the ultra-Orthodox magazine Ha’eda
(The Community), and was an adviser to and creator of major public campaigns
mounted by the Haredi community in recent years. Most prominently there was
the struggle against service for ultra-Orthodox men in the Israel Defense
Forces, in 2014. Heller also organized campaigns against yeshiva students
attending secular colleges, and he waged a fierce fight against Internet
use. His campaigns, which crossed the lines of individual Hasidic courts,
had the effect of strengthening the conservative forces in Haredi society.

Heller even coined a term, “hardak” – a combination of Haredi and harak, the
Hebrew word for insect – that was intended to humiliate Haredim who did army
service, and to stigmatize such service in the eyes of the community.
According to Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, an organization that
promotes religious tolerance, “The hardakim campaign had a very significant
influence in the period after the new draft law was passed, and it continues
to negatively brand Haredim who enter the army to this day. In the most
intense period, children would chase Haredi soldiers, calling them
‘hardakim.’ The campaign’s influence waned after the government was
dissolved [in 2015] and it became clear that the law would be revoked.”

In his period as a media adviser, who helped develop strategies to change
public opinion within the ultra-Orthodox world, Heller was close to Haredi
functionaries and rabbis. He describes himself now as a kind of mercenary
and admits that iti took him a while to consider the full implications of
his actions. The more strongly the campaigns took root, the more alienated
he himself became from them and the less he was able to justify them to
himself. Today he seems contrite about that period.

2014 | Jerusalem, Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against legislation that would end religious exemptions for their community from Israel’s universal conscription requirements. Emil Salman

Heller says he actually began to break away when he was just a teenager. “I
was never truly religious,” he says. “As a boy, I experienced great torment
and I grappled with a big, inner question: Why am I like this? I wanted to
change. I liked studying but didn’t connect with prayer. I spent time on the
street instead of in the synagogue. My father didn’t grasp the situation. He
has 13 children, and if he understood, he preferred to ignore it. When
people reported on me, he tried to ‘tame’ me. But I kept doing my thing.”

One day, around bar-mitzvah age, Heller saw a man jump to his death at a
construction site next to his home. “I started to think about death,” he
recalls. “I asked myself why someone would want to die. Why one lives. As a
Haredi, the answers are very clear. But I was flooded with thoughts. About
the world-to-come. They teach you that secular people are useless garbage,
but suddenly you understand that every person has a soul.”

During adolescence, he started fishing newspapers out of recycling bins and
mailboxes, and read them avidly. When he was a yeshiva student, he would
spend hours in the local library reading books on philosophy, history and
whatever came to hand. He wanted to remove the shackles but lacked the
resolve to take even one step. His sense of helplessness paralyzed him.
After marrying, at 18, he abandoned his daydreams, doubts and agonies of
faith in order to immerse himself in making a living. He began to learn
about the world through the Internet and taught himself, slowly but
persistently, English and computer programming. He became an authority on
graphic design in the Haredi press and entered the media world. He thought
that his crisis of faith would recede, but the opposite was the case.

In the meantime, he was distraught over the dynamics between the different
sects within the Haredi community. “In my work, I became acquainted with the
workings of Haredi society,” he explains. “I discovered that there is a
great deal of hatred. Every group knows that it has its ‘outstanding rabbi
of the generation’ – and that the rabbi of the other group must be
diminished in stature. The more I push him down, the higher I will elevate
my rabbi. In all of Haredi politics, there is no discussion of what Hashem
[God] really wants. That’s not part of the lexicon.

“In fact,” he continues, “you can be a Haredi and not think about God at
all. No one thinks about God, but they are all working in the name of God,
against the Zionists, against the Internet. That’s the method. The moment
you understand how things work, you feel disconnected. And then you ask
yourself: Why do I observe Shabbat? Because I’ve been trained to do it? What
about Yom Kippur? The method isn’t based on belief but on empty slogans. As
a result, when you lose the Haredism [literally, the fear], and take a
critical view, there’s no way you can continue. It wasn’t until I shed
Haredism that I was able to start thinking about God, and my faith was then
built from the ground up. I have a different view of the Torah now; I
discarded Haredism and became a Jew.”

Heller adds that the Torah is spoken of as “the way of truth,” but
“actually, nothing has anything to do with the truth: Contrary to what
people think, the Torah of the Haredim is not the Bible. The Torah of the
Haredim is new prohibitions that were created in the past decade, such as
against learning a profession or serving in the army. They are observed more
rigorously than the prohibitions in the Torah. And there are also the rules
of modesty: the length of the skirt, the thickness of the stockings, the
width of the hat. The true Torah contains not a word about the current form
of modesty. It’s all politics between the rabbis – which of them will be
more extreme.”

The trigger for his dramatic move was the Internet campaign Heller led two
years ago: He began to violate the rules of Shabbat. “It took me time to
think about the children,” he says, “because I myself was caught up in the
whirlpool for years. But when I began violating the Sabbath, the penny
dropped. You realize that it’s your life, that you’ve fallen badly, and you
ask yourself whether you will take the children down the same path. Will
they, too, marry at 18 and have a child every year? You know that you are
running the lives of your wife and of your children. I saw them coming back
from the heder, without any knowledge. They learn Gemara [Talmud] there the
whole day, not Bible, not anything Jewish. The atmosphere fans hatred of

“My son would see a soldier and shout ‘Hardak!’ – a word that was my
creation,” he says without any obvious pride. “That upset me. I felt that my
children were becoming part of the routine, even if I was more liberal. I
realized that I had to find the way that was appropriate for me, and that I
would then be able to educate my children honestly. It came to me that I was
responsible for their lives and that I did not want to continue with this
way of life, primarily for their sake, not for mine.”

Yisrael Heller with his kids, Blimi and Yossi, before leaving the Haredi community. Courtesy of the family

The battle over use of the Internet is “one of the greatest failures of
Haredi society,” Heller says. “The Web is truly the element that has the
power to topple the walls. It’s a gateway to knowledge, to expressing
opinions, a place that can provide support to people who are alone. Everyone
who remains in the kollel [yeshiva for married men] is a Haredi; everyone
who has Internet will shake off Haredism.”

According to him, “The rabbis themselves don’t really understand what the
Internet is, but they are very afraid of it. The world of the functionaries
who are busy trying to uproot the Internet is as tiny as that of an ant.
They keep harping on lascivious stories and feed the rabbis with fear of
images of women. What interests Haredim of all stripes – Lithuanians,
Hasidim, Sephardim – is their own ego: Will something harm them politicially
or benefit them? I would listen to the discussions and think to myself:
There is a very serious Haredi public that believes you and accepts what you
say. Just don’t speak in the name of God and religion.”

It is a “distortion” to educate a boy against looking at women, says Heller.
“[It’s as if] you’re buying him inappropriate eyeglasses. It’s sick. And it
also won’t work, because you might be blocking his vision but he will see
women in his imagination. And certainly, when the Internet arrived, this
public lost its reverence: There is a serious core public that pursues a
spiritual life, but it’s diminishing by the day. I am aware of a very large
public that has two phones, one kosher [in which Web access is disabled],
the other non-kosher. These people don’t believe the rabbis. They don’t
pray, they don’t put on tefillin – unless someone is watching. There is no
God there.”

Then why don’t they leave Haredi society?

“It’s a matter of convenience. Haredi society is founded on dependence. When
a person gets married, he needs charity, food distribution, synagogues. He
needs a society. It’s a dependent system that manages to hold everyone by
the throat, to the point where even someone who is asking questions finds it
easier to suppress them. You stay by force of inertia. People don’t have the
strength to leave. Their children will be thrown out of school – and who has
the energy to look for a new one?

“I left because I was no longer capable of lying to myself and of continuing
to live in a milieu that has no future. I envisioned my children entering
the system, becoming part of the fanaticism, having to raise a large family
without any way to make a living. If you get a job you’re considered
second-class. I couldn’t tolerate the acceptance of the saying, ‘It’s all
from heaven.’ The lives of Haredi men are over at the age of 36. To marry
off their children they start scrounging for money and sink into endless
debt. And then there’s the next one to marry off – it never ends.”

Incident of the dog

When Heller felt that the disparity between his inner and external lives was
threatening to overwhelm him, he decided to share his anguish with Rachel.
It was a gamble. He didn’t know his wife well enough to be able to predict
how she would react to being told about his secret life and his dreams.
Would she take the children and leave? Or would she sympathize and join him?

They’d been married 11 years at the time and had three children, the oldest
a girl of 10, the youngest a boy of 3. He and his wife grew up in a similar
cultural and familial milieu, both of them from large, extremist Jerusalem
families. Yisrael, as mentioned, is the second of 13 children; Rachel is the
eighth of 16. But, what did he know about her? Not much. They became engaged
after a meeting of half an hour when she was 17 and he almost 18. Within a
year they were parents.

“Mentally, many Haredi couples live separate lives,” Heller notes. “The man
lives a full life, apart from his wife.” That was their pattern, too: He was
preoccupied with business and other matters, she worked and looked after the
home. They only engaged in small talk. But nevertheless, Rachel had a gut
feeling that something was happening to her husband, even if she couldn’t
pinpoint it.

“Immediately after the wedding, I understood that he wasn’t totally
‘involved,’” Cheli says now. “He got up in the morning and didn’t pray. He
wasn’t serious about anything. It hurt me that he was going to end up in
hell, and I didn’t tell a soul. He was cut off from the family. During the
day he disappeared, I didn’t know where he was. There was no communication
between us.”

The Hellers. Emil Salman

“I was alone with all the doubts. I didn’t share with her. She had her
reward-punishment, heaven-hell Judaism. It was all built on fear. I saw that
she had not the slightest doubt.”

His confession, about a year ago, was a turning point. “For the first time
in our marriage we spoke honestly, and for hours,” Heller relates. “I didn’t
want to ruin her. I felt that it would be on my shoulders if I told her that
there is no God, and she ended up following me only because she respected
me. I told her she didn’t have to think as I did, but I asked that she try
to accept me nevertheless.”

“I cried all night,” Cheli recalls. “I wanted to understand how it had
happened to him. I didn’t know what I felt.”

The next day they went to a café to talk. A first date in 13 years. “I
didn’t know my wife until then. The conversations brought us closer,” Heller
says, adding, “I was in conflict with myself. I didn’t want her to go
through the wild experience I’d had. But it turned out that she is very
sharp. Not conflicted. The moment she understands, she draws conclusions
much faster than I do.”

Cheli did not run to her parents. She read one book and then another,
investigating the life in which she’d been raised. Questions of choice,
love, partnership and freedom of expression came up for discussion at the
kitchen table. “I wanted to know,” she explains, “to understand his world. I
didn’t want him to leave me. I loved him.”

After a few weeks, she decided to take the plunge and follow him. “We
discovered our love,” Heller says, his face radiant. “In this process we
found one another anew and fell in love. I even proposed again.”

Despite the feeling of liberation, they decided not to act hastily. The
children would remain in their institutions of learning, at least for the
rest of the school year. But in the end they were forced to leave before

“I didn’t want to play a double game with the children,” Heller says now.
“We started to speak to them clearly. Not hiding what we really are. The
result was that the children started to speak freely in school. My daughter
told a girlfriend that she wanted a dog. Parents complained. I understand
them, they are afraid.”

He was summoned urgently to his daughter’s school. He was told that he would
be better off placing his daughter with another family, “so she can live
there temporarily.” Children began to hit his son in the schoolyard. Heller
knew he had to remove them from their schools before they were hurt.

‘Into an abyss’

At present, Yisrael and Rachel Heller feel like refugees on a desert island.
But they are not alone. A thin but steady trickle of families has been
leaving the Haredi world lately, including some from the most closed
circles. For example, it’s hard to exaggerate the intensity of the
aftershock when it became known that the director of the educational
institutions of a large and well-known Hasidic sect in Jerusalem had left
the community with his eight children, within the last year. Or when two
sons from a respected family of the extreme Toldot Aharon sect left with
their families to pursue a secular way of life. “Suddenly two families we
knew disappeared, as though they’d fallen into an abyss,” a Hasid from the
community says. “In a small community like ours, that’s a big gap.” Now, he
says, “no one talks about them. It’s taboo.”

According to the veteran researcher of Haredi society Prof. Menachem
Friedman, “Waves of people leaving Haredi society are intensifying today,
because the boundaries have become loose.” He adds, “The financial
difficulties with which Haredim are now coping, against the background of
the vast size of their society, and the massive exposure to the Internet,
have created a situation in which access cannot be blocked even for the most
extreme among them.” These social processes “are allowing entire families
and not just individuals to leave Haredi society.”

However difficult it may be to venture into the great wide world without the
various economic crutches typically available to Haredim, adds Friedman,
“outside, there’s a better prospect of making a living.” Whereas in the
past, the window of opportunity for leaving was narrower, and the chances of
a Haredi man with children being able to get along outside was negligible –
these days, with multiple opportunities available for such men to acquire an
education and a profession, the tables have turned.

“When young people of 18 or 19 leave, it’s a tragedy – they are alone, they
lack the core subjects of education and they have no profession,” Friedman
says. “They sink into depression. In contrast, the ability of older
entrepreneurs to establish themselves economically helps them disconnect
more easily.”

Men seem to be dominant in the current wave of persons leaving Haredi
society. “The men have leisure to think, while Haredi women give birth every
year and support the family. That is their tragedy,” Friedman avers.
Consequently, “the real hurdle is the wife. If she can be persuaded to live
in a new reality, the road is already paved.” In many cases, he notes, she
has little choice: “She has no hope of help from her parents and is lost
economically. What is she going to tell them – that she getting a divorce
and they are going to have to take responsibility for her and the children?
They’re not capable of that. And what will happen to her? Who will want to
marry her?”

Reliable statistics about the extent to which people are leaving the Haredi
world are hard to come by. Not everyone is affiliated with one of the
organizations that assist such individuals. According to one such NGO, Out
for Change, drawing on 2012 data of the Central Bureau of Statistics, some
1,300 persons up to the age of 25 leave the community each year, and the
figures decline as age rises.

A meetup for Haredim who are leaving the community, organized in part by
Uvacharta. Emil Salman

Moreover, the difficulty in finding data is also due in part to the way
people are leaving today: In contrast to the past, not everyone who leaves
the Haredi world today classifies himself or herself as secular per se.
Instead of sharply severing ties and rejecting ultra-Orthodox culture, the
transition may be less drastic or dramatic now. As with the Heller family,
many of those who leave make do, at least in the first stage, with simply
departing physically, freeing themselves from the constraints of their
former, closed communities and situating themselves between the two worlds.

A hotline for the lost

The wave of people leaving Haredi society has brought about the emergence of
a new organization that offers support to those who do not identify with
secularism even if they are total nonbelievers. Not surprisingly, it was
Heller who came up with the catchy name: Uvacharta (literally, “and you have
chosen”). The group, which is also meant to provide help not just to
individuals but to families, was founded by Meir Naor, a tireless man of 36
and a former member of the Belz Hasidic sect. Even though he is no longer
the director, he remains a magnet for those in need of professional and
emotional support.

The NGO receives hundreds of calls a month and is currently assisting about
50 families who are in various stages of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world.
“I don’t see a specific barrier, which, when you are one side, you are still
part of the community, but as soon as you cross that line, you are not,”
Naor says. When he left, more than a decade ago, things were different. Back
then, he recalls, “if you made a particular change, in your thinking, your
appearance, you dropped out, and then you’d decide that you are an atheist.
It’s no wonder, because you get an education that hammers black-and-white
perceptions into your head.”

Uvacharta took root in 2014, when suicides by former Haredim who lost their
faith, among them a good friend of Naor’s, spurred him to become involved in
thinking of ways to assist the leavers: “We launched a Facebook group called
‘leaving and entering the heart.’ Within a week we had 700 friends. We
recruited volunteers and provided urgently needed accommodations, emotional
support and employment. When the situation calmed down, I tried to get a
handle on the reasons for the distress. One thing that stood out was that an
overwhelming majority – 85 percent, according to a study by Out for Change
(a group that works for the rights of people leaving ultra-Orthodoxy) – are
people who are on a continuum of movement of identity change and do not
define themselves as secular.”

When people suffer an acute crisis, Naor says, it is caused by “the
undermining of the sense of identity and belonging. We are a group of people
who ask every morning what we believe in and what we do not believe in. We
do not live between the worlds but try out both.”

Naor can’t predict whether those leaving the Haredi world will continue to
move about within the Orthodox community or will drop out entirely. Nor can
he say whether they will one day constitute a critical mass in an election,
for example. He paints an optimistic picture that not everyone will accept,
when he says that the creation of Uvacharta has profoundly changed
ultra-Orthodox society.

“In the past the Haredi society was dichotomous. Every small change of
dress, for example, was labeled a deviation. That has changed. Many styles
of Haredism that did not exist before are now considered legitimate,” he
says. “No one is inspecting their tzitziot [prayer-shawl fringes].” That
remains to be seen.

Learning with the kids

It’s early afternoon. Bluma “Blimi” Heller, a bespectacled, smiling girl of
12, takes her arithmetic workbook out of her schoolbag and proudly shows her
father the problems she has solved. She and her 11-year-old brother Moish,
aren’t yet registered in school. The reason: Not one state-religious school
in Ramat Beit Shemesh would have them, because they don’t know the language
(Hebrew) and because of the huge educational disparities between them and
veteran pupils.

Yisrael Heller with his kids. Emil Salman

Pini, age 6, though, is in kindergarten, even if he should really be in the
first grade. Unlike for  Yisrael, who speaks Hebrew well thanks to many
“stolen hours” of reading and because he has interacted with the outside
world – for his children, who grew up protected in a Yiddish-speaking
environment, the transition is not an easy one. They have to acquire Hebrew
as if they were new immigrants, and to learn basic skills in arithmetic and
English, as well as general knowledge and learning skills.

Under Israel’s compulsory education law, the local government is responsible
for the education of children in its jurisdiction and is supposed to provide
assistance where required. But for some reason, these children are invisible
as far as the municipality is concerned. Last July, Heller had to beg the
director of the Beit Shemesh primary schools department, Uri Ben Hamo,
before the latter referred him to a few local state-religious schools;
there, the principals shooed him away.

Heller: “One school agreed to place them in a class two years below where
they should be. We refused. They are smart children and there is no reason
they can’t integrate with their peers if they receive learning support.”
(The Beit Shemesh Municipality did not respond to a query from Haaretz.)

Since September, the parents have been home-schooling the two older children
and paying for private tutors in arithmetic and English, as well as for
textbooks. Heller supervises the studies and teaches the children Hebrew.
They are making good progress, their mother says: In three months, Blimi has
reached third-grade level in math and English. She started from zero. In the
closed Haredi communities – in contrast to the Beit Yaakov network
associated with the independent education system – girls are taught core
subjects only in the most rudimentary fashion. Blimi’s major difficulty is
Hebrew, “because I am used to Yiddish with lots of aleph and ayin,” she
says, laughing, referring to two letters of the alphabet. In conversation
she gets stuck frequently and asks her mother for words.

In the meantime, the parents are filling in their own gaps with help from
the children’s textbooks. Heller looks disappointed when he asks Blimi if
she’s already studied fractions, and she says she’s still on double-digit
multiplication. Like most Haredi men, he never studied mathematics
systematically – now he’s taking advantage of the opportunity to learn.
Cheli, for her part, is learning English and improving her Hebrew. One day
she hopes to study at the academic level herself.

The children are sociable and open, and long for friends. Moish was happy to
leave the heder, where he was hit regularly with a rod. “If I was late, the
rebbe would hit me, so I was afraid to come late,” he says. After being
thrashed, he relates, he would be upset: “It doesn’t help you to learn at
all. A boy who is beaten sits with his head on the table between his hands.
He doesn’t want to talk to anyone.”

Blimi has quickly adopted the bad habit of Israeli children of offering
one-syllable answers to parents’ prying questions. How was her bat mitzvah?
“Fun,” she replies.

74 Emil Salman

There was no chance that girlfriends from her old school would come to the
celebration, held at home; Blimi understood that she was an outcast and
didn’t even invite them.

Initially, after they left, she did call her friends, but she constantly had
the feeling that they were evading her. “Either I was told that they weren’t
home, or if they did answer they hung up quickly, saying they had to help
their mother,” Blimi says. Their behavior hurt, but Moish suffered more, she
says. He was attacked by friends from school when he showed up in the
neighborhood dressed differently from the others. Children called him a
“goy” and made fun of him.

Among the girls whom the parents did invited to her bat-mitzvah party were a
few Yiddish-speakers from families who had made a similar transition. One is
two years younger than Blimi. Three years ago, this girl’s parents and her
four siblings moved from a Yiddish-speaking community in Jerusalem to the
center of the country. The girl’s father relates proudly that his 6-year-old
son has already read all the Harry Potter books. “He did not remove the
black kippa,” his father adds. “He’s an idealist [who says], ‘No one is
going to tell me what I will wear on my head.’ He has something of me in
him. I’m proud of my children. They are pure joy.”

Not only cholent

The Hellers are preoccupied with the concept of being free to make decisions
in every aspect of their lives. “We are trying to impart the idea of freedom
to the children,” Yisrael says. “They are starting to think, to feel, to go
with the flow. But it’s amazing to watch it from the side. They can tell us,
‘We don’t want to do this or that.’ I’m all for it. But Haredim call it
‘impudence.’ I also get their cooperation in their schooling. It’s not
pleasant for them to stay in the house and learn all day, but I keep telling
them, ‘If you don’t learn, you won’t know.’”

Discussions about Judaism and faith are also part of the domestic dialogue.
“It’s something new for the children to be able to talk about it openly,”
says their father, who says it’s important for him to broaden their choices
even when it comes to food: “Haredim eat cholent on Shabbat morning. We
don’t do that. Everything is open. I ask them what they like to eat, to make

Cheli, who in old photos in the family album seems to lack joie de vivre, is
gradually coming into her own. She will soon start a job in Tel Aviv. She is
growing her hair out; like all married women in zealous Haredi circles, her
head had been shaved beneath the wig. Now, “I have given my hair a great
deal of air, so it will grow beautiful and healthy,” she says, pushing hair
back from her forehead. It is indeed lovely and glossy.

One day the family even went to the beach in Tel Aviv. Cheli had never been
in the sea, nor had the children. She took a few steps in the sand and
scattered her hair to the wind.

Tamar Rotem
Haaretz Contributor