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Escape From the Holy Shtetl

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Putting on appropriate clothes outside her mother's house in Kiryas Joel.   

“That’s when I knew I’d lost my daughter. That she was gone.”

Deborah Feinman Schwartz stands on her back porch in Kiryas Joel holding open the kitchen door.

In different circumstances, the two of us, Deborah and me, from the same generation of New York Jews, might have had things to talk about. “She was a real hippie,” Gitty says of her mother. You could see it, too, through the haphazard turban on her head, the blanketlike smock over her shoulders, and red-rimmed eyes: the young Deborah Feinman, getting off the IND at West 4th Street, one of those girls with a guitar and an unavailable look.

Deborah, however, was not of a mind to discuss her life story. Communication came in fits and starts. Once, after hearing Gitty talk about Matty and Carol, Deborah replied, “Sure, Bubbe and Zaidy are great, until they start making you take all those music lessons.” Her parents, Deborah said, “never accepted my path.”

Another time, leaning in the car window, inquiring why a married man of 60 was hanging out with her 23-year-old daughter, Deborah stopped in mid-sentence. “Elvis Presley,” she said. I hadn’t even noticed “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” playing, at low volume, on the iPod.

But right then, Avrum, Gitty’s stepfather, pulled up in his van, stopping all conversation. “See my mother just shut up?” Gitty said later. “She’s under his thumb. She does everything he says.”

My invitation to Deborah’s kitchen was a product of much negotiation. Gitty wanted to come upstairs, but again, in the spirit of her stubborn, unfinished rebellion, she was wearing pants. It was decided that I would go upstairs, get a skirt, and bring it down so Gitty could modestly walk the 50 steps from the parking lot to the apartment door.

“Wait here,” Deborah said, leaving the room. The Schwartz family kitchen was in a transitional state. Foodstuffs, on their way in or out depending on their “kosher for Passover” status, sat on counters and in open cabinets. Three stoves were arranged at odd angles.

In the adjacent living room was a dark-wood cabinet with a sparse selection of prayer books on the shelves. While her brothers studied Torah at the yeshiva as much as fifteen hours a day, Gitty often did her homework here, memorizing the tenets of concepts like yichud, or “aloneness,” such as when it was appropriate for an unmarried Satmar male to be alone in the presence of an unmarried Satmar female.

It was also in school, looking at textbooks with large sections blacked out, that young Satmars learned there was no such thing as evolution, that dinosaur bones are nothing but G-d’s inference of an inaccessible past world, and that stars in the skies are not stars at all but pinpricks of light in a vast scrim placed by G-d for the Jews to gaze upon as they made their passage through the profane world, a world due to expire with the coming of the seventh Hebrew millennium, now 232 years away. Gitty’s formal schooling ended when she became engaged to Yoely. In the KJ tradition, she now was ready to raise a family.

Deborah returned to the kitchen after about fifteen minutes. Making a point of looking around her apartment, the manifestation of her life in KJ, she leveled her gaze at me. “People make choices,” Deborah said, handing me the skirt.

Back at the car, Gitty wanted to know what took so long. Then, she frowned. “My mother hemmed the skirt!” she exclaimed.

You see, Gitty had worn the skirt before. It was long enough to reach the floor, which seemed to fulfill every criteria of tznius except one: “I looked good in it,” Gitty said.

“See where my mother hemmed it? At the ugliest possible length this skirt could ever be.” This was the essence of the KJ aesthetic, Gitty said.

Deborah says Gitty’s decision to talk about her life in Kiryas Joel is “the act of a disgruntled, ungrateful kid, someone we tried to help but refused help.” Questioning Gitty’s maturity, Deborah says, “My daughter is not a mensch. Instead of stepping on everyone else’s head, she should take responsibility for herself.” Asked if there was any place for Gitty in KJ if she was not religious, Deborah says, “She should stop blaming religion and trying to make us monsters.”

Hearing this, Gitty says, “just pisses me off.” Nonetheless, she’ll always love her mother no matter what, even if much of that love is mixed with rachmonus, which is Yiddish for pity.

“I know what she goes through,” Gitty says, recalling the time when she was 10 and Deborah took her, along with her brother and sister, and left KJ. “She was running away,” Gitty says. “We stayed a couple of weeks at a time in different places, like refugees.” Eventually, they came to a Far Rockaway shelter, where they remained for several weeks.


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