If you’re reading this (don’t worry it’s not too late) you’re probably someone who has come across an exodus story in your life. It’s the story of a religious person, preferably a Hasidic Jew, that finds the world, embraces it, and leaves their community.
It makes for a great story. It’s amazingly American. The search for freedom and the willingness to sacrifice for it. It’s a great reminder for those who grew up with only freedom what it’s like to breathe it, to have it be your air.
It’s also, like all skeletal plots, overused, oversimplified, probably less dramatic and definitely less linear than described. So let me walk you through some of the tropes. Actually, it’s just one trope. It’s what I get asked most often. And that’s how my family’s taken it.
Let me explain to you why that’s not the most important part.
1) There is no dramatic excommunication. Usually, the family figures out how to adjust itself to accommodate you and vice versa. They love you and you love them and in a way it makes it tougher. You know in your heart how much you’ve disappointed them but they won’t tell it to your face, and you know how tough it is for them not to ask you when you’re getting married when they deeply believe that that’s the only way you’ll be happy.
It’s probably a lot more similar than you realize to leaving your rural conservative hometown and coming back a raging liberal New Yorker, or what happens when you’re 29 and you’ve only just settled on a career that you’re not entirely happy with, or when the little brother that looked up to you surpasses you in everything. Every family has its drama that happens completely undramatically at a kitchen table, or in the phone calls about Christmas plans, or the quick weekend home, or when your parents move out of the old house where you grew up, and what’s left is only an old couple with memories that may or may not be real.
2) Some of it is not drama at all. It’s boring shit like how do I get a college degree when I’m 23 and I’ve never heard the terms elective, major, general ed, as they relate to college degrees? How do I choose a career when I’ve never even met a journalist or a biologist? How do I pay for college if I have no skills except reading Hebrew? How do I know what size jeans I am? How do I order a drink at a bar? How do I know when a boy is flirting with me?
3) This isn’t only about community. This is about an entire worldview. If you’ve ever had your heart broken over a love you thought was real, and you truly believed you’d devote the rest of your life to, and then it falls apart and he turns out to be a jerk, you know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever trust yourself again. Try losing trust in yourself, your parents, your community, your books, your way of examining the world and interpreting and digesting it. Try telling yourself that all those things you love — the songs and the tales and that feeling when you enter the hushed women’s section during services and the men are intoning a familiar part of the prayers — are a liability. Tell yourself that you need to abandon that for now because it’s too seductive.
Later, you’ll learn to be okay with the human need for familiarity and belonging, but by then it will be too late. Because by then you won’t belong, and then the intonations and the aphorisms and the shared intellectual foundation will be shells. They’ll be a way to visit a once populated land. They’ll be museums and monuments, a way to mourn a civilization you once knew.