I was about 11 years old when my mother mentioned puberty for the first time. I don’t remember the details, because she didn’t share much, but she let me know what a period was and told me that I should let her know when I get it, so she can help me. A few months later, she checked in with me, but I brushed her away.
Then, during a family ball game a little while after that, I felt uncomfortable and ran into the house. With the knowledge about my maturing body somewhere in the back of my head, I called my mother to the rescue. She told me that this was an exciting milestone because my period is a sign that my body is growing and healthy and that I can have kids one day.
I pestered her for details and had endless questions. She answered each one, hiding nothing. After our talk, she told me that if I have more questions, she’ll be happy to answer them. This was how our home always was. I knew the names of all my body parts, from the youngest age.
Several years later while snooping through my mother’s closet, I found her birth control packet. I had mentioned to her a few days before that I thought it was time for her to have another baby, so I confronted her. (Yes, I was a child with many levels of chutzpah!)
I give her credit for keeping her cool when her teenage daughter crossed every line in the book. She asked me where I found it, and I casually answered “in your closet.” (My mother’s honest approach with me created an environment where I was just as honest back.)
She told me, “I appreciate it that when you have questions, you come and ask me.” Pointing to the packet, she said, “This is my decision. When you’ll be married, you’ll get to make your own decisions. That being said, my closet is private. Going through someone else’s property is never right.” She mentioned again that she was not upset and was actually happy that I felt comfortable discussing it with her. Even now, as a mother myself, I continue to ask her whatever is on my mind.
Same for my father. He always welcomed questions. He told us to never be afraid of them, even if it means that we have to call a Rav for clarification. There was a time that a Hilchos Shabbos question came up on a Friday afternoon. My father didn’t know the answer, so he told me to call his Rav. I was hardly a teenager then. My first reaction was, “no way!” but he countered me with “Why not? It’s your question, you ask. The Rav won’t laugh, he’ll actually be very happy that you called.”
He was right. So I called. My father gave me the confidence that a Rav is happy to hear from a girl like me. Since then and thanks to my father, I have no problem calling a Rav about anything, from Halacha to Hashkafa. My friends know me as the one who has the Rav on speed dial (three rabbis, actually!).
Seder night was the highlight of the year for questions. My father urged us to ask and his face lit up when we did. Until today, when we sit around the Seder table, from the little ones to the married kids, we have the liberty to stop everyone and ask. We know that Judaism fears no questions and we learned this valuable lesson from him.
My father is very down to earth with his children. He’d join our ball games, board games, sing for hours with us, tell jokes, and have towel fights after he’d bathe us when we were really young. I have the fondest memories of horsing around with my father as a child.
He rewarded us with a dollar and a kiss when we’d come home from school with a test we’d put effort in. (By the time I graduated high school, I had a nice-sized savings account!) In high school, I had a teacher who could not teach. I struggled with the material until the night before the midterm. My father sat down with me for an hour and a half and taught it to me. I scored 100% on that test. He was so happy and told me that even if I didn’t do well, he would have been proud because he saw how much effort I’d put in. I also felt comfortable telling him about the ongoings in my life – from school to friends to anything a girl thinks and frets about.
When he drove me to the bus stop on the way to camp, he kissed my face, took my hand and kissed it as well. When he got out of the car to get my luggage, he’d asked me if I had all my paperwork, food, and drinks for the trip and enough money to last me until visiting day. He would wait around until he knew I had a seat on the bus. I knew and could feel my father’s love, care, and worry for me. I continue to feel it to this day.
During part of my childhood, we, unfortunately, lived in an area with a sub-par school. So that’s where I was sent. I didn’t get the best messages from the teachers there – they rubbed me the wrong way. But my parents allowed me to talk about what bothered me and told me to ignore the ideas they considered to be garbage. They gave me the confidence to be able to think for myself and recognize that not everyone in a leadership position should be listened to.
They constantly encouraged us to learn, read, and use our time wisely. Nothing makes my mother more upset than wasted time.At the start of my senior year in high school, my parents decided that I should start looking into college options. We sat down together and made a list of career choices. After seeing that none of them interested me much, I told them I didn’t care to go to college. I was more interested in going straight to work. (This was after working on prerequisites for a few months, which my parents hired tutors for, so I could feel confident to pass all of my tests.) Not only do I have no regrets, I appreciate that my parents listened to what I wanted. (Many of my classmates and my husband’s friends went to college. Our Rebbe is very supportive of earning a living and there is no stigma about attending college.)
My mother was always on the lookout for me and advocated for me, though she didn’t always tell me about it. For example, at a parent-teacher conference, she told a teacher about something my class had been dealing with. A few days later, that teacher asked me for more details about the issue. I hadn’t known it was my mother who let the teacher know we were having a problem until the teacher mentioned it.
Before I got married, my mother asked me if I have a Kallah teacher preference. I gave my mother a name. When my mother called her, she didn’t just confirm, pay, and forget about it. She told the Kallah teacher “I’m paying the full asking price and trusting that you’ll tell my daughter everything. And I mean E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. There are no secrets.” A few weeks after I got married, my mother asked me if I had any surprises. I told her “no.” When I asked her why, she said, “I warned your Kallah teacher she better not leave anything out!”
I’m a born and bred Belzer Hasidic woman living in Monsey with over 150 Hasidic first cousins, several children, and a loving husband. I know a story like mine is rarely ever told, because the happy, healthy members of my community don’t write books, do interviews, or make movies. We quietly live our lives.
There are certainly people in the Hasidic world who are deeply hurting, who had the misfortune of coming from unhealthy families, going to extremists schools, and being led by leaders who should lose their “rabbi license.” We should not judge these individuals at all, but rather show them love and acceptance. Their stories deserve to be told. But so do the happy ones. The Hasidic world is not perfect, but too often dysfunction is unfairly conflated with Hasidus.
I wanted to let the world know the narrative they hear again and again is not the complete picture, and because my parents raised me to have a voice, I decided to speak up.