Monday, June 10, 2013

Chaya Fried walks 'crooked path' between ultra-Orthodox Judaism and secular life 

For the first 18 years of her life, Chaya Fried kept her thoughts and feelings about religion mostly private, staying in line with her family's ultra-Orthodox traditions and following customs she had come to appreciate.

After a year in Great Britain at an Orthodox Jewish seminary, she returned to the Viznitz community in Monsey, the largest Hasidic group in the area and one known for strict adherence to Talmudic law. At the age when most Hasidic women marry, she was introduced to a man of her parents' choosing, a common practice within the culture, called a shidduch.

The pair met only twice before they wed, in the midst of Fried's self-realization. Ultra-Orthodox tradition demanded that she shave her head as a sign of modesty before the wedding.

Fried rejected tradition -- a move her open-minded mother respected.

"It could have easily been a rebellion," she explained of her gentle and gradual change of heart. "I was always a little different. But the point of everything is that I found a crooked middle way, and I go according to that."

Fried's crooked middle way combines elements of secular American life with elements of the Orthodox Jewish culture. She remains close to her parents, and respectful of them, but has been excluded from their household, to an extent. Lacking family support, she struggles to make ends meet. Among Orthodox Jews, she qualifies as a "tuna beigel" -- someone who wants to be Orthodox Jewish, but have a place in secular society at the same time.


It was Fried's choice to say yes to the marriage; but as the months wore on, her need to live a different kind of life asserted itself. Soon she was consulting with her rabbi and a personal counselor. Six months into the marriage, she was granted the right to divorce -- not easy to come by, in the Hasidic community.

"There was just nothing there, including no fighting," Fried recalled of the marriage.

She moved back into her parents' home, joining six younger brothers and sisters. There, tension grew as she continued to evolve. Her skirts got shorter. She began to wear makeup and perfume. She bought a computer, a step forbidden by her family at the urging of a rabbi. Fried and her parents -- a driver and a stay-at-home mom -- agreed that she should move out, mostly to shield her brothers and sisters from her secular influence.
"A part of my respect is knowing that I'm giving my siblings the ability to grow up like my parents want them to. It's for their benefit, for their own good," Fried said.

As she speaks of her family home, just a few miles from her tiny apartment in Monsey, her eyes glisten and her lips compress.
"Even as an adult, I wish things would be able to be a fairy tale, where everyone can do whatever they want, live with a family however they want, and things should continue on as normal," she said. "But then I think to myself that this is reality and that's not the way it is."

Lacking a college degree -- most Hasidic men and women choose early marriage and family over higher education -- Fried makes about $500 per week as a dental receptionist, at a health center in Monsey. She's on her fourth apartment in the past three years, bouncing from basement to basement, wherever she can find an affordable place to lay her head.

"It's not easy but definitely, definitely worth it," said Fried, now 25. "Worth it for the part that, when you look back, you see how you did it on your own."

She enjoys nights out in the city, sipping Malibu Bay Breezes and dancing to Armin van Buuren, puffing on the occasional Newport menthol, and tries to stay as fashionable as possible on a tight budget, snagging flashy gold flats, electric blue eye shadow and chunky jewelry at discount stores like Marshall's.

Still, she is observant, keeping kosher and praying daily.

She visits her family weekly, sitting down for traditional Shabbos dinner -- but when there, makes sure to "dress and act appropriately."

"I feel at home. I feel very at home when I'm there, as home as it can get," Fried said with a beaming smile. "I wish I could call it home always, but this is life."


The stories of Hasidic "rebels" are familiar enough -- and simple enough -- all about shunning the community, and being shunned. Fried's life is more about a middle ground of compromise and acceptance, where young men and women raised in Hasidic families delicately navigate their way toward a crossroads where they can keep their faith, while enjoying their independence.

"Tuna beigels," as they're called, is an accepted nickname given in jest to those Hasidim who have kept their accents while shifting toward secular society. The term was coined after attempts at a simple deli order: When one would order a tuna bagel, their Yiddish pronunciation of "beigel" would trump all efforts to appear modern.

These "tuna beigels" have set up their own communities just outside the Hasidic areas of Monsey, New Square and Kaser, choosing areas like south Monsey, Pomona and Airmont, where they can be close to their families and their Hasidic roots, but insulated from the pressure to conform.

"It works, since they're able to live among like-minded people, but they're just a few minutes away from where the insular community lives," said Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Monsey. Fink migrated to Venice Beach, Calif., over a decade ago and now heads the Pacific Jewish Center, an all-inclusive synagogue at the ocean's edge.

"It's a good, soft-landing place for them," Fink said. "It's better for them to be in that community than to be on the outs."

Many "tuna beigels" gravitate to Rockland from places like Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel in Orange County -- areas dominated by Satmar Hasidim, one of the strictest of the ultra-Orthodox sects. Fink meets and mixes with them during his annual visits of a few months each year, marveling, he says, at the frequently seamless blending of Hasidic and modern Orthodox personalities.

"In other communities, they'd be kicked out and they'd have to leave," Fink said. "But in Rockland, they can go to these other communities and live their lives there in peace."

Fink says he does what he can to develop connections between the communities.

"The middle party is growing, that's for sure," Fink said. "And we need to do a better job of welcoming it."


Fried's sister, a 22-year-old who still adheres strictly to Viznitz principles -- describing herself as "super ultra," that way -- says Fried's relationship with their family is "amazing," despite the differences that have arisen.

"I think she is a great, great person. She is a force of huge inspiration to me, which is very beautiful," the sister said. "She's kind of found her way, I think, in a very beautiful balance, where she has a beautiful relationship with her family and with her faith -- yet she's still modernized and still did whatever she wanted to do with her life."

Because Fried's sister is recently married and more modest about speaking in public, she asked that Newsday withhold her name.
Just three years apart in age, the sisters say they share a bond based on mutual acceptance.

"Her experiences in life gave her a lot, being that she didn't turn out to be the typical kid," the sister said. "It gave her a lot of life experience and understanding. It gave me a lot, too. It gave me experience in life through her."

Fried isn't worried about where her crooked path will lead her. She dates occasionally, when she "feels like it," but mostly enjoys casual fun with friends. She doesn't rule out marriage and a large brood of children -- the Orthodox Jewish way -- but isn't in a rush. Her family isn't pushing her, she says.

"Everyone should realize it's not really about the actions and the doings and the sect in particular. It's not about if your skirt is long enough," Fried said. "I'm living proof. My family is ultra, I'm not. They dress one way, I don't. And you can still tell that we're family. We can make it work. It's really all about respect and respect. Definitely respect."


I'm glad that she is still involved with her family. Many of us have kids or family members who are more, less and not observant. It's important that we all respect each other and maintain close family relationships, compromising when and where we can.


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