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The Boy in the Orthodox Bubble: Missing Out on a ‘Typical’ Childhood

Growing up religious, I missed out on a lot that other kids enjoyed. But looking back, I wouldn’t change it.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Eichler's, ArtScroll, and Shutterstock.)
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My bar mitzvah sucked. I’m 19, and I still haven’t quite gotten over it.

A standard Orthodox affair, it ran about three hours and was attended by a multitude of suited adults whom I had never really met. I got up on a pew in front of a few hundred people and drably finished a mesechta of Gemara, which was followed by a few speeches by rabbis talking about what a tzadik I was. I refused to don a black hat, unlike many of my friends, and abstained from participating in the dancing until I was overpowered and dragged into the hora by a several overeager rabbis. No girls, no games, no fun.

So, when I was recently invited to my friend’s brother’s Conservative bar mitzvah, I eagerly accepted. I had never been to one, and I wanted to see how the other side celebrated.

It was the epitome of joy and accomplishment. The bar mitzvah boy was the center of attention, multicolored lights shining all around, pubescent boys and girls flirting and dancing, party favors being handed out, and the latest pop music shaking everyone’s eardrums. I was leaning tentatively against a wall in the back, shaking my head in disbelief, jealousy, and sorrow, watching the kids raucously dancing and participating a variety of games. Seeing what I missed out on because of my rigid childhood depressed me immensely. Since I began to distance myself from the Orthodox world in the past couple of years, I have spent much time bitterly believing that I was robbed of a childhood, that I would rather have grown up like everyone else instead. This Conservative bar mitzvah was only confirming what I’d been feeling.

But then the party ended. And upon careful reflection, I realized that I was not cheated out of anything. Yes, the Orthodox aspect of my upbringing was unconventional, suffocating, and sometimes rather awful, but the things that seemed paramount to me at the time were, in the end, of no real importance. There is no denying that I missed out on much, but there was no void; normal childhood experiences were simply replaced with alternative ones. And looking back now at the ripe old age of 19, I can honestly say that I would not have wanted a “typical” childhood.

***

My entire childhood was centered around one thing: Judaism. Blessings were said before and after every meal and snack, davening took place three times a day, and much of my time, in school and out, was dedicated to Torah study. My mom would read me The Little Midrash Says every night before bed up until I could read it on my own, and at least once a week I was bribed into learning with a rabbi, rebbetzin, or a rabbi’s studious son.

Because of my Orthodox upbringing, I missed out on any media deemed inappropriate by my parents. The movies I was allowed to watch were almost exclusively rated G, video games had to be rated E (for everyone!), the only TV channel permitted was PBS Kids, and I was allowed to listen to almost no secular music.

Though I was usually obedient, I pined for a better selection of entertainment and would occasionally sneak behind my parents back to fulfill my urges; one can only listen to so much Schlock Rock and watch so much Arthur before going stir crazy.

My infrequent rebellions were timid and even laughable. One time, at the age of 8, I was left with a lenient babysitter and had a hankering to listen to some good music. I sneaked upstairs into my older brother’s room—he was already out of the house and had long escaped my parents’ control—and snagged some of his un-kosher CDs. I burned several of them onto the computer and after leaning my ear close to the speaker to screen out obscenities, compiled my favorite songs onto a disc; it turned out to be an unholy amalgamation of Nelly, the Chevra, and the Step Into Liquid soundtrack. I hid it in my room for a while and listened to it for some time, until I broke it in half and threw it away out of guilt.

I loved watching movies, but the closest I got to quality cinema was lip-reading Spiderman 2 over my neighbor’s shoulder on an El Al flight, or sneaking a peak of The Lizzie McGuire Movie at a friend’s house. My parents bought a “Clearplay” DVD player, which turned the most abhorrent flicks into family-movie-night material; it would filter out all the unsuitable parts of a movie and silence the curse words. I was finally allowed to watch movies like The Hulk and Rat Race that were previously off limits, but missed plot points were a major problem: When I watched Snakes on a Plane with my dad, it was basically 45 minutes of Samuel L. Jackson silently mouthing the word “motherfucker.”

Growing up in Dallas, I considered sports my second religion, and watching Mavericks, Rangers, and Cowboys games was a major pastime. For big games, all my friends who did not have televisions would pile into my living room and crowd around the TV. My parents had a longstanding policy that even when I was allowed to watch TV, the commercials had to be shut off; something about McDonald’s advertisements and R-rated movie trailers rubbed them the wrong way. Breaking to go to minyan was mandatory, so large portions of the games were usually missed. I was very lucky because my dad had season tickets to both the Cowboys and Mavericks, and we spent much of our bonding times at the games. We would watch while munching bags of popcorn, raisins, and fruit that my dad had managed to smuggle in for “dietary reasons.” We would always pull our hats over our eyes when the cheerleaders came out, and we must certainly hold the title for saying maariv the most times in the American Airlines Center.

A typical youth would have things like co-ed birthday parties and school sports games to look forward to, but the special events that my friends anticipated were brises. They did not happen very often, maybe once every two months or so, but when they did, I was euphoric. It seems strange that the ritual cutting of an infant’s foreskin, and his subsequent blood-curdling screams, were among the highlights of my adolescence, but my fellow Orthodox youth will understand. After crowding around and jumping over each other to get a glimpse of the action, we were served free food and doughnuts and got to miss the first hour or so of school. Almost like Pavlov’s dogs, to this day, whenever I hear the swift snip of a scissor, my mouth waters and I get a craving for orange juice and bagels.

My social interaction with females was stunted due to a total ban on interaction with them until high school. At Orthodox yeshiva day school, we were separated from the girls by large yellow doors splitting the building in half; the brave among us sometimes made the journey across and came back with tales of El Dorado and its longhaired natives. There was a kind of DMZ in the middle that contained the entrance to either side, the gym, a bais Yaakov that we shared a building with, and a science classroom. On a good day we would get a fleeting glimpse of the girls going to science class or taking the long way to the gym. For most of the kids, the only other time that they would even get a glimpse of nonrelated girls was during carpool, where even the school administrators agreed that it would be absurd to erect a mechitza across the backseat of each car. Apparently I was a favorite among the girls, because I would get an occasional note in my locker professing forbidden love to me. I was too cowardly to respond, though, so nothing ever went anywhere.

I was once invited to a co-ed birthday party where the most scandalous thing that would have gone on was sitting next to a girl, but as soon as my mom found out that girls would be there, she shot that plan down faster than you could say shomer negiah.

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ShloymeBaruch says:

Funny how the same things that pushed Margolese away from Orthodoxy are the same things that attracted his parents to it. I suppose there’s something genetic about assuming the grass is greener. Prepare to have kids who become baalei teshuva.

Naomi says:

I grew up in a modern orthodox family – where my mom was a graduate of JTS and my dad attended Yeshiva U. Restrictions, rules, prohibitions and isolation all ruled the “modern” Yeshiva co-ed (scandalous!) day school I attended in Brooklyn, NYC. The school was ruled by a paranoid, sadistic child abuser – may he find peace in the afterlife – who specialized in humiliating, pummeling and sneaking up on unwitting children. I grew up thinking that this was what it meant to be Jewish.
Not unpredictably, I became an agnostic – and wanted nothing to do with Judaism
until I came in contact with Jews who believed that being Jewish meant to embrace the stranger as one’s self and to actively initiate acts of kindness in pursuit of Tikkun Olam. This Judaism was a far cry from my upbringing and taught me that there are many ways to be Jewish and while my upbringing turned me away, other Jews brought me closer.

cipher says:

You watched movies and had a TV? Your parents were obviously kofrim!

Seriously though, your background appears to be right wing Modern Orthodox or left wing yeshivish, so you had some exposure to the wider culture, and you’re able to attend college so your prospects won’t be limited in the way they would have been had you grown up in the Haredi world.

Also, you’re working all of this out at the age of nineteen. It would have been far worse to have had to wait until your thirties or forties, with a family to support and a community on which you had become dependent. Fortunately, your regrets will most likely be few.

ari margolies says:

Thank you for reading. Whether you liked it or hated it, please feel free to email me at ari.margolies@gmail.com or check out more of my writing at http://www.arimargolies.com

Joshua Magder says:

Growing up modern orthodox, I can relate. However, I took the opposite path. I am glad for my upbringing, but in my own way, I’ve figured things out for myself, and while I find comfort in the Jewish community, I don’t feel any spiritual connection to it, other than a shared common heritage. I am not observant at all, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, although I can respect anyone’s beliefs and paths.

JSS says:

I went to YOF too!

Naomi says:

What years did you attend – and how did you survive?

At the ripe age of 19 you may not have enough perspective to judge. For me a completely carefree and physically free childhood was the happiest period of my life. But then that was in the 1940′s and 50′s, the world of The Christmas Story, before iphones, internet porn, and video games. We made our own sling shots, played neighborhood pick-up baseball, football, and basketball in season (without uniforms) and road our bikes wherever we pleased. The only rule was be home by supper. Those were twelve years I wouldn’t trade for nothin.

Daniel says:

Why would Tablet publish this? It reads like a freshman college essay from a kid in love with his own humdrum experiences. It also lacks some of the essential elements of good writing, making it especially uncharacteristic for Tablet. Reminds me of the memoir, “Unorthodox”, by Deborah Feldman. Only that was actually about a world people knew little about, the Satmars. Plus it had sex and lascivious mikva ladies. This doesn’t even have that.

Arden Eby says:

Why do you assume that kids in Conservative shuls don’t have Shabbat morning youth groups or special Sunday morning learning sessions or Purimspiels?

Conservative Shuls have all these things.

kweansmom says:

So the kid feels he’s missing out because his strict upbringing wasn’t much Fun. Non-Orthodox and less Orthodox kids seemed to have more Fun. Then he realizes he did have a lot of Fun, and the Conservative kids weren’t really having much more Fun than he was.

Isn’t one of the goals of an Orthodox upbringing to teach kids to value something other than Fun by the time they reach adulthood?

Joshua says:

Wait, So his parents would not let him go to a more liberal yeshiva, but
allowed him to go to a completely non-Jewish school? I can’t help but
feel that we are missing part of the story,

laboyzz says:

I know this kids brother. I grew up in a much more religious home yet managed to talk to girls for years without going off the D. What hogwash!

cipher says:

It never fails. Whenever someone publishes a story about having left Orthodoxy, someone else comes along to say, “I knew the family, they had issues, the boy was trouble, they weren’t really frum, he’s just trying to rationalize… ” Every time.

But I suppose that would be because the “Toyreh” way is the only way, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s the always individual’s fault.

laboyzz says:

Except I didn’t say that. I didn’t say he was trouble or he had/has issues. I don’t know the kid. But I know the basic religious level of the family, and they weren’t even black hat.
If he was having issues talking to girls, it was because of his own social issues, not because his upbringing. He didn’t grow up in Satmar, he grew up in a normal frum non-yeshivish community. So he can go ahead and blame all his woes on growing up frum, but he would be wrong.

cipher says:

Same thing. Someone always comes along and blame the OTD person for his own troubles. Every time. It doesn’t even matter to me if this is the one time it’s accurate; people in your world who make these statements have no credibility with me, because these statements get made every single time.

RS1961 says:

As does my Reform congregation. (Preparing for the collective gasp …)

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The Boy in the Orthodox Bubble: Missing Out on a ‘Typical’ Childhood

Growing up religious, I missed out on a lot that other kids enjoyed. But looking back, I wouldn’t change it.