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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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I really did wish that I was allowed to socialize with girls, but even if I could I would have had no idea how to. If a girl my age crossed my path, my heart would begin to beat out of my chest and I would look down, embarrassed. I once harbored a ludicrous fantasy of taking a girl I had a huge crush on to Six Flags, holding her hand when a roller coaster dropped, and spending the day with her, free of stigma or tension. It never got past the daydream stage.

I was missing out on a lot. But it wasn’t until I was 14 that, for the first time, I really felt like I was missing something. After my eighth-grade graduation, all five of my fellow male graduates came over to my house for a swim party. While everyone else was splashing about in the deep end, I was sitting by myself crouched over with my hand on my head, sullen, on the steps: As soon as I entered the pool, I had heard the gleeful screams of boys and girls together at a co-ed pool party, coming from my neighbors’ yard. I did not immediately realize why, but their merriment aroused a sense of melancholy within me that I had never felt before. It took a few minutes of contemplation, but I soon become cognizant that, for the first time, I was truly jealous of those living outside my bubble.

I woke up the next morning, just as depressed as when I had gone to sleep, and went to morning prayers. I tried to pray away my demons, but hard as I tried, I could not shake the feeling that I was missing out. I was set to go to yeshiva for the upcoming school year, and I suddenly felt like I was going from the eighth circle of hell to the ninth. Things were not going to get any more fun or interesting, there was not going to be any major shakeup in my life, brightening things up. I felt like I was doomed to stay in my bubble forever, while things that could have provided me with enjoyment, no matter how superficial, were going to be filtered out.

This realization haunted me over the summer and throughout the beginning of yeshiva. I suggested to my parents that I would like to pursue other options for high school, maybe a slightly liberal yeshiva boarding school, or stay with family and go to an actual yeshiva high school. They shot down all of my proposals. I was still steadfast in my adherence to Judaism, but it was hard to fully appreciate it when it felt like it was a barrier keeping me in, rather than keeping the bad stuff out.

My relationship with Judaism at this time was very precarious. The thought of leaving it all was unfathomable, but my yearning to see what life was like on the outside reached an all-time high. I wanted to maintain my observance but still have a taste of the forbidden fruit of secular culture. I eventually convinced my parents to let me switch to a non-Jewish school in the middle of ninth grade. There I had my first taste of bona fide secular culture: co-ed interaction, drug talk, Pizza Hut for lunch (from which I abstained). It was much more terrifying than I had ever imagined, though, and I left after one semester. I wondered if I would have been able to embrace it more if I had grown up in a less religious fashion.

My discontentment continued to grow until I went to that Conservative bar mitzvah; after that I realized that the way I grew up was not all that bad. Because much as I’d missed out on things that the kids at this bar mitzvah took for granted, I finally understood that they, too, had missed out on things that I had enjoyed growing up Orthodox.

I got to go to a Shabbat morning youth group, where memorizing mitzvahs earned the participants prizes. For school we had the option to attend special Sunday morning learning sessions where we studied Talmud to earn our spot on a field trip to Brooklyn. To raise money for the trip, we filmed a class Purimspiel, which I had the opportunity to star in. There was no mistaking the joy that would overtake my adolescent heart when my eyes locked on those of a pretty girl whom I had a thing for during kiddush at shul: We knew staring was all we could do, but the forbidden love was no less tantalizing.

When I was a kid, I thought that every aspect of my upbringing that I was not happy with was the end-all and be-all. I was a myopic child and did not realize that the things I pined for really were all not that great; it was all just a case of looking over the fence and seeing what seemed like greener grass. I now watch any movie I wish to, but I have found that they have a tough time keeping my attention; I prefer reading. Hanging out with girls turned out to be nice, but the joy of merely hanging out with them wore off a while ago.

I still struggle daily with what it means to be a Jew, and I don’t know what my future as a Jewish adult will look like. But now, when I look back at my childhood, there is no longer a sense of resentment or desolation. I can see my younger self waving at me from inside the bubble, happy with how I turned out, and a lot better off then he realized.

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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.

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