How Jane Eyre Helped Lead Me Out of Orthodox Judaism

When I stopped restricting my fiction reading, I realized how many stories were possible

I was sitting on a beat-up, cream-colored hand-me-down pleather couch, one of many such hand-me-downs my husband and I lived on and off of during our first young years of marriage, reading Jane Eyre for the first time. It was the “big book” in the 10th grade curriculum at my first public high school teaching job — my first job teaching in the secular world since becoming an Orthodox Jew.

I had grown up Jewish, and was always engaged in my faith, attending Hebrew school and synagogue, even teaching my own Hebrew school classes when I was in college, but my practice had always been more liberal and sporadic. But after my older brother became more strictly religious and my parents and younger brother followed suit, I began to consider the idea of engaging in a stricter practice of the faith in which I was raised. When I met my husband I was in the midst of this transition, I taught him what I knew of my faith and he embraced it, not only converting to Judaism but committing himself to Orthodoxy as well. Shortly after I got my Masters, my husband and I were married, and within four years I’d given birth to my two children.

Despite my academic training, by the time I finished my degree I wasn’t sure I’d be suited for a teaching job outside of the Orthodox world anymore. When my husband graduated school we had moved to New York for him to pursue his rabbinic studies and I taught English at an Orthodox Jewish high school that separated the classes by gender. Back in Chicago a year and a half later, I taught for two years at an all-girls’ Orthodox school. Now, all these years later, I considered the possibility that although my resume and interview were sufficient to land me the job, I no longer fit in the world I had left so long ago.

During the seven years we were Orthodox, I did not read fiction, except the literature I was required to read to teach it. If I read for pleasure, it was from the tales of the Chassidic masters — which were claimed, in fact, to be faithful retellings of actual occurrences. These were primarily stories of great rabbis and their exploits, or tales of the “hidden tzadikim,” holy men living in the world as lowly woodcutters or beggars, who travelled from town to town, bringing miracles to the people who dwelt there. They blessed barren women with children, poor men with riches, and punished those who did not keep faith with the lord. I read the Bible, too, of course, but I did not consider that fiction.

But Orthodox Judaism wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t read Jane Eyre before. The truth was, I’d always restricted my reading, though not always for religious reasons. Even as a child, I’d rejected “women’s classics.” As a nine-year old I eschewed the elementary school competition to see who could read the most Little House on The Prairie books before they graduated, getting their name on the leaderboard in the library — I read Daniel Pinkwater’s fantastical, boy-focused stories instead. Though I acquiesced to reading Judy Blume, I preferred Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing over Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I would not read Little Women when all the other bookish girls did, and in my senior year, in my greatest act of academic defiance in a lifetime of compliance, I refused to finish Pride & Prejudice; I blamed our terrible teacher for my disinterest, despite the fact that I had devoured another required book, Crime and Punishment, earlier in the same year. The truth was that I had always feared what reading (and worse, enjoying) stories about women would say about me.

The truth was that I had always feared what reading (and worse, enjoying) stories about women would say about me.

Beyond my choices of reading material, I actively sought out friendships with boys that would place me in proximity to their real life experiences and identities which were, to me, the experiences and identities that seemed to be worth writing and reading and thinking about. I had plenty of friends who were girls, but early on rejected any activities of theirs that I deemed too “girly” for me, attempting instead at recess to insert myself into the boys’ more active playground games, searching always for ways to prove my physical toughness and mettle. I didn’t wish I were born a boy, exactly, but I think I felt that if I could ingratiate myself deeply enough in the world of men, I could attach myself to it like a vine and, grasping tightly, eventually reach the sunlit expanse of the forest canopy.

Of course, my conditional acceptance into boys’ activities did not grant me immunity from their aggressions. Being brave doesn’t protect you from hurt, as even the strongest woman eventually learns. As I grew, the boys did too, and more than once they crossed the permeable membrane between my world and theirs in a way that left me feeling broken, betrayed, and confused. Though strength hadn’t protected me, continuing to shroud myself in the stories of men — Raskolnikov, who held onto his ideals, misguided as they were, through hundreds of anxiety-inducing pages, Billy Pilgrim, who “Poo-tee-weet”ed in the face of the violent absurdity of existence — taught me not to let my weakness show. I remained funny and tough and cool, never dwelling on the pain inflicted on me for too long, lest I be deemed weak, and subsequently cut off from the club I’d fought so hard to gain entry into.

When I met my husband in my junior year of college, I felt I’d finally found someone with whom I could feel safe, but I still didn’t trust the rest of the world to stop letting me be hurt. When my husband converted to Judaism and we became Orthodox, it was, for him, an acceptance of the yoke of heaven, but for me, it provided something beyond that — a layer of protection from the world of men. What I couldn’t tell him was that his love was not enough to make me feel that protection; I needed a barrier stronger than any one person could provide.

Orthodox Judaism was, for my husband, an acceptance of the yoke of heaven, but for me, it provided something beyond that — a layer of protection from the world of men.

Orthodox Judaism has general rules of modesty that apply across the genders, but of course, as with any Western faith, the laws governing women’s bodies are stricter and more prescriptive. My hair had to be covered, as did my arms, my legs, and everything between, lest I drive a man to impure thoughts. I could not touch men (nor could men touch me), but beyond that, during my menses, I could not even touch my husband — a barrier within a barrier, holding my body tight against every man, even the one who loved me. I could not sing in front of men, or dance, since this too could lead to them having impure thoughts. My acts — and the acts of every woman — were the object of these restrictions. The men, we were meant to understand, were beyond help.

The religious world is not the only place where women are told such stories about themselves. I was once told, by a man who’d come to my high school to teach a rape awareness seminar to the senior class, that he could tell I had a “victim profile” from the sympathetic way I attempted to understand the motives of the aggressor in the dramatic reenactment video. Based on my experience with men up to that point, his thesis seemed sound enough: it was something about me, not them. I left the room sobbing, believing that I — not the man in the movie, and not the men who violated me — was somehow at fault. Believing, too, that there was nothing I could do to protect myself from it happening again.

And I was right. Even in the Orthodox world, with all its boundaries and barriers and protections, I was not safe. One night, the day before Yom Kippur, a friend of my husband’s from the yeshiva came over to talk to him. I retreated to the bedroom at the back of the apartment, but it was a small space and I could hear the men talking from across the rooms. The friend asked my husband’s forgiveness for a sin he had done against him. The sin was that he had lusted after my husband’s wife. I listened to my husband kindly accept this man’s apology as I sat in the dark, in our bedroom, on our bed, and felt that same violation I had felt time and again in my life overtake me. Three rooms and my protective husband stood between me and this man, and yet I felt his hot breath in my face, his hands on my arms, I felt myself being held to the bed, helpless. I saw in that moment that my demons chased me, and that they could slip through the bars of any cage I fashioned for myself.

James Joyce Ruined Me for Orthodox Judaism

A strange thing happens to your mind when you close yourself off to the world of the imagination. I could actually feel it happening to me, but I welcomed it, in keeping with my desire to bind up my life within the security of such a prison. Without fiction, you begin to lose the ability to see beyond your circumstances. And more, you begin to believe those ancient explanations of the failures and limitations of humanity and, by extension, of your own failings and limitations. “It is this way because the conditions of our existence necessitate it,” you begin to believe, a tautology that keeps you from wondering how else it could be, what else might be possible if we dared to consider it true. Instead of believing, for example, that the men who had hurt me could change, or that I could and should expect better, I bought the lie that the beasts within them had always been too wild to tame, and built the cage around myself instead. Instead of presuming that our reality was only one possible outcome in a universe of possibilities, and that one novel idea, one different choice, one step in a new direction could set the world on a different course, I read and reread the stories that told me this was how it was and ever would be, that it had been designed this way by a God who willed it as such, and that the best I could hope for — my reason for being — was to find my place in this world already set in motion by forces beyond my control.

And even if I had wanted to reach back into my mind to call up a model for how I might make a different choice than my life seemed to dictate, my arsenal of stories from which to draw inspiration was an ever-expanding boys’ club that seemed to have less to do with my reality that I had once hoped. That false but persistent myth of the universality of the masculine experience had cut me off from the fictional women who might have come to my aid in my darkest times to offer insight, connection, or perhaps even just the right bit of biting wit to ease my journey. As a child I had wanted answers I didn’t think they could provide me, and in cutting myself off from their experiences, I had rejected a piece of myself.

A strange thing happens to your mind when you close yourself off to the world of the imagination. Without fiction, you begin to lose the ability to see beyond your circumstances.

It was only while sitting on our hand-me-down couch that night, having travelled with Jane from the terrors of her aunt’s house to the falsely pious restrictions and abuses of Lowood to the disorienting expanse of Thornfield, that I began to reconnect with the power of fiction to show us both a mirror and a window. When Rochester, still fearful of allowing himself to love Jane, still wrestling with his own impossible choices, saw how deeply she had internalized the restrictions that had been imposed upon her, I felt his pain and hers all at once. “Your self-love dreads a blunder,” Rochester proclaimed, as I sat curled on the couch, my husband with his back to me working silently at the computer. I felt that familiar feeling, one that I had forgotten for so long, flood through me, the feeling of a story expanding your sense of the true and the possible. Perhaps it was Rochester’s own vigorous feeling that allowed me to bring the full force of my own to bear in this moment — that bit of bias I still retained that led me to gravitate toward the man’s point of view. But through his feeling I felt Jane’s, and in both of them I could sense Brontë’s struggle to name an experience unique to a woman in the world. And for what felt like the first time in my life, rather than rejecting it, I pulled the feeling close.

My self-love had dreaded not just my own blunders, but the blunders of the world: all the ways it could hurt me, all the mistakes the people who claimed to love me could make that might chip away at my being. Better to lock oneself away than risk losing oneself. Better to be bound and whole than free to be broken. Yet here I was, safe, I knew, with a man who would not hurt me (or if he did, by some accident, would help to heal the wound he’d made). So why was I still so afraid? Because, like Jane, I was not ready to trust myself, to live fully in the world without breaking. And though I had begun to take steps to expand my universe, like Jane, my steps were slow, and faltering, and could not be taken on anyone else’s timetable. “The Lowood constraint still clings to you somewhat,” Rochester laments only moments later, going on to say that he himself finds it impossible to be “conventional” with her. But it is not for Edmund Rochester to free Jane from her cage — a fact he knows even if it irritates and inconveniences him — she must free herself, and freeing oneself from a cage of one’s own creation takes time, and will not, and cannot, be rushed.

What I had found in religion was something I would only be able to put words to later, when Charlotte Bronte would name it for me: “A new servitude.” It wasn’t God I was serving, but order, boundaries, the rules I felt would keep me and my body safe from those who, due to animal desire and lack of self-control, would seek to harm it. I knew somehow, innately, that the kind of freedom I truly desired was much more hard-fought and hard-won than the one I’d sought in the rules and restrictions of yet another constructed paradigm. I knew, too, perhaps, when I chose this life, that I wasn’t ready for that harder, more personal fight. I trusted the man I had chosen to make a life with, but I still didn’t trust myself somehow, and was willing to submit to the constriction of my own body and mind in exchange for safety. But in the end, it wasn’t enough.

Choosing to return to teaching — and, what’s more, choosing a position in a public school where I knew I would return to the literature I’d abandoned for faith — was one of my first conscious steps outside the protected world I’d created for myself. But such paradigm shifts take time on both ends, and I wasn’t ready to abandon the safety of my bounded life just yet. When I started teaching that first year, I still wore a wig, still covered my body from collarbone to kneecap. At my interview that previous spring, though, I’d shaken the department chair’s hand — the first time I’d touched a man who wasn’t my husband or father in years. I’d begun to push back against the boundaries I’d accepted to keep me safe, and, seeing that I was in no immediate mortal danger, I pressed on: each choice leading to the next, and all of them leading me to this moment.

I’d begun to push back against the boundaries I’d accepted to keep me safe, and, seeing that I was in no immediate mortal danger, I pressed on.

The constraint Rochester speaks of is one no man can ever know. It is the self-imposed constriction of the self that can allow a woman to move, for a time, through the world of men without being hurt by it beyond recognition. And yet, as Rochester himself knows and Jane will soon learn, constricting a woman whose nature begs for expanse will only drive her to madness. I realize now that I had begun contracting myself even within the freedom of my youth, by choosing to live in the imagined worlds of men, by denying myself the open expanse of stories of women who lived within, challenged, defeated or were sometimes defeated by the world in which they lived. I wanted to read stories of men, I think, because I knew somehow without being able to name it that stories of men were stories of triumph, of conquering, of expanse, and I wanted more than anything to take up space in the world. I was afraid of what I might learn about my own fate if I embraced stories of women — all of which, as I learned when I read The Awakening for class that same senior year, seemed to have the moral that the world of men will swallow you up in the end.

Perhaps I was not ready for the stories of such women until I could see a way to begin to unbind myself from my own confining narrative, but the beauty of stories is that they are there, waiting, when you are ready for them. And if you are lucky, every so often, like magic, a story meets you at a crossroads and helps push you in the direction of yourself. I remember putting my down book on my knees, breathless, when I’d finished the chapter. I remember that my eyes were filled with tears. I don’t remember what I said to my husband, but I remember the feeling of it. I finally felt ready, not for a new servitude, but to begin to seek the imperfect and blundering freedom I hadn’t believed until that moment could be mine. I felt myself expanding to take up my rightful space in the world.

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