When I was 16 years old I told my mother that when I graduated high school, I wanted to go to college. She told me she wouldn’t allow it. We fought about it for a few minutes, and then the conversation abruptly ended.
Aspiring for college may be admirable in most families, but in mine, it was a forbidden desire. My parents are ultra-orthodox Jews who reject most of the secular world, college included. My ten siblings and I were raised in a cloistered community that looked more like an 18th century ghetto than the American society it was a part of.
I loved the close family life of my community and the ancient rituals and wisdom that shaped our lives, but I wanted the freedom to decide who I wanted to be, to become whatever I wanted to become.
As I began to push for more choices in my life, my parents made it clear that I had to choose – family or freedom.
I chose freedom.
It was a brutal choice.
My parents cut me off emotionally and financially. I was left alone to deal with the strange and overwhelming world of non-Jews, pop culture, men, America – that I was suddenly a part of.
I didn’t know how to deal with all that had been forbidden, suddenly becoming accessible.
I didn’t know how to make decisions outside the framework of religion.
I made terrible choices. I fell into terrifying situations. Bad things happened to me. My life became a cycle of pain and bitterness. For eight years, I struggled with poverty, bad relationships, illness. I lived in unkempt dank apartments. I neglected my body. My life was a mess. I grew the thick angry shell of a victim, blaming my life on the pain of losing my family, on the bad things that happened once I had left.
Finally, thankfully, a friend pointed out this paradox in my life.
“You realize,” he said to me, “that you left your community for the freedom to become whoever you wanted to be. But your entire life since then has been a painful reaction to that experience of leaving. Where’s the freedom in that?”
His words struck me deeply. They reignited my belief that had been so powerful for me as a teenager—that I deserved the freedom to create my own life.
Things have gradually changed since that conversation two years ago. I’m now a student at an Ivy League University. I’m out of debt. I’m married to a wonderful caring man. My life is healthy, clean and purposeful.
I may have abandoned the faith of my family, but I never again want to lose my faith in my own belief – that I have a right and a responsibility to determine my life, to decide who I am.