The Day My Hasidic Father Visited Me at Wellesley – Forward

Posted By on August 9, 2017

Walking around the leafy campus in his black hat and long black coat, my father looks like a historical figure from another era. Fascinated by the elaborate architecture, he points to a poster on Wellesleys Science building.

What is the meaning of science? He asks.

Im caught off guard. Science explains how our world works, Totty, I mumble.

I point out some fixtures in the elevator, describing how science created the yellow paint, the emergency telephone, and complex levers to handle the strings lifting us upward. I dont think I can adequately explain the connection between the elevator and what we do in the laboratories on our computers, though. My mother tongue didnt teach me words for this.

Ive been studying science for four years but I have never had to translate it into Yiddish.

I was raised in Kiryas Joel, an insular Ultra-Orthodox enclave in upstate New York. Our sect, the Satmar Dynasty, promised a pious, holy, tranquil life. I spent my formative years attending the villages Yiddish-speaking girls school, where instead of a rudimentary education, girls were taught only what was considered practical for Jewish homemaking.

The home economics courses certainly taught me many useful skills. As a sixth grader, I was already whipping up elegant marble cheesecakes with buttery graham crusts for the Shavuos holidays. Instead of math or chemistry, I learned how to sew themed Purim costumes for my six younger siblings. There were no Regents exams or AP courses; we all received non-accredited diplomas written in Yiddish.

Our village was sheltered from modern influences, with little exposure to the outside world. All my knowledge of the world was derived from thoroughly-censored Yiddish newspapers. But as a teenager, I found a public library where I secretly practiced reading and writing in English. I discovered the Internet, and spent hours devouring books. Learning imbued in me a sense of fulfillment, discovery and wonder.

When my forbidden visits to the public library were reported to the Vaad Hatznius the Hasidic Modesty Police I was expelled from school immediately, and quickly shipped off to a religious boot-camp in Israel in the hopes that the Holy Land would make my tarnished soul see the light. It was not very effective. Somehow, I ended up at Wellesley College (a story for another time, as they say). And now, there is a an ever-widening culture-gap between my Totty and me. I wear modest clothing for my fathers visit, the first time Im conforming to tznius or the rules of modesty since coming to Wellesley. I am still mastering American style and fashion, so wearing thick tights, a long skirt and a collared shirt on a summer day makes me feel self-conscious.

But its also nice to look like I belong to him again. My father is kind, soft-spoken, and the most generous person I know. He taught me to do as he does, to stand up for what I believe in, respect nature and all living things. He taught me that real love is truly unconditional. I hope to follow in the footsteps of his integrity, his altruism and work ethic.

My father still amazes me, like the fact that he achieved Spanish and Polish fluency by conversing with his immigrant coworkers, or that he remembers every phone number by heart, and can tell me endless stories about 17th century Austria-Hungary. But this American life its cultural references, politics, and Western societal norms are completely foreign to him. Im often explaining to him things I learned on my own, like where his taxes go, how precipitation or congress works, or that college isnt just for medicine or law.

Our perspectives on education are profoundly different. It took my dad a long time to reconcile himself to his aversion to college. Im thrilled hes finally visiting. I also recognize how uncomfortable it must be for him to deal with my existence back home. Being one of only a handful of women who left Kiryas Joel for better opportunities tarnished my familys reputation. His friends pity him for having me as a daughter.

But I think hes less ashamed of me now that Im in the same college as Hillary Clinton (though he keeps teasing me, that if I cant introduce her to him it means nothing). He occasionally hints that he respects that Ive become better acculturated to secular society, and can get by in the modern world.

Weve become much more open than when I first started transitioning away from his lifestyle. While its frustrating that he keeps asking about my plans for marriage, I know he does it because he was taught thats the only way a girl can be happy. He wants what he genuinely believes is best for me.

He tells me hes proud of me, but watching him grapple with all these new ideas makes me feel guilty for having all these opportunities that he doesnt even know he was denied access to. Throughout our day together, he asks me to come home more than once.

My dad is content in his enclave. All he needs for a joyful life can be found within his idyllic shtetel. He has great friends, loves his job, and is actively involved in his insular community. But I dont think he would ever make it outside of there. I cant see him socially integrating or maintaining a conversation with non-Hasidim.

Actually, people often show him a lack of courtesy. Despite being 20 years younger than he is, strangers immediately assume Im more capable, intelligent, and polished than my father, because I speak better English. This happens in Walmart, in hospitals, in courtrooms, and even in modern Jewish communities like Flatbush or Teaneck. Its awkward to be treated with more respect than my father. Its upsetting, too. I love my father dearly and dislike seeing him so vulnerable out in the world. I worry about him constantly, that his deficits in English and knowledge of U.S. law could get him taken advantage of by dishonest car mechanics, rabbinical professionals, medical crooks, or other community operatives.

Observing the stark contrast between my father and Wellesley reminds me of myself when I first left Kiryas Joel and the Hassidic way of life. I had little awareness of secular norms, local laws, or pop culture references; I had no idea who Madeline Albright was, or Ryan Gosling, or Snow White, or Donald Trump. It made it difficult and confusing to maintain conversations with people. I was thrilled to get to know people from all different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but my broken English made it difficult to talk to them.

Transitioning from Orthodoxy to secular life continues to be an enlightening and eye-opening experience. Im learning to communicate with people from all walks of life. My English is now more polished and articulate, and my Yiddish accent almost completely gone.

Still, Im never more aware of where Ive come from as when my father came to visit. At one point, I spot a group of students staring openly at my dad and me. I am once again reminded that while I am simultaneously existing between two vastly different worlds, I fully belong to neither.

To my father, I am a Wellesley Woman. But to my classmates, I am just like my father.

Im more than ok with that. Somewhere between the two is all I ever hope to be.

Goldy Landau is a Wellesley graduate interested in technology, entrepreneurship, and cross-cultural diplomacy. She currently works in politics in New York City.

Kurt Hoffman

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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The Day My Hasidic Father Visited Me at Wellesley - Forward

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