Heaven can wait
In a tell-all book about growing up in the national-religious sector, journalist Chanoch Daum describes his troubled relationship with his father, his sexually confused youth and his spiritual skepticism. But there's a limit: He's not willing to leave his home on a settlement.
The thing that scared Chanoch Daum the most when he was a boy was that no one loved him. When his parents sent him, at bar mitzvah age, to a religious boarding school in Jerusalem affiliated with the prestigious Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, his anxieties were only confirmed and deepened. That fear engendered Daum the funny guy. The joker in the pack, whose whole purpose in life was to please others and make them laugh. Today, at 31, Daum, a media man who lives in the Etzion Bloc settlement of Alon Shvut in the West Bank, is a little less funny, but still wants to be loved. Very much so. It is along this axis of yearning to be loved that he wrote his newly published autobiographical book "God Doesn't Allow," (Hebrew, Yedioth Ahronoth Publishing House).
The book washes the dirty laundry for all to see. Exactly the opposite of what he was taught at home. Exactly the reverse of what is accepted in the national-religious sector. The book, written in a personal style, a la Yair Lapid (Lapid, a journalist, novelist, television host and a good friend of Daum's, edited the book), consists of four letters. One is addressed to his father, one to his "sector," one to God and the fourth to Daum's wife, Efrat. In each of the letters Daum opens a Pandora's box and invites readers to peek into his torn soul. Constantly hovering in the background is what he calls "the demon": OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, from which he suffers and which he tries to control with medication.
Throughout the book, Daum also defends and offers excuses for his departure from religion. With his father he settles accounts for having been strict and grim, preoccupied with his own affairs and failing to address the sensitivities of a fragile boy.
He opens the letter to the national-religious sector with a confession of love and continues by specifying the reasons for his (partial) abandonment. He describes his friends as "settlers from inertia," "religious from inertia," and as supercilious. In contrast to them, he is no longer willing to allow concepts such as borders, patriotism, national aspirations and land to be the center of his life. Nor the dream of a Greater Israel: "I am no longer capable of breathing the ambition to seize territories or the attitude of ignoring the Palestinians," he writes. "The brainwashing, the paucity of subjects of conversation, the cultural cheapening, the halakhic (pertaining to Jewish law) patronizing, the discrimination against women, against members of the Oriental communities. I cannot close my eyes and say I feel distant, because what I feel is disgust."
He has equally grave things to say to God: "God in heaven is a deliberate deception of generations of worshipers." Moreover, the burden of religious life is not legitimate and is contrary to freedom of choice. And if there are a heaven and a hell, the strict observance of the precepts is hell on earth, whereas the style of life he has chosen - observing precepts according to his personal choice - is the earthly paradise.
In the letter to his wife, Daum tries to persuade her, and himself, that a mixed relationship is possible, in which everyday life is a compromise between an Orthodox existence (hers) and an almost secular one (his) - including an incomprehensible decision in the national-religious sector: making do with two children during nine years of marriage.
My insurance policy
Chanoch Daum was born in Ramat Magshimim, a Golan Heights religious settlement, the seventh of eight children. His mother, Rachel, was a school principal; his father, Yehezkel, was the rabbi of the settlement and the rabbi of Tnuva, the giant food concern, until he died at the age of 52, when Daum was 18. "During your funeral procession, dad, I had to take a piss," he writes in the first sentence of the book. "The comforters, who could not bring you back to me, gave me water to drink as compensation." It is clear from the letter that Daum constantly sought ways to the heart of the father he revered and tried by every means to please him, but without success.
Daum says his one-way relationship with his father was a great missed opportunity. "He was a very dominant person and I lived in his shadow with just one goal: to please him. To curry favor with him. He was everything in my life. Nothing was relevant but him, but no verbal communication about feelings existed between us."
Are you still trying to please him?
"Maybe today I am trying to rebel against him and do things that he would never have imagined I was capable of. But deep in my heart, I would like him to look at me and say, 'It's all right, Chanoch, you are not religious, as I would have liked, not a rabbi, you are in the media, but I love you, I love your children and what you do.' I think that would give me a lot of peace of mind."
Maybe it will happen when the dead come back to life?
"My father, like me, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. He used to say jokingly that falafel stands should be set up next to the cemeteries, because when the dead come back to life they will be hungry."
When he was 13, his father, who was a student of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, one of the rabbis who founded the settlement enterprise, sent him, together with his whole class, to a boarding school founded by Merkaz Harav. The youngsters there were the aristocracy of the national-religious movement, and the school produced rabbis, rabbinical judges and teachers. Daum likens the institution's status and the expectations held out for its graduates to the way people perceive Sayeret Matkal, the ultra-elite commando unit of the General Staff.
He hated every minute of it. "At the age of 13 you learn from six in the morning until nine at night. There are no breaks; the hours are monstrous. You are turned into a yeshiva bocher, a yeshiva boy. You are given endless tasks. You are educated to be a spiritual leader. You are still a kid, but the expectations are sky-high. That conflict made me fall apart. Of the 60 guys from my graduating class, six or seven were hospitalized at one stage or another in mental institutions."
Daum does not know exactly when he became afflicted with OCD. Maybe in kindergarten, maybe even earlier. But his strongest memory from the boarding school is the obsessiveness of the rote learning. "I remember one guy who studied the Megila Tractate 30 times every night. That is obsessive behavior."
In that institution, Daum relates, success or failure was measured by your expertise in Gemara: "To ask the right questions, to press the rabbi, to come up with your own thing. All the rest doesn't count. If you are not part of the Gemara lessons, don't talk about it at recess, too, you don't exist, you are not part of the system. It's the equivalent of playing soccer in a secular school or driving a tractor on a kibbutz - in the same way we were expected to excel in Gemara. I studied Gemara like an existential mission. It's like those Holocaust stories of someone surviving because he was a pianist or a boxer. For me, Gemara was an insurance policy. Because the matriculation exams were voluntary and the English lessons were conducted on a token basis in the basement."
Does Gemara sharpen the mind?
"No more than any other study. It is too sanctified."
Other than excelling at Gemara, Daum and his mates in the boarding school found a far more pleasant way to pass the time and survive: masturbation. All boys masturbate at this age, but in religious society it is considered a strict taboo, and those who are caught are considered sinners. "The axis around which life in the boarding school revolves is whether you manage to stay a pure person or not," Daum says. "For me it was a horrific trauma, because I realized that I would not be able to stay pure. There was one kid there who told the rabbi that he kept failing, so the rabbi told him, 'I will say Psalms for you,' but he wasn't capable of saying, 'Relax, God loves you.'"
Another aspect of life that proved intolerable was the distance from home. In the book Daum describes how he spent entire evenings next to the public telephone, crying, but not daring to call home and complain about how hard things were for him. Eran (not his real name), a classmate of Daum's, came to his aid, and they engaged in homosexual contact - innocent, Daum emphasizes, but regular. Eran warmed his bed in the nightmare-plagued nights and helped him get over his anxieties and the fear of being abandoned.
"I still see him these days from time to time," he writes, "and he lowers his eyes, afraid I will say something that will destroy his teaching career. But in my heart I always tell him that everything is fine, that nothing happened and that he should not worry and not be ashamed of what we did. That if there is a reason that I stayed alive in those harsh years it was the warmth of his body and his good soul, and the love and concern he showed me, that protection which was complex but pristine."
It started when they sat together in the library to study a page of Gemara, their cheeks touching. Afterward they held hands under the table and snuggled up like a pair of lovers. "The hour of study with him quickly became the center of the day," Daum writes, "and the physical contact became more and more intriguing." At a later stage they stole away to an unfinished section of the boarding school, where they caressed each other and fell asleep in each other's arms. One day, during an outing in a cave near the Stalactites Cave they understood that what they had was an erotic attraction and not a childish infatuation. They found each other in the dark spontaneously and embraced and kissed and breathed heavily with passion. Afterward they were wracked with awful agonies of conscience. They would decide to stop, but were unable to live up to the decision.
One day Daum went to the rabbi to confess his sins, but the rabbi, who did not bother to hear him out and convinced that it was another case of masturbation, sent him to read in the books of just men. "It was really like prisoners in jail," Daum says. "I know that others are doing it, too. It is a very difficult situation. You are supposed to grow up to be a rabbi, but all these things are happening to you, and a huge gap opens up inside you. You tell yourself, 'I am the greatest sinner on earth.' That is something unbearable, and the fact that you cannot share it with anyone leads you to suicidal thoughts. More than once I found myself on the roof of the yeshiva, where I spent a great many hours when I felt that everything was closing in on me. The possibility that there was a situation I could control, that if I wanted to I could always jump, set my mind at rest."
Daum graduated from the yeshiva after four years and was drafted (within the hesder yeshiva framework, which combines religious studies with army service). He wanted to be a combat soldier like Effi Eitam, a retired brigadier general and former head of the National Religious Party, but quickly regretted it. "The Effi Eitam types are a collective, and in practice I wasn't part of it, even though from the outside it looked as though I was. I served in the Armored Corps as a tank driver, but I was a very bad tank driver. Once I even wrecked a tank, and my mental state only became more aggravated. If in boarding school I felt that no one needed me, in the army I absolutely had no proof that I even existed. There you are worth nothing and no one cares about you or your needs."
In the book you describe a guard duty session when you cocked your rifle.
"That was a correspondence with death. With the possibility of suicide. I wasn't far from that every time I pulled guard duty."
Didn't the army do anything for your masculinity?
"Masculinity and the consciousness of a masculine ego never took shape in me. All I wanted to do was go on living, and I was far from sure that I was capable of that."
After his army service, the natural thing for Daum was to study at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva, but he stayed only a few months. He married Efrat, who came from a family of settlers and worked in the high-tech industry, and they had two children, Yehuda, now eight, and Aviv, a daughter aged five and a half. "At Merkaz Harav I tried to close the circle of the harsh boarding school experience," he says. "I thought that maybe as a mature young man it would be different, but I left after half a year and came to the Etzion Bloc."
I can write
It was there, in the settlement, that the first cracks appeared in Daum's religious faith and settler ideology. That development accompanied his meteoric rise in the media. This was the period of the fashionable secular interest in the "Jewish bookshelf," and the media adopted and promoted young religious people, at first as something of a gimmick, in order to create an impression of liberality and openness, and possibly also as a come-on for the center-right bloc, which was emerging as the largest and most influential sector in the country.
Daum was enthralled by the power of the media, and he found Tel Aviv's secularism exotic and attractive. He set himself the goal of becoming part of it, whatever the cost. First, though, came his belief in his power to make people laugh. "I was always the joker in the pack," he says. "Every year at Purim I did standup routines in the yeshiva, and I can write well. So someone asked me to write jokes for the religious press. I had a satirical column in Hatzofe [the newspaper of the religious Zionist movement] that was called 'Religious Cynicism.' It was a pathetic column and not funny."
He then wrote a satirical pamphlet for the Jewish holidays in which he mocked worshipers in the synagogues. He printed 2,000 copies and tried to sell them at one of the settlers' marches in Jerusalem. A success it was not. The "sector" did not get it. But Gal Ochovsky, from the daily Maariv, was impressed by the pamphlet Daum sent him, and offered him a column in the paper's culture section, of which he was the editor.
Daum is considered the first "Sheinkinite settler," referring to Sheinkin Street, the mecca of secularism in Tel Aviv. In record time he adopted the mannerisms and language of the leftwing columnists. In short order the editor of Maariv, Amnon Dankner, offered him the post of the paper's television critic, despite the protests of the members of the editorial board. The fact that Daum had grown up without a television set in his home did not bother Dankner. On the contrary: "To be a television critic you don't need such a broad background," Dankner says. "I remember appointing him to be the television critic and people on the editorial board jumped up and said, 'But that is ours,' meaning: Why in the world should a religious settler get a position that is reserved for Sheinkinist lefists? I found that terribly amusing, but the upshot is that he himself became a bit of a left-winger and a Sheinkinite."
Maybe because of that?
"What do we learn from this? Embrace your brothers so they will be a little more like you."
Dankner, who also has a yeshiva background, says that where he could he gave religious people such as Daum precedence and adopted a policy of affirmative action for them. After two and a half years with Maariv, Daum informed Dankner out of the blue that he had taken a job with Reshet, a media company that was competing for one of the Channel 2 franchises. Instead of firing him for conducting negotiations with one of the subjects of his writing during his stint at the paper as television critic, Dankner promoted him again. He was given the opening page in the paper's weekly magazine (after Yair Lapid defected to the competition, Yedioth Ahronoth).
The protests from the editorial board did not subside. Some said the column was not good enough, others believed that Daum was being promoted because the paper was trying to attract readers from the religious right. "I thought it would look good if he wrote a column in the weekly magazine," Dankner says. "That wasn't an easy ride, either, and for exactly the same reasons as before. People objected to his having a column at the front of the magazine because he wasn't part of the clique. I said that as long as I was making the decisions, that was how it would be."
Daum's ability to work with patrons was seen in his move to Reshet and his relations with the company's CEO, Yochanan Tsangen. He was appointed chief of the culture and current events department, co-edited the satirical program "Heikhal Hatarbut" ("Palace of Culture") for one season with Adir Miller, and was a special assistant to the CEO ahead of the tender in 2005.
You were the traditionalist-moral fig leaf for Reshet ahead of the tender, and you do the same in other places, too.
Daum: "That is an allegation I hear from the 'sector,' and I am always asking myself that question. Personally, I want to believe that it's not so, that I am giving voice to my deepest and truest opinions."
Daum left Maariv a year ago - according to some, because Dankner changed his mind and decided to drop the column - and received a personal column in "Seven Days," the weekly magazine of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest daily. "It is absolutely not true that Dankner wanted to stop the column," Daum says. "My leaving came as a total surprise that embarrassed both him and [publisher Ofer] Nimrodi, and he was very sorry about it and wished me all the best."
A few months ago, Daum left Reshet for Channel 10, where he edits the daily evening program "The Day That Was" and is a strategic adviser to the CEO. "I met Modi Frydman [the CEO] during the work on the tender, when he was working for Keshet, and not long ago he offered me a job with Channel 10," Daum says.
Dankner, Tsangen, Frydman - you really are in constant search of a father image.
"Yes, especially with Dankner, then with Tsangen, and with Modi Frydman, too, but already less, because I am more in balance now, the whole system of relations is different."
If that's how things were with Dankner, why did you leave Maariv?
"A year ago I had the feeling that something was going on there, some sort of weakening of the paper, poor management, and I believe in media mobility, that you always have to improve your position. I had an open offer from Yedioth for quite a while, so I called at my initiative and checked it out with Noni [Mozes, the paper's publisher]. I met him at the time of the tender and he told me to call him if I ever wanted to leave, so I called and asked if it was relevant. He invited me to his home and we wrapped it up by the side of the pool."
Daum is now writing in the paper's weekly political supplement, where he was moved from the magazine. "Shilo De-Beer, the chief editor, decided to move me to the political supplement, to join Meir Shalev and B. Michael as columnists."
A gentile at home
The first time Daum violated the Sabbath was in 2002, during the army's Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. Daum sneaked into the house and turned on the radio to hear the news. "That was the moment at which I understood that something big had happened, that I had switched sides. I was worried about Shmulik, my cousin, who was in the Egoz commando unit, and I turned on the radio. I felt that the walls were coming down. A religious person lives in a closed world and never approaches the door to find out what is happening behind it - like in 'The Truman Show.' And I suddenly opened the door and looked out, and then nothing was the way it used to be anymore. I didn't tell anyone about it, not even my wife, because I was afraid she would say 'Either me or that.'"
What did you feel?
"All kinds of things. The main thing was that I did not feel regret. There was not a moment like that; on the contrary, I felt great relief."
After that first time, he kept up the cat-and-mouse game with his wife. He would steal into his study on Friday night and write on the computer, he sent text messages, he stopped putting on tefillin (phylacteries), only moving them about so his wife would not get suspicious. "At some point it was clear that Efrat felt that something was afoot, and then she asked. I didn't know what I would do - go back and close the door behind me, or not; go back to 'The Truman Show' or not."
He did not go back, but went on shattering taboos and feeling like a reverse Marrano - a Jew on the outside and a gentile at home. "It was very scary to raise the subject and talk to her about it," Daum says. He admits that "there wasn't a moment when I thought it would break up something, because I love her and I am dependent on her and I need her, but it was very frightening to touch the subject, like a bomb that you don't know how to approach. The first decision was that what I want to do, I do, but everything is all right. She didn't want to know." Now, with the book in the stores, not only she knows - everyone knows.
The society he came from also feels hurt. And not least because for most of his stint in the media Daum has been writing against it openly. So it was during the period of the disengagement from Gaza. "I am very ambivalent. I love that narrative, the faith of the sector and the steadfastness."
"That narrative" ignores the population around it.
"Yes. It's like coming to someone and saying that his goal is wrong, but the road to it is very beautiful. In the last analysis, the national-religious stream assumed one mission only: to empower the settlement project. I believe that mission is wrong because in the long run it is hopeless. But they are incapable of taking in the understanding that their project is hopeless, because there will be a certain agreement that will terminate it. They cannot conceive of that, because it liquidates them retroactively, 30, 40 years back. It is a missed opportunity. If we had undertaken more missions, as Rabbi Kook said, we would have become a public of liberal openness and enlightenment and understanding that the religious way of life makes possible integration with the secular public."
You live in the territories and preach against the idea?
"I am technically Etzion Bloc, a lite settlement. I would not live in Yizhar or places like that. I tell them, 'Let's voluntarily leave the isolated places, let's give up a little in order to save a lot.' But because of that I am considered a bitter foe of the Yesha Council [of settlements], because they are fatalists and believe in all-or-nothing - which is our original sin. If during the period of Ehud Barak we had adopted that proposal at our own initiative, we could have saved a great deal."
Maybe now you are talking like a leftist because you want to please your new bosses in the media?
"Maybe that is the case. When I started out in the press I wrote intensively against the settlements instead of making an attempt to arrive at a dialogue and a compromise with them. They said, 'Okay, that is your opinion, that's fine, but don't you understand that you are their gimmick when you write things like that? It is not fair to us - we are not represented in the media - and what do you do? You grab a slot.'
"I replied, 'I am not working for you, I am doing it because of my skills.' And they said, 'No, you are exotic, you are giving them color.' Once I would have rejected that outright, but today I say that it's impossible to reject it." W