NEW YORK – Six minutes, six minutes exactly, she would count them off, second by second, waiting for the suffering to end, for the torture to cease, for the penetration of body and psyche to terminate. Then she could open her eyes and get on with her life. Until the next time, three days later, when the ordeal would be repeated.
“Every community has its own customs when it comes to sex. For us it was every Tuesday and Friday night,” Chavie Weisberger tells me as we talk in a café in Brooklyn’s largely Hasidic Borough Park neighborhood.
Why six minutes? “I used to measure how long it took him and I realized it was about six minutes, so about a year after we were married I told him, ‘You have exactly six minutes – do whatever you want, but no more than six minutes.’”
Like the six minutes she would allot to her then-husband, Naftali, Weisberger’s world, too, was bounded at the time by clear limits, narrow in the extreme. Without a vocabulary that would allow her to navigate a complex situation of tenuous sexual identity and a search for self-definition. Without girlfriends to talk to, without understanding that there was more than one path, that life wasn’t only what she had been told over all those years.
“I went to a brides course,” she recalls. “They talked to me about what was supposed to happen on the night of the wedding. But nothing can really prepare you for the real thing, for the situation where you find yourself in a room with someone you don’t know and are not attracted to.”
That was 16 years ago, when Chavie was only 19, the fifth of 10 siblings in a respected Hasidic family from Monsey, in Rockland County, about an hour north of Manhattan. Monsey has a large Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community. Chavie is the granddaughter of a distinguished rabbi; her father devoted his life to bringing secular Jews closer to religion; and her brothers were considered prodigies of religious learning. She herself did what was expected of her, according to the community’s rigid rules. Even if that meant marrying a man she’d met only twice before and for whom she felt nothing.
“We came back from the wedding at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she recalls. In their new home in Borough Park, everything was ready for her new life with her husband. “That is what you are supposed to do in the six months between the engagement and the wedding: prepare the house for you and your future husband,” she explains.
She went shopping with her mother, and they organized and cleaned and furnished the apartment, to make it a true home. But even before she and Naftali sat down together on the new sofa, before they enjoyed their first meal together at the dining room table, before they looked out together at the view from the living room window, they had a precept to fulfill.
“It felt to me like rape,” she says. “It’s hard for me to describe it like that, because I didn’t run away, I didn’t tell him ‘no,’ I didn’t ask him to stop, I just did what I thought I should do. But it was still a trauma that even now is not easy for me to talk about.”
Two young people who had never so much as held hands, who didn’t know anything truly personal about each other, whose conversations – on the two occasions when they had met before the wedding – had dealt mainly with the weekly Torah portion, now found themselves in a dark room, naked below the waist, at a loss.
“We both had no idea what we were supposed to do,” says Weisberger. “He tried to be gentle, but the whole situation was strange, his touching didn’t feel good, I was not attracted to him.”
Toward dawn, shortly after the newlywed husband achieved sexual climax, he called his rabbi to share the details. “He [Naftali] was not sure if what we did was halakhically valid, and the question of whether or not we had full intercourse has many religious consequences, because if there wasn’t full penetration, I was ritually impure and we were not allowed to sleep together in the same house," she relates now, referring to Jewish "family purity" laws. "But the rabbi told him that what we did was considered sex and that everything was okay."
Inside, though, Weisberger felt shattered. “I remember that in the whole week of the sheva berakhot, I felt like I was in a dark cloud of anger and confusion,” she says, referring to the week of festive meals that follows the wedding, when family and friends recite the traditional “seven blessings” of matrimony for the couple.
“All the women around me were married, and I thought to myself, ‘How dare you – you all knew what I was about to go through and didn’t warn me.’ I remember that some of them, including my sisters, told me things like, ‘This is the hardest part,’ ‘From now on it’ll only get easier,’ ‘We know what you’re going through.’ I felt betrayed: They knew the trauma that awaited me and had done nothing to protect me.”
And contrary to what they said, the suffering did not abate over time. The trauma of that first night persisted in the years that followed. “I did not fully understand that I was supposed to enjoy it,” Weisberger observes, “but at the same time I did not know why it felt so terrible. It was a horrible feeling, that my body was there to satisfy someone else’s needs. At no point did this feeling disappear – I built a wall around myself, I was submissive.”
Did you discuss this with Naftali?
“At first I didn’t talk to him about it explicitly, but he understood, and after a while I told him I couldn’t do it anymore. You need to understand that it was a terrible experience for both of us. We had no understanding of how to deal with it in a dignified way. At one point, he talked to his rabbi, and then in bed he would tell me that the rabbi told him to touch me like that, and to put his hand there. I was so angry. I told him, ‘What are you doing? Get the rabbi out of our bed.’ At the end, after a few years, we started going to therapy, but by then it was too late.”
Perhaps today, when you know that you are attracted to women, you realize that you were incapable of being attracted to any man?
“I don’t know if I felt that way because of him or because of me. It probably didn’t help that he was a one-dimensional person with very little personality outside the world of Torah. What I can say now is that sexuality is a complex thing ... I think that sexual identity is largely a result of one’s life experiences, as much as it is the product of genetics; I attribute the same importance to both. My sexuality is fluid, I don’t think I can’t be attracted to other men, but I know for a fact that I wasn’t attracted to him, and there could be lots of reasons for that.”
As in most Hasidic families, Weisberger’s mother, whose own father was a well-known rabbi in the community, was a homemaker who devoted herself to raising her 10 children. Chavie’s father was away all day, at work in a local yeshiva for the newly religious. “I remember the big Shabbat dinners with my father’s students, the songs, my siblings and their children. I had a very good relationship with my siblings and my parents. Sometimes people don’t understand that there can be a family that is big and religious but at the same time with a lot of joy and great fun. I had a normal and happy childhood.”
Finding a good match
No one at home talked to Chavie about sexuality – the usual situation in religiously observant homes. From an early age, what she knew was that almost the only expectation of her was to find a good match and bear as many children as possible. “When I was 12, my father gave me a special prayer to say to find a good match,” she recalls. “That was all I knew at the time, that I must find a righteous man to marry.”
Even as a young girl, she displayed uncharacteristic curiosity about the world outside her insular community. “When I was 13, I worked as a babysitter in a special program that my family was involved in,” she notes. “Because it was a program for people who were newly religious, there were girls almost my age who came from a secular background, and I remember that afterward I kept in touch with them. I used to ask them all sorts of questions, and they were very happy to teach me about the world outside. I remember that one day they mailed me a pair of jeans. It was the first time I had ever felt jeans in my life, but I was so afraid of being caught that I didn’t even put them on.”
She adds that when she went to the doctor she always read the magazines in the waiting room, hoping to learn about the outside world. But she was “never rebellious, only curious.”
Are you angry at your father for pushing you to marry Naftali and not suggesting that you meet with other men?
“My father did not force me – the community and culture I was raised in guided and prepared me for this moment, so there was very little room for thought about not marrying him. I am not angry with my father, I really think his intentions were good, I am angry at the system that raises little girls to believe that their whole mission in life is to be good wives and good mothers. I am angry at the community that caused my parents to have 10 children. I have three children, and that’s a lot, and it’s exhausting, and it’s hard to be attentive to everyone’s needs and to spend enough time with each child.”
Her wedding as such was a pleasant experience, even a happy one, she recalls, but then life itself began. Her husband attended a yeshiva until the evening, while she held down three jobs, teaching science in a girls school and in an extracurricular enrichment program and also giving private lessons. In the meantime, the sexual relations declined in frequency, at first to twice a week, six minutes each time, and eventually to once a month.
When did you understand that you were attracted to women?
“I’d always felt attracted to women, but I didn’t know what it meant, or that there was a term to describe it, or that it’s something that defines my sexuality. When I told my mother how I felt toward Naftali, she sent me to a religious therapist from the community. I remember telling him that I did not love my husband, and he asked me, ‘How do you know what love is?’ I told him that I had been in love once. He didn’t understand how I had come to love someone else, and I told him that it was one of my girlfriends from school. He asked, ‘Do you think you might be a lesbian?’ I asked him what that was, and he explained it to me. I remember how relieved I was, because now it had a name, and to a certain extent it removed the guilt from me, the feeling that there was something wrong with me.”
Following a pattern in Haredi communities, Weisberger was viewed as a young woman who, with the right treatment and a supportive environment, would be healed and resume a normal life.
“The attempt to heal myself became my primary goal back then,” she says. “The therapist insisted that my attraction to women was the result of a childhood trauma, and I kept trying to find what the trauma was, some kind of rape or sexual assault that I went through. I remember asking my mom, begging her to tell me about it, but she kept insisting that nothing had happened to me.”
Nevertheless, the therapist, who, according to Weisberger, was a man with professional training but an extreme religious outlook, was adamant that it was all due to a trauma. “The therapist spent all his effort on hypno-therapy in order to try to recreate that difficult experience from my childhood, and at the same time encouraged me to hypnotize myself during sex with my husband so as to try to break away from my body and enjoy the experience. What really makes me furious today about him is that he was an educated man who constantly tried to find the trauma from my past and at the same time encouraged me to continue experiencing more and more traumas as a result of the sexual relationship with Naftali.”
Like flawed goods, Weisberger found herself being passed from one therapist to another, from rabbi to rabbi, from community activist to clinical psychiatrist. That went on for five years, from 2002 until 2007, until her parents, in a final move of desperation, decided to fly in Jerusalem-based Rabbi Gavriel Yosef Rosenberg, who’s considered an expert in rehabilitating relationships. But instead of saving the marriage, he was the one who finally opened the door for Chavie and marked the way out for her.
“After a few meetings, he told me, ‘You want me to tell you what to do to save your marriage, or for me to tell you that your marriage is over, but I’m not going to tell you that. What I can tell you is that you are done with this marriage, you do not want to be part of it anymore, and that is something you have to take ownership of. My advice to you is that, instead of more couples therapy, you start working on yourself and prepare yourself for the new situation, because divorce can be a very difficult process. He really saved me, and it was because of him that I decided that I wanted to get a divorce.”
At the advice of the rabbi, Weisberger embarked on a series of special therapeutic sessions to prepare her for the new situation of being a divorced woman in a Hasidic community. She remembers being told by a therapist, “Don’t behave in such-and-such a way, because you’ll lose your children.” Weisberger was angry at the woman for scaring her and undermining her self-confidence, “but it turns out she knew what she was talking about.”
The divorce itself, in 2009, was surprisingly simple and smooth, Weisberger recalls. As dry as an agreement to transfer car ownership. You go to a court, sign a few papers and it’s done. She was given custody of their three children (who were then 2, 3 and 5), Naftali was allowed to see them on weekends every two weeks. He was also allowed to choose the schools the children would attend, and both of them undertook to raise the children according to the rigid customs of their Hasidic sect. “I had no reason back then to think that I would want to raise them in any other way,” Weisberger says.
Her new life as a divorcee was a healing, liberating experience, free of anxieties and pain – “I felt like I was reborn,” she asserts. She enrolled in Touro College in New York, studying social work, continued to teach in a girls school, and at one stage examined the possibilities of a new match. For Naftali, things were even simpler. “Within four months he was remarried, and when he had his new children from his second wife, he lost any interest in our three children and almost stopped seeing them,” Weisberger says.
That didn’t bother her, though. She was busy raising the children, going to college and searching for herself. Her studies obliged her to buy a computer, “and then I got online and starting to read things and to explore my sexuality. I read about this organization called Eshel, which helps LGBTQ individuals who come from Jewish religious families. I was excited to learn that there was a way that I could live fully and be honest with myself. That I do not have to be ashamed of my sexuality, that I could express it in a way that does not hurt my children. I had always felt that I had to choose between my sexual identity and an honest relationship with my children, and suddenly I meet families who are totally open about their sexual identity and at the same time live a wholesome family life. It opened up for me a whole new world of possibilities, and it was amazing and liberating and exciting all at the same time.”
People in her community, however, were far less thrilled with the situation. “After these meetings, I went to talk to a few rabbis I knew and asked them what my role was as a lesbian in the community, how I could continue to be part of it. Their answer was that I could not, that I had to choose. That made me so angry and made me start doubting everything I knew and felt about my Jewishness and the Hasidic community.”
What began as doubts intensified in a gradual but steady process, in which Weisberger felt herself moving on two parallel axes: She was abandoning the religiously observant world, while also coming to terms with her sexual identity as a lesbian. The question marks morphed into exclamation marks. Weisberger, who at 13 was afraid to try on the jeans she received from secular friends, shed all the barriers one by one and began to dress, eat and live as a totally secular individual.
“I realized that my old values no longer represented me, and that I needed to figure out how to move forward with my new worldview,” she relates. “I shared this process with my children, and we thought together about the values that we wanted to live by. I created a family values wall at home, and every time we came across an important value for our family, we would write it down and decorate it, and add it to our wall. My children continued to attend the same religious school, but at the same time I exposed them to a broader world. I explained to them that there are good people and bad people in every community, that there are problems everywhere. I let them try new things, I took them to street fairs in the city, and to museums and events where they could get a broader sense of the world around them. I gave them the freedom to explore and choose how they want to live their lives.”
‘I was naïve’
But in closed religious communities, changes of lifestyle swiftly become rumors that spread like wildfire. The stories about the young woman who had strayed from the straight and narrow soon reached Naftali. Weisberger was not particularly upset, not even when she was warned that she was liable to pay dearly.
“I was naïve,” she admits. “After all, I had begged Naftali to be more involved in the kids’ lives, and so when I heard that he might take me to court, I thought that no judge would take him seriously, that the first thing the judge would ask him was, ‘Where have you been all these years until now?’”
But she had misread the map. In November 2012, she was summoned to appear before a state court in Brooklyn. She arrived with a letter from a legal-aid organization to which she had appealed for help, requesting a delay in the proceedings because she had not yet had time to appoint a lawyer to represent her.
“I come to court,” she relates, “and Naftali’s lawyer gives me a huge pile of documents with all the accusations against me. And I stood there alone, confident that the judge would hold off on the process until I found myself a lawyer.”
What she did not take into account was that, whether by chance or not, the presiding judge, Eric Prus, was himself an Orthodox Jew. Says Weisberger: “He asked me if I had read the documents. I told him I didn’t get the chance yet and that I didn’t have a lawyer, and he told me, ‘You want to tell me that a girl like you who works at a magazine [Weisberger was then employed by a Jewish magazine called Binah] can’t understand basic English?’ He treated me like a child, and it felt like he was deliberately humiliating me.” She tried to explain to Judge Prus that the documents were couched in legal language and that her lawyer would peruse them, but to no avail.
To Weisberger’s astonishment, Prus accepted in full the plaintiff’s argument that she had violated the central clause of the divorce agreement, in which she had undertaken to raise the children in a religious framework. He then ordered the removal of the children from her custody, until she returned to court with legal representation.
“I was in shock,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe that this was really happening, and I reacted strongly, lashing out at the judge and arguing for the right to protect my children.”
At the same time, she realized that she had few options. That very day she packed a bag for the children, and shortly after they’d eaten supper, she handed them over to her former husband. For the first time, after years of estrangement, he admitted them to his new home. However, Weisberger, though she lost custody of the children, continued to see them under an agreement that contained three main clauses. First, the children would be with her from Monday to Thursday every week, and with Naftali from Thursday to Monday. Second, Naftali would have the exclusive right to decide about the children’s schooling and how they would be raised. And third, Chavie undertook to maintain a religious way of life in the children’s presence.
In the mornings she was secular, she relates, eating what she wanted, dressing as she pleased, living the life she wished, but when the children came home from school she had to pretend to be observant.
How did the children take it?
“It was a weird situation for all of us, but my children [who are now 10, 12 and 14] understood that it was due to a court order and that we had no choice. Once you taste something new, once you open up to another way of life, there is no way back. The children often told me how much they missed our previous way of life, but they were as afraid of the court as I was. I would tell them that this was only a temporary arrangement and that soon it would all be over. To a certain extent, all this experience just brought us closer as a family. In addition, it brought their father back into their lives, and that’s a blessing.”
How did your parents react?
“My parents did not support me; in fact, they wanted the children to move in with Naftali in the hopes that this would keep them religious. I lost the support of most of my siblings as well. You have to understand that if Naftali wouldn’t have had the support of the community, of my family, of the rabbis – I don’t believe he would have fought me in the intense way that he did. The only reason he took me to court was that he knew he had the support of everyone.”
No desire for revenge
Chavie Weisberger appealed the custody decision, and last August, the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court awarded her full custody of the children, according to the original divorce settlement of 2009. The court also annulled the clause in that agreement stipulating that the mother would undertake to raise the children according to an observant way of life.
In its decision, the court stated that, “the weight of the evidence does not support the conclusion that it is in the children’s best interests to have their mother categorically conceal the true nature of her feelings and beliefs from them at all times and in all respects, or to otherwise force her to adhere to practices and beliefs that she no longer shares.”
Moreover, the panel of four judges stated, “The mother has been the children’s primary caretaker since birth, and their emotional and intellectual development is closely tied to their relationship with her. The record overwhelmingly demonstrates that the mother took care of the children’s physical and emotional needs both during and after the marriage, while it is undisputed that the father consistently failed to fully exercise his visitation rights or fulfill his most basic financial obligations to the children after the parties’ separation.”
However, the court left intact the clause that grants Naftali exclusivity in deciding on the children’s education. Accordingly, they continue to be part of the Haredi education system in Borough Park. Naftali was also given the right to have the children every weekend and on the Jewish holidays. Another clause, to which Chavie agreed at her initiative and which is legalized in the new ruling, is for the children to be served kosher food only in both households.
Weisberger fully accepts the new custody agreement, she emphasizes. At no stage of the struggle did she wish to take revenge on Naftali, and, as she declares repeatedly, she is delighted at the renewal of the relations between him and the children. Nonetheless, she is much less pleased with the school situation. Hasidic education is excessively rigid, she says, and is not appropriate for everyone, particularly not for boys, and even more so for her son, who has needs that the system doesn’t know how to cope with. Regrettably, she notes, she has no authority to intervene in this matter.
What if the children, when they grow up, tell you that they want to be religious in the same way that their father is?
“I want them to be the best people they can be, and at the same time to follow the values that are important to me. I want them to know that they have the right to choose to be who they want to be and live the life of their choosing. I will love them and support them no matter what their future holds. The problem I have with the Hasidic community is the lack of education and the lack of choice, but once one has free choice and access to education – it’s a completely different story.”
There are many fine things in the Hasidic community, says Weisberger, such as the Shabbat meals, the food, the songs, the warmth and the love. “At the same time, I do not want them to take on the bad values that I was exposed to in the community, the racism and homophobia that I saw.”
Are you still in touch with your parents? Can you forgive them for their behavior?
“My father is no longer alive but I have a close – if somewhat complicated – relationship with my mother. In fact, I’m going to see her later today. But at the same time, I still can’t forgive her. It’s something that will always remain between us, and even though she apologized, I know that even today, if it were up to her, she would prefer for the children to live with Naftali and not with me. At the same time, I can’t say I fully blame her for that. I don’t think she allowed herself to develop an independent position.”
Since the judgment, have you brought home someone you’ve been romantically involved with?
“Not yet. If I’m in a serious relationship with someone, then I’ll bring her to our house. But my children know some of my lesbian girlfriends and the transgender people and gays. My children are more sensitive and open and considerate than most secular kids. I’m truly blessed to have such smart and sensitive kids.”