I was taking this drastic step to be a responsible mother, but worried that I was doing more harm than good by leaving.
“We are going to drive around for a little bit and then we will arrive at our cousin’s house right before the holiday starts.” I chirped as we passed over the suburb’s darkened back roads. I hoped my chatter hid the tension I felt inside. But my fingers were clenched as they grasped the steering wheel.
I hadn’t been certain that I would make it out safely with any of the children. Several months earlier, after years of marriage counseling that went nowhere, I had asked my devout husband of 22 years for a divorce. He responded firmly: “You can leave. But if you do, you will never see the children again.”
For many years, I had prided myself on being a good daughter, selfless mother and compliant wife in the Hasidic tradition. But now I knew that I had to get out.
When I was 16, I was sent to a Jewish seminary, where a rabbi was brought in to prepare me and others for our roles in marriage and motherhood. “The first thing you need to know is the importance of listening to your husbands,” he said. “Every husband needs that kind of respect. That is what will make you a good mother.”
He gestured emphatically, twisting his pointy dark beard in his hands as he stood on the small wooden podium, with over 100 teen girls seated on benches surrounding him in the dimly lit classroom.
He said that the Talmud states: “Who is a kosher woman? One who follows the will of her husband.” I listened intently to his words, taking it all in. I desperately wanted to be a good wife and mother.
When I was 18, I met my future husband for the first time — from across my family’s dining room table, as part of our arranged marriage process.
“When our children are younger, we will send them to more Hasidic schools,” he said. “And when they are older, we can send them to other types of yeshivas.” I nodded in agreement, acquiescing to his opinions immediately and letting him make the important decisions.
He knew best. After all, he was one of the top scholars in his yeshiva. In fact, his father had demanded a significant dowry before his parents would agree to have him meet with me. I was lucky.
The children came quickly.
The oldest, a girl, was born prematurely, barely eight months after we were married. The second, a son, followed closely behind, less than 11 months later. By the time I was 23 and my husband was 25, we were parents of four children. By age 39, I was a mother of 10.
And I had learned what kind of father my husband was.
“Come here,” I once heard him saying from another room. “Go sit under the table, and don’t move.” I heard a muffled cry as Daniel, my 4-year-old son, stumbled over his feet toward the coffee table and bent down, almost folding himself in half to fit himself underneath.
“Let him stay there for a few hours until he learns his lesson,” my husband insisted to me, as he headed toward his study. I tightened my lips and didn’t say a word. I kept quiet even though I knew that this wasn’t the way to treat a child.
Instead, I pushed my anger down until it was just a tiny little ball, barely noticeable in the tension of my tightly held stomach muscles. I then headed toward the kitchen and began cooking supper, blocking out the sound of Daniel’s crying with the whirring of the Magic Mill.
I would be a good wife and mother, I insisted to myself.
As the children got older, the atmosphere at home worsened. The large dining room table was set for Shabbat. It was draped in a handmade white tablecloth with beige tassels. A gold-trimmed china dinner plate sat at each of the 10 settings. At the head of the table, my husband’s setting, sat a silver goblet and two loaves of freshly baked challah covered in an embroidered cloth, which was especially designed for this purpose.
My seat was at the foot of the table, close to the kitchen door, so that I could both take care of the children and serve the five-course meal. I had gotten used to being quiet during Shabbat meals and serving the food instead of contributing to the conversation. That was what my husband wanted. That’s what the tradition wanted, too.
But this Friday night, a conversation that he was having with my oldest son caught my attention, and I sat upright as I began to share my thoughts. I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth when I saw my husband wave his hand dismissively.
“Don’t pay attention. It’s not relevant,” he said, still not meeting my eyes. “The Talmud says that women’s minds are flighty, and that is why they are forbidden to learn the Talmud.”
Filled with despair, I slumped back down in my chair. A tiny ember of rage flickered through me, but it was quickly extinguished. It was easier to be silent.
After years, I finally reached a breaking point. And against the will of my husband and parents, I started seeing a therapist. One of the first things I did when I started speaking up was to transfer Daniel, who was then 13, out of his current yeshiva, where corporal punishment was the norm, to one that had a gentler approach.
But the damage had been done.
By the time I realized that there was no way I could parent my children or care for myself within the marriage and had to leave, my older children had been made to turn against me. Those final few months in the marital home were excruciating, and I feared I would lose them all. I overheard the older children telling the younger ones not to listen to me.
The fact that I left with any of the children was a Passover miracle.
“Know this,” my therapist stated with conviction as I told her my fears and pain over leaving. “This is the first time in your life that you were really a mother.”
I gasped slightly, sitting up straight, my hands leaning on the soft handle of the dusty pink armchair. It was several days after I had left, and I had settled into a friend’s apartment near Monsey as I looked for a permanent place to live.
“But I left the others behind.” My voice wavered as my knees began to shudder involuntarily, the tips of my feet pointing into the shaggy carpet of the therapist’s office. “How can I ever forgive myself?”
I had not only left without my 13-year-old son and five older children, but had also taken out an order of protection against my two eldest sons, as I was terrified that they would hurt me or take my younger children away. It was incredibly difficult, but I knew that I had to do it.
How else would I protect myself and the younger children? How would they learn that there were consequences to their behaviors if they continued to follow their father’s lead in bullying me?
As of last month, it has been nine years since I left the marriage. I have left the Hasidic community entirely and am now an outspoken advocate for change. My role as a mother has expanded.
My phone holds countless voicemails and text messages from my older children that fill me with pain. They compare me to a Nazi who wants to destroy the Jewish people. They tell me that they will never forgive me. They say that I will pay for my actions in “the world to come.”
Each time another news article is released about my advocacy work or I publish a piece of writing, I am deluged by another slew of texts. Sometimes I block the messages; it is just too much.
Other times I reply patiently, knowing that they come from a place of pain.
On social media, I am accused of abandoning my children, as I fight a 9-year-long custody battle to keep my younger ones with me. My older children had arranged marriages one after another, and I was not wanted at their weddings. And yet, the positive ramifications of my choice to step up as a real mother on that fateful Passover eve remain.
Today, I live with three of my children in a small Brooklyn apartment in New York City, where I watch them explore the world and discover career paths that would have been impossible for them before. I am thrilled when I hear how my older daughters, who are now mothers themselves, are living life boldly. One of them has started a business, and another one has graduated college with honors. They are leading the way for their own children and teaching me more about motherhood than I could have ever imagined.
All the children are watching: the ones who live with me and the ones who don’t. I know that every time I speak out publicly about an injustice or take action to empower my younger children, I am having a positive impact on them all. I am giving them permission to choose themselves.
I am teaching them that being a good mother is more than being an obedient wife and a subservient caregiver. Instead, being a good mother has meant trusting myself and making powerful choices, against all odds.
Beatrice Weber is a writer and advocate for Hasidic children. She is the executive director of Young Advocates for Fair Education, or YAFFED. She is also an ordained interspiritual minister, speaker and coach. She was raised in a Hasidic Jewish community and had an arranged marriage with a rabbi before graduating high school.