Izzy Posen grew up in the isolated and intensely religious Satmar community of Stamford Hill, brought into focus by the popular Netflix series Unorthodox. Children are brought up to speak only Yiddish, attend under-the-radar ultra-orthodox schools and are forbidden to speak with non-Jewish neighbours: “We were brought up to believe that spiritual dangers lurk around every corner, and the job of the Jew is to separate himself from the secular world to maintain his purity and innocence.”
With tight restrictions on where you go and who you see, and access to media heavily censored, the community has built a virtual ghetto in the cosmopolitan North London suburb which keep its members living “an almost a mediaeval life”. Members of the community are married young and contraception is forbidden, Charedi families on average going on to have six children: “within a year of being married you will often have a child, which suddenly makes it extremely difficult to leave.”
The community exists in a closed economy, made up of small businesses from simcha caterers to Chasidic garb tailors, all able to exist independently of the outside world. But Izzy reveals the community’s financial stability is often underpinned by a reliance on charity and government aid: “You are brought up to be reliant on handouts and I’m not proud to say this, but there is massive abuse of the system. It’s a black-market economy where everything is cash in hand, and it is common to understate your earnings to commit tax evasion and benefit fraud.”
Until the age of 13, Izzy attended an illegal cheder where he received little national curriculum education: “We were educated in poor hygienic conditions, where the teachers used corporate punishment as a method of discipline.” The primary religious obligation of men in the community is the study of the Torah, so by the time Izzy attended yeshiva, he was expected to study, as the text itself proclaims, day and night: “It was very intense, you would come to yeshiva at 8am and leave at 10pm. It’s almost a transcendental experience sitting for hours and hours just studying texts. It can make you very euphoric, and I admit I often took great pleasure in it.”
The Chasidic community is chiefly hierarchical, with strict expectations for its members to contribute and fit into the social norms, but Izzy is careful not to cast moral judgements: “The Rabbis set the standards and the members are expected to fit in. There are severe repercussions for disobedience, but as long as you buy into its rules, the committee is extremely supportive of its members. It’s a young, vibrant community full of life, where everyone plays a role and has each other’s backs.”
By the age of 14, Izzy started to question the ideology he realised was curtailing his educational and social horizons: “I wanted to understand why we were shutting out the outside world, and I had a feeling they were hiding something from us. Even within the Jewish canon there were books we weren’t allowed to read. If I was to believe what they told me to be true, I wanted to see the proof.” So began his teenage years of sneaking forbidden texts under his mattress from the great Jewish philosophers which fuelled his quest for knowledge.
Izzy was brought up to follow in his father’s footsteps as a rabbinical scholar: “When I was young, I wanted to be like him and enjoyed learning. But as my teenage years progressed, I believed in the system less and less. The theories we were taught were so irrational. Everything has cosmic significance, down to the way you tie your sash, to whether you eat with your right or left hand. Spiritual guilt and fear became the emotions that defined my teenage years.”
At 18 years of age, Izzy was sent away to a Chasidic yeshiva in Gateshead where he would regularly sneak into the secular library and use the internet to discover more about the outside world: “I started teaching myself English using Peter and Jane books, so I could read more and more complex texts and teach myself basic mathematics and primary school age science. After two years in Gateshead, I had lost faith completely. The months of doubt were crippling me, and I had to decide which path to take.”
So on Shabbat, while his friends were in the synagogue praying, he slipped off to Tesco in full Chasidic garb: “In the Judaism I was brought up in, there are two kinds of sins, those you do with your body and those you do to your body. A sin that you do with your body is much worse because you embody the sin. So eating pork, the essence of this defiled animal becomes part of you. One of the theories we have for why non-Jews don’t see the truth of Judaism is because clouds their mind from seeing the truth. So when I bit into that ham sandwich in a toilet cubicle, I was literally shaking – it was the ultimate transgression. In that moment, it felt like a reverse confirmation out of the faith.”
Resolved to leave the religion, but with no contacts outside the community, he reached out to those online who had been in the same position: “The community has a narrative that says it’s impossible to leave – you’ll either regret it and come back, or commit suicide. So, it was nice to be reassured that it could be done.”
Izzy’s yeshiva mentor knew of his spiritual struggles and for months had tried to steer him back towards the religion. But at the end of his time in Gateshead, Izzy plucked up the courage to reveal he had desecrated the Sabbath and was no longer religious. In his tutor’s eyes, Izzy was now beyond saving, and his parents were duly notified.
“The discussion I had with my parents on the phone was really, really painful. We always had an amazing relationship – it wasn’t the kind of rebellion where I wanted to hurt them. My dad cried and said it was the saddest day of his life. I love him dearly, and to hear him say he may as well be dead if I was going to do this, racked me with guilt.”
Izzy’s parents convinced him to spend time in an Israeli programme established to keep rebellious teens in the religion: “I was encouraged to speak with many Rabbis, some of whom were very nice and simply gave me their arguments for why the religion is true. But there were also some not-so-nice instances. One tried to convince me that I simply had a psychiatric disorder causing my doubts and sent me to a psychologist.”
During this time, Izzy was still in touch with Mavar, which was preparing a place for him to stay on his return in the event the family relationship broke down: “They told me the academic year was nearing and my aim was to get to university, so I told my dad I was coming home. But he said if I came back, and I wasn’t religious, I could no longer be part of the family.”
This was the final contact Izzy had with the majority of his family: “I have the most beautiful, loving family, my 11 siblings mean the world to me. It’s been five and a half years since I’ve sat at the family table for Friday night dinner – I miss that enormously.
“In hindsight, I wish I had been more sensitive about leaving and just lied more. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely religious again, but you do a lot of things for family. Maybe one day we’ll meet halfway, and they will welcome me back – I really hope so.”
When people in similar situations reach out to Izzy through his blog charting his journey, he extols the virtues of compromise: “I tell them that being authentic and independent are good values, but are they really worth losing a loving family for? You don’t have to tell your parents exactly what you believe. I wouldn’t have been kicked out if my only sin was going to university – there is a middle ground.”
To hold on to the possibility of rekindling broken relationships, Izzy’s life remains a balancing act to this day: “I know if I marry a non-Jewish woman, chances are that my kids will never see their grandparents. Maybe this is a sacrifice I will need to make.”
Mavar arranged for Izzy to stay with a couple upon being made homeless, but he soon had to make his own way, working by day to pay the rent and studying for his GCSEs by night: “That was a tough period for me, working hard in unfulfilling low wage jobs. I was very isolated and severely depressed, it took time to get to grips with the norms of a new society.”
But soon, he began to forge friendships and make headway with his education. Three years after leaving the community, he was offered a place at the University of Bristol for a degree in Physics and Philosophy, in which he is about to graduate with a masters and is now hoping to enrol in a PhD: “Things look very bright and exciting from here! Ironically, I was brought up to be a lecturer, and now I find myself on track to become a lecturer in a very different kind of philosophy.”
Izzy is all too aware of our human tendency to shade experiences in black and white, and rejects his story as being one of good versus bad: “I don’t want readers to hear my story and think the Chasidic community leads an evil, backwards way of life. My parents are suffering immensely. They spent a lifetime raising an honourable family in the community and I tarnished their name for my own ends – to them, I’m the evil one.
“We have to look at it with a degree of cultural relativism – the secular community isn’t completely open and enlightened either. Anyone who lives in any kind of society must give up some freedoms to live by its societal norms.”
As an atheist, Izzy doesn’t attend synagogue, but still remains true to his Jewish heritage in many respects: “I don’t keep kosher, but I do Friday night dinner every week and find it very meaningful. I try and pick the good things from secular life and religious life and concoct my own worldview. After going what I went through, I could be bitter and say I was abused as a child and denied an education. But I also gained a tremendous amount from being brought up in such a supportive culture which gave me tradition and shaped my perspective, and I’m grateful for that.”