Looking back, Chaya Deitsch recognizes that she looked up to some rather unlikely role models while growing up in a Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community in New Haven, Conn.
“I wanted nothing more than to be like Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore. Even though I led a fairly sheltered life, we all listened to Free to Be… You and Me,” a record album released in 1972 featuring numbers sung by celebrities encouraging gender equality.
“By the time I was a teenager, I knew all about Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine. I’d read Nora Ephron’s Crazy Salad from cover to cover,” she told NJJN in an e-mail exchange. “I was never a child who fantasized about getting married and being a mother. I was desperate to go to college, a voracious reader, and very curious about the world,” Deitsch said.
Ultimately, with the help of a high school teacher, she did go to Barnard University and put the Chabad-Lubavitch lifestyle behind her.
Today, at 52, she lives in Manhattan’s West Village and was a financial and marketing writer for more than two decades before switching careers two years ago to become a director at a large money management firm.
What is remarkable about Deitsch, however, is not just that she was able to choose her own path, but that she has continued to maintain strong ties to her family even though they still cling to Chabad-Lubavitch ideas and customs.
The author traces her unusual story in Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family (Schocken Books, 2015). On Wednesday, May 18, she will appear at Congregation Beit Shalom in Monroe Township, where she will discuss what impelled her to write her autobiography.
“I grew up in a large, loving family of Lubavitchers, and I attended a Chabad day school,” said Deitsch. Unlike many hasidic schools, however, hers featured mixed classes.
“I was one of only two Lubavitchers in my class. The vast majority of students were Modern Orthodox, Conservative, or unaffiliated. This mix gave me a window into worlds I might not have seen had I grown up in Crown Heights. Also, growing up in New Haven gave me an extra layer of ‘invisibility,’” she said.
Deitsch described her upbringing as “fairly liberal for someone of my background. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted, saw Disney movies with my friends, and we even had a TV in the house.
“It’s important to note that Lubavitchers in general were less strict than they are today,” she said. “The Rebbe’s ‘mitzva campaigns’ didn’t really get into full swing until the mid-1970s, when I was 12 or so.”
Noting that her relationship with her parents and siblings is at the heart of Here and There, Deitsch said, “I really see my parents as the heroes of this story, because they let me find my own way, even though it was hard and disappointing for them. At the end of the day, they loved me and wanted me to be happy, and also be a part of their lives. And I wanted to stay close to them. As I say in my dedication to them, they were willing to be uncomfortable.”
The author said she was spared the difficulty of sitting down and having “the talk” with her folks. “That never happened,” she said. But she did admit to years in which she wasn’t honest about the details of her life.
“Throughout my 20s, I would make up stories about going to shul on Shabbos, when I was actually going to the movies or shopping,” said Deitsch. “The lying felt awful, and eventually I found a way to communicate with my parents that spares them the details but also lets us stay connected and ‘known’ to each other.”
The author has four sisters with whom she remains “extremely close.” She doesn’t see her extended family very often, but, she said, “it’s always friendly” when they do get together.
“There’s a lot to be said for shared DNA, particularly when your family has gone through hard times, as mine did in coming from Russia after World War II,” she said.
Suggesting that her story has a universal quality, Deitsch said, “Many people struggle with the desire to both leave and stay, to hold on to where we come from and proclaim our individuality. In my family’s case, we learned to let go of ‘black-and-white’ certainty in order to live together in ‘gray.’”