Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
Here in the United States, we have the same problems you find everywhere: drug abuse, domestic violence, you name it. One of our problems, though, is that we sweep it under the rug.
Such an admission would be unusually forthright, if not startlingly frank, in almost any place or time. But I recall it so clearly, more than two decades after I heard it, because of the person who uttered it.
He had hired me a week earlier—to work with children from some of the families he was talking about. It wouldn’t take long for me to realize that those problems, and others, had much to do with the very existence of that school.
The boys in that Orthodox yeshiva had been kicked out of other Orthodox yeshivas, almost invariably because of their behavior. I’d heeded the warnings of the man who hired me—the school’s head rabbi, whom I’ll call Halphen—about the “games” the boys might play. They played them, and I wasn’t surprised. (After all, I was a teenaged boy once!) I soon realized, however, that most of the boys would do no better in that school, in part because the main tool the school had for helping the boys was Halakhic law. More important, though, the boys—at least one, anyway—had problems even more serious than the ones Rabbi Halphen mentioned, and “the community,” as he liked to call it, was a cause.
Being a non-Jewish teacher (and a Catholic school alumnus) in an Orthodox yeshiva was, to say the least, an interesting experience. So was being a transgender woman—who was still living as a man—in an all-male environment. Of course, the boys didn’t know about my identity, though some thought I was gay. In any event, I was an outsider.
That meant the boys both looked down on, and even expressed hatred for me, but looked to me for what they couldn’t find from their rabbis and parents, or the other adults in their community. I think now of a dynamic James Baldwin described: whites who saw blacks as their inferiors went to those same blacks for love when no one else was watching them. When groups of boys were together, they mocked my goyishness, but when they encountered me one-on-one, they wanted to talk.
Naturally, they wanted to talk about wishes and dreams that were taboo in their community. One confessed his crush on a Puerto Rican girl. (As someone who’s dated Hispanics of all gender identities, and was married to one, I sympathized.) Others thought they might be gay or simply didn’t want the kind of family life their community proscribed for them: “You get married, start a business, have a bunch of kids, double your weight and get a heart attack,” as one boy mused. Still others wanted careers that weren’t part of the Orthodox menu. And there was the junior who wanted to know what I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry.
One boy, though, haunts me to this day. I’ll call him Moishe. He seemed to circle around me for months before he finally asked whether we could talk during his lunch break. I agreed. Moishe expressed some of the usual complaints about the restrictiveness of his community. All along, I had a feeling he wanted to say something else, but not what he asked a few days later: Could I adopt him?
I explained that I couldn’t which, of course, he knew—but as I suspected, his question was a pretext to talk some more. Which we did, several more times over the weeks. Then, one sunny Spring afternoon, he came to me in tears. “I want to die!” he exclaimed.
“Have you talked to anybody else?”
He shook his head. “I can’t,” he sobbed. “They’ll never believe me.”
I knew that “they” meant any authority figure in his life: his parents, his other adult relatives, the rabbis in the school and the ones in his synagogue. Nor would anyone else in his synagogue. “They’re all in on it,” he cried.
My spine tingled. This was years before I talked about my own abuse, but I knew he wanted to talk about his. “Who?” I asked.
Moishe then told me about the rabbi in his synagogue who was always calling him in to help with one thing or another. My guess is that his parents thought the rabbi knew he was a “problem” child and they were grateful for the interest he showed. The rabbi took advantage of that trust and use the pretext of errands and chores to make contact with the boy. I am not talking merely about “face time;” I mean, literally, contact—in areas that should be touched only by medical professionals with gloved hands.
Although I would not talk about my own abuse, or name the priest who abused me, until many years later, I had an overwhelming, physically aching, sense of déjà vu. So many things I experienced felt the same way, as a Catholic school alumnus and transgender woman who was still living as a man, during the year I taught in that Orthodox yeshiva. And when I hear about sex abuse in the Catholic church or any other religious institution, I think of Moishe—and the words of Rabbi Halphen, who hired me to teach Moishe and other boys who were living with the issues that were being “swept under the rug.”