By KIM WILSON, Weekend Herald Sun, May 22, 2020
Top rating Netflix series Unorthodox has captured viewers’ attention around the world for its compelling portrayal of 19-year-old ultraorthodox Jewish girl Etsy, who bravely escapes the confines of her closeted community in Brooklyn in the hope of finding a freer life.
The four-part miniseries, which reached No. 1 and has sat in the Netflix top 10 for months, is based on the true story of Deborah Feldman, who was raised in the ultraconservative Satmar sect and escaped when she was pregnant with her first child.
It’s a rare insight into a society that lives by strictly enforced rituals and laws. There are an estimated 2,000,000 people around the world who practise this extreme interpretation of Jewish law, and approximately 2000 of them live in Melbourne as part of the Satmar and Adass communities.
Dassi Erlich was one of them until she transitioned out of the Melbourne community she was raised in at the age of 25 in 2012.
￼Dassi Erlich has left the ultraorthodox Jewish community she was raised in. “A lot of my experiences were very much mirrored in that show. I’ve had friends who have called me up after watching Unorthodox and they say, ‘Dassi, you’ve told us that’s the community you grew up in but we never really understood until we saw that’,” she says.
Life in an ultraorthodox community involves relentlessly enforced daily rituals, no TV or access to information other than that which relates to their religion, strict gender segregation, arranged marriages, limited access to ‘kosher’ technology, and a life that exists predominantly within eight blocks in East St Kilda.
Erlich was one of seven children to parents she says were tough on her. As if that were not challenging enough, she and her two sisters were also allegedly sexually abused by their school principal Malka Leifer.
Erlich was awarded $1,024,428 in damages in 2015, one of the largest sex abuse payouts in Australia’s history. But Leifer, who fled to Israel in 2008, has not been tried in Australia. The case has received worldwide attention as Leifer continues to fight extradition to Melbourne to face 74 charges of child sexual abuse.
But Erlich’s first yearnings to escape the only life she had ever known began after her arranged marriage in 2006. It is common for couples to move to Israel after marrying so the husband can further his religious studies. The wife finds a ‘suitable’ job to support them during that time.
“I had internet access for the very first time. I didn’t really know how to use it but that also was my first window to exploring a world outside of where I was. We got it because I was looking for a job but I had no idea how to even Google something. That’s when I started questioning things because I found other stuff out there,” she says. “But there was this internal war. (I thought) ‘I’m being a terrible Jew by looking at that stuff, I shouldn’t be questioning’.”
While she was required to get a job as her husband continued his studies, her most important role was to become a mother.
Dassi’s whole life as a child existed predominantly within eight blocks in East St Kilda. “My entire life since I was a little girl, I had been taught that my only job as a woman was to bring up the next generation of Jewish religious children. Being a mother was my entire identity and I didn’t know who I was or would be without being able to give my husband children. Women who can’t carry a baby are seen as failures to do the most important and only job,” she says.
Erlich experienced fertility problems and it took more than three years for her to conceive, giving birth to a daughter in 2010. “When I got pregnant I thought, ‘I’m going to be the best Jew ever’, and I didn’t go on the internet and I did everything I was supposed to do and I prayed like 500 times a day.
Then I suffered a second-term miscarriage and that totally wrecked me. I thought, ‘If I’ve been such a good Jewish person and this is what God does to me after waiting so long to have a baby’,” she says.
“I started questioning then and I started rebelling a little bit. My wig and my skirts were a little bit longer or shorter.”
Serious post-natal depression set in after she successfully conceived and gave birth and it was when Erlich was hospitalised for it that her eyes opened to the outside world. “It just blew my mind — that is where I took my first few steps out of the community. That really opened my eyes up and made me realise there is a world outside my community and it’s not such a dangerous horrible world that I had been taught to believe that it was,” she says.
Therapy at the mental health clinic brought her to the realisation that the alleged abuse she had endured was illegal, and she made her police statement against Leifer.
“I was giving my police statement … and I think a huge part of that was realising by giving my police statement I was stamping myself with this kind of big black X in the community as a traitor,” Erlich says.
She knew that that ‘black mark’ would also impact her daughter’s future. “I couldn’t stomach the fact she was going to be growing up being punished for my actions — because she would have been. I would have been labelled a traitor therefore she would have been seen as a traitor as well,” she says.
“I know that would have affected her schooling because everyone knows everyone in the community, that would have affected her social life as well. I thought, ‘How can I bring her up in a community where she is going to be punished for my actions?’ ”
But one of the biggest challenges in walking away from the Adass community was fighting for her baby.
“I really didn’t have the support that (my husband) had, but that’s a very common theme in Jewish communities. When one parent leaves the community will rally around those that have stayed, or make sure they have nothing to do with the parent that left,” she says.
Erlich is the primary carer, but it is shared with her husband. As their daughter gets older, moving between an ultraorthodox and non-religious home is proving to be more difficult.
“He is still ultraorthodox. It is extremely difficult and has become much more difficult in the last year because when a girl reaches the age of eight it becomes the ‘age of education’,” Erlich says.
This is when young girls start to become educated about and have to adhere more strictly to some of the daily rituals and religious rules.
“It’s difficult for her going between two different homes … so I am changing my lifestyle to a more religious lifestyle, which has a lot of triggers for me. It’s a constant balancing act of ‘How do I not make her feel like she is stepping between two completely different worlds at the same time I don’t agree with those views or ideals?’.
“I’m just trying to show her that in this world, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and that as long as you respect other people’s beliefs and don’t try to push your beliefs onto anyone else then that’s OK. That’s not how I grew up, I grew up believing we had the best beliefs in the world, that they were the only right ones and we were superior to others in some way.
“I see that coming through with the things she is learning and all the stuff she is telling me. It is a constant battle. At the moment I practise those elements for her.”
The sisters have been campaigning for Malka Leifer to face justice. Erlich says without the support she received from a person connected to her community, who helped her set up a bank account and begin to learn to live a whole new life, she could not have survived.
“I didn’t know how to get anywhere because when you live in a community, you very rarely go outside of that community. I had no idea how to use public transport, how to look after my own finances.”
She wishes she had had access to Pathways, a Melbourne organisation that supports people transitioning out of ultraorthodox communities.
Founder Leah Boulton says there is an increasing number of people seeking information and resources to leave their restrictive ultraorthodox lives.
“We’re there to help support people who are questioning their ultraorthodox communities or lifestyle they are in. They might be transitioning out, which can take a long time, like years. Or they might have left 20 years ago but they find it cathartic to sit with a group of people who have a similar story to theirs,” she says. “No part of us is pulling people away from religiosity, it’s just to help people to lead self-determined lives and to have choices, and the journey doesn’t have to be lonely.”
Dassi is now trying to raise her daughter between two worlds Boulton says while there are many reasons why people find it difficult to leave, one of the most compelling is the tarnish it leaves on the rest of the family.
“The biggest reason people don’t leave is because of the impact that poses on the rest of the family. The biggest impact is marriageability of others,” she says.
“Let’s say your oldest son choses to leave — the biggest impact that will have on your family is marriageability of your other kids. There is a tarnish and scar on your family and you’re not a good family anymore. That oldest child would carry the guilt of the impact that would have on his younger siblings to find a good marriage match and the parents would put guilt on him because of that. That’s how dire it is. These people are left very lonely. Many of them turn to drugs.
“We have got one woman who has just left in her 50s; she came to us in jeans, the first time she had ever worn jeans. Another woman, leads a double life. I don’t know if she will ever leave because she needs the support of her community”
Erlich says she knows of several other people who would like to leave the community, but are fearful of how they would exist in a totally foreign outside world.
“I think there are definitely people who want to leave the community. I know some of them personally. One or two who have left emotionally and intellectually from the community but are still living the life because they feel they don’t have any other choice,” she says.
“It would have been amazing if Pathways was around when I was transitioning out because I got myself into some very dangerous situations because I didn’t know any better.”
Erlich trained as a nurse once she was able to find her feet, but she now spends most of her time focused on raising her daughter and on the campaign to have Leifer extradited to Melbourne. “I probably will go back to nursing one day. I’ve been approached about writing a book and raising my daughter is a big part of my life,” she says.
“She (her daughter) knows there is something going on, but not specifics. She knows I am trying to create some change, that is the way I have explained it to her, that it wasn’t right and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.”
Support Pathways Melbourne at www.pathwaysMelbourne.org/donate