Pho­to by Dann Toliver

I’m the grand­daugh­ter of an Ortho­dox Jew­ish rab­bi whom every­one loved. I nev­er knew him, though I’m told he adored me. I was told, too, that he was a writer like me. My moth­er was always telling sto­ries about him and about her life grow­ing up in an Ortho­dox house­hold, which was par­adise for her. There was always music and singing at the table, she said. Always the com­pa­ny of her eight sib­lings and so much food and love. She felt safe and pro­tect­ed. But then, in her twen­ties, her father died sud­den­ly of a heart attack; she couldn’t for­give a God who would do this, and so she stopped believ­ing in Him. She with­drew from the com­mu­ni­ty she had loved, even as she still yearned for it and kept a kind of Jew­ish rit­u­al for her­self. She wouldn’t eat ham. She had a sil­ver set of can­dle­sticks she some­times lit on Sab­bath nights, and though she kept my sis­ter and I out of school on cer­tain Jew­ish hol­i­days, we rarely, if ever, went to temple. 

I was haunt­ed by this idea of my mom being caught between two worlds, of yearn­ing for com­mu­ni­ty. Maybe because I was yearn­ing too. I was the one Jew­ish kid in an unfriend­ly neigh­bor­hood of Chris­tians who taunt­ed me for killing Christ, and for hid­ing the horns on my head they thought I had. The Jew­ish kids I might have bond­ed with were a town away, and they had been attend­ing Hebrew school for years. They had their cliques already, groups I couldn’t break into. And of course – kids being kids – they mocked me. So, I grew up feel­ing like a tum­ble­weed of sorts, drift­ing between places but belong­ing nowhere, only able to touch­down some­times into the com­fort of a Jew­ish holiday. 

When my moth­er died, she had nev­er been able to rec­on­cile this dis­con­nect. I knew I want­ed to write about it, how that com­mu­ni­ty had shaped and hurt her both. I was already writ­ing Days of Won­der, about two fif­teen year old Jew­ish kids, Ella and Jude, from dif­fer­ent class­es, accused of an attempt­ed mur­der they can’t remem­ber, and when I began to write the char­ac­ter of Ella’s moth­er, I named her after my own mom, Helen. It made me feel my moth­er was close at hand, and I want­ed to give her my mother’s child­hood, too. Helen loved her fam­i­ly, loved her life, loved her reli­gion. One day, going into the city to find suit­ably mod­est cloth­ing for meet­ings with pos­si­ble mar­riage match­es, she sees a copy of a for­bid­den sec­u­lar book, A Tree Grows in Brook­lyn. She grabs it, hides it, and reads it over and over. It cracks open the world for her, but also puts her in that con­fus­ing out­sider state — she wants to know more, to learn more, but she also wants to be safe in her com­mu­ni­ty. She feels she’s only test-dri­ving life, but then one day, she’s accost­ed, and when she becomes preg­nant, her par­ents boot her from the home. And yes, they love her, but they also dear­ly love her sib­lings, and their own place in the com­mu­ni­ty. They fear the gos­sip and the shame that will impede the pos­si­bil­i­ty of match­es for her sib­lings. Helen stops believ­ing in God. But like my moth­er had, she still yearns for that com­mu­ni­ty, so much so that she can­not leave it behind, mov­ing near it, even com­ing back with her two-year-old daugh­ter to meet her moth­er. The door to her child­hood home is nev­er opened. And like my mom, Helen didn’t stop being Jew­ish just because she left a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Instead, she formed an us against the world” com­mu­ni­ty with her daugh­ter, some­thing my own moth­er had done with me, which both freed and suf­fo­cat­ed me.

Days of Won­der is about those times of awe, when even the small­est thing seems so much big­ger and more mirac­u­lous than ever. And for me now, one of those won­ders is my rich Jew­ish faith and the pow­er of a shared Jew­ish history.

I knew I was going to have to research deeply into my mother’s upbring­ing in order to write about it in a way I felt com­fort­able doing. I knew how insu­lat­ed many Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties are, and I also knew that parts of those com­mu­ni­ties were chang­ing and each one was dif­fer­ent from the next. I turned to social media.

I left a respect­ful mes­sage in sev­er­al Face­book groups, know­ing that the sub­ject could be sen­si­tive to many for many rea­sons. I shared that my intent was not to crit­i­cize but to under­stand bet­ter for my nov­el, and also in order to feel clos­er to my moth­er. I binge watched movies and doc­u­men­taries (One of Us is great) and I went to Foot­steps, the orga­ni­za­tion that helps Hasidic peo­ple who want to leave their com­mu­ni­ties and find new lives, to see if there was any insight I could glean.

And I admit, I felt anx­ious. I was most cer­tain­ly Jew­ish, with an Ortho­dox her­itage, but I wasn’t Hasidic. Who was I to write about such a com­mu­ni­ty? And how could I do it with­out judg­ment but with under­stand­ing? Could I ever under­stand it?

I need­ed to talk to peo­ple who did under­stand, and the more, the bet­ter. There are groups on Face­book where you have to write down why you want to be admit­ted and some groups, from for­mer Hasids or even cur­rent ones, denied me entry. We’re not zoo ani­mals,” one woman curt­ly told me. But some peo­ple did respond and talked with me, some­times in per­son (one woman was very hap­py in her com­mu­ni­ty and invit­ed me for a Shab­bat din­ner). I spoke to one ex-Sat­mar man who had lost his kids, been threat­ened with vio­lence, and had been kicked out of his com­mu­ni­ty. He was bit­ter and angry, but then I asked him, Is there any­thing you miss about the com­mu­ni­ty?” He grew silent and his tone soft­ened. I miss the sense of belong­ing,” he told me. I felt a shiv­er because tru­ly, that’s what I was always search­ing for for myself. My ques­tions were straight­for­ward. What did you love? What didn’t you love? Why did you leave? Or, why do you stay? What does it all mean to you? And how would you feel if you had made a dif­fer­ent deci­sion? I learned that com­mu­ni­ties could be gen­er­ous. They would band togeth­er and pay for a wed­ding a cou­ple might not be able to afford. I learned that some Hasidic wigs are now long, some­thing you’d nev­er see before. And that some­times, par­ents will send a daugh­ter who became preg­nant but is not mar­ried to Israeli rel­a­tives, to avoid shame and allow their daugh­ter to return to the com­mu­ni­ty aft­wards; par­ents will sim­ply tell peo­ple that she is going to vis­it rel­a­tives in Israel for a while.

The author and her moth­er in her moth­er’s backyard

My note­books grew. I was more and more intrigued by what I was learn­ing and when I had the seg­ments I need­ed writ­ten, I knew I need­ed oth­er writ­ers to help me. To my sur­prise and grat­i­tude, I found and hired two bril­liant ones, both of whom had lost cus­tody of their beloved chil­dren when they left com­mu­ni­ties they felt were sti­fling. Leah Lax, the author of the book and the opera, Uncov­ered, and Beat­rice Weber who sued and won a New York City case argu­ing for bet­ter sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion in Yeshiv­as, and who now runs empow­er­ment classes.

I sent both of them chap­ters and seg­ments that they marked up, and then I rewrote and sent back again. I asked ques­tion after ques­tion, deter­mined to get it right. Wait a minute, what you’re describ­ing is a Williams­burg com­mu­ni­ty, so why is it set in Bor­ough Park?” Beat­rice asked me, and then she told me all the differences. 

Because my nov­el asks the ques­tion how you get to be for­giv­en, I want­ed a Jew­ish answer to that. I sus­pect­ed it might have to do with prayer, but Leah laughed. God for­gives only when humans make amends, when they take actions. Prayer alone won’t cut it.” I was wor­ried about Helen’s par­ents’ reac­tionary shun­ning, but Leah let me know that that’s com­mon. And that so much comes from the com­mu­ni­ty as well. She helped me work out how to make my Hasidic par­ents in the nov­el more nuanced, how their true parental love was con­flict­ing with the same person’s loy­al­ty to such a com­mu­ni­ty, which is their very iden­ti­ty. And to my delight, I became friends with both of these writ­ers, which widened my own community.

In writ­ing Days of Won­der, I began to real­ize that I was some­how chan­nel­ing the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty my moth­er had had onto the page — the singing and many sib­lings at the table, the feel­ing of safe­ty an insu­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ty can bring — and let­ting myself live it on the page. I may not be or intend to become Ortho­dox, but I real­ized, like Helen did, that being Jew­ish was impor­tant to me no mat­ter where or how I prac­ticed it, that its sense of belong­ing was expan­sive. Days of Won­der is about those times of awe, when even the small­est thing seems so much big­ger and more mirac­u­lous than ever. And for me now, one of those won­ders is my rich Jew­ish faith and the pow­er of a shared Jew­ish history.

Car­o­line Leav­itt is the New York Times best­selling author of 13 nov­els, includ­ing Pic­tures of You, Cru­el Beau­ti­ful World, Is This Tomor­row, and the upcom­ing Days of Won­der (April 23, 2024). A New York Foun­da­tion of the Arts Fel­low in Fic­tion, and a recent recip­i­ent of A Midat­lantic Arts/​New Jer­sey Foun­da­tion of the Arts grant for part of Days of Won­der, she is the cofounder of A Mighty Blaze, and a colum­nist at Psy­chol­o­gy Today. Her work has appeared in New York Mag­a­zine, The New York Times, Salon, The Mil­lions, and more. Vis­it her at www​.car​o​line​leav​itt​.com.