May 13, 2005
years ago, had I encountered the
woman I am today, I would have pitied
her: long sleeves and an ankle-length
skirt in the middle of summer; no
driving, writing, talking on the
phone or cooking from sundown Friday
until sundown Saturday; recently
married to a man she'd never touched—not
so much as a peck on the cheek—until
after the wedding. I'd have cringed
and dismissed this woman as a Repressed
Religious Nut. Now my pity—or
at least a patient smile—is
for that self-certain Southern California
girl I was at 25.
I grew up in
Arizona, the older of two daughters,
in a typically upper-middle-class,
well-educated, liberal Jewish family.
My dad is a physician, my mother
the editor of the local Jewish newspaper.
My religious and ethnic identification
consisted of fund-raising for Jewish
causes, Israeli dancing and Sunday
brunch: bagels and lox.
As a gawky
13-year-old, I had a bat mitzvah,
along with the obligatory party
at a posh country club. If God was
there, I didn't notice. The most
religious person I knew was my high
school English teacher, a Southern
Baptist for whom I wrote polemical
essays questioning all religious
beliefs. Through my research and
experience (which consisted mostly
of listening to Bob Dylan and Pink
Floyd, skimming the "Marx-Engels
Reader" and having deep, earnest
discussions with friends), I concluded
that religion was, at best, irrelevant
in an enlightened, late 20th century
world. At 16, I joined the group
I did what teenagers do. I spent
the scorching Arizona summers watching
soap operas and lying by the pool
at my friend Annie's house, comparing
tan lines. We crossed the border
into Mexico to buy tequila, sneaked
into dance clubs with fake IDs,
philosophized about life and boys,
my liberal pursuits in college in
Philadelphia, and after graduation,
I drove my Honda with its "I'm
Pro-Choice—And I Vote!" bumper
sticker to California. I took advantage
of all Los Angeles had to offer;
I ate sushi and gelati, played beach
volleyball, studied cabala and once
went to a "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo"
chanting session, where a skinny
woman with bleached blond hair swore
that the incantation had secured
her her latest role, as Victim in
a new slasher film.
I was living
in a Beverly Hills basement with
a gay friend at the time, working
for the National Organization for
Women, helping organize pro-choice
rallies. I also did stints as aerobics
instructor, waitress, cashier, SAT
tutor. Finally, I entered USC as
a graduate student in journalism.
In the next few years I wrote for
the Los Angeles Times about
miniskirts, paisley and the plight
of L.A.'s lovelorn. Then I worked
for Teen magazine, penning
endless variations of "how
to get/dump your guy" stories
and answering hapless teenage girls'
letters in teen's "Dear Juli"
column. While I loved my spacious
office with its view of the city,
I also found the job mind-numbing
and depressing. How many ways, I
wondered, could I teach a girl to
I moved to
a Beverly Hills "adjacent"
apartment, complete with ceiling
fans and high arches. There I was—25
years, finally having achieved what
should "do it": a promising
career, friends, things. Yet I felt
as though something was profoundly
lacking—as if I were a Ferrari
engine stuffed into a VW Bug.
Though I was
at times excited, even ecstatic,
I rarely remember being content
or truly joyful. Though I believed
in spirituality, religion was the
"opiate of the masses,"
a crutch for emotional and intellectual
weaklings and conservative Republicans.
I favored Tarot card and palm readers
and a particular psychic who told
me I was Napoleon in a past life.
Then one night,
a friend and I dropped in on an
Orthodox Jewish gathering near my
apartment—not so much to find enlightenment
as to meet guys. I don't recall
what, exactly, but something the
rabbi said resonated. I decided
to take a class. I certainly had
no intention of becoming—ick!—religious.
I just wanted to learn more about
Judaism's philosophy and mysticism.
As for those archaic laws? How dare
anyone tell me I'm restricted from
certain activities because I'm a
woman or that I have to dress a
certain way to protect my dignity.
I'm a passionate
person. During the past seven years,
however, I've decided that it may
be easier to be passionate about
the wrong things than the right
ones. I thought I was open-minded,
thoughtful, yet I really just believed
what every other liberal, educated,
cultured person I knew believed.
I was tolerant of everything except
"intolerance." My only
absolute was that there are no absolutes.
Yet, as much
as I fought and rebelled, I was
drawn to the Orthodox world. I recognized
something profound there—the values,
the consciousness, the sensitivity
to others. I examined my world view
and myself in a different way. I
began to see that in a society in
which individuality, self-determination
and freedom of choice are the highest
values, I had, in fact, been limited
by pressures I didn't even recognize.
I had been conforming to what's
considered "normal," its
definition changing every few years.
Now, for the first time, I understood
what I had always felt, that I had
an essence, a soul. I glimpsed a
higher meaning to life and the infinitely
deep layers of existence leading
to the Ultimate Existence: insight
into which a 25-year-old—even one
with a personal trainer and her
own advice column—might not be
To the shock
of my family, which was half-sure
I'd been sucked in by a cult, I
quit my job, sublet my beautiful
apartment and traveled to Israel
to continue my studies. The Torah
(Judaism's Bible) and its volumes
of commentary address every aspect
of the human condition. It proscribes,
prescribes and describes in amazing
depth and detail. And it infuses
people with the bigness of character
and soul I had always admired but
I spent many
months grappling with the "female"
question. So much of what I saw
in the religious way of life seemed
at odds with what I thought I knew.
But at one point I had to ask myself:
What have I been told by my schooling
and my society, and what do I really
see in the world? What is my experience?
My answer: Men and women are significantly,
dramatically different, emotionally
and physically (and now, I realize,
spiritually). Judaism addresses
these differences. I looked—really
looked—at the religious women around
me. I had never met stronger, more
emotionally and spiritually refined,
capable, loving, non-neurotic women.
Or more sensitive, respectful, devoted
men. More happy, psychically intact,
cared-for children. I wanted that.
I see people driven by external
achievement; I see the pain, the
struggles, the Prozac nation. Becoming
observant does not make a weak person
strong. It is not a quick fix for
a lifetime of emotional damage.
But the Torah's guidelines provide
the boundaries and tools for inner
healing and transformation. Now,
being "religious" frames
everything I do, say and strive
for. I knew that the man I would
marry and I must share the same
priorities and values.
and I met in New York, through a
mutual teacher who knew us well.
I'd spent plenty of time engaged
in the rites of Los Angeles-style
dating. This was a whole different
ritual. In venturing into this shidech—which,
loosely translated, means "date"—we
had agreed to an express purpose.
We were to decide if we were a match—and
with far less dillydallying than
in most modern courtships.
Aaron and I
spent hours together eating Chinese
food, playing miniature golf and
pinball, ice-skating, boating in
Central Park. I came to respect
his integrity, his strength and
his constant striving to do and
be better. (And he's cute!) Four
months after we met, we began a
10-week engagement. (My mother,
who had spent a year planning my
sister's nuptials, was aghast.)
We never touched, but got to know
each other, unclouded by the bond
of physical intimacy, which so often
super-glues the wrong people together.
at Orthodox women as repressed.
But I often think about a truer
definition of repression. When I
see women in skimpy clothing, intimately
involved with men they barely know,
I think: "Wake up, girlfriend!
You think men are seeing your soul?
Thinking about your needs? About
who you are? Your body has become
your self." The real feminine
mystique consists of a woman's private
side, the richness of her inner
I had been
living the Cosmo fantasy. Now I
feel as if I've awakened from a
long, sweaty dream. Once I aspired
to make it as a writer, and perhaps
get married and have a kid or two
along the way. Today, although I
still work as a freelance writer,
it is not my identity. I live in
a religious community outside Manhattan,
full of the type of people I used
to look at with pity, even contempt.
My goal is to become like these
women: sensitive, strong, fantastic
wives and mothers—not, as I once
thought, because they had been subjugated
for centuries and didn't know better
or because they were lacking self-esteem,
but because they recognize that
the most important thing a person
can do is to develop character by
giving, building and supporting
A Jewish wedding
revolves around making the bride
and groom happy. After the ceremony,
but before the dancing—what exuberant,
unabashed dancing!—Aaron and I
went to a separate room to spend
a few private moments. There, he
held my hand for the first time.
That small gesture had a richness
and intimacy I could never have
Kahn now lives in New York with
her husband and children. She is
a freelance writer and in her spare
time, when she can, her hobby is
sleeping. A version of this article
originally appeared in the
LA Times Sunday Magazine
in 2000. Reprinted with permission.