A Family Rift and a Cautionary Tale

Two stories about venturing from the Orthodox fold.

Ben Westhoff

More than 60 years ago, Doris Sanchez, my grandmother, fell in love with a Christian man. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, she ran away from home because she knew her relatives couldn't bear to hear the news.

Religious disputes within families are as old as religion itself. But for some devout Jews, intermarriage can be equated with death.1 By abandoning her faith, my grandmother caused family rifts that persist to this day.

Unfortunately, I could not consult with Doris for this story. She is 88, lives in a nursing home in San Francisco, and is suffering from Alzheimer's disease; she doesn't hear well enough to speak over the phone. But for years she piqued my curiosity with stray comments about her extraordinary twenties. So I recently journeyed to the northern tip of Manhattan to consult her older sister, Betty Neubort, who lives in an Inwood co-op, for more details.

Betty is still trim and mentally limber, and regularly entertains large family parties. She has lived alone in what is now a largely Dominican neighborhood since her husband of 60 years, Emil, died in 2000, at age 94.

An Orthodox Jew, Betty does not identify as Hasidic. Nonetheless, she keeps a small picture of Menachem Mendel Schneerson on her wall. Schneerson is the deceased spiritual leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch, the Hasidic branch to which her son Simon and her grandchildren are devoutly committed. Known as Grand Rebbe, he is considered by some Lubavitcher, but not all, to be the Jewish messiah. "I don't believe in all that, but my granddaughter put it up, so I left it there," Betty explained.

Betty was born in a small Hungarian town 93 years ago, a year after her older brother Louis and four years before my grandmother, Doris. By the time Doris was born, however, the spoils of World War I meant that the town was designated as part of Romania. Both sisters' first language was Yiddish. Betty's second language was Hungarian, while Doris's was Romanian.

Their father, Chaim, was an Orthodox clergyman who served as cantor as well as ritual meat-slaughterer. He immigrated to America while his three children were still very young. "There weren't enough Jews in the community," Betty recalled. "Romanians were very anti-Semitic. He could see the writing on the wall; there was no future for us."

The rest of the family came soon after, landing in the Jewish neighborhoods of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Doris attended public school and earned a scholarship to Brooklyn College, where she majored in English and also studied Hebrew. "She knew the religion better than I did," said Betty. "Her college friends were all very Jewish, of similar backgrounds."

Doris's family was shocked—that is, all the family members except her father, who was never informed that his daughter had married a goy.

Richard Westhoff, my grandfather, was a dashing German writer who had left the country of his birth at age 19, anticipating the rise of the Nazis. He settled in San Francisco in 1934, and enlisted in the Merchant Marines on the eve of World War II. His service brought him to New York City, where, in 1942, he met Doris at a United Service Organizations hall.

Neither Betty nor my father, who was the only offspring of my grandparents' marriage, know the details of the courtship. All Betty remembers is that Richard was a good dancer and even better looking. "He swept her off her feet," she said.

Doris abruptly announced her departure for the West Coast. "She said: 'I need a vacation. I'm going to California, and I'll get a job when I get back,' " Betty said.

Only she didn't come back. The couple eloped in 1943. "They got married in a civil ceremony on the way to California," said my father, Norman Westhoff, "in Denver or Salt Lake City." Doris's family was shocked—that is, all the family members except her father, who was never informed that his daughter had married a goy.

"I wasn't going to tell him," said my great-aunt. "It would have killed him."

My father was born in 1947. Doris and Betty's mother, whom Norman called Baba, tried to convert him to Judaism as a young boy, said Betty, but it didn't take. After Richard and Doris divorced, in 1955, Doris and Betty's older brother Louis asked to adopt Norman, who was then 11 years old.

"Lou offered to adopt me through a letter he wrote to my father, instead of to my mother, even though she had custody of me at the time," said Norman. "How rude is that?"

Louis wasn't speaking to his youngest sister then, and in fact hasn't spoken to Doris in decades, since the death of their mother 30 years ago. Educated at Yeshiva University, he later studied to be a rabbi, and he has lived in Israel for decades. At 94, he remains a devout, Orthodox Jew.

Doris long ago abandoned any pretense of formal Judaism. She married a Mexican atheist named Frank Sanchez in 1959, and later in life she began attending Unitarian services and Humanist Society meetings.

"I think the Humanist Society meetings were the closest she came to settling on a religion in her later years," said Norman, who also lives in San Francisco.

Even in their mid-90s and continents apart, Louis and Betty still maintain contact—he even visited her in New York last summer. She doesn't understand why he remains so distant from their third sibling.

"As he became older, he became conservative," she said. "I don't know."

After we spoke about these matters, Betty invited me over for dinner. Also attending that evening was her grandson, Chaim, who is about my age, and his wife and their four young children. Chaim, who is a lawyer, wears the long beard of his Lubavitcher sect and, per their tradition, his wife would not shake my hand.

"How's Lou?" Chaim asked Betty. He neglected to inquire about the well-being of my grandmother.

 

Visiting Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood recently to conduct interviews for another article, I heard the story of Yudi Simon, who grew up in the neighborhood and later scandalized its residents by brazenly flouting the tenets of his faith. His legacy there is somewhere between a folk legend and a cautionary tale.

I immediately thought of Doris, but I also put myself in Yudi's shoes. We're both 30, and I've done most everything my parents and my community expected of me: Congregationalist church confirmation at 13, college, a career. Even with the fiery blood of my grandmother in my veins, would I have had the courage to do what he did?

Yudi's life was depicted—inaccurately—in the 2004 Showtime movie Crown Heights, which profiled reconciliation efforts after the 1991 riots in Crown Heights. Crown Heights is home to 770 Eastern Parkway, the world headquarters of the Hasidic branch called Chabad-Lubavitch. The neighborhood's residents are primarily African Americans, fedora-wearing Hasids, and Caribbean American families, with the Jews and the blacks largely segregated.

Years of simmering tensions preceded the riots, which flared up after a car in Grand Rebbe Schneerson's motorcade struck and killed a 7-year-old African American boy named Gavin Cato. Subsequently, a Hasidic scholar, Yankel Rosenbaum, was murdered by a mob, and clashes between blacks and Jews went on for three days. Some critics claimed the Jewish victims received preferential medical treatment, while others complained that then-Mayor David Dinkins, who is African American, was slow to react to the crisis.

Raised in a Lubavitcher household, Yudi was a teenager at the time. But he poured his energy into hip-hop dancing with a community action group called Project Cure. Founded shortly after the riots to promote understanding and tolerance in Crown Heights, Project Cure was led by David Lazerson, an Orthodox rabbi known as Dr. Laz, and a pair of African American youth leaders, Paul Chandler and Richard Green.

The group organized jam sessions, mural paintings, and basketball games. Yudi and T. J. Moses, who was also depicted in the Showtime movie, even coached a pair of interracial teams in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. (Dr. Laz continues as director of Project Cure from his new home in Florida.)

The character Yudi in Crown Heights, portrayed by Jeremy Blackman, is a devout, studious Jew whose commitment to the Torah is often at odds with the cross-pollinating world of rap music that Moses introduces him to. In reality, Yudi says, he was never nearly as studious as he was portrayed to be.

Many in the close-knit Lubavitcher community saw his explorations not as an admirable quest for personal growth, but as downright heretical.

In the movie's predictable TV ending, Yudi's character and Moses' character succeed at inspiring hearts and broadening minds, while also maintaining their own identities. The real story wasn't quite so simple. By the time Crown Heights began filming—a decade after the riots—Yudi had embarked on a journey in which he rejected all things Lubavitcher. Although he still lived in the basement of his parents' Crown Heights home, he stopped keeping kosher, stopped attending services, did drugs, and violated Shabbat by playing shows on Friday nights with his rock band.

"On Saturday, I'd be walking around with a backpack, headed into the city," he remembered. "To [people in the neighborhood], it was disrespectful. I wasn't dressed in fine clothing. I would be wearing jeans or a cut-off T-shirt."

Yudi says it was an awkward, yet necessary, stage of his life.

"As a teenager, I was so involved with being a youth leader, and being involved with other people, I needed time for personal growth," he explained. "I thought, 'What is out there in the world? What can I experiment with, and explore, and how do I fit in?' "

As for his parents, he said, "It was painful for them, but they gave me my space."

Many in the close-knit Lubavitcher community saw his explorations not as an admirable quest for personal growth, but as downright heretical. And his case wasn't helped when Crown Heights came out. By highlighting his submersion into the alien African American culture, the film propelled Yudi to celebrity status, but for all the wrong reasons in the eyes of the Hasidic community. According to a community leader who works with Crown Heights Hasidic youth, Yudi's story became a cautionary tale: This too will happen to you, young ones, if you get involved with people outside the faith.

Not true, said Yudi. He says that his religious questioning grew out of time spent in Israel—where he was studying to be a rabbi—and a bad breakup with a girlfriend. "It was a lot of stuff, not just because of Project Cure," he said. "I would have gone off inevitably. That's just the type of person I am."

He said Crown Heights residents have rarely spoken negatively about him to his face. But he acknowledged shocking a lot of people with his actions, and said he understands their frustrations. "People don't just say things—you have to give somebody something to say," he explained. "They're entitled to their opinion."

Yudi met me recently for dinner at a kosher pizza joint in Flatbush. As indicated by his long, craggy beard, he had returned to the Lubavitcher fold. But upon closer inspection, it was clear Yudi still had his own take on things. He wasn't covering his head with the standard Lubavitcher fedora, opting instead for a newspaper boy's cap from the trendy clothing outlet H&M.

His wife, Mindy, joined us midway through dinner, after getting off class at Brooklyn College, where she studies forensic anthropology. She was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt adorned with a Sesame Street character logo and a long red skirt, and her whole appearance was more "hippie" than "Hasid." But she, too, declined to shake my hand.

Over soup and pizza, Yudi told me that he rarely returns to Crown Heights nowadays, too busy with work at a Manhattan photography store and with his young family. He and Mindy live with their baby daughter in the rather non-Jewish Valley Stream, Long Island.

In his spare time, Yudi plays percussion in a band, which is made up of rabbis and other Hasids. The group changes its name every time they play, Yudi said, performing versions of Hasidic melodies in styles including bluegrass, reggae, and hip-hop. They play synagogues, schools, and even bars.

"We're about going to physical places and bringing godliness into them, and I can't think of a better place to do that than in a place where people are picking up people for personal pleasure," he noted.

Sure, it's unorthodox, but that doesn't mean it's not God's will. In fact, Yudi believes that ignoring his own calling and talents is tantamount to blasphemy.

"The Lubavitcher Rebbe said: 'If a person has a skill and doesn't use it, it's a waste. It's like slapping God in the face.' God gave you a present, use it. That's very contrary to what a lot of people think a traditional religious organization should be about."

Yudi doesn't regret his personal rumspringa. But he feels even better about emerging from it. "I came to realize what I had," he explained. "My non-Jewish friends would say, 'You've got one of the oldest, most beautiful traditions. What the hell are you doing with your life?' "

Though the ending to Yudi's story may seem happier than my grandmother's, I believe she wouldn't have done things any differently. Yes, she defied her family for a marriage that ended 12 years later, but her journey west eventually brought her the love of her life, Frank Sanchez. Her son and, I'd like to think, her grandchildren have brought her immeasurable joy.

The reasons for the rift in my family will fade with the deaths of my grandmother and her siblings. But because Betty is now our only true link to her part of the clan, when she dies the Westhoff branch will likely be cut off from the Orthodox one. This is unfortunate, especially because my father, raised Christian but ethnically Jewish, will lose the last ties to his heritage.

Even further removed from my Jewish lineage than my father, I can't say I'll know what I'm missing. But I will always wonder what would have happened if my grandmother hadn't fallen in love with a goy. Maybe I would be wearing a long beard and already be leading four young children around by the hand. Or maybe I would have played the role my grandmother did and run off with a beautiful shiksa.

 

Notes

  1. Research done by Hella Winston, author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, confirms the idea that Orthodox Judaism instructs adherents to treat those who intermarry as if they were dead. However, she also points out that not all families behave this way.
 

Ben Westhoff is a contributing writer for The Village Voice, and a music critic for newspapers around the country. He lives in Brooklyn.

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