A year ago, I was watching “Schitt’s Creek” with my wife. It was the last season, second to last episode, so things were already emotional.
Then there was that scene.
The one where David is sitting on the car with his best friend Stevie and looking at the house that his soon-to-be husband Patrick had wanted to buy for him before David had told him that they were moving to New York. Patrick, the hunky good boy that he is, had agreed to, and David was now looking at another reality he might live if he chose to stay in Schitt’s Creek. And he was crying.
It’s at this point that Stevie asks him, “What is it about New York?”
After some needling, it’s clear that David is dying to go back to prove to his former friends, the ones who can’t even come to his wedding because they had a rave to go to, that he was someone. In his words, “I want those people to know that I’m not a joke, and that I’ve won.”
Stevie can hardly handle it. She points out the house and says, “David, look at this place. You’ve won.”
It was at that point that I broke down. In a moment, I went from tearing up due to the beauty of the scene to suddenly feeling completely overwhelmed with a sense of deep familiarity. My wife, Rivka, paused the episode right as David fell into Stevie’s arms and bawled. And that was when I turned towards her and fell into her arms and cried in a way I hadn’t in ages, letting out something I had been holding onto for a very long time. I cried and cried, holding onto her, letting the snot and the tears come out, finally.
Rivka looked at me and asked what was going on. “I’m David,” I said.
Last summer, almost exactly one year ago, my family and I had moved across the country. We brought our three daughters from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the center of the Chabad Hasidic community that I had struggled and failed to reform, to our new home in Long Beach, California.
For a while, such a move felt unimaginable. We had dedicated our lives to this community, and to the Orthodox world at large. We had given everything to be part of it, and we felt that, even when things were challenging, that we were part of a divine mission to make it better.
It started with joy: We wanted to build a community for creative Jews, a place where they could express what was in their hearts freely. But we quickly learned that there were certain things in the hearts of some of our fellow writers and community members that the larger community did not think should be expressed, like feelings about laws of family purity, hiding a lack of belief, modesty, childhood abuse, queer issues, Donald Trump, racism and the act of expression itself. As our community grew, we spoke more openly about the backlash we and those we cared about were experiencing. And in turn, this led to further backlash. But rather than give in, all of this caused us to invest further. We turned our home into a community center, made it our full-time jobs, and started to become more vocal as activists, joining and helping lead communities like Torah Trumps Hate that invested heavily in transforming the Orthodox narrative around politics after the 2016 election.
It was the only way I could make sense of things, even when they got dark: I was brought into this community by God, and so the difficulties I faced in it were just difficulties I was meant to face and do something about.
When we finally faced up to the reality that no change was coming, and that even if it was, our attempts to build something there was breaking us down and hurting our family, I agreed to make the move my work had been asking me to do for a few months.
The move, by any objective measure, was an incredible moment for my family. We were no longer living in a shoebox but in a charming house, a dream I had had since Rivka and I got married. We were a few minutes from the beach. We found a school that was diverse and Jewish (the biggest fear we had was losing the vibrancy of the Jewish education we had found in Brooklyn). We were no longer constantly broke.
And as for me, I was no longer in a community that proved toxic to me. I had finally left, finally broken free, finally had the space to be and think and act however I wanted without a community looking over my shoulder. I could finally heal.
And yet, part of me felt defeated. Broken.
In many ways, the Haredi Jewish world creates an impossible situation for those who wish to make change: We are taught that change can only happen from within, and yet are simultaneously told when we try to make that change that we are traitors. The reformers within the community learn early that “the most effective way to make change is quietly.” I had many “moderate” Haredi leaders whisper this to me when I’d write yet another screed about what I saw as the failures in our community. We are also taught to be deeply phobic about the very idea of leaving, which connects to our belief that staying within is the only way to make change.
And yet, it is this very determination to stay that forces us to work within a system designed to quiet dissent. So, when we leave, despite the fact that it is, in fact, a form of liberation, it can feel like an utter failure. Like we’ve lost. Like we’ve given up.
I suppose this was all swirling in my head when David shared his thoughts with Stevie. I spent years, years of my life, believing that the only way to “win” was to stay. I had bought into a lie, one that kept me in a place that only hurt me, my family and the people I cared about. I was like David: determined to attach myself to New York, if only to prove to them that, in the words of David, “I’m not a joke. And that I’ve won.”
Yet there was also life asking me, “Why do you want to go back to a place that’s done nothing but hurt your feelings?”
That’s what an abusive relationship is. It convinces you that the only way to make things right is to stay. And that’s why I cried when Stevie cried out to David, “Look at this place! You’ve won!”
I also have my own charming little home, one that I was lucky enough to have chosen with my wife. I didn’t need to justify myself to anyone. I didn’t need to win anything. I didn’t need to prove that I wasn’t a joke.
I chose this life, and that is what matters. That the agency in my heart, in my soul, had finally been acted upon to its full completion. I was no longer doing half measures: I was out. That’s winning. That’s enough.
I rewatched “Schitt’s Creek” a month or so ago. And there I was, again, watching this episode with Rivka almost exactly one year later. Again, I found myself collapsing in tears. But this time, the tears were sweet: tears of victory. It was a year later, and already things were so much better than they had been. Rivka had recently told me that I was healthier than she had seen me our entire marriage. When my parents came to visit, they mentioned that I seemed so much calmer, that I had always seemed agitated and anxious when they visited us in New York. I was more present with my daughters than I had ever been. And while we miss having a Jewish community, we are also excited to now join one with intentionality, forethought and agency.
I built a life here. My family is healthier, happier. We are living a life of freedom, one that we’ve chosen. We won.