Growing up in a highly insular Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, I had little knowledge of secular culture. I had no access to popular music and films, or even to classic works of secular literature. I was expected to be a modest Jewish girl, which meant not asking questions. I knew my purpose in life was to follow the community’s pre-scripted life of marriage by 18, homemaking, and, most importantly, producing as many children as possible.
Before my engagement, I never heard of the word “sex.” Just before I was married off, I attended bridal classes where I learned the basic mechanics of sex. I felt confused and terrified, and the wedding night brought me no reassurance, since my husband had also learned nothing but the utilitarian mechanics of sex. In our community, sex was an unmentionable act that was strictly regarded as a reproductive deed. I never thought that it could be an expression of love. Sex quickly became intolerable. I bit my lips until they bled as I was flipped onto my back in the middle of the night and penetrated. And I silently prayed for it to be over as quickly as it started, which usually worked.
Years into my loveless, lonely marriage, my sexuality and sense of self were suffocating, all but dead. Depression set in. The physical abuse began. I sought advice from multiple rabbis who insisted I was a lucky wife with a respected husband. They said I should feel grateful. Instead of seeing a woman who was struggling, they saw a problem that needed to be silenced. What followed were years of visits to unlicensed “therapists,” combined with unnecessary psychiatric medication and shock treatment — all prescribed by a local rabbi and administered by complicit medical professionals.
I became an invisible woman. A growing disconnect between my body and soul evolved into a painful mind game. I developed techniques that allowed me to leave my body during those excruciating sex sessions, and I taught my mind to picture my arms around a woman. I had never even heard the words “lesbian” or “queer,” and being with a woman was so foreign that I thought I had some sort of psychological disorder.
I finally discovered the word “gay” one afternoon when I was almost 30 years old while combing through the shelves at The Strand bookstore in Manhattan — the kind of dangerous, secular bookstore that was completely off-limits for a Hasidic woman. There, I devoured works by the great feminist writer Audre Lorde. Lorde’s descriptions of growing up in a world that didn’t acknowledge her as a powerful being resonated deeply with me. I felt an awakening inside of me that changed my life forever.
I had never even heard the words 'lesbian' or 'queer,' and being with a woman was so foreign that I thought I had some sort of psychological disorder.
A couple of months after that fateful afternoon at The Strand, trembling with fear, I looked at my body in the mirror for the first time. I clandestinely read about sex, how it works, and, more importantly, how it can feel. I learned there were names for my body parts and names for my feelings. I wasn’t ill, and there were others just like me. The moment I discovered that a woman can, indeed, love another woman, I knew there was no going back.
Secret visits to bookstores and libraries all over the city brought me to other writings on feminism, mental health, and existential psychiatry. These precious afternoons gave me permission to continue my journey toward self-discovery. The truth was, I had been living for years as nothing more than a tool for my husband and the Hasidic community — a vessel to bear children. The budding feminist and lesbian in me began to evolve. I went to a support group for LGBTQ+ women and across the room saw the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. As Audre Lorde so eloquently wrote, “The erotic is the measure between the beginning of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Lorde gave me the ability to understand that what I was feeling was deeply erotic; my sense of self was merging with my strongest feelings of desire.
Later that night, I kissed a woman for the first time. What I felt that night was an overwhelming expression of what Lorde calls “unexpressed or unrecognisable feeling.” My body and soul finally merged and connected into a spiritual flame of self-awareness and love.
Today, three years after leaving the ultra-orthodox community and slowly uncovering my true self, I’ve continued to look to Audre Lorde and other feminist writers, like Susan Sontag and Sylvia Plath, for support and courage. I’m still learning to embrace all parts of myself and to celebrate what I used to think of as secular indulgences: self-acceptance and self-love. The first step toward this type of love has been proudly identifying as a queer woman, which has given me the ability to evolve as a person of courage and strength.
By leaving the Hasidic community, I lost virtually everything I’d ever known. My family no longer speaks to me. My children have been removed from my care — the ultimate punishment for straying, for desiring, and for demanding a fulfilling life. The losses I accrued in pursuit of individual dignity have left behind a deep, relentless pain. I hold on to the hope that, when my children are old enough, they will understand that my endless love for them is what inspires me to be a better, more honest person for myself and for them. What gives me solace through the pain is the reward of being able to live as my authentic self — finally with no shame.
Etty Ausch is currently pursuing a degree in criminal justice. She is prominently featured in the recent documentary “One of Us,” released to Netflix.