(JTA) — The call came one evening in August. I was in Jerusalem staying with my oldest sister, Goldy, for the summer.
“It’s for you,” Goldy shouted from the kitchen. “Aunt Fraidy!”
Aunt Fraidy had been my host in my last year of high school. My parents, concerned about the influence of my modern Orthodox classmates in our hometown of Pittsburgh, had sent me to live with my aunt’s family in Manchester, the ultra-Orthodox environment that matched my parents’ yeshivish strict values.
“Leah?” Aunt Fraidy said.
“Yes?” I answered.
“We just received a call from Mrs. Kohn. She was cleaning house and found some papers she thought we should know about.”
Papers? I thought. What papers had my best friend’s mother found?
“Your letters,” Aunt Fraidy said, “to her son, Naftali.”
There was a tightening in my chest. It was hard to breathe. I had bared my soul in those secret letters to my best friend’s older brother asking Naftali what basis he had to claim that college was permissible and how his perspective on Israel, as a modern Orthodox Jew, varied from the ultra-Orthodox yeshivish view with which I was raised, and revealing, in my eager interrogation of his favorite holidays and hobbies and music, my unabashed interest in him.
The letters were a sin punishable by God, but no one else. Jewish law forbade reading other people’s letters. It was humiliating to be so exposed. It was infuriating to be held accountable for my transgressions by people who were breaking the law at the same time.
“We are flabbergasted, Leah,” Aunt Fraidy said. “Writing letters to a boy? We tried extremely hard to make you feel welcome. How do you expect my daughters to get a good match if people know they have a cousin running around with boys? You’re poisoning our family’s reputation. We don’t want you here in Manchester Seminary in the fall. We can’t have our name associated with a person who does such things.”
Her voice rose to a high-pitched shriek.
“Did you consider the effect of your actions? Did you think about how much shame you would bring to your parents?” she asked.
I dropped the phone and pushed past my sister, heading for the door, tears streaming down my cheeks. Gossip spread fast in our community. If my aunt knew about my letters to Naftali, every matchmaker in the world knew about them, too. A girl who talked with boys was inferior to a girl who never had. And I had planned on going to Manchester Seminary my whole life. If I couldn’t go there, I couldn’t go anywhere. All the other seminaries would quickly mine our close-knit information network to learn that they didn’t want a girl like me.
Like a mouse in a maze, I darted down the narrowing paths before me. I was too panicked, too simple, to stop, to turn and face what chased me, to challenge it. Hurrying through the Old City, I arrived at the Western Wall. I spread my fingers on the stones, lay my forehead against their cool surface and felt the rock absorb the tears on my cheeks.
That Shabbos afternoon, Goldy curled up on one side of the couch flipping the pages of a religious magazine. I sat on the other side lost in a biography of a famous rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim.
“So why’d you do it?” Goldy blurted out. “Why’d you talk to boys?”
I looked down at my book.
“What did you do with him? Did you kiss him?” she asked. “I can’t believe you would do something like that. Was he good-looking?”
I knew that Goldy had spoken with my aunt and my parents and that everyone knew everything that had happened, but my shameful exposure was still too fresh for me to toss around as juicy gossip.
“Well,” Goldy said with a shrug. “I guess it’s not a total shock that you did this — thing. Maybe it’s in your blood.”
She knew she had me now.
“What? What do you mean?” I asked. “Why would you say that?”
Goldy raised her eyebrows. “Just saying.”
“Come on. What do you mean ‘in your blood’?”
“Aunt Lilah.” She nodded smugly.
She spoke in a hushed rush of a picture of our father.
“You know that picture of Tatte in that old album in the attic, from when he was a kid, sitting on the grass with his arm around someone, and the picture is ripped in two? That’s his sister. Lilah. She went frei,” Goldy said, using the Yiddish word for free, a term for non-religious people.
A secret aunt? Could it be?
As a child, I had often daydreamed that one day I was going to receive a letter sealed with a spot of red wax. You are the princess of a small European principality, it would say. Your current parents and 10 siblings are actors. Your true, loving parents are rushing a private plane to Pennsylvania, to bring you, their heir and only child, home.
It wasn’t a far leap from Messiah, angels and God to hope that there were secret people who would rescue me from my sisters’ teasing or my loneliness at school and take me to a place where I could unfold and breathe.
“You’re so pretty,” those people would say. “Please, read us your poetry.”
I knew it was a silly fantasy. But apparently it was true — or at least partly true. I had a secret aunt.
Goldy could tell me nothing more about her.
“Promise without a promise that you will never breathe a word of this,” she said. An actual promise was forbidden.
“Fine,” I said. “I promise without a promise.”
“Want another cordial?” Goldy asked, offering me the bowl.
“Thanks.” I grabbed a few more candies and went back to my book, thinking about my aunt who went frei.
I didn’t know it then, but my own journey to freedom had already begun.
Leah Vincent is a board member of Footsteps, an organization supporting formerly ultra-Orthodox individuals. The essay is adapted from “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.”