AS THE FOURTH DAUGHTER OF A PROMINENT ORTHODOX JEWISH FAMILY IN NEW YORK…
she was expected to attend a religious seminary for girls, date the suitors her father sent to her, become engaged by 19, marry within six weeks, and have as many children as she could bear, raising her family in a house of Godly belief.
No one guessed that at 19 she was spellbound, in forbidden love with a man eighteen years her senior. She finally ran away with him. She had never held a boy’s hand much less made love to a man, she had never been dancing, eaten a meal at a non-Kosher restaurant or been close to a non-Jewish friend. This rhapsodic feeling of freedom, the sensual pleasure and the decadence of newfound independence came at the price of almost unbearable heartbreak. In marrying the man she loved, she was considered a traitor, abandoning centuries of tradition and rabbinic law. Her runaway marriage in Las Vegas began a mythic journey to what Hegel and Kierkegaard would call true selfhood.
Set during the Vietnam era through present day, When Your Family Says No is a memoir about choice, about the complexity of family love, and how desire does not stop because of the confines of rigid rabbinical rules. It is not a memoir about the repudiation of Judaism or religion in general. Her marriage was not a protest or rebellion against her family or her Orthodoxy. She didn't plan on falling in love, it simply happened. She wanted to be with the man she loved and also stay within the confines of her family. But behind the lush lawns and beautiful brick facades in which she was raised lay a prejudice and conditional love that was both shocking and tragic.
The book is for anyone who has fallen in love, strayed from their family’s rules of conduct or needed to break out, it’s for Muslims who do or don’t want to wear the headscarf, gays raised in a born-again culture, teenagers just starting to have doubt and mid-lifers who are about to make a change from a culture that presupposes their identity, for anyone who chooses love over tradition. The highly personal narrative mixed with historical insight gives the reader a snapshot into the secreted world of Orthodoxy where everything from how a girl puts on her socks in the morning to the prayer she recites after using the bathroom, to when her husband makes love to her, is determined by rabbinic law. And yet its content is universal. Who among us hasn't read illicit material? Attended a forbidden film? Held secrets? Been alienated? Dreamed of breaking away? How many are still following their community’s beliefs with the insistent feeling that something inside them might be dying? When Your Family Says No explores the terror and self-determination that comes from breaking taboo and tradition and finding the strength we need to discover God and a family of our own. A family that says, finally, yes.
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Through Rough Seas
By: Laya Martinez
Essay Published in The Boston Globe
Robert, the passenger on our 41-foot yacht, was screaming. “We’re going to die! What’s wrong with you two? Why are you smiling? We’re all going to die!”
My husband, John, and I swallowed our grins for Robert’s sake, but this was our kind of afternoon — biblical. Six-foot waves crashed over us as the unexpected storm on the Chesapeake Bay intensified. Wind whipped our hair. Rain pelted our faces.
Danger, fear, excitement — I loved it.
Would we die? It was certainly possible that this storm would be our last. And I had no regrets. My relatives would be devastated but vindicated. They would say, “As we feared, God has punished Laya for her terrible sin.”
You see, John is not a Jew. Marrying him was the greatest crime possible in my ultra-Orthodox family. Unforgivable. Blasphemous. Insane.
Before I met John, I knew without a doubt that I would marry a Talmud Chacham (Torah scholar) and raise my Jewish children in my Jewish home, and that because I had done so, God would reward me from heaven.
But then I fell in love. I didn’t seek it out. The whole situation was absurd, a disaster. I had lived a blameless Orthodox life, dedicated to serving God. Yet it became impossible to live without John. After seven anguished years, we married, and I knew my family would never accept me again.
I had cast myself out to sea for love.
My relatives thought it was madness. Or Satan. Why else would anyone give up a life of safety for something as reckless as love?
“Tie yourselves down!” John commanded.
Robert started to cry.
If I had resisted love, I would have gone from the house of my father to the house of my Jewish husband, always protected. I would never have started my own companies or flirted with financial ruin — or become a success. I would never have discovered the thrill of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Darwin, or too many others to name. After a lifetime of not finding answers in the Torah and the Talmud, I was blown away by thinkers who wielded a power no physical storm could match.
The box with our raft, medical equipment, and survival gear came loose and exploded open against the deck. John radioed the Coast Guard. The staticky voice on the other end was just barely audible: “— can’t help — overburdened — overturned boat — aiding others.”
We are truly on our own, I thought as I watched our lifeboat blow away. I was OK with that.
If John had play-acted his conversion, we could have returned to the fold. Like people everywhere, many in the Orthodox community did what was necessary to belong: covering windows with blackout curtains so nosy neighbors couldn’t see the blue glow of forbidden televisions, eating treif (non-kosher) food when they thought no one was looking, praying to a God they didn’t truly believe in so that they could stay in the community.
But my religious faith had taught me that only God mattered. So I faced the storm head-on. I said to my God, I must do this. I can’t live without him. Do with me what you will.
And now here we were. I would die with no regrets. I would die with the man I loved — and Robert. Poor Robert!
The wind shifted. John managed to turn the boat toward shore in the still-angry sea. After five hours, we finally reached the dock, exhausted but exhilarated.
Robert leapt onto dry land, probably never to leave it again. “We’re alive! I’m alive!” He ran for the clubhouse. John and I looked back at the churning sea. It seethed before us, awesome in its power.