Book Review: On Their Derech: The Conversation Continues… by Batya Ruddell (Tfutza Publications 2019)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
Batya Ruddell has adapted her recent Binah column, “On Their Derech” into a new book by Tfutza Publishers, On Their Derech: The Conversation Continues… To her original columns about parenting children “on their derech,” she adds poems, personal essays, and reflections by those who have been or currently are OTD and their family members. Ruddell also included articles by therapists, community leaders, and rabbis who work with OTD families. The collection that emerges is a deeply affecting and a clarion call for communal change.
Most previous treatments in print of those who leave Orthodox Jewish practice have thus far focused on blame (on the incursion of secular, Western values into our community; on “bad” parenting; on kids who have bad middos; on schools which ignore the needs of children with learning disabilities; on cover-ups by some segments of the community when abuse occurs) or on bringing OTD youth back into the fold (as the sole measure of success). Batya Ruddell takes a very different approach to the topic: deep empathy and unconditional love, no strings attached (including mitzvos).
Describing her own experience of raising her OTD teens and twenty-somethings, Ruddell writes, “Judgment oozed from people’s pores, and I felt as if we were a strange exhibit at a city zoo (p.15).” While she gave them “free entertainment,” few people offered her the help they extended when one of her children received a cancer diagnosis. Ruddell grew to resent this. The inattention of those around her implied that she was not suffering, or that the suffering she experienced was somehow her own doing or reflected poorly on her character.
Miriam Maggid, another contributor to the book, similarly experienced stigma and denial. She relates: “[T]he point here is not what is giving me grief, but rather that I feel different and lonely and misunderstood and like a failure much of the time (p. 37).”
Much of the book investigates this “different” experience from the parents’ point of view. One poem, by “R.F.” describes how she used to complain about the challenges of keeping her son’s white shirts white and smooth. Now, she washes “easy wash” fabrics for that child, in a variety of colors, and she longs nostalgically for those white shirt burdens. Several contributions vividly portray the experience of being in public with a clearly non-Charedi child in a Charedi-dominant environment. By giving us these perspectives, Ruddell draws us towards greater compassion.
While outnumbered by the parent essays and poems, writing by those who were—temporarily or permanently—OTD clearly demonstrates the level of rejection, frustration, and pain many members of the OTD community feel. One particularly striking essay, by “Baruch Feldman” (a pseudonym) describes being forced to leave yeshiva due to an attack of mania. He received lifesaving treatment—only to have the yeshiva refuse to readmit him. When we read he walked away from religious life, can we blame him? (In Feldman’s case, he eventually returned.)
Overall, On Their Derech argues for valuing the relationship with a child over their level of observance or religiosity. Many parents describe how this experience has helped them acquire the middos of chessed and ahavas chinam. Another common theme is how mistaken the notion that someone can be off THE derech is. There is not one single way to be a Jew, and for many people, non-observance is just one step on a life’s journey. Moreover, this is a problem that existed all the way back in the times of the Avos! Ruddell suggests: would those who judge their neighbors for their children’s level of religiosity judge Avraham Avinu? Chizkiyahu HaMelech?
A few tiny criticisms: the organization of the book doesn’t always flow, and that detracts slightly from the reading experience. The professionals’ contributions of at the end are also a bit uneven. Rabbi Uri Zohar’s essay was very personal and touching, with concrete advice. Rabbi Charlop also had useful insights into the OTD child’s perspective and experience. However, some other essays read like marketing material for the programs which their authors head. It was a little jarring in the midst of a very personal volume. Again, these are small concerns.
For those who have first-hand experience with OTD children, On Their Derech offers solace and hope. For those who don’t, this book offers an eye-opening experience which will change how we view OTD individuals and their families. I highly recommend this book as a must-read for frum adults. As Rabbi Shimon Russell says in his forward, “[W]e, the entire community, need to take responsibility. It’s not about ‘this family’ or ‘that one.’” For the sake of Jewish unity, we all need to improve our inclusion and unconditional love for OTD Jews and their families—and Ruddell’s book will, G-d willing, help actualize that need.