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A menorah on a torn page of Hebrew

Before she penned a nearly 9,000-word feature about the choices that parents navigate when leaving Orthodox Judaism behind, Larissa MacFarquhar hadn’t covered this particular community. A self-described generalist, The New Yorker writer has chased her curiosity across varied subject matter — spanning territory like dementia care to the child welfare system.

Throughout her stories, she drills away at fundamental questions about morality, personal agency, and fraught choices. Such themes comprised the building blocks of her latest feature, “When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids?”

Author and New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar

Larissa MacFarquhar

Here, MacFarquhar introduces readers to three couples who identify as Haredi Jews, or Ultra-Orthodox. One partner within each pair has decided that he or she no longer wants to pursue a religious lifestyle. And when a couple’s belief systems diverge, it raises a lightning-rod legal question: What about the children?

Her sources grapple with the sweeping questions that any parent wrestles with, regardless of background or creed: What kind of world should my child grow up in? What happens when we disagree? Who gets to decide? But her story explores a perspective that readers rarely hear from — with depth, nuance and empathy — and highlights a community that can often be misunderstood, or oversimplified, by the secular press.

Storyboard connected with MacFarquhar to discuss the animating tension that pulled her to this story, how she developed sources amid contentious disputes, and the ways she brought to life the impossible choices her subjects faced. The interview, which is followed by an annotation, has been edited for length and clarity.

What typically informs the subjects that you cover and the types of stories you take on?
I like to write about issues that I don’t understand or can’t make up my mind about — questions I can’t answer. I find myself drawn to issues where I am not sure what I think and write the piece in order to figure it out.

I came to this piece because I thought that this was an incredibly difficult question: How do you, as a judge or as mediator, deal with a situation where you have two parents who inhabit mutually incompatible worlds, whose beliefs are irreconcilable, who have children together? What happens to the kids?

If you talk to the secular side, people will generally say, “Well, kids are resilient. They can cope with different worldviews. They will figure it out when they are grown and decide for themselves.” But that is not compatible with the religious view. I couldn’t understand how you figured out this problem.

How did you go about finding sources for this story? I understand that trust is a big issue when writing about this particular community, especially given that mainstream media coverage usually has lacked deep knowledge or nuance.
I was hoping to write a story in which both parents, in a series of cases, explained how they saw things so that the reader could see this question in its full difficulty and appreciate the agonies that must be felt by both. I was not able to do that because it’s very difficult to persuade someone in an Ultra-Orthodox community to trust a secular reporter.

I did manage to get the view of Faigy (a pseudonym), in the end. But originally, Faigy didn’t want to talk to me and I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. In that case, it wasn’t such a dilemma because the couple is together and Faigy’s husband adores her, and is also a very perceptive guy. I felt reasonably confident that he was able to present her point of view as she saw it, because they had talked about these things so much. Before COVID, I went to their house and met Faigy, who was lovely. I knew she had given him permission and that he really understood her point of view.

As you may know, The New Yorker has a very rigorous fact-checking process that really involves re-reporting the piece. When the fact-checker first asked to talk to Faigy, she said no. And she said no again. Then she said yes. Faigy confirmed what I had heard from her husband about her feelings on various things. She added a few things, too. I owe this entirely to the brilliance of my fact-checker, Teresa Matthews.

The other two cases were extremely contentious. The religious husbands in both cases would not talk to me. I talked to Marie’s husband’s lawyer, who revealed very little. I wasn’t able to get court transcripts, but there were judges’ decisions which had a lot of quotes and descriptions of what was said.

Were you writing this piece primarily for people within the Ultra-Orthodox community, or trying to reach those outside of the community?
I didn’t think that people in the Ultra-Orthodox community would read it. As far as I understood, most people in those communities do not read much secular journalism or books. It actually did circulate in that community more than I thought, partly because Isaac and Faigy were sending it around, but I did not imagine that I would change anybody’s mind. This story was more for people outside the community to see what seemed to me to be a surprising and unjustifiable bias toward the religious parent on the part of the secular court.

In many counties, judges are elected. That affects, inevitably, the way they adjudicate. In some counties, Ultra-Orthodox people are a very disciplined and active voting bloc, and are able to elect judges who sympathize with their concerns.

There was also a sub-issue — it’s so much a subject in itself that I couldn’t treat it with anywhere near the attention it deserves — which is the question of schooling. Of course, a parent’s number one desire is to have access to their children and share custody, but another very important issue for the secular parent is the schooling of their kids. Most secular parents cede control because it seems hopeless to even try to get their kids into a secular school. But in a lot of Yeshivas, the education is extremely rudimentary when it comes to secular subjects. This was another issue I felt people didn’t know about — and although this was a tiny detail in the article, it felt important to highlight.

You jumped back and forth between characters and their stories in a very direct way, in a sort of braided narrative. Can you share more about your thought process when you were thinking about the scaffolding of this piece? Is this a structure you typically use?
I don’t do this typically, as I’m always conscious of how many times you can restart with a new story. You don’t want the reader to get exhausted. And it was very important to me to end with Faigy and Isaac’s story, because it moved me. I didn’t want theirs to be the third story that no one read because the reader had had enough.

There was a similar dramatic inflection point in all three stories: What are they going to do? You’ve set up the incredibly difficult situation they find themselves in. Just as some choose to leave the community publicly, others choose to stay and hide their feelings. They could have suppressed their beliefs and gone through the motions, because leaving is incredibly costly and hard. So I thought that these tension points would keep the reader interested in all three stories.

People at Footsteps always remind me that leaving the community is so costly and hard, you have to be desperate. You have to feel like it’s a matter of life or death. You lose your whole world — including, in many cases, your family. It’s a huge thing to do, but it is a choice.  By having a kind of cliffhanger halfway through each story, I wanted the reader to see that while this is a story that took place in the past, it could have been different. These are not passive victims. These are people who had to make a terrible, terrible choice.

In a single sentence, what core idea or animating tension were you trying to illuminate?
The tension between these two irreconcilable ways of life — and how you, as a judge, are put in the position of having to reconcile those irreconcilable ways of life and decide how a child will live, split between two worlds that cannot compromise.

What was the most surprising part of the reporting process, for you?
The fact that Faigy and Isaac managed to make it work. Footsteps was actually ambivalent about me writing about them because it didn’t want to create the impression — by having Isaac and Faigy as one of three — that this is a plausible other path for people to take. Faigy and Isaac are very, very rare. I certainly don’t want to create the impression that this is a path people could take, if only they were loving and empathetic enough. The worldviews really are irreconcilable, and I respect the difficulty of that. But what was most surprising was talking to Isaac about their marriage, about their love, and how they figured out how to make a life that’s not ideal for either of them — but is worth it because they love each other.

Annotation:  Storyboard’s questions are in red; MacFarquhar’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button on your device.

When One Parent Leaves a Hasidic Community, What Happens to the Kids?

The irreconcilable differences between Orthodoxy and secularism increasingly end up in court.