Feminist turned frum reveals shes never felt more free

Seven years ago, had I encountered the woman I am today, I would have pitied her: long sleeves and ankle-length skirt in the middle of summer; no driving, writing, talking on the phone or cooking from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; recently married to a man she'd never touched — not so much as a peck on the cheek — until after the wedding. I'd have cringed and dismissed this woman as a repressed, religious nut. Now my pity — or at least a patient smile — is for that self-certain Southern California girl I was at 25.

I grew up in Tucson, Ariz., the older of two daughters, in a typically upper-middle-class, well-educated, liberal Jewish family. My dad is a physician, my mother active in the local Jewish community. My religious and ethnic identification consisted of fund-raising for Jewish causes, Israeli dancing and Sunday brunch: bagels and lox.

As a gawky 13-year-old, I had a bat mitzvah, along with the obligatory party at a posh country club. If God was there, I didn't notice. The most religious person I knew was my high school English teacher, a Southern Baptist, for whom I wrote polemical essays questioning all religious beliefs. Through my research and experience, which consisted mostly of listening to Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, skimming the "Marx-Engels Reader" and having deep, earnest discussions with friends), I concluded that religion was, at best, irrelevant in an enlightened, late 20th century world. At 16, I joined the group American Atheists.

But, generally, I did what teenagers do. I spent the scorching Arizona summers watching soap operas and lying by the pool at my friend Annie's house, comparing tan lines. We crossed the border into Mexico to buy tequila, sneaked into dance clubs with fake IDs, philosophized about life and boys, and felt completely immortal.

I continued my liberal pursuits in college in Philadelphia, and after graduation, I drove my Honda with its "I'm Pro-Choice — And I Vote!" bumper sticker to California. I took advantage of all Los Angeles had to offer. I ate sushi and gelati, played beach volleyball, studied Kabbalah.

I was living in a Beverly Hills basement with a gay friend at the time, working for the National Organization for Women, helping organize pro-choice rallies. I also did stints as aerobics instructor, waitress, cashier, SAT tutor. Finally, I entered University of Southern California as a graduate student in journalism.

In the next few years I wrote for the Los Angeles Times about miniskirts, paisley and the plight of L.A.'s lovelorn. Then I worked for TEEN magazine, penning endless variations of "How to get/dump your guy" stories and answering hapless teenage girls' letters in my "Dear Juli" column. While I loved my spacious office with its view of the city, I also found the job mind-numbing and depressing. How many ways, I wondered, could I teach a girl to flirt?

I moved to a Beverly Hills "adjacent" apartment, complete with ceiling fans and high arches. There I was — 25 years old, finally having achieved what should "do it." Yet I felt as though something was profoundly lacking — as if I were a Ferrari engine stuffed into a VW Bug.

Though I was at times excited, even ecstatic, I rarely remember being content or truly joyful. Though I believed in spirituality, religion was the "opiate of the masses," a crutch for emotional and intellectual weaklings and conservative Republicans. I favored Tarot card and palm readers and a particular psychic who told me I was Napoleon in a past life.

Then one night, a friend and I dropped in on an Orthodox Jewish gathering near my apartment–not so much to find enlightenment as to meet guys. I don't recall what, exactly, but something the rabbi said resonated. I decided to take a class. I certainly had no intention of becoming — ick! — religious. I just wanted to learn more about Judaism's philosophy and mysticism. As for those archaic laws? How dare anyone tell me I'm restricted from certain activities because I'm a woman or that I have to dress a certain way to protect my dignity.

During the past seven years, I learned that it may have been easier for me to be passionate about the wrong things rather than the right ones. I thought I was an open-minded individual, yet I really just believed what every other liberal, educated, cultured person I knew believed. I was tolerant of everything except "intolerance." My only absolute was that there are no absolutes.

Yet, as much as I fought and rebelled, I was drawn to the Orthodox world. I recognized something profound there — the values, the consciousness, the sensitivity to others. I examined my worldview and myself in a different way. I began to see that in a society in which individuality, self-determination and freedom of choice are the highest values, I had, in fact, been limited by pressures I didn't even recognize. I had been conforming to what's considered "normal," its definition changing every few years. Now, for the first time, I understood what I had always felt, that I had an essence, a soul.

To the shock of my family, which was half-sure I'd been sucked in by a cult, I quit my job and traveled to Israel to continue my studies. The Torah and its volumes of commentary address every aspect of the human condition. It proscribes, prescribes and describes in amazing depth and detail. And it infuses people with the bigness of character and soul I had always admired but rarely experienced.

I spent many months grappling with the "female" question. So much of what I saw in the religious way of life seemed at odds with what I thought I knew. But at one point I had to ask myself: What have I been told by my schooling and my society, and what do I really see in the world?

My answer: Men and women are significantly, dramatically different, both emotionally and physically (and now, I realize, spiritually). Judaism addresses these differences. I looked at the religious women around me. I had never met stronger, more emotionally and spiritually refined, capable, loving, non-neurotic women. Or more sensitive, respectful, devoted men. More happy, psychically intact, cared-for children. I wanted that.

Everywhere, I see pain, struggles, the Prozac nation. Becoming observant does not make a weak person strong. It is not a quick fix for a lifetime of emotional damage. But the Torah's guidelines provide the boundaries and tools for inner healing and transformation. Now, being religious frames everything I do, say and strive for. I knew that the man I would marry and I must share the same priorities and values.

I met my husband, a New York businessman, through a mutual teacher. This was a whole different ritual from my former L.A.-style dating. In venturing into this shiduch — which, loosely translated, means "date" — we had agreed to an express purpose: We were to decide if we were a match.

Aaron and I spent hours together eating Chinese food, playing miniature golf and pinball, ice-skating, boating in Central Park. I came to respect his integrity, his strength and his constant striving to do and be better. (And he's cute!) Four months after we met, we began a 10-week engagement. We never touched, but got to know each other, unclouded by the bond of physical intimacy, which so often super-glues the wrong people together.

People look at Orthodox women as repressed. But when I see women in skimpy clothing, intimately involved with men they barely know, I think: "Wake up, girlfriend! You think men are seeing your soul? About who you are? Your body has become your self." The real feminine mystique is a woman's private, richer side.

I live in a religious community outside Manhattan, full of the type of people I used to look at with pity, even contempt. My goal is to become like these women: sensitive, strong, fantastic wives and mothers. Not, as I once thought, because they had been subjugated for centuries or because they were lacking self-esteem, but because they recognize the most important thing a person can do is to develop character by giving, building and supporting another.

A Jewish wedding revolves around making the bride and groom happy. After the ceremony, but before the dancing, Aaron and I went to a separate room to spend a few private moments. There, he held my hand for the first time. That small gesture had a richness and intimacy I could never have imagined.