Embracing a Wider World

Chaya Deitsch ’86 was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in New Haven, Conn. Her recently published book Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family is a memoir

By Chaya Deitsch ’86

“Welcome to Barnard, Class of 1986!”

Thus began my college orientation in the auditorium of Barnard Hall. The woman at the podium waited for the cheering to subside and got down to business. First were instructions on how to navigate the rolling walls of graffiti otherwise known as the New York City subway system. Then she read us a passage from the Barnard student handbook: “Students shall respect a 10 p.m. weeknight curfew. No men shall be allowed in your rooms.” She looked up. “And slacks may not be worn in class.”

Gasps rippled across the auditorium, but I felt a surge of hope. Having grown up Hasidic, I’d arrived with a suitcase full of long skirts and cross-my-heart promises to my parents that I wouldn’t date. Now, I thought, maybe fitting in wouldn’t be so hard.

After a moment, she let us in on the joke: the passage was from a 1950s handbook. Amid the relieved laughter of my classmates, I crumpled a little.

Yet this was what I’d always dreamed of: a true college experience, sitting cross-legged (and jeans-clad) on a campus lawn, debating Nietzsche with a friend. It was a fantasy spun from movies like The Paper Chase and the hippie Yale students I had ogled on my way to the mall as a teenager in New Haven.

My daydreams were very different from my presumed future, which mirrored the lives of my mother, aunts, and grandmothers—women who were given few choices outside of building a traditional home for their families. I’d already been relegated behind the curtain at synagogue. I dreaded disappearing even further, into marriage, before getting a chance to sample the forbidden fruit that beckoned—not least a bachelorette pad like Mary Tyler Moore’s, complete with a giant “C” hanging on the wall.

In my junior year of high school, a lifeline had appeared in the form of a new English teacher. Rosette Liberman ’58 was brash, openly secular, and completely out of sync with the values of our little community. She sniffed me out immediately. I read voraciously, wore jangly earrings, and spouted unorthodox ideas, particularly about women.

“You’ll go to Barnard,” Rosette announced. “My alma mater.”

I’d never heard of it. But it was all female and close to home, so there was a chance I’d get my parents to agree. They weren’t necessarily opposed to college, but they (rightly) worried about my religious commitment. In the meantime, Rosette taught me how to write a proper essay and sent away for an application for me.

Now here I was at Barnard Hall, slacksless and wondering what I’d gotten myself into. The woman to my left turned to me and wiped her forehead in mock relief.

“Whew! I believed her for a minute,” she laughed. “I’m Ariadne.”

I gave her my hand and smiled back. I was in a new world—and that was just fine.

Latest IssueSummer 2021

The extraordinary class of 2021 sets off on their next adventure.