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Family Fiction: The Road Less Traveled

As told to Chaviva Cohen

I went as far off the derech as a kid could possibly go — and miraculously, I made my way back.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016



What do you think when you see a “kid at risk?” Does it make you wonder about the family as a whole, about the shalom bayis, about chinuch in the home? Do you try to come up with a plausible explanation for what went wrong?

Personally, I don’t think there are any easy answers. You see, I was a “kid at risk” myself. I have been through it all, and let me tell you, it often isn’t so simple. I went as far off the derech as a kid could possibly go — and miraculously, I made my way back. This is my story.

My upbringing wasn’t particularly remarkable. I grew up in a happy and loving home in New York City, the youngest of many siblings. There was no dysfunction, no childhood trauma, no family history of alcoholism. But I was unusually sensitive to the world around me, a common thread I’ve observed among other recovered alcoholics.


The world made no sense. Way back in first grade, snatches of overheard conversations about the Holocaust caused me exquisite pain. Newspaper articles about domestic abuse, and hearing about the imperfections in frum society cut right through me.

When I felt that my family had been wronged by the community and the system, I grew deeply disillusioned. I was still young, but I remember my thoughts: I don’t want to be part of these people.

I had a lot of questions, a product of both my naturally questioning mind and my cynical view of the community, and hence, authority in general. “But why do we keep Shabbos?” I would ask. “Because that’s what’s written in the Torah,” came the answer.

It did nothing to satisfy me. I wanted — needed — to understand.

But where to find that understanding? The kodesh classes in Bais Yaakov were uninspired and uninspiring, and not one of the teachers realized that I could barely read. The adults in my life looked at me askance. It seemed like frum life was just a sophisticated charade.

It didn’t help that I was intrigued by the promise of danger. Before I was a teen, I sneaked cigarettes and smoked them in the nearby forest. Then there were the questions that niggled at me: not philosophical ones yet, but more, what if? What will happen to me if I eat treif food? What would it feel like to flip on the light on Shabbos? Would I have the courage to buy chometz from that soft-pretzel stand? And now, will I place it in my mouth?

I did. It was Chol Hamoed Pesach and I chewed through that soft pretzel like I’d never eaten one before.

But then I was terrified. I was convinced I would be struck down from Heaven. In preparation for my imminent death, I said Shema. Again and again. I was not struck down. I wondered if Hashem didn’t really care after all.

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