Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

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.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

The Fortunes of War
Rabbi Moshe Grylak We’re still feeling the fallout of the First World War
Some Lessons, But Few Portents
Yonoson Rosenblum What the midterms tell us about 2020
Vote of Confidence
Eyan Kobre Why I tuned in to the liberal radio station
5 out of 10
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin Top 5 Moments of the Kinus
Day in the Life
Rachel Bachrach Chaim White of KC Kosher Co-op
When Less is More
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman How a good edit enhances a manuscript
It’s My Job
Jacob L. Freedman “Will you force me to take meds?”
They’re Still Playing My Song?
Riki Goldstein Yitzy Bald’s Yerav Na
Yisroel Werdyger Can’t Stop Singing
Riki Goldstein Ahrele Samet’s Loi Luni
Double Chords of Hope
Riki Goldstein You never know how far your music can go
Will Dedi Have the Last Laugh?
Dovid N. Golding Dedi and Ding go way back
Battle of the Budge
Faigy Peritzman Using stubbornness to grow in ruchniyus
The Challenging Child
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Strategies for raising the difficult child
Bucking the Trend
Sara Eisemann If I skip sem, will I get a good shidduch?
The Musician: Part 1
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer "If she can't read she'll be handicapped for life!"