Roth, around 8 here, was the oldest of 12. Photo: Courtesy of Faigy Roth
From an early age Faigy Roth was skeptical of her family’s lifestyle. She grew up in an insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in Monsey, New York, where religion and tradition guide every aspect of their lives and a rabbi sets the rules for everyone. Yiddish is the native language. English and most traditional curricula are not taught in school. Women dress conservatively, covering elbows, knees and collarbones. Technology is restricted. Marriage is arranged.
Roth is the oldest of 12 children. She spent much of her own childhood playing the role of assistant mother to the young ones, as her family couldn’t afford outside help. Her father — who was born in Israel and moved to the enclave when he was 12 years old — worked as a nursery school teacher in the community making around $2,000 a month.
“The only thing my father ever had except for kids is debt,” Roth said.
Her mother grew up in a similar Hasidic community in Williamsburg. She ran a strict household, directing discipline through her husband — but Roth knew who called the shots. She was also emotionally unstable and exhibited many obsessive, compulsive tendencies, Roth said.
“When she prays she says the same word over and over again,” said Roth. “Her hands are always bleeding because she washes them so much.”
Roth grew up with her parents’ expectation that she would get married to someone in the community, have babies and raise them as she had been raised. But the reality of it was mystifying to her.
“When you get married — and this is something growing up I could not imagine myself doing — you have to shave your head,” Roth said. “People do not know why they’re doing anything, they just know this is what we do. So you shave your head. But that’s not enough, you wear a wig on top of it; but that’s not enough, you wear a scarf on top of the wig.”
Roth spent the first 18 years of her life running up against these rules; at times bending them shrewdly or breaking them with abandon. She lived this way until she couldn’t do it any longer, when she was forced to choose between an arranged marriage and leaving everything behind for a world that she was yearning to know.
It was then that she fled her family and the constraints they placed upon her.
For all of the drama in Roth’s life, her story is really one of resilience and re-invention. In just a few years, she went from not knowing how to speak English to becoming an accomplished student and college graduate. After earning her GED, Roth spent two years at Kingsborough Community College before studying human biology at Hunter College, where she succeeded through a love of learning.
“The same young woman who had never spoken a sentence in English, had never looked into a microscope, and didn’t know what a major was, graduated in a field that she loves with the highest GPA in the major’s history,” said Hunter president Jennifer Raab.
Now 30, Roth, who lives in Brooklyn, has the freedom she never had in the community: to decide how exactly she wants to spend the rest of her life.
By the time she was 14, Roth tried to spend as little time with her family as she could. After school, she visited the residents at the senior living home, making them laugh or sitting with them during meals. Or she would hide out in her room. “You know when you’re living in constant fear of being yelled at?” she said. “That was me.”
By that point she had lost trust in the adults in her community. She’d been treated poorly at school and those in power didn’t help her, Roth said.
But even thinking about leaving was difficult. Most of the people who left were either men or were married.
“It’s like you live in a different world, and trying to get out, it’s like how? Where do you start? How do you get away if everyone you know is ... in there?”
When she was 18, Roth realized that she had to make a choice it would be too late. Her parents were starting to bring up names of boys who could be her potential spouse.
“I knew that when I was going to leave I was going to hurt my parents,” Roth said. “It was going to be difficult for me, but thinking about bringing in a stranger, whoever this guy is, and hurting him as well, and his parents, I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’”
So she suggested a compromise. She told her parents that, sure, she would get married, but it would be to someone who was not as staunch in the religious practice. This man could be religious, but maybe he also watched movies and had a cellphone.
It didn’t work.
“My mom started crying, her body started shaking, and I’d never seen that. My father was yelling, ‘It’s because of you! She’s crying because of you!’” Roth recalled. “In their head, they were thinking, you’re going to get married and like that kind of life.”
Not long after that conversation, Roth left. She lived on the outskirts of the community in another religious neighborhood for a year. She worked and saved money, but her parents were still trying to interfere in her decisions.
“I booked a one-way flight to Israel. That’s how I fully got away from it.”Making a Life of Her Own
After a year traveling in Israel, staying with her father’s relatives, Roth came back to the states with an empty bank account and a desire to do something with her life. She worked quickly to establish an independent life. Acquaintances who had also left the community let her stay at their place in Brooklyn until she was on her feet. She soon found a job managing a warehouse that distributed Judaica items. On the job she was able to pick up English easily, which she said was fueled by desperation.
“That’s the best way to learn,” she said, “when you have no choice.”
But her living situation remained precarious. One day she came home from work to find her belongings on the street with the locks to the house changed. “I wasn’t making that much where I could go to a hotel for a few nights. I didn’t have any family or help,” she said. One night, she had nowhere to stay and slept on a bench on Ocean Parkway.
“I felt hopeless. I really did,” she said. “I questioned, what’s the future?”
But she never questioned if leaving the community had been worth it.
“When I do have financial hardships, being that I don’t have anywhere to get the help, I always dream about being back at home with my parents,” she said. “They’re trying to force me to marry. I wake up and I literally tremble. I’d rather be homeless than be in that situation.”
Seeking the education she was deprived of in the community, Roth took the GED so that she could enroll in college. When she went to Kingsborough to sign up for classes, the advisor asked Roth what she wanted to major in. “What’s a major?” Roth asked. The advisor laughed until it was clear that Roth wasn’t making a joke.
She started in liberal arts at the junior college and gravitated toward biology, which she declared as her major when she enrolled at Hunter. “I think it’s that it makes sense to me without studying,” she said about the appeal of biology.
She gained such a good reputation as a student among her peers, Roth said, that they vied to be her partner in labs. “I was like walking in the dark, but I studied so hard,” she said. The work paid off last month, when Roth graduated with the highest GPA for a biology major in the history of the college.The future beckons
Now, Roth is deciding what’s next for her. Currently, she runs two businesses of her own: one that sells stemless tumbler wine glasses and another that sells birthday and holiday gift boxes. For the time being, she enjoys being her own boss, but is also looking at medical school as an option, to study cardiology.
Regardless of what she chooses, she has a few simple goals for the future: A house of her own in a suburban neighborhood, two dogs, and a Jeep. She’s also been thinking about children, but the idea of marriage is still unpalatable.
“I’ve had relationships, but I don’t understand why you need to get married,” she said. “It’s not something that I ever wanted. I could live without it pretty happily.”
When asked what her parents — with whom she’s recently rekindled a relationship — would think of her ideas for the future, she sighed heavily. “I don’t think they’ll ever be happy with my lifestyle. I sometimes think about it: if I have a kid, would I tell them about it? I think I’d have to cut off contact.”
Though she has lived outside the community for about a decade, Roth is still surprised by the world outside of it. When she ventured out on her own, she felt like a foreigner in her own country. Everything was new. But what has stuck with her in these 10 years, is just how much she can relate to others who did not grow up in the community. “I was surprised by how alike most humans are,” she said. “I always thought of the ‘rest of the world’ as very different than myself. I came to realize that most of us are very similar at our core.”