‘Heretics’ hum Hasidic harmonies
Musical bridges

‘Heretics’ hum Hasidic harmonies

It Gets Besser’s new video project has former ultra-Orthodox Jews in a secular setting humming tunes from their religious past

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Sam 'Ushy' Katz rocks out to a hassidic niggun in the lab. (photo credit: screenshot)
Sam 'Ushy' Katz rocks out to a hassidic niggun in the lab. (photo credit: screenshot)

We’ve all caught ourselves suddenly humming a favorite tune from our childhood while going about our daily business. For most of us, this is comforting. But for young Jews who are OTD (“off the derech”), who have left the ultra-Orthodox community, subconsciously recalling a song from the past can be an emotionally loaded thing.

Singing or listening to these songs may be difficult, but it’s also important, says Sam “Ushy” Katz, co-creator of It Gets Besser, a project for and about young OTD Jews. He is making a video of formerly Haredi Jews listening or singing along to the tunes that have stayed with them despite the distance they have put between their current selves and the people they used to be. He’s asked fellow OTD individuals to tape themselves and send the clips in to be included in the crowdsourced video.

“It’s okay to say that we miss our old self, our old community,” Katz tells the Times of Israel from Berlin, where he is a Fulbright Scholar this year. Having graduated last May from Stony Brook University with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and theater arts, Katz is doing research on direct cell programming at the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology before returning to the U.S. for graduate school.

Katz, 24, was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community in Boro Park, Brooklyn. At 16, he went to Israel to study at the Slabodka Yeshiva in B’nai Brak. While in Israel, he began questioning whether he wanted to remain Hasidic, and when he returned to New York at age 18, he studied for his GED. At 19, he left the ultra-Orthodox way of life and went to college. He was helped along the way by Footsteps, an organization that supports individuals seeking to leave the Haredi communities they grew up in.

Sam Ushy's before and after photos from the 2011 It Gets Besser project. (photo credit: courtesy)
Sam ‘Ushy’ Katz’s before and after photos from the 2011 It Gets Besser project. (photo credit: courtesy)

Katz emphasizes that this new video differs from earlier ones made by It Gets Besser (the name is a riff on the It Gets Better project aimed at reassuring LGBT youth).

“Those ones were about contrasting the past and the present. They were saying, ‘You were this, and now you can be this other person — that you have options,’” he explains in his Yiddish-accented English.

“This new video is about getting to a safe place where you can interact with your past self,” Katz says. “The Haredi community likes to use our saying that we miss our old self and community against us, to try and prove that we can’t successfully leave, but we know that’s not true.”

He hopes this new video will speak to young people considering leaving the Haredi community, as well as to the larger Jewish community so that it becomes more aware of OTD Jews.

Humming along to hassidische music in the new It Gets Besser project. (photo credit: screenshot)
Humming along to hasidische music in the new It Gets Besser project. (photo credit: screenshot)

Katz also hopes the video will spur the ultra-Orthodox Jews to realize that he and other individuals like him are not a threat to their community. “I’d like to see the Haredi community deal more ethically and compassionately with the families of OTD Jews. As it is right now, it makes it even harder for people to consider leaving, because if they make that choice, it’s not just about them, but also about their entire family is regarded,” he notes.

So far, 13 submissions for the video have come in, and Katz expects more to reach him before the December 26 deadline. “A lot of us are college students, and we all know that in that crowd, people wait until the last minute to get something done,” he says jokingly. Katz recently put together a fun GIF-filled blog post to inspire people to participate in the project.

Katz says that, as with all It Gets Besser activities, this new project is about presenting options.

“We’re not saying you should. We’re not saying you would. We’re saying you could,” is the project’s tagline.

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