By Katherine Meeks
Faigy Mayer passed away on Monday, July 20. She was part of the diversity of the New Voice Toastmasters Club at the New School in Union Square.
Faigy Mayer was a woman on a quest, and I admired her for what she was trying to do. She was brought up in a strict Ultra Orthodox Hasidic sect which did everything it could to shape her and keep her in that mold. But Faigy rebelled. She said she didn’t want to be a mom with 20 kids. She envisioned another type of life. Faigy struggled to break free, and did make a break at the age of 24 to live a different kind of life, a kind of life she thought was more natural for her, a secular life of the kind most of us here in the city enjoy. It wasn’t easy for her.
As a result of her decision, her family and community shunned her. Her mother wouldn’t let her back inside the family house. Although she had never felt at home in her own culture, it was a struggle for her to adapt to the new culture in which she had no experience of making decisions for herself or using analytic thinking to make life choices. She went to college to get both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in accounting, and became a tech wizard – creating several apps and founding a start-up tech company. Our techy members enjoyed talking with her on that topic.
Being part of Toastmasters was part of her quest to find her footing in secular culture. She attended our New Voice Club for a while, dropped out, and about a year ago returned – she was interested in being part of the community again and I remember she expressed interest in working with a prison Toastmasters Club our club was sponsoring. She was doing everything she could to find her way in secular culture.
But she had lost the support of her parents and family, and most of the community that she had been immersed in. She loved kids, and doted on her nephews – but was rarely allowed to see them. It was very hard for her emotionally and she suffered from depression, even being hospitalized a few times.
Two weeks ago in a long email to her friends she shared her frank thoughts about her religion – her dismay at amusements that little kids couldn’t enjoy such as TV and the internet – restrictive female clothing, customs that emphasized the subservience of women. She also expressed her dismay at how everything, up to and including sexual relations between husbands and wives, was rigidly regulated by powerful rabbis. The restrictions on the internet, which made it hard to be gainfully employed in business and the number of Hasidim on welfare also dismayed her. She was concerned about education for young children that leaves out math instruction and other essential subjects. And most of all the restrictions on thinking for yourself and critical thinking.
In her last letter, Faigy stated, “If people were allowed to think, they would not be religious.”
To me, that was putting it a little too strongly, but she wound up addressing one of the key issues of our times. If critical thinking is a value, as it is in most of American society, the more educated you are and the more you are capable of critical thinking, the less you can embrace one-size-fits-all religious doctrine. As people become more educated, especially about the subject matter of religion itself, the more difficult things become: they must confront the holes and inconsistencies in the sacred doctrines they have been taught to embrace since they were children. This is a problem even for theology school students. It is a trying and uncertain process.
Faigy went through the same process, but for her it was even more extreme – she had to reject not just the faith she was raised in but an entire culture and way of life. The problems that Faigy was dealing with – faith, culture and critical thinking – are key issues of our times. Faigy deserves honor and respect for confronting them in her own life. Coming from the background she did, she paid a huge price. The emotional strain on her was immense.
Faigy had issues and she wasn’t perfect. But in a difficult environment she made a huge and sincere effort to become, as the famous poem by William Ernest Henley puts it, “the master of her fate. the captain of her soul.” For that, she is my hero.
Katherine Meeks is a resident of Stuyvesant Town and a member of the New Voice Toastmasters Club.