Melissa Weisz is an emerging actress, with a current role in the movie Félix & Meira. The film, which tells the story of a young woman in a traditional Hasidic household who leaves her faith and the strict circle of her community when she falls in love, has strong parallels with Weisz' own life. She told her story to Laura Barcella.
I never thought I'd be an actress, but not just for the reasons most people think they won't make it. For most of my life, I lived in a traditional family in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, where careers — let alone careers in acting — were rarely discussed. I was fully observant and, when I was 19, I entered into an arranged marriage. Four years later, I left it all behind.
My childhood was loud but happy. I had six sisters and two brothers, so there were lots of kids running around, and lots of makeshift moms — my older sisters were constantly helping out. It felt very safe, because we were in our own super-structured little bubble where everybody was like us. Everyone has one, clear, ultra-traditional direction in life — it was like, “This is where you're going and this is what you’re doing.” You knew how to dress, how to act at home and at school. You knew what was expected of you.
I'm still not sure why, but one day, I started doubting a lot of what I’d been raised to believe. All of sudden, I was challenging my teachers and crossing the boundaries of what Hasidic kids are supposed to talk about. Some of the stuff I was learning — like the idea of men throughout history having multiple wives, things like that — disturbed me. Why was it okay for men to do that and not women?
It bothered me how, at holidays like Shabbat, the guys would sit quietly and study while the women were expected to serve them. I started to wonder, Why am I serving my little brother? Obviously, I didn't know anything about feminism then. But, I didn’t understand why God would give me a brain if I wasn't allowed to question things, and I only got more and more dubious as I grew older.
When I was 19, I had an arranged Hasidic marriage. It was just what was done; my ex-husband and I met a few times, and then we got engaged. Fortunately, he’s a great guy; I actually started to feel like I was falling in love with him during the courtship process. I hadn't been with anyone else. I didn’t question whether the marriage was right for me (ultimately, it wasn’t). I figured I would make it work no matter what, because I had to. But, when you start questioning things, all the dominoes start to fall.
We were married for four years when I decided to walk away from both my husband and our community. That summer, I’d gone away to Texas and spoken with various Hasidic friends and rabbis, checked out different temples. I was reading a lot about Judaism and realized, once and for all, that it felt false to me. I had been trying to make sense of it and find my own path within it, but I just couldn’t. Religion, in general, just doesn't really have a place in my life or my belief system.
So, I made the very difficult decision to leave.
After I left, I felt a big sense of relief, but I also realized I needed to figure out how to survive outside the world in which I'd been raised. Practical matters, like finding an apartment, were totally new to me. I was lucky to discover Footsteps, an organization that helps former Orthodox Jews establish new lives outside their communities. I started going to some of its meetings and met a bunch of great people. I found a support system, an apartment, roommates. That was when I finally felt comfortable starting to openly talk about my experiences in the Orthodox world. I put myself through college and got a degree in psychology.
When I left, I didn't ask my family for their support — I just assumed they wouldn't give it. I didn't give them a chance, and after I left there was no real communication for a while. Once, my sister stopped by and left me a care package with a delicious traditional Jewish cake, but she didn't say "hi."
Sometimes, still, I feel like a bit of an outsider, and occasionally I miss aspects of my old life. But, we all have moments like that — like when you return to the town where you went to school, or drive past a house you used to live in. It’s nostalgic, but that doesn’t mean you want to be there again. When I pass by Hasidic boys on the street, it gives me a little pang sometimes.
Fortunately, I've been able to reconnect with my family. After they realized my leaving wasn't just a phase, they began to reach out to me again, which was great. My father and I are even thinking about writing a book about the experience.
In my newest movie, I actually play a Hasidic woman. It's been cathartic because it has forced me to face my past. The house where we shot the film was so similar to the one I grew up in, I walked in and immediately started crying. It felt like home — but it definitely wasn’t my home anymore.
Félix and Meira opens Friday, April 17 in select cities around the country.