“I never reconciled with my parents. I did go to see my mom, and I was allowed to go into the house, but my husband never could. And my three children were allowed in the house, but they were never really accepted because their father was not Jewish.”
This comment was made last week during an in-person interview with the Local by Laya Martinez (born Rita Leah Steinberg), author of the extraordinarily candid and compelling memoir, “When Your Family Says No.” She will be discussing the book on Saturday, April 15, 1 p.m., at Hilltop Books, 84 Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill.
Martinez, who grew up in Suffolk County, Long Island, where her father, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Israel, had founded an ultra-Orthodox synagogue. Like children growing up in any fundamentalist household of any religion, she said, she had a long list of rules she was expected to follow, along with constant prayer. For example, each morning she was expected to perform “negel vasser,” the ritual washing of hands along with its accompanying prayer.
On one particular morning, she writes in the book, her father asked if she had followed the hand-washing practice. “This morning I had done neither,” she writes. “And so, of course, I told him. He hit me. I bit my lip to hold back the tears. It wasn't the pain of the not-so-hard smack that stuck me. It was the agony of the humiliation.”
Martinez said that her family, and the religious practice they followed, expected her to attend a religious seminary for girls, date the suitors her father sent to her, become engaged by 19, marry within six weeks and have as many children as she could bear, raising her family in a house of godly belief.
However, at the age of 19, she fell in love with a non-Jewish man, John Martinez, for whom she was working at a data processing company. At the time, she had never held a boy’s hand, had never been dancing, eaten a meal at a non-Kosher restaurant or been close to a non-Jewish friend. Her newfound feeling of freedom, sensual pleasure and independence came at the price of almost unbearable heartbreak, however. In marrying the man she loved (in secret in Reno, Nevada), she said she was considered a traitor by her family for abandoning centuries of tradition and rabbinic law.
“In my experience, ultra-orthodox parents will sacrifice anyone for God, even their own children,” Martinez said. “They are brainwashed from the moment they are born. It is a cult.”
According to Martinez, the confines of her sheltered upbringing left her unprepared for life in the real world.
“For instance, I never knew there was such a thing as a gay person,” she said. “Also, I was totally innocent. I did not come from a world of cheating, so I was unprepared for employees cheating on their expense sheets, for example. I was in an insular world.”
Meanwhile, Martinez was expected to excel in school and in the world at-large, and she certainly did. After studying at Yeshiva University, she began working in the computer field in its early days. She worked for Master Card in Mineola, NY, where she was the only female out of 23 programmers. She later founded two successful data processing companies serving Fortune 500 clients and was named one of Philadelphia's “Top 25 Women Business Owners.” She also founded the first female club table at the Union League of Philadelphia.
Martinez and her husband moved from New York State to the Philadelphia area to be close to his family. They had been married for 27 years when he died of brain cancer. They lived in Blue Bell, and their children attended the non-sectarian Germantown Academy in Fort Washington. Twelve years ago, Martinez sold her company, retired and remarried. She and her second husband, who is Jewish, now live in Penn Valley. For the last 12 years, Martinez has been working on her book, which was published late last year.
“Over the years I have constantly been asked to write a book when people learn about my story,” she said. “Despite what I have said, this book is a love story. It is all about virtue, courage, struggle, fortitude and love. Everyone has a right to his or her own life. If you bring a child into the world, you are not allowed to throw that child away. That is a sin. Although they may not make decisions aligned with ours, they have a right to their own being. You guide them with love, teach them well and bless them on their own journey.”
For more information, visit hilltopbooks.org or authorlaya.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com