real life

Amid abuse by her schoolteacher, Dassi Erlich married a man she'd known for 8 hours.

This is an edited extract from In Bad Faith by Dassi Erlich, with Ellen Whinnett and is out now via Hachette.

I peeked through my eyelashes at the unfamiliar orange beard across the table and dared myself to look up. Eye contact, Mrs Leifer had reminded me on the phone just moments earlier. 'Remember to look up.' I felt my cheeks go red. I was a young woman, dressed in a long-sleeved beige jacket, a blue-and-beige skirt and seventy-denier brown tights, sitting at a round kitchen table, on my first date.

I looked up at the man sitting opposite me and then quickly down again. It felt wrong. We weren't supposed to look unrelated men in the eye.

'My name is Shua Erlich,' he began, and I was grateful it was the man’s job to initiate conversation. I'd tossed and turned all night, worried that my voice would remain constrained by the years of keeping quiet in the presence of a man. At 18 years old, I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a genuine conversation with a male that was not my father. I knew he was 23 years old, 180 centimetres tall, had a childhood interest in cricket, and was currently studying in a yeshivah (men’s religious seminary) abroad.

The matchmaker had informed my parents that his divorced parents were Jewish but not religious, and that Shua had chosen the ultra-Orthodox life as a young teenager. The rabbis he studied under raved about his ability to understand Jewish law in a way that belied his secular upbringing. It was unusual for boys to fly home to pursue a date in February. The yeshivah frowned upon midsemester engagements. I was told that Shua had flown home to meet another girl, and when she had turned him down the matchmaker had called my parents. A trip home midsemester shouldn't go to waste.


I could hear my mother pacing up and down in the adjoining room. She was here to supervise our date and ensure we didn't have any physical contact. She needn't have worried. I wouldn't dream of touching him; I could barely look at him. I spent the hour looking at the laundry door behind him and the swinging pendulum on the clock above his head. Everything I did — the way I held myself, the way I dressed, the way I spoke—was designed to avoid drawing attention to myself. To avoid drawing the attention of the men who were not supposed to see us. Gazing at women was immodest. When a rabbi was invited to address us at school, they sat behind a temporary mechitza — a partition usually made from wood or cloth—to keep them from looking at us. It was a woman's responsibility to ensure the man was not tempted by her to commit an evil sin.

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I knew nothing of the sin of sex; we had been taught the sin was in the man noticing us, and being distracted from learning Torah by our femininity.

My parents had spent the last few days with the community matchmaker, finding out everything they deemed important about Shua. I'd been informed of his grades, his parents' wealth and his Torah study. I wasn't asked what was important to me; my input in this process was not required.

It would be my first date. The matchmaker had called with other offers in the last few months, but my parents had turned them down. They were too far away, lived overseas and wouldn't consider a life in Melbourne; the husband was the head of the home, and he would choose where the couple lived.

I'd spent months praying to God that I would meet my husband before I turned 19. The older I got, the more problematic the marriage scene would be for me. We were not related to any revered rabbi and had no status in the community. I could see the black marks growing against my name: my parents hadn't grown up religious, they didn’t come from money, and my mother was a dark-skinned Sephardi. Sephardi Jews, often tracing their roots to the Middle East and Africa, at times encounter racism and discrimination within Melbourne’s predominantly Eastern European Ashkenazi community. Elly, due to her darker coloured skin, had often been taunted at school with the derogatory term 'shvartze' — a Yiddish racial slur for people of colour.

Good grades and youth were on my side, but the older I got, the less often the matchmaker would call. If I turned twenty without any sign of marriage, the community would assume the problem was me. This wasn't just my impression; this knowledge was as intrinsic as the way I breathed. I must get married.


I walked up the garden path with my mother on that February day in 2005 and rang Shua's mother's doorbell, knowing that inside that double-storey house in Caulfield North could be the man I was to spend the rest of my life with.

I met Shua for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon.

We met four more times that week, always in his mother’s kitchen, while my mother supervised our 'dates' from the adjoining living room. After the first date, I mustered the courage to look up at him and quietly answer his questions about the values I envisioned instilling in our future children. The following Saturday night, he proposed, and I said yes. I had spent less than eight hours with this man before making the commitment to spend the rest of my life with him.

I'd been told that Shua would propose that night, and he knew I would say yes. The matchmaker had checked with my parents moments before our meeting. I had been given the weekend to think about this commitment. As soon as Shabbat ended, the phone had rung: the matchmaker wanted a decision.

I could have said no. I could have said no like the girl who saw Shua before I did and turned him down. I was told that I could choose, but really, there was only the illusion of choice. If I said no to Shua, it would only be so long before I sat across the table from some other man, having the same stilted conversation.


When I had asked my teachers how I would know if this man was the right man to spend the rest of my life with, I was told that if nothing about him repulsed me enough to say no, then that was enough to say yes. The process was shrouded in secrecy; it wasn’t something I could ask my friends about.

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I sat across the table from Shua that Saturday night, dressed in my finest, waiting for him to begin the conversation. I looked at him carefully. Was there anything that repulsed me? He began to speak about our shared goals of building a Jewish home in God's ways. I looked harder at his orange beard and brown eyes and wondered if this was a man I could grow to love. I still didn’t understand how babies were born, but I imagined bringing up a family with him. I was filled with anxiety and doubt, but also excitement. For a second, I played out the chaos that would ensue if I reneged on my previous assurance and said no, but I knew this proposal was just a formality; it had already been decided. He finished his speech. 'Will you be my wife?' he asked. 'Yes,' I said quietly without any hesitation.


In the week leading up to the wedding, I set up the house with Nicole and Elly’s help, without once contemplating asking my parents if they could find us an alternative place to start our married life. A barrier had developed in my mind, one to separate Mrs Leifer's abuse from the rest of my life. It was similar to the barrier I had created as a young child around my father’s confusing hugs and then again around my mother’s abuse. I didn't consciously build these impenetrable walls; my mind created them to protect me, to allow me to move forward each day despite the trauma I faced.


The therapist I see now calls it dissociation. Back then I didn't know that it was a dissociative barrier that allowed me to climb into the same bed that Mrs Leifer had undressed me on several weeks prior, and undress myself for my new husband. I didn’t think about it at all. I hadn’t realised yet that I would never be abused by Mrs Leifer again. By the time she returned to Melbourne, I would be starting my life in Israel, and my mind would compartmentalise her abuse into a corner, where it would stay for several years.

On our wedding night, Shua painstakingly undid the buttons I could not reach on my dress, and I took out the hundreds of pins holding my wig. It was time to consummate our marriage.

We made small talk, each of us covering our nerves at the task ahead. He showered quickly first, then it was my turn; the door firmly closed. I put on a long nightgown and went to sit on the edge of one of the twin beds in the room. We both recited the prayer that one must say before sex, which asks God for our children to be conceived through a holy act and not through lust.


The next thing I remember is the searing pain. 'My rabbi had said you would scream, but that I should push through and to get it over quickly,' Shua explained, as if to excuse the pain he had just subjected me to. I cried, and he quickly separated himself from me. Now that there was blood and we could no longer be together, I would need to be covered in front of him, just as I would before any other male.

I quickly put on the headscarf that I had made ready and ran out of the room to clean up. Shua changed the sheets and climbed into his bed on the other side of the room.

I crawled into my bed, hiding the pain that was my rite of passage. I felt sure that God would grant me children after the pain I had just endured for His sake.

Shua and I lay and talked until early morning, each of us eager to find out everything about the other. It was the first time we had been allowed to talk unsupervised.

This is an edited extract from In Bad Faith by Dassi Erlich, with Ellen Whinnett and is out now via Hachette.

Feature Image: @bringleiferback Instagram.

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