'Rush Limbaugh Made Me a Liberal'

In my insular Hasidic hometown of Kiryas Joel, TV, movies, secular books, radio, and music were verboten. But I carried a curiosity of the outside world—especially of gentile couples and their public displays of affection—that swelled to a quivering rebellion in my mid-teens.

At fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I was starved for an inexplicable otherness. And as the tenth, forgotten child—I ached to be recognized and loved by all. While emotions and hormones vied with religious law and communal expectations for control of my decisions, I ran toward a close friend who inspired tongue-clicking in my house. "She is a wild one," my mother would say with an elongated sigh, the krechtz of Yiddish mammes. I felt miserable for disappointing her, but I could not resist the temptations. At 15, the wild one introduced me to talk radio.
On Friday afternoons, while my mother prepared the cholent and kugel for Shabbos, I would sit on a low stool in our kitchen and listen to Rush Limbaugh's gnarly voice seeding righteous indignation in my headphones. "Those liberals killing babies—feminazis!" I would dip the schmatta in a pail of Mr. Clean-infused water and scrub the hinges on the pantry. Yeah, those stupid liberals. Nazis. Why would they kill babies?

In the kitchen, my sisters and I would croon to Yiddish music and listen attentively to Torah lectures on an unwieldy cassette player that could have a second life as an artifact. My mother would wake with the twinkle of dawn. I would hear her tune the radio to CBS and turn up the dial when the weatherman came on. Satisfied with the information she received, she'd turn it off and sit down at the dinette table with a prayer book to break a new day.

A Hasidic girl was not supposed to fill her virgin ears with goyish (gentile) radio—no matter the content. But I was famished. While my mother chatted with her sisters on the phone about their married children who had just given birth or the ones waiting to, I imbibed lessons about porn, abortion, and women who were Nazis and sluts.

Limbaugh's studio in Palm Beach, Florida, was 1,200 miles away, but his zeal resonated with a sexually benighted girl in Kiryas Joel. His rhapsodic rhetoric was reminiscent of our Rebbe's speeches, decrying the slippery slope of wearing a wig too long or a skirt too short. My indoctrination snuggled up to Rush's revulsion with progressivism. But while his worldview made sense to me, his words—as unfamiliar as they were regularly lewd—paradoxically chipped away at my innocence, and, ultimately, corrupted me. In my tiny, prescribed world, he pushed ajar a gate to the outside. And I wanted more.

At 17, I overheard my mother talking on the phone with a shadchan, a matchmaker. "Why would I want an older boy for my young Frimet?" my mother asked, stirring the 12-quart pot of apple and strawberry compote and adjusting the lid.

I learned through the grapevine of yentas the reason this 21-year-old had not been scooped up at the ripe age of 18: He smoked, drove a car. And listened to the radio. Not your typical, pious yeshiva boy. During the beshow, our first meeting in which I would decide if I wanted to marry this "older" boy, I stripped off my strait-laced veneer and boldly asked him his political leanings. I wanted out of my parents' home and into my own where I could listen freely to 770 on the AM dial—to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck. My potential match nodded that he was a Republican. Our parents' voices wafted in from the other room, and I picked up my pace.

hasidic
Author Frimet Goldberger at around the time she began discovering the secular world through Rush Limbaugh's radio shows. Courtesy

"Do you know of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity?" I ventured, the rouge on my cheeks turning to hellfire. When he answered in the affirmative, I knew he would be my husband.

We married six months later.

What possessed me—a true Hasidic girl, a catch for all matchmakers—to defy my upbringing this way?

"What are you listening to on those headphones all day?!" My mother would ask. It was more curiosity than rebuke, because if she had known I was listening to goyish radio, she would surely have raised a ruckus. But she was too tired from raising twelve of us and marrying off nine, and I presented as a star student—beloved by my teachers and peers. My mother had nothing to worry about.
On Motzei Shabbos, after the cholent pot had been scoured and the dishes stowed, I would vacuum the parquet dining room floor, fill a pail with Murphy water, and get down on my hands and knees to listen to 770 AM, entranced. My reverence for WABC talk show hosts eclipsed the veneration I was supposed to have for our Rebbe. They were God, and God was them, and my world was unraveling.

"Even when I am wrong, I am right. I am all-knowing," Limbaugh said.
On his show, about half a year before my engagement, Limbaugh called Nancy Pelosi—who had just been elected the house minority leader—"Miss America." A day or two later, he spent a good chunk of the show howling about a line from a journalist who called his website "political porn."

I called the wild one. "What's porn?" I asked. In whispers, we discussed the finer details—all the terms with which we had not yet made acquaintance.
Eventually, the wild one and I procured romance novels—and, during our respective engagements, a tiny DVD player with shared funds. I watched How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days so many times, I dreamed in Mathew McConaughey drawl. Alright. Alright. Alright. But nothing in my world was truly all right.

*

The Talmud says a husband should divorce his wife after ten years of barrenness. In Kiryas Joel, a barren womb two years after marriage raised eyebrows and inspired reverberations of "oy" through town. Our matriarch Rachel preferred death to childlessness. These were the lessons of my youth: I was destined to birth and raise as many children as God gave me.

Those feminazis and their abortions!

But what started with an innocuous obsession with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity before marriage surged to a full-blown discontent with the community's stringencies and my predestined life as a housewife and a vessel of many children. Once married, my husband and I kept the dial on our kitchen stereo tuned to either 770 AM or 100.7 FM. We alternated between Lionel Richie's serenades and Rush Limbaugh's discordant rants. We sneaked into Blockbuster and the library, slowly shucking layers of limitation.

I may not have known of the words, feminism and pro-choice, but my mind had its own governance—and I knew I could never birth 8-10 children. Five years and two children into our marriage, my husband and I moved out of Kiryas Joel and onto a more potent drug—progressive change. I enrolled in college and traded romance novels for classic literature. I got a driver's license (women in Kiryas Joel were forbidden from getting behind the wheel), and in my car, played with the dial. Rush Limbaugh and friends faded as my worldview broadened.

In 2012, three years after Rush fell from deity to virulent racist, misogynist and homophobe, I tuned into his show after he had called Sandra Fluke—who had addressed Congress in favor of federally subsidized birth control—a "slut," among other vile things. His voice filled me with a little nostalgia but mostly disgust. I realized then that he had served his purpose for me.

When news broke of Limbaugh's death, a friend texted me. "This is so embarrassing," he wrote. A brilliant man, as versed in secular philosophy as in Talmud, he'd been turned on to 770 AM by a buddy at the age of 25. He would listen to all the hosts, but Savage and Limbaugh especially offered a rush. "One day," he wrote, "Michael Savage mentioned the word orgasm. 'All these young people, they don't want to build a family. Orgasms. Orgasms,' Savage scoffed." Orgasms, my friend wondered. What is that? On his office computer, he Googled the word. Today, in his late thirties, he is a closeted heathen, the kind of person—like me—Rush Limbaugh would have worked diligently to destroy.

Swayed by my confirmation bias in the early years that I listened to Rush, I had been unaware of the process as conservative talk radio bolstered my ultrareligious thoughts, seducing me and whetting my appetite for knowledge of concepts and experiences beyond the gates of my community. He was my gateway drug. But I am fortunate now to have eyes wide-open enough to recognize dangerous fallacies parading as truth.

Frimet Goldberger is a writer and award-winning journalist who has written widely about growing up in the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel. Her essays and op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Electric Literature, The Forward, and other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.