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Three years ago, she started having flashbacks.
Pearl Perri (who was born Penina Reich), now 34, had already survived her arranged marriage, fought a bitter custody battle for her four children, and left her strict Hasidic community in New Jersey.
It wasn’t until recently that the activist, mother and entrepreneur had memories of being sexually abused when she was just a kindergartner at the strictest Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
It’s this reclamation of her body that led Pearl to become a nude model and outspoken critic of her strict religious upbringing.
“My body is something for me to love and enjoy, not a tool to please others,” Pearl, who moved to America with her family when she was 10 years old, told The Post.
That’s why Pearl and her second husband, Shauli Grossman, 28, who is also a former member of the community that the pair describes as cultlike, celebrated Body Painting Day in New York City in July, marching nude through the city: They wanted to show the world that every human body is a work of art.
Pearl began the day with a body-painting party where 30 models, including herself, were painted, and a nude march through the Lower East Side. The crew then drove to Brooklyn and paraded in Williamsburg and Dumbo.
Pearl Perri, 34, and her second husband, Shauli Grossman, 28Photo: Rich Jones
Watching Pearl march nude in the street, it would be hard to guess at her ultra-conservative, super-religious roots.
“They used to tell me to cover my knees, to cover my neck,” said Pearl, who on the day of her event was completely bare except for a pair of boots, purple and pink swirls of paint, and sparkles where her underwear would be.
Pearl’s current husband supports and encourages her exhibitionism.
But at 18, she was paired off in an arranged marriage to another man who she claims treated her like her body was his property.
“I was taught that I had no choices in life and so I decided to make the most of it,” Pearl said.
When her family moved from Jerusalem to the U.S., Pearl said her schools were still rigid and conservative.
“I was basically prepped for marriage and babymaking,” she said. “I was very studious and went after a degree in education. I think I studied so much because I was searching for something, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was.”
By the age of 24, Pearl was already a mother of four. She mustered up the courage to ask her first husband for a divorce (called a “get” in Jewish religious practice), but he refused.
If a woman in the community is denied a get from her husband, she cannot, by religious law, move beyond the marriage.
“If she has romantic relations with another man, she is labeled a slut,” Pearl said.
Despite not obtaining a get until age 30, Pearl moved out of her first husband’s home at 24.
She lived with her parents in New Jersey for half a year but lived on her own in Brooklyn and then New Jersey after her parents continued to pressure her to return to her former, unhappy union.
After moving out, Pearl, who was always interested in fashion, secretly sent photos to modeling agencies but never thought she’d get a response. Just weeks later, she began working for companies like Gap and Express and modeled their new lines in New Jersey malls.
One of Pearl’s first modeling photos shows her in a sleeveless black V-neck dress with her long blond hair down past her shoulders — a far cry from the long-sleeved shirts and skirts of her conservative upbringing.
At 29, Pearl met Shauli through Facebook. He had recently left his religious community in upstate New York.
“Shauli was married off to an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic woman who was forced to shave her head at the day of the wedding,” Pearl told The Post. His first marriage lasted two years.
Shauli and Pearl bonded over their shared experiences and started chatting about modern Jewish philosophy and science. Before long, they realized they were falling in love — not just with each other, but also with life’s infinite possibilities. The two married last year.
Pearl fully left the community and stopped living a double life when she was 30, at which point she was disowned by her parents.
“Leaving a cult is leaving a prison without the tools to live in the outside world. Many people commit suicide,” she said.
When she was 29 and living on her own, but not yet officially divorced, Pearl said she received a letter from the secular court saying that she would lose custody of her children, now ages 9, 12, 13 and 14. Many, including her own family, had informed the court that she was unfit to be a mother. An expensive, months-long legal battle followed, including a public campaign that included Pearl appearing on Dr. Phil’s TV show in 2012 to tell her side of the story. That same year, she regained custody of her children.
Pearl still practices a less restrictive form of Judaism in her home, and her kids stay with their father every second weekend. Though all four attend an Orthodox yeshiva as part of the custody ruling, Pearl said her children are free to make their own religious choices.
To read the article in its entirety in the New York Post click here.