Saturday, December 24, 2005

Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels

During my week off, I finally got around to reading Hella Winston's Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. It's a fascinating book and I recommend it to Orthodox Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and anybody who's interested in the human tragedies and stories of survival and renewal that it contains.

As most of my formerly and currently Orthodox Jewish readers know, the book is about Hasidim who rebel against the lifestyle in which they were born and raised. Most of them continue to pretend to be "normal" Hasidim, out of fear of hurting their loved ones or losing their communities, their families, and/or their livelihoods. It's very moving and, whether you believe the Hasidic way of life is fundamentally right or wrong, you will recognize that the way the community treats those who don't fit desperately needs to be addressed.

Unchosen is not a systematic study of the Hasidic world as a whole and as such doesn't provide evidence for how widespread the problems her subjects face are. However, one of the people in the book, who himself remains frum, estimates that he personally knows 100 Hasidic rebels who lead hidden lives, and that he suspects there are many more, perhaps 500.

Almost all of the rebels in the book remain, to some extent, attached "to the religion and to certain elements of Hasidic culture, [but] also feel oppressed by their community's rigid rules, behavioral restrictions, and social scrutiny." Indeed, it's striking how many of the problems the rebels face stem from "rigid rules, behavioral restrictions, and social scrutiny" which is tangential at best to the actual religion. For example, although Hasidic clothing is mostly custom rather than religious rule, rebels who dressed a little bit differently were (verbally) abused by relatives and other Hasidim. All of the rebels in the book who remained in their communities lived in fear of being found out, not because they were embarrassed, but because they feared retribution in the form of rejection from family and livelihood, damaging their siblings' or children's chances at making good shidduchim*, or, in some cases, of beatings by so-called "enforcers."

The Hasidic community which appears in this book (and again, the book is not an attempt to study the community quantitatively but rather shows the community through the rebels' eyes) is one which seems to be preoccupied with what everybody else thinks and does. "[E]ven those who identified themselves as contented members of their communities nonetheless expressed a great preoccupation with what others in the community would think, and say, and do in the face of even hypothetical nonconformity... while I tried my best to remain open to all points of view, I couldn't help feeling angered by the treatment many had been subjected to, merely for asserting their individual desires, or daring to question."

Furthermore, many of the rebels who wanted to leave the community (as opposed to those who wished to remain but live more freely) were hindered by a lack of education. Many barely know English, and very few knew much math beyond basic arithmetic. Few have legitimate high school diplomas. The Hasidic rebels also lack social education. They don't know how to relate to non-Jews or even non-Hasidic Jews. They're not comfortable relating with the opposite sex. They don't understand mainstream American social norms or expectations. Some, who have great difficulty making the transition to the non-Hasidic world and aren't used to having so few rules, fall prey to drug problems or risky sexual behavior.

Malkie Schwartz, who is a prominent figure in Unchosen, was able to get herself into a college and successfully transition out of the Hasidic community. She credits her (late) secular grandmother for this achievement, for providing her with a place to stay and the necessary support. Malkie, following (but drastically changing) the lubavitcher tradition of serving others, opened an organization called Footsteps (previously discussed here) which provides "educational, vocational, and emotional support to those seeking to enter or explore a world beyond the insular, ultra-religious environments in which they were raised." Footsteps provides English tutoring, GED high school equivalency preparation, and help with college and job applications.

Many religious readers will find solace in making a distinction between the people and the religion. In the conclusion, Winston addresses this idea: "[M]any people I spoke with liked to claim, as a kind of defense, that it is not the religion itself, but religious people who are the problem. This may be a more intellectual than substantive distinction, however. Religion, of course, does not exist in a vacuum, and even those who believe that religious laws were handed down from God acknowledge that it has been up to human beings to interpret them and carry them out. The lives of those described in this book unfolded within actual Hasidic communities, after all, not in some theoretical space."


* "Shidduchim" are matches made by matchmakers. Typically, in the communities Winston writes about, matches are made by matchmakers. The couple will meet each other two or three times and decide whether to get married. Although nobody can be forced to marry, it's uncommon to reject more than a couple potential spouses. Hasidim seem to live in fear of damaging their children's or sibling's potential shidduchim, since having a relative who leaves the community or doesn't quite fit in may seriously lower the quality of potential spouses. Similarly, the children of ba'alei tshuvah, or formerly non-Hasidic Jews who became Hasidic, will be matched with other children of ba'alei tshuvah or other people considered lower status.

36 comments:

The Jewish Freak said...

Thanks for the review of the book. I have heard about it and have been interested in the topic.
One small point: I think that the preoccupation with what others think is prevalent in most, if not all religious communities. - JF

Ben Avuyah said...

Did Malka remain UO or MO and just lose her "chasideshe" roots, or did she embrace secular life completely ?

asher said...

What do we call people who pretend to be part of a group and are inwardly "rebels" but don't leave their community, their ideals they dress or their way of life: hypocrites?

You really have to think about this phenomenon. How can they possible know about each other?
It should also be pointed out that even if the full number of these folks are maybe "500" that would be less than 1/2 of 1% of chaddism in the borough of Brooklyn

How Footsteps got funding is another question I can't understand.

Chasidim, as far as I can tell, is an example of mass brain washing. Because of the many restrictions and regidity of their community it's amazing there isn't a mass exodus from it's confines. That happened once before though: it was called the Jewish Enlightenment.

JA: as a former Orthdox Jew, could you tell us how you were able to leave the fold? Not quite the same thing but close.

interestedJew said...

The numbers are probably much, much higher than 500 (I believe this was merely one individual's "impression"). I think the Internet has played a very big role in connecting such people to one another. I, too, think that it is amazing that there isn't a mass exodus, except for the fact that chassidim in general are so ill prepared to live in the "outside" world that leaving is very difficult.

Jewish Atheist said...

The Jewish Freak: One small point: I think that the preoccupation with what others think is prevalent in most, if not all religious communities.

Maybe, but it seems much worse in the Hasidic ones. People are terrified of getting bad shidduchim for themselves and their relatives, for example.

Ben Avuyah: I don't know if she's UO, MO, secular, or other.

asher: JA: as a former Orthdox Jew, could you tell us how you were able to leave the fold? Not quite the same thing but close.

I was MO, which is very different. It was emotionally difficult to leave, but I had all the tools (English, a good education, reasonable social skills, etc.) necessary to survive in the non-Orthodox world. I posted about how I left here.

interestedJew: The numbers are probably much, much higher than 500 (I believe this was merely one individual's "impression").

Yes, that seemed like it must be way too low, but I don't have any evidence for it.

I think the Internet has played a very big role in connecting such people to one another.

I meant to include that in the review. It was interesting how many of the rebels got their first real exposure to the outside world through hidden televisions or the internet. As technology becomes more and more pervasive, there may indeed be another mass exodus. Or, perhaps if there gets to be some critical mass of rebels who don't or can't leave the community, it will drastically change
Hasidism from the inside.

suzan said...

I feel for them. I just hope they realize that it's not all or nothing and they can do both modern things like college and also be religious

Wandering Coyote said...

Was the movie "A Price Above Rubies" from a few years back about Hasidic Jews? I thought it was, but I could be wrong. If you have seen it, JA, and would recommend it or have any comments about it, let me know. I have wanted to see it awhile now, but it isn't widely available.

BTA said...

"I feel for them. I just hope they realize that it's not all or nothing and they can do both modern things like college and also be religious."

But Susan, the simple fact remains that, once they go to college and learn about "modern things" like *rational thought* not just fairy tales, they'll wonder why on earth they should hold on to the religious part as well!

asher said...

I understand that the Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Deutch) give their teenagers a time to mingle in the real world to see if they chose to stay in the fold. I think there was even a reality show about the Amish kids who went out with regular kids during this time to "see the world".

Chasidim wouldn't allow this type of program.

Anyway see the show or know about this?

"A price above rubies" is about a woman who is married to a chasid but she longs to leave them. At the end he grants her a divorce and gives her a present of a ruby.
I'm almost sure the woman was Renee Zellewellger (or however her name is spelled) who is a terrible actress and that it moved along pretty slowly. Maybe it's worth seeing.

Jewish Atheist said...

Wandering Coyote, I haven't seen that movie.

asher,

I think that was a documentary (called Devil's Playground) about the Amish, not a reality show. That would be interesting if the Hasidim did that, too. :)

interestedJew said...

In case anyone is interested, here is a link to an interview with the author on the Zev Brenner show (a local NY show aimed at an Orthodox audience). Most of the callers are hostile Hasidim:

http://s55.yousendit.com/d.aspx?id=1XGKZC7HTLGE80FWQH19N3QSS3

The author did other radio interviews. I will post additional links.

Wandering Coyote said...

Asher: You are correct - Renee Zellwegger did star in that movie, along with a British actor who is a favourite of mine. I'm sure it is very Hollywoodized but I am curious.

interestedJew said...

It's not a terrible movie. A little melodramatic and unrealistic in parts (I am thinking specifically of her relationship with the Puerto Rican jeweler, for those who have seen it), but, all in all, not an altogether unrealistic portrayal, accoring to some Hasidic women I have communicated about this with online.

interestedJew said...

Intersting discussion of these issues over on mentalblog.com

Anonymous said...

In the movie she is being forced into having sex with her brother in law. Is it realistic ?

oracle25 said...

Doubt it, since the Torah expressly forbids such acts.

JA, since I am not Jewish by any stretch of the imagination I do not really find this book appealing, since it seems to have a anti-religious twist to it.

bta said: But Susan, the simple fact remains that, once they go to college and learn about "modern things" like *rational thought* not just fairy tales, they'll wonder why on earth they should hold on to the religious part as well!

Strange how such "fairy tales" have such strong archeological evidence. In fact, no archeological evidence ever found contradicts these "fairy tales", in fact the majority of the finds support them. I guess history hasn't been informed of your "rational thought".

Jewish Atheist said...

Oracle, here's an article about archeology and the Bible from an atheist perspective: http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/otarch.html

interestedJew said...

I am really quite tired of people who make judgements about books, people, etc. without having any direct experience of them. It betrays a narrow-mindedness that is quite frightening. Fine if you are not interested, but don't make pronouncements about things you have not read, seen, etc. It only makes you look lazy and unable to think for yourself.

PS--The Torah forbids a lot of things. Doesn't mean people abide by it in real life.

oracle25 said...

I do not see what you mean. If your referring to my comment to JA than I am really confused. All I said was that it seemed to have an anti-religious twist.

Jewish Atheist said...

In fact, no archeological evidence ever found contradicts these "fairy tales", in fact the majority of the finds support them. I guess history hasn't been informed of your "rational thought".

Oracle, the article I linked to contradicts what you wrote here. That's why I posted it.

oracle25 said...

A) I was talking to inerestedjew in my last post

B) it does not contradict what I wrote and I will be proving it on my site in the near future.

Stacey said...

How very interesting. I had heard a little about Malkie Schwartz. I am guessing such problems exist in not just the Chasidic communities, but other ultra-Orthodox branches as well.

A frum man I know has said he hates his life, but can't escape now because he has a wife (one he is not compatible with) and 2 young children and it would hurt too many people. He would be disowned. He has a TV in his bedroom but if his parents knew, he would be disowned for that, too, he says. I seriously cannot fathom it.

BTA said...

"Strange how such "fairy tales" have such strong archeological evidence."

Sorry, Oracle, but the whole book of Bereishis hasn't got any more "archeological evidence" than of any of the greek myths! Hence they are difficult to differentiate from fairy tales.

"In fact, no archeological evidence ever found contradicts these "fairy tales","

That's the old "disprove a negative" fallacy. But of course archeology contradicts a global flood, for example. And several areas of science contradict the adam and eve myth.

"in fact the majority of the finds support them."

What is "them" that there was a Temple in Jerusalem, or that God destroyed Sodom, the Flood, The Exodus, etc?

"I guess history hasn't been informed of your "rational thought".

Not if "rational" means thinking there's archeological evidence for the torah stories like the flood, exodus, breishis!

BTA said...

I didn't realize that Oracle describes himself thusly:

"Oracle25 is a soldier for the American way he fight's for truth were there is none, and gives hope to the hopeless. He is a christian and believes in all the words of the bible."

Oracle, you haven't got a clue what you are saying when you talk about "all the words of the bible!"

JA- what do you have christian fundamentalists on your blog for? They don't even know the difference between bereishis and dvarim. Waste of time.

BTA said...

Oracle- I have a great movie for you to watch. It's called The God Who Wasn't There.

I assume you would be fearful of watching such a documentary of how little christian fundamentalists know about the history of the Jesus myth.

For example- I challenge you to demonstrate any histories of Jesus any earlier than 50-100 years after his death!

Then, you have to deal with Paul writing almost everything as if Jesus lived in heaven and performed no earthly miracles.

How do you believe in "all the words" of a book written about events 50-100 years prior to when any of the authors lived?

I know- the "holy spirit" guided them, right?

Watch the movie if you dare, then get back to me.

Jewish Atheist said...

JA- what do you have christian fundamentalists on your blog for? They don't even know the difference between bereishis and dvarim. Waste of time.

I try to welcome everybody. More viewpoints makes for more interesting discussion.

Jack's Shack said...

I have been meaning to read the book. I have long felt that the isolationist stance that so many of the Chasidim take is problematic. At least the Lubavitchers interact with the outside world. Such a provincial POV is troubling.

oracle25 said...

bta: Since you are obviously misinformed I shall not go to hard on you. recent archeological discoveries that confirm the bible:

Mt. Sinai (the real one)

The red sea crossing (the real one)

Evidence of Noah's Ark (not in the traditional place)

Evidence of the flood (historical and scientific)

The shipwreck of Paul off the island of malta.

King Davids Palace

Evidence for Israel in the land of Goshen.

Evidence for Israel in the land Canaan

Along with others. If you don't believe me I can provide you with sources that you can look into and see for yourself.

As to your suggestion about watching "The God Who Wasn't There" I believe I shall pass. Not because I am scared of it, but because I have already looked into it and know that there is nothing in it that I have not heard (and refuted) before

Jewish Atheist said...

Wow, oracle. You really live in your own world, don't you?

oracle25 said...

Ah yes, the classic atheistic response.

BTA said...

Oracle!

"King Davids Palace"- no one disputes King David had some kind of palace.

Evidence for Israel in the land of Goshen. "Goshen" is Egypt! No one disputes that jews lived in small numbers in Egypt in pre-biblical times, what they dispute is a mass exodus or 2,000,000 jewish slaves there. There's no evidence for such things.

Evidence for Israel in the land Canaan- "Land of Canaan" is where Israel is right now! What the heck are you talking about?

As for your "sources" go ahead, link to the crazy webpage you have bookmarked.

oracle25 said...

Which web web pages? I don't know what web pages your talking about. I have books and documentaries cataloging these finds. Although I do have some webpages I go to, I rely more heavily on other recourses

I guess your just too narrow minded to see that I was talking about evidence of Israel existing in canaan during the time set forth in the bible.

Also, you obviously have not kept up to date on recent archeological discoveries. There is now overwhelming evidence for a mass exodus out of egypt. Even National Geographics recognized it.

Jewish Atheist said...

Oracle, are you referring to Ron Wyatt? He's a total crackpot. You might want to check out Answers in Genesis again:

"Ron Wyatt has claimed, among other things, to have discovered the following:

* The Ark of the Covenant.
* Chariot wheels and other relics from Pharaoh’s drowned army at the bottom of the Red Sea.
* The real Sodom and Gomorrah, with building outlines still standing as piles of sulfur-fried ash.
* Noah’s Ark.
* The real Mt Sinai.15
* The rock at Horeb.
* The true site of Korah’s earthquake.
* Noah’s house, and the graves of Mr and Mrs Noah, together with millions worth of her jewelry (allegedly then stolen from Wyatt
*The real site of the crucifixion, apparently above the cave containing the Ark of the Covenant, so that Christ’s blood would drip on to the Mercy Seat.
* An actual sample of Christ’s blood, with chromosomes allegedly still visible under the microscope, showing that there was no human father. Placed in growth medium, the cells began dividing, says Ron.
* The tablets of the Ten Commandments, bound by golden hinges."

oracle25 said...

I know Ron Wyatt was an idiot, I never took anything he said seriously.

By sometime tomorrow I will post resources you can check out and decide for yourself.

oracle25 said...

Ok, it's up on my site.

arielle said...

I knew Malkie in college! (we went to the same college). I met her soon after she decided not to be religious anymore, through the school's hillel organization. Later she tried to get me to join footsteps, but at the time I was so angry at everything having to do with judaism that i didn't even want to go hang out with other former jews. Now I wish I still lived in NYC so i could go to their support group meetings...she is entirely secular, or at least she was when I knew her (don't think i've talked to her since 2003 or so).