By ROBYN SCHAFER
The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels
By Hella Winston
216 pages. Beacon Press. $23.95
Let's say you're Hasidic.
Your whole life, you’ve lived with your family in Brooklyn, surrounded by the
comfort of Jewish ritual, the melodic Yiddish tongue,
and familiar friends and neighbors. Every day, you’ve been absorbed in complete
devotion to your Creator. From the way you tie your shoes to the most intimate
of sexual relations, every action is guided by the Torah, every
step towards fulfillment of His mitzvot.
There’s only one small problem: you’re not sure you believe in God at all.
In a neighborhood bound by strict observance, where the smallest deviation can
lead to excommunication and any evident doubt can lead to banishment, religious
exploration is not an option. Become a Hasidic Columbus and you risk getting
shipwrecked on an unwelcoming new world. Would you have the courage to
question, to leave it all behind and wander, naked and naive, into the unknown?
In Unchosen, author Hella Winston
captures the untold stories of people who did just that. Scaling her way into
the metaphorically walled-off Hasidic sects, Winston discovers those who don’t
quite belong, revealing the secretly un-Orthodox leading double lives and the
vocal dissidents who are no longer welcome. Their stories are powerful—often
heroic and sometimes tragic, but always captivating.
Winston began this project as her doctoral dissertation in sociology at the
City University of New York. Gaining access to the Hasidic world through the
Satmar patient of a friend, Winston dined with several women, all of whom shared
glowing praise for Hasidic life, and was prepared to focus her writing and
research on the “richness of meaning with which they endowed their day-to-day
existence.” However, after the meal ended, her hostess’s daughter divulged a
powerful secret: things aren’t always as they appear. “The truth,” Chani
shared, “includes both negative and positive.”
There are many layers to the Satmar community, Winston discovers, and while on
the surface everyone looks and acts the same, underneath it all there are a confused
and daring few who try to rewrite the Hasidic rulebook. While Chani is deeply
religious and assuredly devout, she hides library books and museum trips from
her friends, who would not approve of these “corrupting” influences. She rides
a bike (in a long skirt) around Central Park, afraid that she might lose her
teaching job if anyone in the community discovered this “immodest” behavior.
Chani is resentful that she lost her own childhood by marrying young and having
a daughter at 19, but she didn’t want people to wonder what was wrong with her
or give them reason to talk.
“Were there others [like Chani],” Winston wonders, “who were indulging in their
individual needs and desires in secret, forced… to conceal their thoughts and
activities… longing to engage with the outside culture and the wider world?”
her answer. Delving into the Hasidic world, Winston becomes a trusted guide,
navigating unseen streets, deep into the recesses of an insular Jewish
community and then back out to portray those just on its fringes. In this rare
and thoughtful journey, Winston presents six intimate stories of courage and
rebellion as Hasidic-born Jews struggle to find their place in a complicated
and tumultuous world.
There’s Yossi, who shaved his beard and cut off his peyos, but whose elementary math skills and poor English make it
impossible for him to find work outside the community; he hides at his
grandmother’s all day and slinks off to bars and massage parlors at night. Then
there’s Dini, who ignored rabbinical warnings about the dangers of the internet
and non-Jewish music and was forced to cover her windows with dark towels
before watching movies (lest her neighbors catch on). There’s Malkie, who broke
away from her Hasidic upbringing and started a non-profit organization offering
English classes, GED tutoring, and cultural tips for others who are trying to
do the same. There’s Yitzchak, a Talmud teacher whose feminist beliefs and
penchant for literature alienated him from the community and his wife. There’s
Chaim, who lives on the outskirts of the community and, while still strictly
observant, has turned his home into a haven for religious wanderers. And Leah,
who hated shaving her head and wearing itchy scarves and finally left the
Hasidic community after online chatrooms opened her eyes to the outside world.
Laden with guilt and shame, fearing rejection by their families, some Hasidic
rebels turned to alcohol and drugs. Others struggled to straddle two worlds,
putting on an elaborate façade to avoid exposure. Still others were paralyzed
with the fear, excitement, and profound confusion of religious and cultural
exploration. And then there are those who, longing for greater personal and
intellectual liberty than their communities allowed, leaped into the secular
and found themselves disoriented with freedom. Unlike other romanticized
portrayals of ultra-Orthodox life, Winston discovers a Hasidic underworld.
Refusing, as many popular Hasidic narratives do (including The Rebbe’s Army, Holy Days, and Mystics, Mavericks, and
Merrymakers), to concentrate on the more open and
outreaching Lubavitch community, Winston breaks into insular Hasidic sects,
revealing their questions and their doubts.
As a sociologist, Winston offers thoughtful observations about Hasidic life,
its philosophy and reality. She recognizes the universality of social pressure,
conformity, and rebellion within every community, yet she knows that that these
Hasidic fringe-dwellers provide valuable insights into the mainstream. While Unchosen fundamentally shares individual
accounts, these telling stories give voice to a silenced population and relate
a larger message about immigrants from the old country in the New World. In the
end, Winston may not be able to make sense of this dramatic underworld any more
than the rebels within it, but she certainly offers a rare and stunning
portrayal of Hasidic life, inside and out.
Question: Hella Winston, the
author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, reveals that even the Hasidic community has its outcasts. But does
she go too far in exploiting such a fringe group of an already marginalized
One needs to look no further than a previous JBooks review of Mystics, Mavericks, and
Merrymakers. Our reviewer
reports that author Stephanie Wellen Levine “admits that she escorts the reader
‘through girls’ lives and minds more for the pure delight of knowing them than
for any lessons you might glean.’”
is: Do these books, which criticize a sect of society without the benefit of
“gleaning any lessons” deserve to be added to the Jewish bookshelf?