Inside Out


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?”

Unchosen is 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.

Discussion 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 society?

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.’”

Question 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?