Author explores the double lives of fervently Orthodox rebels
On the cover of Hella Winstons book Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, published last November by Beacon Press, a man in the Old World garb of a hasidic Jew is shown crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, clutching in his left hand a plastic garbage bag containing the jeans and T-shirt he plans to change into.
The subject is identified as Yossi, one of the authors guides to a world of fervently Orthodox men and women who are crossing bridges into a non-Orthodox world either permanently, or by leading double lives inside and outside the rule-bound hasidic enclaves of Brooklyn and New Yorks Rockland County.
Their stories are interesting intrinsically, said Winston, a sociologist who confessed to being more of a journalist in creating her 185-page journey through the world of breakaway hasidim. Every human being is struggling to figure out who they are and how they want to live their life, but most of us dont have to do it in a way that causes these incredible risks of ostracism from family and community.
The hasidic rebels she profiles separate from loved ones with few skills they can apply to work and education in the secular, multicultural world they enter sometimes after only a simple walk or subway ride over the East River into Manhattan.
Winston will share her unique look at men and women who have abandoned friends and families in New Yorks Satmar and Lubavitcher communities when she addresses the Jan. 20 Shabbat service at Bnai Shalom in West Orange.
Although she profiles only 10 people in Unchosen, Winston said she has met some 80 men and women from a subculture that the larger Jewish world is totally unaware of. Although she cannot provide hard data, every person who talked to me could refer to three or four people they knew who were similar.
Winston said the degree of a defectors rebellion varies from highly restrained to extremely wild. Some people go crazier than others, said the author, seated at the dining room table in her Upper West Side apartment. There is a tendency when people get exposed to things theyve never seen before everything from dancing and drinking to experimenting with drugs and sex. They will sit in front of MTV for hours on end. They can get carried away, theres no question.
But she said one of the hardest things for many renegades to do is violate the dietary laws they have followed their entire lives. Even if they dont believe in the kosher thing anymore, they are not used to eating these foods and sometimes it can make them terribly sick, she said.
Although she grew up in a non-religious Jewish home, Winston said she became fascinated with the relatively insular worlds of the fervently religious during childhood visits to Orthodox, but not hasidic relatives in Borough Park, a heavily Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn.
We would be invited to bar mitzvas and weddings and there would always be a table over in the corner for the weird, nonreligious relatives. They were always very nice, but it was very strange, she recalled. Their kids werent allowed to watch television. They didnt even go into Manhattan, ever. The situation was awkward, to say the least.
Thus began her curiosity about a Jewish subculture so different from her own, a curiosity that she pursued as a comparative religion major at Barnard College. The interest endured when she began working toward a doctorate in sociology at the City University Graduate Center, where most of the faculty dont even want to deal with the idea of religion.
But one professor who had studied Orthodox Jewish communities suggested that Winston look into the lives of hasidic women. It clicked, she said. Im not sure why.
She began meeting with wives and mothers inside the world of the Satmar sect in Brooklyn and Rockland County, and some of them started grumbling about their lives.
At the same time, she connected with Malkie Schwartz, who had left her Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights to live with her non-hasidic grandmother in Manhattan. (see related story this page.)
Schwartz, in turn, led her to the young man identified in Unchosen as Yossi.
I learned what he was going through as a young man in a troubled marriage, said Winston. Yossi helped her identify other Lubavitchers who were leading double lives or leaving the fold. Through personal contact and by visiting Web logs on the Internet, Winston said, her research just took on a life of its own.
Beyond Unchosen, Winston is assembling her findings into academic form as a doctoral dissertation. She regards it as a case study of how boundaries are maintained and where cracks develop and people subvert social controls, and what level of transgressions can be tolerated in order for a community to continue. For many of those she interviewed there is a private level of rebellion going on that rarely becomes public. Like, they would never say, Im watching television. F- you. I am interested in why this doesnt happen.
Although, as a social scientist, she makes no moral judgments, Winston said, she is especially struck by some hasidim who lead double lives, secretly exempting themselves from the rules and prohibitions that govern their communities even while remaining part of those communities.
Some people say to me, I can sneak off to the movies and I can go to whorehouses and I can still live this life. My question is: What does this mean for the future of these communities? Are these communities going to be facades? Is it all going to end up being people walking around in a costume? If your whole aim is to keep yourself separate and uncontaminated by the outside world, but a large number of the people in the community are contaminating themselves, how long can this kind of fiction last?
Winston insisted she is not trying to convince people not to be ultra-Orthodox.
Its not that, she said. But there are people who do not want to be living this way.
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