Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hasidic Rebels

This post is first in a two-part series.

Disclaimer: I have never met an Hasidic Jew in my entire life. No joke. The closest I've ever come was in last October when I went to New York City for a job interview. My aunt took me on a taxi tour through Brooklyn, including Williamsburg, which is known for its strange bedfellows of Satmar Hasids and secular hipsters. That being said, however, I have occasionally lurked at the following J-Blogs:

Also A Chussid
Hasidic Rebel
A Hasid and a Heretic

I've actually had a bit of interest in Judaism ever since I read Chaim Potok's The Chosen and became a fan of Faye Kellerman's Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus books, a mystery series about a Modern Orthodox LAPD police detective and his wife. So when I heard about Hella Winston's Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (no relation to the Hasidic Rebel blog) I was intrigued. Yes, it is totally different from what I usually read, but it's fun to go completely outside the box every once in awhile.

Unchosen originally started out as a Winston's doctoral dissertation in sociology, for which she had decided to study the everyday lives of Hasidic Jews. The monolithic term "Hasidic" actually refers to numerous individual sects, ranging from the extremely insular Satmars to the comparatively liberal Lubavitchers. (In other words, to call someone a Hasid is akin to calling someone a Protestant. Okay, but what denomination?) Most research on Hasidic Jews has apparently been done on the latter group, due primarily to their global outreach program aimed at encouraging assimilated Jews to adopt a more frum (religiously observant) lifestyle. As a result, many Lubavitchers were not born into their sect but joined as adults (and any statistician will tell that a self-selected sample population tends to skewer things). Other sects include the Ger, Bobov, Breslover, Belz, Viznitz, Skver, Spinka, and Pupa, to name only a few. Winston, a secular Jew, ultimately felt that the well-oiled Lubavitcher PR machine would make it more difficult to get a sense of what real community life was like and, after weeks of negotiating, was finally able to attend a dinner with several Satmar housewives. Though initially impressed with their confidence and sense of peace and contentment, she was astonished when the hostess and her daughter told her afterwards that things were not quite what they seemed. Despite all appearances of conformity, unknown numbers of Hasids are deeply dissatisfied, questioning, and even leading double lives. (In fact, all of the blogs I listed above are anonymous.) Fascinated, Winston turned her research to this hitherto unstudied, undocumented Hasidic underground.

As someone used to reading academic history books, I was struck by both the manner in which Unchosen was structured and its the surprising (to me) lack of source material. Of course, sociology deals with the living whereas history is often concerned with the long-dead, but I was still mystified that Winston built practically the entire thing on anecdotes and her personal experiences with Hasidic rebels (whom I will refer to as HR's). It certainly makes for compelling reading but it also had me confused about the tone of her work. Is it intended for a scholarly audience or the general public? With all Winston's recounts of her interactions with HR's, as well as their own recollections of the events and revelations that led them to their current positions as closeted or overt dissenters, Unchosen had the feel of a memoir, which collided uncomfortably with my historian's demand for objectivity. Also A Chussid's "open letter to Hella Winston" puts it more bluntly:
Can it be that you got too close to Yossi (the main character in your book) and too emotionally involved in his hardships that you had to blame a whole society, and not only his parents? Or is it because you wanted to sell more copies of your book that you had to make it more titillating and scandalous? Regardless which of them was the cause; you - however - betrayed your professionalism.
Unlike the other two bloggers I listed, AAC is perfectly happy being Hasidic and merely wishes to see reform. (Note: like many Hasids, his first language is Yiddish. He says elsewhere on the blog that he barely spoke English until he was married.) It is interesting, however, that both of us - an actual Hasid and a secular Lutheran - had similar reactions to the book. Again, I do not know how sociologists usually do things, but Unchosen felt very one-sided and excessively personal. Yossi (not his real name) is certainly an intense case, no denying that. The falling-out with his family and community over him shaving his beard and peyos (sidelocks), in addition to the cognitive dissonance and emotional strain of trying to straddle two worlds, literally landed him in the psych ward for several days. His behavior while in Boston for the very first time was deliriously childlike. I am aware the empirical investigation plays a large role in sociology; nevertheless, Winston's prose when dealing with him frequently came across as overly empathic and better suited for a novel:
Yossie found his way to Cambridge and spent an hour or so walking around Harvard Square. The store windows were all done up with festive Christimas decorations, and there were lights strung through the trees. It was still early, so nothing much was open, except for a few coffee places and a Dunkin Donuts. Yossi went in and bought himself a juice, and he sat there drinking it while flipping through a free local paper full of classified ads. Soon, students began streaming into the place for their bagels and coffee. Most of them were loaded with heavy book bags. It was hard to tell, just from looking at them, that they were so smart. Harvard students were supposed to be the best, but to Yossi they looked the same as anyone else their age. Still, in a way he envied them. He didn't want to be schlepping around a big heavy bag filled with assignments, but it might have been nice to have the chance. (155)
Did Yossi actually relate every last detail of his trip or did Winston embellish it for dramatic effect? Although Winston described all the HR's she met with great sympathy, the pathos of Yossi's sections really stood out to me.

Nearly everything she cites in her notes section is a secondary source: other sociological works and magazine and newspaper articles. If this were history, she would also be expected to discuss the historiography of her subject and how her research has led her to new or different conclusions and what that means for future study. Again, Winston does explain in the introduction that nearly every scholarly inquiry into Hasidic life has dealt almost exclusively with the Lubavitchers, but, since that is a legitimate Hasidic sect, I wonder if there was anything useful in any of these past studies that she could have applied to her own work. A frequent topic of discussion among historians has been the growing synthesis of various disciplines; for example, "psychological history" or the blending of history, statistics, sociology, literature, art and/or anthropology (or anything else falling under the broad label "humanities") to create amalgamations like "American studies." (Which makes a ton of sense - as and English-History double major I was often able to use what I had learned in one to enhance and clarify what I was learning in the other.) Given the paucity of sociological material related to Hasidic Jews, I am genuinely surprised that Winston did not seem to have looked into other disciplines. If she did, there is little evidence of it. (Like, why not literature? Chaim Potok's novels The Chosen and The Gift of Asher Lev both concern Hasidic misfits who end up leaving. So where did he get his ideas from? Have any English professors out there explored that? And discussed similar writers?)

Now all that being said, Unchosen is still a worthwhile book and groundbreaking in its choice of subject matter. Although it borders on sensational, there is no denying that some Hasidic and Orthodox bloggers, such as Shtreimel of A Hasid and a Heretic, Off the Derech, and Baal Habos seem to genuinely identify with it and see within it a reflection of their own sentiments and experiences. (And on the flip side: a review by a Satmar woman who feels that Winston's "stifled giggles are deafening.") There is definitely a lot to be said in favor of emotional truth – in the ability of a book to either validate a reader's feelings and bring them to a broader understanding of their situation, or to enable others to sympathize with, and be made aware of, another's predicament. As far as I can tell, Unchosen is the only book of its kind and it's been pretty much proven that bringing publicity to an issue is a sure way to force TPTB to tackle it. (I mean, you wall people off long enough, the amount of dysfunctional behavior they'll accept gets downright alarming.) But despite my lack of real-world familiarity with Hasidic culture, I am still bothered by this book's lack of substance and in-depth academic research, as well as its obvious one-sidedness, particularly her conclusion that modern Hasidism is inherently defective and regulated solely by fear. Of course, scholarship is by its nature ever-evolving, and someone will doubtlessly come out with their own book disputing this one. Truth is a many-sided thing.

Part II will appear within the next few days. In the interests of interdisciplinarian-ism, I shall bring you comparative religion! Prepare for the Christian patriocentrists!


Anonymous said...

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E. L. Fay said...

Thanks! I've been getting a lot more exposure lately and I'm really glad people are enjoying my blog!

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