November 24, 2005
Rebels: The Other Face of Chasidim
Recently, my friend Stan -- a nonpracticing lawyer who spends much of his time retooling his Web site and rollerblading around Venice in tight green biking shorts and what can best be described as Elton John sunglasses -- has been flirting with becoming Lubavitch. Even though he isn't ready to trade his shiny spandex for a black suit and hat, Stan is deeply attracted to the Lubavitch way of life: He longs for a wife and house full of children and is drawn by the prospect of fully expressing his Jewish identity as a member of a tight-knit community, steeped in Jewish tradition and insulated from the pressures of modern life.
Given all this, I was hardly surprised by Stan's reaction when I began telling him about my own forays into the Chasidic world, conducting research for my book, "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels," among people who are struggling to live within, or even leave, their communities, and who are secretly transgressing in all sorts of ways in order to fulfill their intellectual and emotional needs.
"You mean there really are Chasidic people who are unhappy with that life?" he replied incredulously. "But it's so beautiful."
Stan is an incurable romantic.
Over the past two years, I have met many Stans -- usually non-Orthodox Jews who look longingly upon the Chasidim as representatives of a kind of alternative lifestyle, attractive for both its perceived spirituality, as well as its commitment to the maintenance of Jewish tradition. Of course, more often than not, these Stans turn out to know almost nothing about how life is actually lived in contemporary Chasidic communities.
They are usually unaware of all the ways in which Chasidic people's lives are governed by the strict interpretation of Jewish law their communities embrace, ranging from how they are supposed to put on their shoes to whom they can socialize with, and even when they can touch their spouse. (By the way, the hole in the sheet is a myth.)
And many also don't know that -- with the exception of the Lubavitchers, who are unique among Chasidic sects for their outreach to secular Jews -- members of Chasidic sects are raised to avoid all unnecessary contact with the outside world. This means they are not allowed to read secular books, watch movies or television, use the Internet, go to museums, follow sports, listen to non-Jewish music or go to college. Being identified as someone who does any of these things can result in rejection by one's relatives and friends, loss of employment in the community and stigmatization of family members by association.
Despite these prohibitions, there are those Chasidim who nonetheless feel compelled to explore the world beyond Chasidic borders. Some such people are religious questioners, like Steinmetz, a young married man who sneaks off to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary behind his unsuspecting wife's back to read forbidden books on Spinoza and Kant and the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment).
Despite his break, Steinmetz feels he cannot leave. He hails from a prominent rabbinical family and has a wife and several children. As a result, his fantasy of escaping what he calls the "tight cage" of his life is likely to remain just that, and books his only comfort.
Other people I interviewed are motivated to transgress in smaller ways, just to experience parts of the world. Chanie, a religiously observant woman, loves nothing more than to spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an activity that, if discovered, could get her fired from her teaching job in the community, but which is too important to her to give up.
For some Chasidim, these furtive forays into the outside world provide a much-needed outlet that enables them to remain in a community to which they feel deeply attached. For others, this kind of exploration can lead to doubts and questions about the Chasidic way of life, and even the tenets of the religion.
For example, when a married woman named Dini began surfing the net on a computer she and her husband had sneaked into their house in garbage bags, she started to encounter people and ideas online that caused her to reevaluate the Chasidic understanding of gender and to challenge it in her everyday life, earning her numerous letters and phone calls from the community "modesty patrols."
When I describe these and other "rebel" Chasidim to the Stans, they are often somewhat taken aback. Most concede that the Chasidic way of life may not be for them after all. But many still express chagrin that it might not be good for some Chasidic people, either.
And they're not the only ones who seem to feel this way. I have encountered many secular and Reform Jews who, while they actively oppose the Chasidic way of life, somewhat paradoxically still feel the Chasidim play a vital role in upholding "authentic" Judaism. This reaction is genuinely puzzling to the people who participated in my research.
"If these other Jews feel it's so important to preserve this way of life, let them switch places with me," one man suggested. He had done his time in the living museum and would be happy to quit his display case and give someone else a chance to be in the exhibit.
Chasidim are used to being warned against the dangerous contaminations of the outside world by leaders and members of their own communities, but they cannot fathom why Jews who have obviously embraced life in the mainstream would also want to consign them to a "gateless ghetto." These other Jews are thriving in American society, free from persecution and discrimination, they say, so why should the Chasidim be charged with defending the faith? Shouldn't the freedom to choose one's way of life be available to everyone?
I believe it should. And yet, I think I have also begun to understand why some Chasidic people's desire to exercise that right stirs such uncomfortable feelings in many non-Chasidic Jews. These "rebel" Chasidim are, in a certain sense, re-enacting what is a centuries-old Jewish journey of emancipation -- though in their case, of course, the community's ghettoization has been self-imposed.
In Europe, for millions of Jews, that journey didn't end well. It has obviously been a very different story in America, but the unprecedented freedom and acceptance Jews have acquired in this country have also contributed not only to a well-documented decrease in traditional observance but also to an erosion of a distinctive kind of Jewish culture -- one born out of the experiences of Jewish persecution and exclusion, of separation from the mainstream.
I am certainly not suggesting that Jewish cultural production requires the continued persecution and exclusion of Jews as its inspiration; to do so would not only be factually incorrect but also immoral. But it is also true that the dumbing down of Jewish culture, including lavish bar mitzvahs, T-shirts that proclaim Jewish pride and hipster holiday parties whose main Jewish component seems to be a clever name (think the Matzah Ball) don't always feel like very meaningful forms of Jewish cultural expression. In this context, it is easy to see why some Jews, even those who take issue with the Chasidic interpretation of Judaism, would still romanticize Chasidic culture.
Ironically, perhaps, these Chasidim making their way out of their communities might actually be cause for some hope, as they could be uniquely placed to re-invigorate Jewish culture in several important ways. Certainly, their knowledge of Jewish law and ritual practice -- not to mention, in some cases, Chasidic philosophy and even, of course, Yiddish -- could make them a rich resource for Jews who wish to engage in Jewish learning without necessarily becoming religiously observant.
And their openness to doubt and questioning, which have become so salient in their own lives, might just make them the best representatives of a tradition that, too often despite appearances to the contrary, at its very heart values the process of dialogue and debate even over the rigid adherence to rules.
In the end, however, it may not be their knowledge of Judaism from which we have the most to learn, but rather their experiences as outcasts in a Jewish community. Many of those I met who dared to openly express their dissenting views, or failed to conform, have been ostracized and rejected by family and friends and even kept out of community institutions. For their perceived transgressions, some have even been denied contact with their own children.
To help such people see that there is a larger Jewish world beyond the one in which they were raised -- a world that is vast and varied enough to accommodate everyone from the most religious to the devoutly atheistic -- is nothing short of tikkun olam (heal the world).
Hella Winston's book, "Unchosen : The Hidden Lives of Chasidic Rebels" was published this year by Beacon Press.
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