Many years ago, my wife’s grandmother visited us on a busy Friday afternoon as we were preparing for Shabbat. A Holocaust survivor who had repeatedly escaped the Nazis, she grew up in a Hasidic family in the town of Sighet, Hungary, but claimed to have abandoned Judaism as a teenager before the war had begun. Observing us, she complained that our tablecloth was the wrong color, that our candlesticks weren’t quite right, and that we were clearly deficient Jews for having failed to prepare chicken soup for the Friday-night meal. “Of course, I eat pork,” she concluded, “but if you’re going to do all this, do it right.” This conversation came to mind as I read Schneur Zalman Newfield’s Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, a carefully drawn portrait of ex-Hasidim, who, Newfield argues, have a hard time leaving their past behind despite their exit from Hasidic life.
In New York City and its environs, the number of Hasidim has more than doubled over the last 10 years; as of 2019, more than 110,000 students were enrolled in Hasidic schools in New York. The Orthodox Union Center for Communal Research estimated that 40 percent of Jews under age 20 in the region speak Yiddish as a first language.
Concomitant with this demographic growth, over the past two decades there has been a parallel explosion of voyeuristic interest in the Hasidic community, fueled mostly by ex-Hasidim. As the community has grown, this group of former members has grown as well (in absolute numbers, not as a percentage). Many of them have written tell-alls—so many, in fact, that the ex-Hasidic memoir has become a genre unto itself. A quick Amazon check pulls up a long list of titles: All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir; Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots; Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home; Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood; Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman—and more. Netflix recently released a miniseries loosely based on Unorthodox that received both high acclaim and fierce criticism.
Given our society’s prurient interest in a community that lives among us, but isn’t quite “us,” ex-Hasidim have been able to shape perceptions of their former communities in powerful ways. Very few academic studies examine everyday life in Hasidic communities. The few that have been published tend to explore highly focused aspects of Hasidic life, such as children’s language use. And so Hasidic “exit” memoirs have filled the gap, providing readers with an otherwise unavailable, if one-sided, view of Hasidic life. Yet memoirs are not sources of systematic data, and Hasidic life does not consist only of scandal and trauma. All this makes Newfield’s contribution exceptionally refreshing.
He explores the narrative accounts of what he calls “exiters” from both the Chabad Lubavitch and Satmar Hasidic sects. He hews closely to his data, presents his findings without judgment or bias, and explains the experiences of his subjects in a clear and accessible way. This work, too, is focused on Hasidim who have left the community, but because these exiters speak at length in the book about their former communities, it offers a grounded, nuanced perspective on many aspects of Hasidic life.
And the story he has to tell is not only novel and fascinating, but inconsistent in significant ways with those often assumed by media and popular literature (including many of the ex-Hasidic memoirs). Many of Newfield’s respondents hold warm feelings toward their former communities. Abuse and scandal do not dominate their accounts. Their departures from Hasidic life were not frequently marked by rupture and animosity. The vast majority of his subjects maintain relationships with their families and have been neither rejected socially nor in some way excommunicated formally. Newfield speculates that his findings differ from those of the ex-Hasid genre because those who are not estranged from their families may not want to hurt their families by putting their disagreements into writing. That may be, but a simpler explanation is that both estrangements and the kinds of sensational tales presented in these popular memoirs reflect the same forms of family dysfunction, without which there would be nothing to write a tell-all memoir about.
One of the strongest sections in Degrees of Separation addresses the question of why people leave Hasidic communities. This is a charged issue both for those who leave and for the Hasidic communities themselves. All Haredi communities see every exiter as a lost Jewish soul and put tremendous effort into preventing people from going “off the derech (path).” They organize conferences about the problem and invite speakers—psychologists, rabbis, and exiters themselves—to diagnose “solutions.” Newfield highlights some of these, but in my own work I have observed that the solutions recommended by these experts usually amount to some version of “be nice and gentle with our children” and “prevent abuse.” These are wonderful recommendations, but they also fit into a paradigm of exiting as a response to trauma, as if the decision to leave were always that simple.
Newfield does an excellent job of puncturing this narrative, arguing that in this context “why” is a bad question. People change slowly in deep and complex ways, and what they may recall in the present as significant may not have been significant at the time. Often, he points out, what exiters identify as the reasons for their departure are simply the aspects of religion that they dislike, and while they may indeed have disliked those aspects of Hasidism, that does not necessarily explain their departure. Many people dislike some aspects of the communities and social structures in which they live, but not everyone responds by leaving.
Ultimately, Newfield concludes that it may be possible, with careful psychological and sociological analysis, to determine why people abandon Hasidism, but I found his initial instincts more convincing. The question of why is a problematic one. Why does one argument for atheism appear convincing to one person and not another? Why do particular social norms feel compelling to one person and not another? Why are some Orthodox Jews convinced by source-critical biblical study while others find it laughable? The psyche is complex. Pinpointing just those aspects of a person’s life that cause him or her to leave is harder than it sounds—nor is it clear that the reasons, even if they could be clearly identified, would necessarily be generalizable.
Haredi communities can take comfort in Newfield’s conclusion that departures from their world are actually not very common, perhaps as low as 6.5 percent. Surrounded by a secular society that consistently presents Haredim with tantalizing visions of a different kind of life, it would be strange if some of them didn’t choose to leave. Though there are differences between Satmar and Lubavitch exit narratives, there is a consistency in the stories they tell, which I did not expect given the vastly different orientation toward the secular world taken by the two groups. Satmar is perhaps the most insular of the Hasidic sects, while Chabad Lubavitch is the least. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised; in the modern era of instant communication, the Web, and social media, that tantalizing outside world is just a click away in even the most insular society.
Newfield is admirably honest about his data and writes with balance and empathy. Still, in a few places, the book’s portrait of Haredi life feels incomplete. This may be because it adopts the assumptions of contemporary secular society as unquestionably normative, rather than just one of many global and historical worldviews.
For example, Newfield argues that ultra-Orthodox life is inherently “anti-intellectual.” My own research focuses on ultra-Orthodox education (I myself was a product of such an education), and Newfield’s descriptive dismissal does not ring true. He presumes that because Hasidic students are not allowed to question the authority of religious texts and authority figures, their study is not intellectual, but this misunderstands what it means to engage in intellectual study, reasoning, and thinking.
The reality is that students in Haredi schools, including Hasidic schools, routinely engage in incredibly difficult and high-level intellectual work. Translating the Talmud from Aramaic, understanding its terse language and its complex argumentation, drawing inferences from textual cues, making predictions, asking sharp questions, engaging with a body of commentarial literature that has accumulated around the talmudic text for over a millennium—all of this is intellectual work of the highest order. Most college kids—in fact nearly all college kids—cannot do what sixth- and seventh-graders in Haredi schools can do.
But what about the forbidden questions, or the inability to challenge the teacher? If you define intellectualism as the ability and desire to undermine the foundational assumptions of a discipline, then fine, but in that case, we would all be “anti-intellectual.” There is no knowledge domain that does not proceed from foundational assumptions, norms of inquiry, and modes of understanding. Every knowledge domain is bound by particular knowledge practices. The knowledge doesn’t just sit there separate from these practices; the way we study the material is built into our understanding of the nature of the material.
Similarly, every knowledge domain has questions we cannot ask. Imagine demanding of a scientist how she can claim that all creatures came to be through a long process of evolution, given the Torah’s description of creation in six days. It’s a category error, a mistake that transposes questions from one epistemology (traditional Judaism) into the knowledge practice of another (science). The fact that the reverse is true as well (you can’t ask questions that proceed from secular assumptions in a religious class) is not anti-intellectualism, but the very normal process by which knowledge is built within every imaginable field.
There’s no question that many of those who leave Orthodox Judaism have all sorts of questions that are not answered to their satisfaction within their communities, as Newfield ably documents. But in leaving one community for another, one can easily see the norms of the new community as, well, normative. In framing the book around the narratives of exiters—looking back at their former communities—Newfield loses sight of the fact that they haven’t just left one community, but they’ve joined another. That new community and its assumptions may be seen as unabashedly normative, but they too are themselves historically contingent.
ONE OF the book’s most powerful and interesting sections demonstrates that Hasidic practices and identity still follow exiters for years after leaving their communities. This finding forms the backbone of Newfield’s argument against a simple binary of Hasidim who are either “in” or “out.” Attitudes and beliefs that exiters were raised with may stay with them throughout their lives, and they may abandon specific religious practices very slowly, or even never. For example, subjects reported putting on their shoes in the rabbinically prescribed manner: right foot, left foot, left shoelace, right shoelace; bowing at the midsection (shukeling) while reading books; having to force themselves to eat pork.
The endurance of such Hasidic practices and beliefs leads Newfield to consider most of his subjects hybrids who remain in an in-between state for much of their lives. And while this is clearly true, it is also the case that being a hybrid is a central feature of modern secular society. Identity in the 21st century is a constantly evolving construct, as people take little bits and pieces from here and there to construct their selves. Every modern individual is a hybrid to some extent, and though these exiters are drawing on an unusual source of identity, in doing so while living non-Hasidic lives, they have adopted a quintessentially American identity. Yes, they are in-between, but so is everyone else.
Throughout the book Newfield refers to his subjects as being Satmar or Lubavitch, not formerly Satmar or Lubavitch, perhaps staking his claim that this is who they really are: still Satmar, still Lubavitch. There’s some truth to this categorization, but I think it doesn’t do enough justice to the aspects of their identities that now come from secular society. Satmar and Lubavitch stand out to outsiders because of how unusual their communities are relative to the rest of society. This makes it easy to spot the aspects of Hasidic identity that they’ve held on to. But the visibility of such holdovers doesn’t erase the enormous changes to a Hasidic person’s identity effected from living, working, and thinking about life in a secular context. These changes are just harder for others to see because they conform to a worldview and a way of life most Americans take to be normative.
A convert doesn’t lose her past just because she converts; conversely, retaining parts of her past doesn’t make her any less of a convert. Western secular conceptions of reality differ in real—and in some cases, very deep—ways from Hasidic ones; those who leave Hasidic life are not merely exiting one life but becoming something new.
For example, at one point Newfield compares exiting to divorce. As with divorce, some Hasidim may remain emotionally trapped by their past lives, never fully leaving. But most do make a new life for themselves, and that life has a substance and reality all its own. Though divorcées may hold on to aspects of the past, they no longer live within that marriage—the framework of their lives has changed dramatically.
This is the difference between growing up and growing out. A Hasid can learn to see nuance within a particular framework of understanding instead of the black and white of her youth, thus maintaining a Hasidic identity throughout her development. Alternatively, the questions, difficulties, and desires of life might be the impetus for choosing a completely different framework for living. Those who do so may still feel the pull of their old community and still see themselves as attached, never having quite exited, but in some very real sense they live in a completely different world. They have chosen an alternate way of living and thinking; they haven’t just exited, they’ve entered.
In a world of literature and media that engages in frumsploitation, treating Haredim as voyeuristic objects of fascination, Newfield treats both his subjects and their former communities with fairness and empathy. He presents the world of these exiters as they see and experience it, with admirable clarity and honesty. Degrees of Separation is truly an excellent book. It follows the gaze of Newfield’s subjects back at their former communities. But it’s the complexities of the hybrid lives they are living now that are the real and enduring revelations here.
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