Have you ever wondered what prompts some ultra-Orthodox Jews to abandon their insulated lives and shed their distinctive clothes and behaviors to enter the secular world? What stages and personal changes do they go through in developing a new non- Haredi identity? These questions are answered in an absorbing new book, Becoming Un- Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews. The book is written by Lynn Davidman, the Beren Distinguished Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the University of Kansas and author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning book Tradition in a Rootless World, a fascinating study of why secular women become ultra-Orthodox. It is based on her in-depth conversations with over forty male and female Haredi “defectors” and her own experiences. It is a spellbinding and poignant account of their transformations.
Davidman evokes the imagery of the “sacred canopy,” a concept developed by the sociologist Peter Berger, to describe how a religious community often serves as an “overarching shelter enclosing and securing a religious community’s way of life and shielding its boundaries from outside intrusions.” When there are rents in that “sacred canopy,” or wrenching events in the lives of the adherents, followers begin to question the validity of their religious lives. Such “tears” can include the death of a parent, on-going family wrangling, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, exposure to non-religious relatives and friends, and feelings of injustice such as the denial of women’s equal participation in education, social life, and religious practice. These types of experiences compelled Davidman’s informants to question the values of their Haredi communities. When their questioning is coupled with exposure to the secular world — through reading books at the library, viewing television, and access to the Internet — these disenchanted Haredim begin to engage in “transgressions” from their strictly mandated life.
However, moving into the secular world involves far more than engaging in mere “transgressions.” To leave Haredi life means learning to change one’s appearance, eating new foods, dropping daily prayers, and, of course, separating from a community that dictates all aspects of living and possibly being shunned by family and friends. It means initially leading a “double life.” Finally it means becoming a “defector” or an “ex” Hasid which is akin to getting a new body along with a totally new identity. Defectors need to create “coherent narratives that integrate the disruptive events into their life stories,” reports Davidman. Developing a new persona — emotionally, mentally, and physically — is a major task not easily accomplished. It often takes a lifetime.
Davidman’s “defectors” stories are powerful and often lyrical. The reader gains an insight into how all-encompassing religious and cultural identities are “embedded” in our “physical beings” along with our emotional psyches. These are stories of courage and vibrancy. After reading this book, the reader will have a deeper understanding of the Haredi life and the complexity of religious practice.
Appendixes, glossary, index, notes, references.