Becom­ing Un-Ortho­dox: Sto­ries of Ex-Hasidic Jews

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

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.

Relat­ed content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions