Uncho­sen: The Hid­den Lives of Hasidic Rebels

Hel­la Winston
  • Review
By – October 17, 2011

In Uncho­sen: The Hid­den Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Hel­la Win­ston takes us beyond the beards, wigs and mod­est attire of Hasidic Jews and offers insights into what is sys­temic in those com­mu­ni­ties that inspires rebels” to yearn for a dif­fer­ent type of life. Through inter­views with those strug­gling to find them­selves and an iden­ti­ty out­side the insu­lar world of Hasidism, Win­ston offers a thought-pro­vok­ing and often heart wrench­ing glimpse into life inside a world unknown and often for­eign to outsiders. 

Ms. Win­ston has accom­plished no small feat in pen­e­trat­ing the tight-lipped com­mu­ni­ties of Sat­mar and oth­er less­er known Hasidic sects. She becomes privy to the frus­tra­tions and yearn­ings of those tor­tured by Kafkaesque con­flicts between the dog­ma of their upbring­ing and cul­ture and their indi­vid­ual wants and needs. Ham­pered by a lack of sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion and an often slip­shod abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate in Eng­lish (many of the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties use Yid­dish as a means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing), these rebels” face innu­mer­able obsta­cles in their effort to try to immerse them­selves in a non-Hasidic world. 

Although the con­cept of try­ing to escape and reach beyond the con­fines of one’s upbring­ing and fam­i­ly val­ues is cer­tain­ly not nov­el, the dif­fi­cul­ty that the Hasidic rebels” encounter in attempt­ing to exit the fold appear to some to be unbear­able. These indi­vid­u­als have been raised with a clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed mantra that any chal­lenge to the strin­gent reli­gious and com­mu­nal rules results in sharp con­dem­na­tion and a rebuke to get back in line.” Con­front­ed with dis­dain by their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties and threats that sib­lings will be unable to find suit­able match­es, these rebels” often find the attempt to find mean­ing and pur­pose out­side the cocoon of their com­mu­ni­ties a bat­tle too dif­fi­cult to fight successfully. 

Winston’s objec­tiv­i­ty and abil­i­ty to enable her sub­jects to share their most mun­dane as well as philo­soph­i­cal­ly com­plex thoughts join togeth­er to take the read­er on a soul search­ing journey.

Paula Lubin is a human­i­ties teacher at the North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my Mid­dle School. She has writ­ten for a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions, most recent­ly the New York Health­care Law Update.

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