Out of Orthodoxy
The life of Chasidim, Jews living according to strict religious precepts within the confines of a separatist society, is fascinating because it is different from most of our lives. Some might imagine that most under such constraints are happy enough to stay there—or else they would leave, wouldn’t they? Thinking more carefully, we remind ourselves that there are constraints we don’t know about. And some of them do leave. How do they make that decision? Two recent books explore departures from the Orthodox path, answering two different questions – what is their experience like in general, and what does the story of one ex-Orthodox Jew tell us in particular?
In her book Becoming Un-Orthodox (Oxford University Press, 2015), Lynn Davidman investigates the underlying motivations for leaving Orthodox communities, summarizing common themes which emerged on the basis of interviews with dozens of ex-Orthodox men and women. Under the theme of “Abuse” there is Adina, who grew up among Satmar Chasidim. (Interviewees are represented in more than one category.) “When I was young,” she tells the author, “I had several experiences of sexual abuse on the part of an uncle” – who was supposed to be “observant of everything” as a scribe of holy texts. Another interviewee, Leah, told Davidman that “the way they treat women is sinful”: while men were in synagogue and at learning, participating in the core rituals of Chasidic Jewish life, she was made to stay at home, helping set the table – “it was boring and stupid.”
Pride of place in Davidman’s book is given to the chapter entitled “First Transgressions.” “Nearly all the respondents,” Davidman reports, “described the first time they deliberately broke a religious commandment as a moment of great drama and significance.” This chapter, like the others, is divided into various sections according to the ways in which the commandments were broken, from gender taboos to entrance into forbidden spaces (nightclubs, non-kosher restaurants) to consumption of forbidden food. “It felt like murder,” said one respondent of his first taste of treif meat.
On the basis of her evidence, Davidman elaborates a thesis. Since Orthodoxy involves an intimate relationship with nearly every domain of life, from sex to supper, clothing, prayer, health, death, and child-rearing, the religious Jew finds himself bound up with its laws – and, if he leaves, must tear himself away. “Exiting this community,” she proposes in an academic register, “is dependent upon changing internalized, habitual techniques of the body and learning new bodily practices” from wider society. While there are first, as she puts it, “tears in the canopy,” intimations that a world exists beyond the confines of Orthodoxy, the next step is a bodily separation from the previous world.
Davidman emphasizes that passing from Orthodoxy to the outside world involves a departure from this intimate physicality, and that this physicality—the first taste of treif chicken, wearing jeans rather than a woman’s requisite modest attire, smoking on Friday night—is an essential part of such transformations.
Two well-publicized memoirs of the ex-Orthodox align well with this emphasis. Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox sparked controversy with its depiction of the cover-up of a child’s murder in her insular community, and the sexual dysfunction in the family she grew up in, as well as in the loveless marriage she was forced into. Her voyage was one of denied desires found in the world outside. Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood narrates her descent into, or, rather, voyage through, a period of heedless sex after her departure from an Orthodox community in Pittsburgh.
These memoirs provide revealing glimpses into various varieties of harrowing escape; their writers are to be commended for their bravery in rendering their painful personal experiences into enlightening, accessible prose. Their stories were covered widely and attracted a wide readership. On the other hand, while Davidman’s work (and these two memoirs) emphasize the physicality in passing, another recent book takes a different tack, coloring in another part of the ex-Orthodox canvas and helping us realize the diversity of such experiences.
Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return is as serious and harrowing as Feldman’s and Vincent’s memoirs. His transformation was wrenching, the completeness of the break not of his design. He gropes for an unmarked door in a dark alley. Deen’s narration, however, furnishes an important counterexample to Davidman’s thesis. The rockiness of his transition was not due to the difficulty of physically “passing” from one world to another, but from the difficulty inherent in moving from intellectual isolation—where even turning on a radio must be done under cover of night—to risky, world-shattering freedom of thought.
I should say here that Deen and I are a little bit more than strangers: I published a Yiddish essay of his on my blog, and he published a book review of mine on his website, Unpious, a forum for writers who examine the Chasidic world from the outside. Such interactions aren’t rare, however, on the insular Jewish Internet, and we aren’t personally close.
What makes this book an unflinching example of the “off the derech (path)” genre is its rare glimpse into life in New Square, an all-Chasidic village founded by the Skver sect of Chasidim in upstate New York. It is a society which can be warm and enveloping or vile and repressive. Written in an admirableunobtrusive style, All Who Go Do Not Return achieves emotional truth and plot-driven suspense that eludes some other attempts.
We meet Deen as a young adult, harboring uncertainties. We witness his wedding to someone he had met for only a few minutes; his joys at a bris, jubilation at a rousing tisch. And we also see his growing doubts: at the bris of his first son, still safely ensconced in the Chasidic world, he almost takes the first bite of the celebratory meal, but is yanked rudely back to submission to the established order: the rebbe must have his adulation. After that, Deen wonders “Where, exactly, lay the rebbe’s greatness? Was he a scholar? Was he a saint? Had he ever shown anyone any exceptional kindness?” Finally, he swears to his wife, “Next bris is without the rebbe.”
More painfully, we watch Deen’s marriage dissolve bit by bit. We wonder whether, in a community supportive of individual change and exploration, Deen and his wife might have found a modus vivendi.
The details of his transformation are rendered suspenseful by Deen’s cat-and-mouse game with the most sourly judgmental of his community. “HOW CAN YOU READ THIS, HOW?” screams a neighbor on the Chasidic bus after discovering that Deen is reading a book of dialogues between an Orthodox and Reform rabbi. Will they discover his true feelings? And how? What will happen to his wife and children? But alongside this suspense is a more philosophical thread: what does it mean to doubt? Is it born in the incompatibility between the individual and his religious environment? Does it come about because the doubter does not have sufficient answers to scientific skepticism, or a supportive structure to analogize religious myths till they satisfy his searching personality?
On one level, Deen’s memoir grapples with these questions, traversing territory made familiar by writers like Chaim Potok. Can science and the Bible be made to reconcile? Or, if a community’s practices are inconsistent and inexplicable to the outsider, why not, indeed, become that outsider? Philosophical doubt provides a reason for life transformations, if only as a bulwark against unfeeling randomness.
On another level, however, it doesn’t matter what philosophical foundations underlay Deen’s search for meaning. That search is motivated by nothing more simple (or more complicated) than his individual curiosity and honest need. In contrast to Davidman’s thesis, Deen’s break appears less a re-imagining of a physical relationship to his community than an intellectual and emotional incompatibility. The physicality of Deen’s first transgressions matter less to this tale than his doubts and inability to fit in.
Every book in this genre attracts criticism. Feldman’s was called factually inaccurate by others who had left her community; Vincent’s was characterized as needlessly demonstrative. And I imagine Deen’s book will too. Some will say that he represents only an idiosyncratic, negative perspective; others that he does not depict the many positive aspects of Chasidic life; and some will intimate that personal failings, or weaknesses of his upbringing or personality, underlie his individual experiences.
These critiques are unsurprising and irrelevant, as well as untrue. It would be enough if Deen emphasized, as he does in an author’s note at the end of the book, that his memoir is meant as a personal recollection, not a policy brief against Orthodoxy as a whole. And he hedges his descriptions of others, in a brief note, by admitting that they might have their own takes on his transformation. Indeed, this story is told from a particular point of view—rather male-centered, somewhat bookish—and someone looking to acquaint themselves with Chasidic world, and those who leave it, from more diverse perspectives should have recourse to Davidman’s comprehensive study.
The central conflict between religious separatism and liberal society is the place of the individual, and as long as societies like New Square exist, there will be people who have to write their way out of them. The ex-Chasid genre teaches us as much about the individuals who leave as the communities they are pushed out of, and for that reason every well-written story in that vein, like this one, moves us in new and necessary ways.
On the other hand, to understand the experiences of all ex-Orthodox, and the changes that might be made to improve the society they leave—or those they arrive in—summaries like Davidman’s are necessary. A complete understanding of the various and admirable individuals who take the risk of leaving the community of their birth, needs the approach of both these books—and further ventures in sociology, memoir, and the space between.
Zackary Sholem Berger has written about Chasidim and ex-Orthodox literature in a variety of forums. He is also a poet and translator in Yiddish and English, and, in his day job, a primary care doctor. He lives in Baltimore.