After having great luck with Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox I was on the lookout for other great stuff by or about former Hasidic Jews. When I discovered my public library had an available copy of Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels I didn’t hesitate to get my hands on it. Just like I did with the two above-mentioned memoirs, I whipped through Winston’s Unchosen while thoroughly enjoying it.
Like Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Unchosen is a polyvocal text. The voices heard in Winston’s book are rebellious (believe me, in this context it’s a relative term) Hasidic Jews or those trying to leave the community, many of which are from the highly insular and morally restrictive Satmar sect of New York. Slowly, over a long period of time the book’s author Hella Winston, a nonobservant Jew met got to know some of them as they shared their respective life stories with her.
For a disillusioned Satmar or member of a similar community to up and leave is no easy task. Members have been inculcated from day one with religious beliefs that speak of the group’s divine chosen status contrasted with the moral depravity of the greater world, making integration within the lager Jewish community, to say nothing of secular society in general difficult. In addition, young Hasidim are pressured to marry early in life and produce large families, thus making it a challenge to server those family relationships and obligations should they want to leave. Lastly, because of the lack of secular education or quality vocational training, members are ill-suited to make it in the outside world. (Males receive roughly the equivalent of a 4th grade education. Everything after that is religious training. Women, since they’re not allowed to study religious topics like the men, ironically, receive a bit more secular eduction. Both sexes are educated in the community’s preferred language of Yiddish, making interaction with the English-speaking world even harder.)
In Winston’s book we meet an interesting array of individuals including a young man who struggles to leave his community but his lack of resources, confidence, English skills and support network make it next to impossible; a religious instructor who’s lost his faith and a young woman striving to start a halfway house for those transitioning out of Hasidism. My favorite Hasid in Winston’s book had to be Steinmetz, an employee at a Hasidic-approved store who spent his off the clock time reading forbidden books at of all places the library of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. Like any good rebellious bibliophile I salute Steinmetz and consider him a man after my own heart!
I found all the life stories discussed in Unchosen fascinating and well worth my time. The individuals featured in Winston’s book are complex and multifaceted, with little, if any black and white and mostly shades of gray. No wonder I enjoyed this book.