[Marxism] Hasidic rebels

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 21 07:59:56 MST 2005


 From the issue dated November 25, 2005
The Hidden Rebels


When I first decided to conduct my dissertation research on Hasidic women, 
I was hoping to learn something about how their spiritual lives fared in 
the face of everyday demands of running a home and raising children. I 
knew, however, that gaining access to these women would be a challenge. 
With the exception of Lubavitch, unique in the Hasidic world for its 
outreach to secular and unaffiliated Jews, Hasidic sects are extremely 
insular, their members raised to avoid all unnecessary contact with what is 
considered to be the corrupt, and corrupting, "secular" society. Without 
any personal ties to the Hasidic world, and only a basic familiarity with 
Yiddish, I worried that I would never find a way to meet Hasidic women, let 
alone really get to know any. Indeed, many people advised me that my best 
hope was to go to Crown Heights in Brooklyn. There, Lubavitch women would 
welcome the opportunity to expose me, a nonobservant Jew, to the beauty of 
"true" Judaism and the Hasidic way of life.

But I didn't want to go to Crown Heights. For one thing, a good many 
scholars and journalists have already produced rich accounts of various 
aspects of Lubavitch life, including the experiences of girls and women. 
While there was probably room for one more, at least, the truth was that I 
didn't relish having to navigate the role of potential recruit, which I 
knew would be an inevitable consequence of any involvement with the 
Lubavitchers. Further, because their self-imposed segregation from 
mainstream society was what intrigued me about the Hasidim to begin with, 
intellectually I was much more interested in those sects that want as 
little as possible to do with the world beyond their borders, including 
other Jews. So I had a problem: What made the Hasidim so compelling to me 
as a researcher was precisely what I feared would put them beyond my reach. 
But I vowed not to give up too easily.

After many months I was finally able to make contact with a woman named 
Suri, a member of the highly insular, anti-Zionist Satmar sect. We had been 
put in touch by a doctor friend of mine, who had successfully treated her 
husband for a serious illness. It was my impression at the time that Suri 
had agreed to speak with me mainly out of a feeling of gratitude to the 
doctor for restoring her husband's health. The first time we talked, on the 
phone, I was impressed by Suri's warmth and openness, her sophistication 
and sense of humor. This was not what I had expected. Perhaps the Satmar 
reputation for insularity was exaggerated. Or maybe Suri was atypical — 
after all, she had agreed to speak with me. Whatever the case, when she 
invited me to her home for a dinner with a group of her friends, I felt as 
if I had struck gold.

The dinner went very well. I found that discussing my mother's experience 
as a hidden child in Hungary during the Holocaust provided some much-needed 
common conversational ground; many of these women had relatives who were 
Hungarian Holocaust survivors as well. But it also felt a little creepy to 
be trading on our shared history of tragedy in order to facilitate the 
proceedings. And it was also hard to endure the women's confident 
speculation that my mother's history had somehow sparked a desire in me to 
"return" to Judaism, as evidenced by my presence there that night. Before 
the evening was over, I considered that maybe these women were no different 
from their Lubavitch counterparts after all, interested primarily in 
shepherding me "back" into the fold.

But after everyone went home, something strange happened. Suri and her 
daughter, Chanie (not their real names), who had arrived midway through the 
evening, began to ask me what I thought of the women. Before I could figure 
out how to respond, both began telling me how oppressive life in their 
community could be, how critical to maintaining one's good reputation it 
was to conform and to hide all evidence of forbidden contact with the 
outside, "modern" world — be it a secular book, a classical CD, or a 
movie-ticket stub. Both of these women made it clear that they were 
religiously observant, but both also felt extremely stifled, and often 
found themselves sneaking off to do things that were not approved of by 
their community. Indeed, they (along with their male counterparts) weren't 
allowed to read secular books or magazines, watch TV or movies, use the 
Internet, visit museums, even drive a car. They were also expected to have 
as many children as possible, with husbands they had met only once or twice 
before marriage. Going to college (for both women and men) was also out of 
the question.

While some of these prohibitions have their roots in interpretations of 
Jewish law, most have to do with ensuring the Hasidim's separation from the 
outside world. For the most part, these communities were founded and built 
in America by European refugees from Hitler. Their rebbes, or spiritual 
leaders, believed that re-creating the world that had been lost in Europe 
was not only an obligation to those who had been murdered but also a 
testament to the survivors' refusal to be annihilated. Because these 
leaders also viewed the Holocaust as punishment from God (in one case, for 
Jewish assimilation in Europe, and, in another, for the Zionists' 
blasphemous usurpation of God's prerogative by trying to bring Jews back to 
Israel before the coming of the Messiah), they taught that only the 
strictest adherence to a religious life could avert another such horror.

Leisure pursuits like movies and television, which had long been acceptable 
among American Orthodox Jews, were considered by these new Hasidim to be 
dangerous distractions from the "Torah life" and were immediately banned. 
Indeed, the rebbes believed that speaking English, dressing in contemporary 
styles, being exposed to "secular" knowledge and media — not to mention 
people — could only undermine religious commitment and group solidarity in 
what was already considered a trayf, or nonkosher, country. The interesting 
twist, however, was that with its religious tolerance and commitment to 
pluralism, this "nonkosher" country was an ideal place to carry out the 
Hasidic project. In America, these communities were allowed to start their 
own schools, build their own houses of worship, and administer their own 
system of justice — all with very little interference and oversight from 
the government.

 From the beginning, a person's involvement in any of these prohibited 
activities could result in his exclusion from religious institutions, the 
denial of financial aid from community charities, and general social 
ostracism. For those who had experienced the horrors of war and were now 
(often poor) refugees in a foreign country, adhering to this way of life 
was probably not a hardship but a comfort. However, if Suri and Chanie's 
views were shared by others, it was possible that, in 60 years, something 
had changed.

Indeed, my experience at Suri's home eventually led me to change my 
research focus. I wanted to find out whether there were more Hasidic people 
— women and men — who felt oppressed by their communities' rigid rules and 
social scrutiny, and who were forced, out of fear of community censure or 
worse, to pursue their individual desires in secret, while outwardly 
maintaining the appearance of conformity. Were there those who did "worse" 
things than Suri and Chanie, like violating religious laws? Or people who 
didn't actually believe?

As far as I knew, nobody had ever addressed these questions in any depth, 
at least with respect to Hasidic communities in America. To be fair, 
scholars have acknowledged the existence of Hasidic people who don't seem 
to "fit" into the life their communities demand of them. But such work 
tends to attribute this phenomenon primarily to problems of individual 
adjustment, rather than structural factors, and it often fails to consider 
the subjective interpretations of Hasidic people themselves.

Over the course of two years, I came to know about 60 people whom I can 
best describe as Hasidic "rule breakers" or "rebels." Locating them mostly 
through word of mouth and my own detective work, I also spent a lot of time 
building trust among those who agreed to speak with me. Some of the 
"rebels" are generally committed to the Hasidic way of life but crave more 
personal and intellectual freedom than their communities allow. Others are 
motivated by serious questions or doubts about the Hasidic way of life and 
sometimes even the tenets of their religion. Either way, all are engaging 
in activities that violate Hasidic behavioral standards, the discovery of 
which could result in possible rejection by their families and friends, 
permanent stigmatization of their children, even loss of employment in the 

During my time in the field I met Yossi, who over the course of a year 
regularly changed out of his Hasidic garb and into jeans on the subway and 
headed into Manhattan to go to flea markets and watch Yiddish films at 
Columbia. I also got to know Steinmetz, a closet bibliophile who works in a 
small Judaica store in his community and spends his days off anxiously 
evading discovery in the library of the conservative Jewish Theological 
Seminary of America, poring over forbidden books about Spinoza and the 
Jewish enlightenment. And then there was Breindel, a married woman with 
four children who spends hours reading and blogging online, all behind her 
unsuspecting husband's back.

While some of those I came to know deal fairly well with the 
compartmentalization such a life requires, others suffer terribly, not 
wanting to lead "double lives" but also knowing that choosing to leave the 
community would come at a huge personal cost: the possible withdrawal of 
love and support from their families; guilt about bringing shame on their 
relatives and abandoning their traditions; and tremendous anxiety about the 
difficulty of making a life in a lonely, unfamiliar outside world.

My research addressed many interesting theoretical questions about social 
control and how groups form and maintain boundaries. It also demonstrated 
how private rebellion can actually maintain the status quo. But it raised 
other kinds of questions for me as well — questions specific to the place 
of contemporary Hasidic communities within the larger context of Jewish 
history and American society.

Many of the Hasidic "rebels" I met during the course of my research 
expressed anger and immense frustration at being forced — by their own 
communities — to live in what many referred to as a "gateless ghetto." 
Despite what they had been taught to believe, there were enough cracks in 
the symbolic walls of their communities for them to see, with their own 
eyes, that America in the 21st century was not analogous to medieval 
Europe, or czarist Russia, or Germany in 1933. While other Jews were out 
flourishing in American society, why, they wondered, should they be 
consigned to a living museum, forced to maintain a "tradition" that many 
had come to understand as just one possible expression of Judaism among many.

Many of those I met live in real fear of being discovered for their 
"transgressions," afraid of the consequences of discovery not only for 
themselves but also for their loved ones. And it is all the more galling to 
them that those provoking the fear are the ostensibly "spiritual" leaders 
of their communities, as well as family members and sometimes even close 
friends. It would be different, of course, if the threat were coming from 
people outside the community, or from God, but these people believe that 
it's not; indeed, even those who believe in God refuse to see him as 
someone who would mete out punishment for seeing a movie or listening to a 
Yankees game.

These people are hardly naïve about anti-Semitism — indeed their way of 
life has been, to some extent, both a reaction to it and an attempt to ward 
it off. Nonetheless, there is a sad irony in the fact that a Hasidic 
person's failure to conform to the standards of his own community can 
subject him to the kind of stigmatization and ostracism that Jews have 
historically suffered at the hands of the outside world. In saying this, I 
surely don't mean to minimize the horrors of Jewish persecution. And I also 
do not intend to suggest that a belief in the Hasidic worldview, and the 
religious, social, and emotional rewards of living as a Hasidic Jew, do not 
also motivate people's commitment to the Hasidic way of life and community. 
But it is also hard to ignore comments like those of the father of one man 
I interviewed who, upon hearing that his son had shaved his beard, accused 
him of "being worse than Hitler. By getting rid of your beard," he told 
him, "you have killed your Jewish identity and succeeded in carrying out 
Hitler's work." In the end, however, I think the son's reaction might be 
more telling, indicative of a generational shift in perspective. Musing 
over his father's comments, he asked me: "Why are they all so busy with 
Hitler? Didn't he already do enough harm?"

While America might have been considered a "nonkosher" country by the 
Hasidic rebbes, it is also a country where people are free to create and 
live in their own religious communities, by their own rules, apart from the 
mainstream. There are, of course, many examples of this: the Amish, the 
Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses--the list goes on. However, because those 
communities often — for all sorts of reasons — operate according to values 
that are antithetical to the stated American ideals of tolerance, personal 
freedom, and self-determination, they are inherently threatening to those 
very values. I wouldn't want to see America without its sects and cults and 
voluntary organizations, but there is also no doubt that all the freedom to 
be separate creates fertile soil for the growth of communities that seem to 
want anything but freedom for their members and, in rare cases, for others 
as well.

As I came to understand through my experience among these Hasidic "rebels," 
there are many things — including technology, physical proximity to other 
cultures, and human curiosity — that can cause cracks to develop in a 
community's symbolic walls. And as long as the world beyond those walls is 
a fairly hospitable place, people will find ways of exploiting those 
cracks. Not surprisingly, authorities in the various Hasidic communities 
have already responded to this situation by trying to reinforce their 
walls, issuing more bans, and attempting to instill more fear. Based on 
what I know, however, not only is that unlikely to be effective but it may 
also ultimately undermine the very survival of these communities. Perhaps 
it is time for a different kind of response.

Hella Winston, a doctoral student in sociology at the Graduate Center of 
the City University of New York, is the author of Unchosen: The Hidden 
Lives of Hasidic Rebels, published this month by Beacon Press.



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