While researching this column, about the Jewish world’s fascination with the formerly Orthodox, I kept stumbling on articles in the on-line magazine Salon: “Israel-based therapist releases sex manual for ultra-Orthodox Jews.” “I fooled around with the rabbi.” “From good girl to prostitute: My path from ultra-Orthodox Judaism to Craigslist sex ad.” “‘Sacred Sperm’ film explores ultra-Orthodox Jewish taboos.”
I was beginning to see a pattern.
“Ex-Orthodox” memoirs and novels have been hot literary properties at least since the publication of Shalom Auslander’s 2007 memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. Before that, Hella Winston broke ground with Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader became a book group favorite.
Since then we’ve seen Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (a New York Times best-seller), Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, and perhaps the best in the genre, Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return.
The stories told in these books are as varied as the writers, but a pattern emerges: A young man or woman grows up in an insular hasidic or haredi community. Their education is mostly limited to religious subjects and filtered folklore. Few question the strict religious injunctions as laid down by their rabbis and interpreted by their parents. Curiosity in the outside world is discouraged; individualism is punished. Eventually, the writer breaks away to a confusing but liberating world outside the community, but pays a heavy price in disapproving families, fractured relationships, spiritual crises, and alienation from a community that, for all its faults, offered the comfort of the ordered and the familiar.
These stories need to be told. They give a voice to a growing number of young “OTD” (that’s “off the derech,” or religious path) men and women who often struggle to adjust to a secular world for which they are woefully unprepared. Both Deen and Vincent are on the board of Footsteps, a nonprofit that provides former haredim with vocational training, language skills, and psychological counseling. Vincent’s is a particularly harrowing story of the self-destructive behavior she engaged in after she was shunned by her family as a teen (and before she was eventually accepted to Harvard).
The haredi world is no less interesting than any secretive or half-hidden tribe whose members refuse to bend their wills or ways to the mainstream. The eccentric dress, the strict gender boundaries, and especially the suppressed sexuality are endlessly intriguing.
And yet something makes me queasy about the genre — not the stories they tell or the skill with which they tell them, but our voyeuristic fascination with the ultra-Orthodox. As relations between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox continue to sour — especially over Israel, where secular Israelis and non-Orthodox movements resent the power of the haredim — how many of us turn to the OTD library to validate our disdain?
Some of that disdain is well-earned. Deen writes how his fellow Skverer hasidim in New Square, NY, habitually relied on the dole, underreported their earnings, and diverted public school funds, “such that all matters of finance were bound up in deception.” Girls are too often prepared for little else than motherhood, and while they are drilled in the laws surrounding menstruation, Deen recalls that he and his wife were taught so little about basic biology that, even after she got pregnant, neither was quite sure how the baby comes out. Many of the former Orthodox, like Deen, lose custody of their children after divorce and a split from the community.
But we, the non-haredi, can also be smug in our disapproval. Deen once told JTA that he has “no animosity toward the hasidic community as a collective. I have tremendous affection and sympathy for what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to preserve a cherished worldview within a world that is very hostile to it. I disagree with the degree to which choice is taken away from individuals in the service of that, but I understand it.”
Are those of us who grew up outside the hasidic world prepared to be as generous?
I suspect that our temptation to find shmutz under the black hats reflects a lack of confidence in our own brands of Judaism. If you read the communal studies, the Orthodox appear to have “won” the continuity battle, while the non-Orthodox majority is feeling insecure about its future in the face of assimilation. When does our envy of the Orthodox curdle into schadenfreude?
I wish nothing but the best for Deen, Vincent, and their fellow Footsteppers, who deserved more from the tradition than a piecemeal education and an abiding sense of shame about sexuality and intellectual curiosity. The haredi world has built its own ghetto walls, in ways that only the most compulsive and coercive of Old World rabbis would have condoned.
But don’t turn the pain of these authors into a sex joke. And let’s not read these memoirs as a justification to ignore or belittle a tradition that can be lived in harmony with modernity and the full life of the mind.