Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebelsby Hella Winston
Honorable Mention in the 2012 Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism
When Hella Winston began talking with Hasidic Jews for her doctoral dissertation in sociology, she was excited to be meeting members of the highly insular Satmar sect. While several Jewish journalists and scholars have produced largely admiring books describing the Lubavitch way of/b>… See more details below
Honorable Mention in the 2012 Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism
When Hella Winston began talking with Hasidic Jews for her doctoral dissertation in sociology, she was excited to be meeting members of the highly insular Satmar sect. While several Jewish journalists and scholars have produced largely admiring books describing the Lubavitch way of life and that group's outreach efforts to unaffiliated Jews, very little has been written about the many other Hasidic sects in the United States. Unlike Lubavitchers, members of these other groups are raised to avoid all unnecessary contact with outside society, including contact with other Jews. Winston's access was all but unprecedented.
As a nonobservant Jew with little prior exposure to the Hasidic world, she never could have guessed what would happen next-that she would be introduced, slowly and covertly, to Hasidim from Satmar and other sects who were deeply unhappy with their highly restrictive way of life and sometimes desperately struggling to leave their communities. First there was Yossi, a young man who, though deeply attached to the Hasidic culture in which he was raised, longed for a life with fewer restrictions and more tolerance. Yossi's efforts at making such a life, however, were being severely hampered by his fourth grade English and math skills, his profound ignorance of the ways of the outside world, and the looming threat that pursuing his desires would almost certainly lead to rejection by his family and friends. Then she met Dini, a young wife and mother whose decision to deviate even slightly from Hasidic standards of modesty led to threatening phone calls from anonymous men, warning her that she needed to watch the way she was dressing if she wanted to remain a part of the community. Someone else introduced Winston to Steinmetz, a closet bibliophile worked in a small Judaica store in his community and spent his days off anxiously evading discovery in the library of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, whose shelves contain non-Hasidic books he is forbidden to read but nonetheless devours, often several at a sitting. There were others still who had actually made the wrenching decision to leave their communities altogether.
Already called a "must read" by Hasidic blogger "Shtreimel," Unchosen tells the fascinating stories of these and other rebel Hasidim, serious questioners who long for greater personal and intellectual freedom than their communities allow. In so doing, Unchosen forces us to reexamine the history of these communities and asks us to consider what we choose not to see when we romanticize them.
From the Hardcover edition.
"Winston . . . builds fascinating case studies, inviting readers into her interviewees' conflicted, and often painful, lives . . . show[ing] us a Hasidic underworld where large families and a lack of secular education have resulted in extreme poverty and some serious at-risk behavior among youth. Her story of courage and intellectual rebellion will inspire anyone who has ever felt like a religious outcast." Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Good for Hasidim, non-Hasidim and every reader who responds to one of the oldest plots on Earth-the need of some people to leave the community that raised them, and figure out the world for themselves." Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Dives fearlessly into a fascinating topic . . . Winston channels the exhilaration of her subjects' newfound freedom, without losing all compassion for the disappointed—even angry—community they are leaving behind."Holly Lebowitz Rossi, Dallas Morning News
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Read an Excerpt
The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels
By Hella Winston
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
When he heard what Yossi wanted, the barber appeared stunned
at first, and then relaxed into laughter, assuming it must be some kind
of joke. Yossi's left leg began to twitch as he shifted uncomfortably
in the sticky leather chair. Hours earlier, he had made the decision
to shave off his beard and get rid of his peyos for good, and if
this man wasn't going to help him do it, he would find someone else
who would. His whole family, except for his sixteen-year-old sister,
Chayla, had just left to spend the rest of the summer at a bungalow
colony in the mountains. If Yossi was really going to make the break
he had been considering for so long, their vacation was his window
Still somewhat bemused, the barber prepared to oblige, removing
his scissors and razor from the container of disinfectant. Within
minutes, the beard was gone, the side curls reduced to so many dark
semicircles on the barbershop floor. Taking off his black velvet kippah,
Yossi stared at himself in the mirror and couldn't stop staring
-in the glass panes of store windows, in the side-view mirrors of
parked cars and vans, in the plastic walls of the bus shelters that lined
his path to the subway stop. He was inseventh heaven. It was the
greatest feeling in the world.
Yossi's plan was to head to the Upper West Side of Manhattan,
to a party hosted by one of a group of secular Yiddishists he had
sought out and come to know in recent months. These were people
who had devoted themselves to preserving the Yiddish language, and
Yossi pursued them not only because he was a huge fan of Yiddish literature,
but because he figured they would find him interesting. After
all, he was "the real deal," a native Yiddish speaker who had grown
up Hasidic in the heart of one of the few remaining Yiddish-based
cultures in the world. He also felt they would accept him since,
despite his religious garb-which he had continued to wear so as
not to make trouble for himself in the community-he had secretly
given up being observant many months ago.
Yossi was confident that these Yiddishists would sympathize
with his plight. After all, some of the older ones had come from
-and left-religious backgrounds themselves. Perhaps they would
prove a strong source of support, a bridge out of his community into
the secular world. Maybe one of them would even offer him some
sort of job and a place to stay while he figured out what to do next.
As it was, Yossi lacked the skills and credentials to get a decent-paying
job outside the Hasidic community.
Like all of the boys he had grown up with, Yossi had stopped
studying English and math sometime around the fourth grade. Fortunately,
however, his parents spoke a little English at home, so he
was more fluent in the language than most of his friends. A lot
of them knew only the "basic survival words, like Metro Card and
Medicaid," as Yossi put it. Further, although he had spent time learning
in a kollel, a center for advanced Torah studies, after high school,
Yossi didn't have anything that could pass for a legitimate high-school
diploma, or a college degree. Given his lack of credentials,
applying to a secular college would be tricky. He had heard that
some yeshivas would give or sell students a transcript filled with
classes they had never taken, like Physics and History. This gave him
a huge laugh. In his most desperate moments, it also gave him some
On his way up to the party, Yossi decided to stop off in Greenwich
Village. This was a neighborhood-like the Haight in San
Francisco and the Lower East Side of Manhattan-that he wished he
had been alive to experience in its heyday. With a few of his remaining
dollars, he bought a bag of potato chips and a liter of Hawaiian
Punch, and then planted himself on a bench in Washington Square
Park. He surveyed the early afternoon scene: summery women in
decidedly immodest tank tops, people sipping coffee from thermoses
as they walked their dogs, a small crowd dancing to the underwater
sound of a large steel drum played by a handsome, dreadlocked
If only these people in the park knew what he had looked like just
hours before, Yossi thought, cracking a smile. If only his friends and
family could see him sitting here now! Most of them would probably
be upset and confused, some even frightened, convinced that he
had completely lost his mind. His father, he knew, would be apoplectic.
To his mind, a boy like Yossi had no business being in such a
place, mixing freely among the goyim, who indulged their every desire
"like animals," filling their "empty" lives with sex and drugs and
God knows what other abominations.
Yossi had endured his father's tirades many times, but he could
never bring himself to feel the way the older man did. For, while his
father seemed to take great pleasure and pride in being a member of
the community, finding security and even status in the insular and
highly circumscribed way of life it promoted, Yossi had always chafed
at the community's narrowness and rigidity. He also marveled at its
uncanny ability to take aspects of religious observance that could
be joyful and turn them into onerous obligations or, worse, instruments
of fear-both of God and of other people. Indeed, Yossi was
more afraid of the spies and tattletales in his own community than
he could ever imagine being of God, if there even was a God.
Yossi felt that this was particularly ironic, given that the Ba'al
Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century storyteller and folk healer in
Central Europe (also known as the Besht), founded the Hasidic
movement as a reaction against what he perceived to be the overly
hierarchical, rigid, and legalistic Judaism of his day. Drawing on sophisticated
Jewish mystical (Kabbalistic) teachings, the Besht based
his movement on two theoretical concepts: religious pantheism, or
the omnipresence of God, and the communion between God and
man. In this view, God is present everywhere, not just in the spiritual
realm but in the material world as well, and, while He surely influences
the behavior of human beings, by focusing their thoughts,
actions, and utterances on Him, human beings can also influence
According to the Besht, the righteous man is one who is in constant
communion with God, even in his worldly affairs, as God is
present in the material world. The Besht taught that this communion
was best achieved through fervent prayer, as well as heartfelt and
joyous song and dance; for him, then, the essence of religion rested
in sentiment rather than reason. Therefore, he placed ecstatic prayer
even above Talmudic study, which he felt was useful only when it
served to produce an exalted religious mood.
By elevating these modes of worship to the level of Torah study,
the Besht radically democratized worship, making authentic spirituality
accessible to even the commonest Jew. While Yossi knew
that there were some particularly learned Hasidim who talked and
even wrote about reforming present-day Hasidic life by bringing the
community back to the movement's radical roots, they tended to circulate
their ideas only among themselves. And so, such notions never
filtered down to the masses. Despite some of the distinctive social
and cultural practices that had endured, Yossi doubted that the Ba'al
Shem Tov would recognize what his movement had become.
Yossi believed that the main reason he and his father didn't see
eye to eye on the community had to do with the fact that they had
been raised under vastly different circumstances. Yossi's father was
born in Boro Park to American-born, nominally Orthodox parents
typical of their generation. Descended from Hasidim in Europe,
their own parents had come to the United States seeking a better
life and had raised their children to be a part of the American
mainstream. Both of Yossi's grandparents had attended public high
schools (his grandmother's best friend was a Catholic girl) and,
though they studied Jewish subjects after school, both also ultimately
went on to college. The two met at a wedding and courted
openly for six months, visiting restaurants and attending plays and
movies together. They married in 1948. At the time, Boro Park was
a fairly prosperous community, made up of Irish and Italian families,
as well as a largely American-born Jewish population.
In those days, Yossi's grandmother didn't cover her hair, and, like
all of her Jewish friends, she wore clothes that reflected the prevailing
styles. For his part, Yossi's grandfather went around clean-shaven,
wearing a suit and tie and hat, the same outfit he wore to shul, or synagogue,
on Shabbos. The family owned a television set and, in addition
to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach, come November
they also celebrated Thanksgiving, with a turkey and all the trimmings.
Yossi's grandfather always insisted on that.
But then, in the mid-1960s, the neighborhood began to change.
Hasidim who had been living in Williamsburg and Crown Heights
began moving in. Most of them were refugees from Hitler who had
arrived in the United States en masse after the war. They had settled
in these other Brooklyn neighborhoods under the leadership of a
handful of charismatic rebbes, or spiritual leaders, who themselves
had either escaped the Nazis or survived the camps. Deeply traumatized
by their wartime experiences, and mostly poor and with almost
no knowledge of English and the American way of life, these newly
arrived Hasidim had immediately set about recreating the world that
had existed for them in Europe before the Holocaust. Many considered
this an obligation to those who had been murdered. It was also
a clear affirmation of their refusal to be annihilated.
One of the most powerful motivations these Hasidim had for
recreating their former way of life had to do with several rebbes'
claims about the causes of the Holocaust. The sixth Lubavitcher
rebbe taught his followers that the Holocaust was God's punishment
for Jewish assimilation in Europe, and even attributed his own rescue
from the Nazis to his keeping of the commandments. The
Satmar rebbe blamed the Holocaust on the Zionists, claiming that,
according to the Torah, only the Messiah could bring Jews back
to the land of Israel. To him, Zionism represented a blasphemous
usurpation of God's prerogative, and was a direct cause of the slaughter
of six million Jews. Both taught that only the strictest adherence
to a "Torah life" could protect their followers from another
As a result, codes of modesty that had, for the most part, been
discarded by Orthodox Jews in America were reinstated in these communities.
Stricter kosher standards were promoted and enforced.
Television and movies, acceptable leisure pursuits among American
Orthodox Jews at the time, were regarded by these new Hasidim
as dangerous distractions from the Torah life and were immediately
banned. The adoption of Hasidic styles of dress, rooted to some
degree in Jewish law but mostly in Eastern European custom, also
served to distinguish the Hasidim from the goyim-a category that,
for them, included not only non-Jews but Reform and secular Jews
as well. And, with the authority to administer their own educational
institutions, these communities opened schools, or yeshivas. Aside
from fulfilling state-mandated requirements in basic English and
math, these yeshivas focused almost exclusively on religious education,
rendered in Yiddish (and, for the boys, Biblical Hebrew). Any
subject matter that could be seen as contradicting or undermining
the Hasidic worldview was excluded from the curriculum.
The efforts of these new immigrants were so successful that,
in less than twenty years, Williamsburg-and, to a lesser degree,
Crown Heights-had become a thriving Hasidic community, with
houses of worship and study for men, and ritual baths for women.
Then, in the 1960s, in reaction to the growing numbers of blacks and
Latinos moving into these areas, those residents who could afford it
began moving to more established, socially desirable Jewish neighborhoods,
such as Flatbush and Boro Park, bringing their attitudes,
lifestyles, and institutions with them. The Bobover rebbe himself
moved to Boro Park from Crown Heights in 1966.
While some in Boro Park resented the influx and ultimately
moved out, Yossi's grandfather admired these new Hasidim and grew
interested in becoming more like them. Slowly, he began changing
his appearance, eschewing goyish or "modern" styles of dress in favor
of the Hasidim's dark suits and white shirts. He even grew a
beard and started donning a bekishe, the long silk caftan worn by men
on Shabbos, in shul. When the Bobover school opened in the neighborhood,
he sent his then twelve-year-old son-Yossi's father-there
to learn. And though Yossi's grandmother had no special feeling for
these newcomers, whom she considered "extreme Europeans," she
went along with her husband and the neighborhood, covering her
hair and beginning to dress more modestly.
By the time Yossi's father was ready for marriage, Boro Park had
gone, as Egon Mayer has noted, from an American-Jewish community
in which Jews could become Americanized and still remain
Jewish, to a much more self-consciously Jewish community. This
transformation was no doubt aided by the growing emphasis on ethnic
identity and pride that was influencing the larger culture at the
time. And so, as Boro Park was becoming more Jewish and less American,
Yossi's father was becoming a full-fledged Hasid. And, like most
of those in the changed neighborhood, whether native-born or refugees,
he intended to raise his children in this new "tradition." They
would dress in the Hasidic manner, attend Hasidic schools, speak
Yiddish, and, unlike him, they would not be exposed to television or
movies or other types of people, even other types of Jews. And they
would certainly not celebrate Thanksgiving. They would have no
And so it had been for Yossi.
To be sure, there were things that Yossi liked about the way he
grew up: the warmth and excitement of certain holidays and celebrations,
which "gave life zest," "lit a fire under your ass," and made
some men literally shake with love for God; the Eastern European
food-especially cholent and herring-that topped the Sabbath table
every week; his time spent schmoozing with his friends at the beis
medrash, or religious study hall, over endless cups of coffee and cigarettes.
But, as Yossi saw it, to enjoy these pleasures, he didn't have to
be religious, or even believe in God, and he certainly didn't have to
live the kind of life his father, and the people in his community, believed
Indeed, after the demise of Yossi's short-lived arranged marriage,
it had become increasingly difficult for him to imagine a life within
the community at all. He saw that most Hasidim were, as he described
it, "on the express train," getting married young and immediately
starting a family that could grow to have as many as fifteen
children in almost as many years. Divorce, still a source of stigma,
though slightly less so in recent years, thrust one out onto the subway
platform, with no clear sense of which train to hop next. Now
Yossi was on the platform and, without the heavy baggage of a wife
and children, he realized it was a place he was grateful to be.
It would be easy to blame the failure of Yossi's marriage on the
fact that he and his wife were young when they got engaged (barely
twenty), that they had met only twice before they wed, and that neither
had ever been alone with a member of the opposite sex who was
not a relative, much less been on any kind of date. But the truth is
that almost every Hasidic young person marries this way, and most
of those marriages remain intact. What ultimately ended Yossi's
marriage was that he bought a TV.
Excerpted from Unchosen
by Hella Winston
Copyright © 2005 by Hella Winston.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Hella Winston is pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology at the Graduate Center for the City University of New York. She lives in New York City.
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