Several years ago, I accompanied a friend as she undertook the task of burying her late mother who had passed after several years of ill health. The cemetery is for followers of the Jewish faith and as part of the internment process, I was required to wear a yarmulke and spread dirt over the grave. The rabbi explained the meaning behind the acts, and the presence of others in attendance who did not know her mother but came out after hearing of her death. That day I was a witness to a side of Judaism I was not previously aware of. My friend was not Hasidic but strongly identified with her Jewish roots. Today when I drive through parts of Brooklyn, I take notice of the Hasidic Jewish communities in Crown Heights, Borough Park, and Williamsburg. To the public, the people of these sects are elusive and mysterious. Author Hella Winston stepped into these worlds to learn the truth about those who become unchosen.
It is imperative to recognize that Jewish is not a monolithic term. In fact, the divisions between sects, mainly the Satmar and Lubavitch, should not be overlooked. However, what is uniform is their commitment to preserving their faith and the importance of never forgetting the name of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Third Reich’s determination to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population had an unintended result here in New York as Winston points out. Readers will not be surprised at what they learn but what the author does reveal, will put the Hasidic community’s cohesiveness in a clearer perspective. The horrors of World War II cannot be understated and as Winston notes,
“One of the most striking things I came to understand during the course of this research is the power of the Holocaust, and the history of Jewish suffering in general, both in the actual lives of some Hasidic people and in the imaginations of these communities as a whole. There is, of course, the plain historical fact that the Hasidic communities that exist in America today were started almost entirely by refugees from World War II”.
Of course, the Hasidic culture we see does not exist solely because of the war. The scriptures impact every aspect of daily life and readers familiar with orthodox customs are aware of the restrictions in place around the Sabbath and during holidays. The individuals she became acquainted with revealed deeply personal parts of their lives and provided information that I learned of for the first time. One section that stands out is the view held towards Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), considered to be the father of Zionism. Brooklynites may recall that a street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn bears his name. The reason for the view of Herzl held by the Hasidim is quite simple and in the overall context of the book, makes sense. But there is far more to the story than just Herzl and the people we are introduced to are anything but orthodox.
Winston picked members of both genders and from various families and each story has similar tones but are in fact different. I did observe that although they wanted a different life, they still loved their families and the communities they grew up in. The struggle with faith is not an easy one. Critics online have blasted the book as a condemnation of the Hasidim. I disagree and did not get that feeling while reading and have no ill will towards them. Admittedly, there were customs that I would not want to adhere to but it is not for me to say they are right or wrong for others. And I feel that anyone reading this book has to do so with an open mind. There are however, parts in the stories of the women that will make you scratch your head and have feelings of disapproval and/or disgust. These are the sections that bring to light the reality for Hasidic women. We pass them on the street, on the subways and maybe even the park, but the truth about their daily lives is carefully guarded. Whether the women are happy with their lives or not is for them to reconcile but if we digest what is contained here, it is apparent that not all are content and the number of women who yearn for more out of life could be higher than we think. The same applies for men due to the number of readers who contacted Winston after the book’s publication.
The book’s star is undoubtedly Yossi, whose story is a roller coaster ride in itself. But for all that we do learn about inside the community, there is a realization to be had for those who venture outside of it; none are prepared for the secular world which might as well be another planet. And this is one the tragedies of the book. The speakers have decided to venture in the secular world but have no real foundation to do so as the majority of their lives was spent inside the community which offered not only the resources they needed but security as well. The streets outside the community are unforgiving and more than one speaker falls victim to its darker elements. Thankfully, none perish but their experiences highlight the unchartered waters that await anyone who decides they no longer believe or wish to be Hasidim.
A common aspect I found in the stories is that they were living double lives. While they believed in the scriptures, they could not reconcile that with the practices they witnessed daily. It is a difficult position to be in and the mind will find itself at war with itself. The stories of Chaim, Yitzchak, Dini, Malkie and Leah are all intense on their own and in each one we see that regardless of location or religion, human nature is strong and cannot always be contained. The quest for freedom led some to take extreme measures as they struggled with choices I have been forced to make. And this is one of the best parts of the book that is possibly overlooked. All isolated communities have their secrets and the Hasidim are no different. But what readers should come away with is that if you are not a part of the community, you have freedoms and liberties that are desired by people within the community. And the reality is that they may never know the world as you do. For them, the scriptures control their lives and those in high positions of power pick up where faith does not. The narratives are controlled but not impervious. Over time, I believe that the Hasidim will also adjust to modern times as the younger generation seeks a new path in a rapidly changing world.
Despite the information revealed in the book, there are positive aspects to the Hasidim way of life and there are followers who are happy in the community. And as Winston points out, they too are human beings. The Hasidim also have fears, concerns, passions and insecurities. Winston’s book is not about which way is right or wrong but provides a window in a world we see only from the outside. In no way is the book a definitive account of the Hasidim nor was it intended to be. But if you can see the value in the stories contained within, then you will appreciate what she has brought to light. And if there are Hasidim who have left their communities and not sure about what to do, the organization Footsteps which was started by Malkie Schwartz, a speaker in the book, provides assistance to those in need.
If you are curious about the Hasidic way of life and what happens to those who leave, this is must-read.
4 thoughts on “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels – Hella Winston”
This sounds like a book I would very much like to read. Thank you for reviewing it.
You’re welcome! I hope you find it as fascinating as I did. I really felt as if I stepped into another world.
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I recently read a novel on a similar theme – ‘An Unorthodox Match’ by Naomi Ragen. I enjoyed it and could hardly put it down, but it opened my eyes to Orthodox Judaism.
I looked it up and I have just added it to my reading list. Thank you!
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