Davidman, Lynn. “Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews”, Oxford University Press, 2014.
For some, leaving a religion is simply a matter of either losing or rejecting faith but for others, like Hasidic Jews, it involves dramatic changes of everyday routines and personal habits. Lynn Davidman has had in-depth conversations with forty ex-Hasidic individuals. From these conversations, we see the fear, angst, and sense of danger that come of leaving a community that has very strong boundaries. Many of those interviewed said they felt that they were marginal in their own communities; that there was a sense of strain in their homes due to death, divorce, or their parents’ profound religious differences. Others experienced sexual, physical, or verbal abuse; that they were acutely aware of gender inequality. They were well aware of the dissimilar lives of their secular relatives, and knew something about forbidden television shows, movies, websites, and books. There have been many stories of late of those Jews who have left their Orthodox communities and ventured out on their own. In many cases, they have done this without parental consent or agreement and are truly on their own. Not only are their financial difficulties involved but these arise serious psychological problems for some.
In “Becoming Un-Orthodox” we become aware of the important and vital role of the body and bodily behavior in religious practices. It is through physical rituals and routines that the members of a religion, particularly a highly conservative one, constantly create, perform, and reinforce the culture of the religion. There are many observances and daily rituals required by their faith and Hasidic defectors are an exemplary case study for exploring the centrality of the body in shaping, maintaining, and shedding religions. It is a struggle to be a member of a Hasidic group so we imagine how much of a struggle it is to leave that group. These struggles are a call of a greater understanding for all of us to try to understand the complex significance of the body in society.
Editor Davidson is ex-Orthodox and was disowned by her family but this helped her with her writing. Her own experiences helped to give her a sense of where she was going with his book. She tells us about herself—where she was coming from and this helped her to be as honest as possible with her subject matter.
Hasidic Jews and Hasidic defectors do not know much about the secular world. They grow up speaking Yiddish, and newspapers, televisions and other forms of secular media are banned from their homes. Their community encapsulates them physically, socially, and ideologically. They are taught that non-Jews are threatening and that many of them were like animals. Many are terrified of leaving: they don’t have the education needed to find jobs to support themselves in the secular world; they do not know how to find an apartment, or how to finance it. If they leave they even have to learn to dress differently.
The individual stories are interesting in that the tellers struggled to understand the world around them and to find their way through the secular world that had previously been denied to them.
Davidman organized her book by arranging the stories into various sections with each section looking at a different aspect of the process of leaving their communities. There is a section about when they first knew that the Haredi world wasn’t for them, another about joining the secular world and so on. We learn a good deal about ultra Orthodoxy and the Hasidic world and the restraints on learning and gender.
As we read the stories we feel the pain of the those interviewed and we hope they will find their right place in today’s world.