It is some time now since I began writing this blog, but as far as I remember I have never written a book review here. And the present post is not exactly a book review either, but some thoughts about an excellent book I have just finished reading. The book is Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews (Oxford University Press, 2015), by Lynn Davidman, a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Kansas. Her book is based on depth interviews with a number of individuals who defected from very compact Haredi communities in America. Davidman states upfront that precisely this defection is part of her own biography. This is unusual for sociologists, who typically prefer to approach their research wearing the surgical mask of scientific objectivity. In this case dropping the mask does not detract from the objectivity of the research—Davidman manages to use her personal experience to establish empathy with her subjects, then steps back with all the objectivity of an observer of a tribe to which she has never belonged. The book is an example of qualitative sociology at its best—which means that it is close to good ethnography.
“Haredi” (plural “Haredim”) is a Hebrew word meaning “one who trembles” – in this case trembles before God. This is a term used by those who belongs to this branch of Judaism; outsiders often refer to them as “Ultra-Orthodox”, a term which has a pejorative undertone. Haredim don’t think that they are “ultra”-anything; they consider themselves as being the most genuine Jews – it is other Jews who are “ultra” in the sense of being outside normative Judaism. Davidman distinguishes between two distinct types of Haredim—the “Yeshivish” (a Yiddish word denoting individuals who practice traditional Judaism in the manner of yeshivas (religious schools), and the Hasidim who derive from the mighty wave of charismatic Judaism in 18th-century eastern Europe, and who are still named after the European towns where they originated (Lubavitcher, Satmer, and so on). Both types of Haredim are distinctly different from the so-called Modern Orthodox, who are quite strict in their observance but interact much more freely with the larger American society. A rough Christian comparison would be Yeshivish/strictly Calvinist Presbyterians, Hasidim/”Pentecostalized”charismatic Presbyterians, Modern Orthodox/mildly conservative mainline Presbyterians. (All comparisons limp. But I’m impressed by the fact that every religious community in America ends up with different denominations—probably because of the powerful combination of religious pluralism and religious freedom. Thus the customary enumeration of Jewish denominations as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform is much too simple. The Orthodox category, as just outlined, is not at all homogenous. Actually, each Hasidic sect, led by a charismatic rebbe (Yiddish for rabbi) could be considered a sort of denomination, with each school periodically ready to excommunicate all the others.)
Davidman provides an overview of the Haredi world (very useful to someone not familiar with it). That world has been vividly presented to the general public in a long series of bestselling books by the novelist and rabbi Chaim Potok, beginning with the 1967 novel The Chosen. More recently the 1992 film “A Stranger Among Us” tries to provide a portrait of the same world, sympathetically if somewhat idealized. Melanie Griffith plays a Gentile New York Police Department detective investigating the murder of a Hasidic jewelry merchant in Brooklyn. She becomes increasingly intrigued by the Hasidic way of life, has a mild flirtation with the rebbe’s son, who, alas, is betrothed to the charming daughter of another rebbe in a wildly exuberant ceremony witnessed by the NYPD detective—who returns to Manhattan and says to the fellow-cop who has been wooing her that she cannot return his feelings because she now realizes that he is not her “bashert” (Yiddish for “a divinely predestined spouse or soul-mate”). Once the Haredi world is understood, one also understands how difficult it is to leave by someone raised in it. The compact Haredi communities in Brooklyn enhance the difficulty by geographical and linguistic barriers. While these communities are located in a huge cosmopolitan city, the visitor (like the Gentile police woman) feels like crossing a border into a foreign country. Even the language is different—it is not Hebrew, which is sacred and reserved for worship and Biblical learning, but Yiddish that is the vernacular of everyday life. Paradoxically, this is even true in the Haredi enclave of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, where an Israeli whose language is modern Hebrew finds himself immersed in a strange Yiddish-speaking world.
There are all sorts of enclaves in the world—communities whose worldview, moral values and lifestyles differ significantly from those of the surrounding society. A basic requirement for the survival of such enclaves is social and psychological mechanisms to prevent contamination from the outside. Ideally, the normative and cognitive definitions of reality that constitute the culture of the enclave should be taken for granted. This ideal is difficult to realize, unless the enclave is enforced by the outside society, as were Jewish ghettos before Emancipation. With individuals free to move, the outside pressures are likely to be very powerful.
Since Davidman’s analysis is based on the narratives told by her subjects themselves, the book avoids abstraction and is very lively. It almost reads like a novel. Without endless quotations, I cannot convey a sense of this here. But there are a number of themes that run throughout the book, and which have interesting implications far beyond its immediate setting. Exit from the enclave means a change of identity—Davidman keeps stressing the bodily presentation of identity. This point can be generalized, but it is easily perceived as an individual begins to exchange a Haredi identity for a more secular identity. Haredi identity is constantly embodied ritually—how the individual moves, is dressed, eats, speaks. Shedding this identity means a radical change of all this bodily behavior. This body language is of course strongly gendered—Haredi defectors shave off their sidelocks and wear ordinary (goyish) suits. Women let their hair grow out and wear lipstick. Since all these behaviors have been “inscribed” on their bodies since childhood, the defector must strip off key elements of childhood socialization—literally a process of “being born again”. (The reverse process of course occurs with individuals who convert to Haredi Judaism, but this is not Davidman’s topic in this book.)
One recurring theme in Davidman’s book I regard as very interesting is the sort of seamless garment picture of Haredi identity: Pull out one thread, and the whole thing begins to fall apart. This is probably the case with all identities that involve ritual fortification in every aspect of life. Davidman mentions a nun who puts away her “habit”, literally and symbolically. One could also think of a long-serving soldier who puts away his uniform and must get used to civilian clothes as his normal attire. Still, defection usually takes place in stages. It often begins with small transgressions, which take place out of the sight of fellow members of the enclave—a Haredi furtively has a meal in a non-kosher restaurant, a nun furtively smokes a cigarette. Such transgressions are basically symbolic, with no immediate effects on behavior in public view. Somewhat later the transgressions are witnessed by people outside the enclave. This leads to a stage which Davidman calls “passing”—the individual now straddles two worlds and behaves differently in each. The Haredi continues to perform in the old role as if he were still identifying with it, while in the outside world he is already learning a new role. (In one interesting case reported in the book, an individual does not switch immediately from a Haredi to a secular identity but stops, at least for a while, in a Modern Orthodox environment, now straddling three rather than two worlds). This is emotionally strenuous. If and when a complete break occurs, there is a feeling of great liberation, coupled with anxiety, possibly guilt, and a sense of loss.
Of particular interest is the description of what happens when an individual continues to conform in the prescribed bodily rituals, but no longer believes in the doctrines that explain why the rituals are prescribed. Is this possible? Of course, it occurs in quite different religious traditions. In Catholic “cure of souls” a person with doubts is advised to make even stronger use of the sacraments and other spiritual disciplines, and then the doubts will fade away. That is not bad psychology—ritual habituates, and the habits thus become plausible along with the faith that originally legitimated them. However, even a halfway reflective individual will be made anxious by the dissonance between behavior and meaning. Judaism has often been described as paying much more attention to observance of the commandments (over 600 of them in the Torah—trying to observe all of them leaves little time for reflection as to why one should observe them!) This interpretation of the focus on ritual is often done in an invidious comparison with Christianity. (A similar comparison is often made by Hindus). A rabbi advised one of Davidman’s subjects that one does not have to believe in God in order to be a good Jew. Supposedly this emphasis of ritual over doctrine makes for greater stability of the tradition. I doubt it, because it overlooks the fact that ritual always has a cognitive dimension. Anyone who has ever taught a faith to young children knows this: “But why was it wrong of me to eat that delicious ham sandwich?” The answer, that because Torah says so, is more plausible to a child who went through the entire Haredi educational system from kindergarten to adult yeshiva, than to a child who went through public school and then on to a secular college.
Enclaves within a larger society can be of many kinds, not all religious in character. There have been many religious enclaves in America, such as those set up by the Shakers or other sectarian groups who defected from the larger society by settling in isolated rural areas—the most famous and largest of these was the New Zion founded by the Mormons in what is now Utah. In a sense every monastery is an enclave (an ingenious device by which the Catholic Church manages to keep sectarian tendencies within the fold). Reading Davidman’s book reminded me of one experience I had years ago with an enclave of Amish Mennonites. These go back to a group of Swiss Mennonites who in 1693 split off from the main body under the leadership of Jakob Amermann (hence the name). Fleeing persecution in Europe, some of them migrated to America, settling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where their quaint horse-drawn buggies and dark clothes still attract tourists, as does their strange-sounding language, so- called Pennsylvania Dutch, a merger of a number of German dialects. The Amish continue the Mennonite tradition of pacifism, a strictly disciplined lifestyle (supported by the highly effective custom of “shunning”, whereby an offender is not expelled from the community but never spoken to). Needless to say, the sexual code is very strict—with one intriguing exception: Adolescents are expected to “bundle”—young men and women who have not yet been baptized may cuddle, supposedly not “going all the way” (if they do, apparently the community is quite tolerant). This charming teenage license is called “rumspringa” (“jumping around”). Different Amish groups vary in these customs, but all agree on the necessity to be separate from the American society of “the English”.
As a young man I spent two years of (involuntary) service in the U.S. Army, most of it stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia. I read in the local paper that a group of Amish had recently settled in the middle of rural Georgia, fleeing from their increasingly urbanized environment in Pennsylvania. A fellow sociologist and I decided to visit them on a Sunday. It was a memorable occasion, in retrospect offering a great illustration of Davidman’s proposition that one loosened thread can make the whole fabric come undone.
We found the Amish church, a former Baptist one, after some difficulty. This Amish branch was more liberal in the attitude toward modern amenities, having exchanged horse-drawn buggies for automobiles. The little church was surrounded by some twenty uniformly black cars, suggesting a meeting of funeral directors. At the entrance stood a long table, on which the men had deposited their round black hats. The assembly was strictly segregated by gender, men sitting on one side of the nave, women on the other. The service had already begun. A man with a large white beard was preaching from a pulpit placed in front of the church (no altar). The man, who later turned out to be the “bishop” of the congregation, was preaching in Pennsylvania Dutch (Bible readings and hymns were in High German). After the service the bishop came over to where my colleague and I were sitting in the back (a sociologist’s favorite seat—one can observe without being observed, and if necessary one can make a quick exit). He invited us to a lavish lunch at his home. Around the table were the bishop, my colleague and myself; the bishop’s wife and two adolescent daughters did not sit with us, as they prepared the meal in the adjoining kitchen. We asked the bishop questions about the Amish community’s life; he answered freely and extensively.
Then an unexpected sound came from the kitchen. The girls were singing old-time American revival hymns, like “Down by the Riverside”, or “The Old Rugged Cross”. I asked the bishop where they had learned these hymns; after all they were forbidden all unnecessary contacts with the outside world. The bishop said that once a month the girls met with the youth fellowship in a nearby Baptist church, to counter-act the prejudices that some of their “English” neighbors had. (He was right. On the way back to Fort Benning we stopped for coffee at a diner. The local sheriff came over. When we said where we came from, he asked, “Do tell me—are these people Communists?”) I then thought: This bit of well-meaning neighborliness was probably a mistake. Seen from centers of sophisticated culture, Southern Baptists are backwoods fundamentalists. Seen through the eyes of Amish adolescents, the Baptist fellowship represented the forbidden but tempting world of American pluralism, ready to invade the carefully protected enclave. In Davidman’s perspective, this might well be the loose thread that eventually makes the whole fabric disintegrate. I don’t know what has happened since; I never went back.
The Haredi world, especially in its Hasidic version, is close to the supernatural, divine or demonic. I have had very little personal contact with this world. But I cannot resist the temptation of telling when I once thought that I had. Before we moved to Boston my wife and I lived in Brooklyn in an increasingly gentrifying section called Cobble Hill (probably the invention of some real estate agent—the area used to be seen as part of Red Hook). I periodically drove on the Brooklyn-Queens-Exressway, to take visitors to or from the New York airports. The route takes you right through Williamsburg, an important Haredi center. A number of bridges span the BQE. Ultra-Orthodox men and women, in full traditional uniforms, go back and forth, like figures from a Chagall painting come alive. One day, as I was driving under one of these bridges, a strong wind blew off one of these big men’s hats worn by some Hasidic schools—a so-called “shtreimel”—a very expensive hand-crafted sable concoction (a genuine one costs somewhere between $1,000 and $5,000). The hat fell right in front of my car. I was going at about 65 mph; it would have been very dangerous to suddenly brake. I would have, for a human being or even a dog or cat, but surely not for a hat. So I drove over it. It felt strange, somehow sinister. When I arrived back at home in our gentrifying brownstone, I said to my wife: “I don’t know how to tell you this. An odd thing happened. I drove over a Hasidic hat”. Believe it or not, but two or three weeks later, again as I was driving under one of those bridges, exactly the same thing happened a second time. A shtreimel again fell in front of my car, and I drove over it. I had received an invitation to lecture in Israel. Not long after the second incident on the BQE I spent several days in Jerusalem. In the back of my mind I had a slightly threatening question: Will there be a third hat, in this city of alleged supernatural events? But nothing happened. Perhaps this hat is waiting for me to come to Jerusalem again? Perhaps I should avoid that?