Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews Hardcover – Nov 4 2014
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"Lynn Davidman offers us a window into the hearts and minds of young Jews who have left the world of ultra-Orthodoxy. Offering a range of reasons for their departure, they describe both their love and frustration with pious communities, as well as with the constrictions and, at times, lovelessness, and even abuse they experienced in their families. An excellent study of an important and growing phenomenon." --Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College
"This is the best-written and most insightful study yet of those who abandon Orthodoxy, breaking with the religious worlds in which they were raised. Award-winning sociologist Lynn Davidman highlights the role played by rituals of the body in the whole process of becoming un-Orthodox. Her broad lens and rich comparative insights elevate this study into a major contribution to the study of religion." --Jonathan D. Sarna, President, Association for Jewish Studies; Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, and Chair, Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, Brandeis University
"This is a beautifully-written and important book. It is not only a masterful contribution to scholarship on contemporary Judaism, but the rare and moving story of those who have turned away from Orthodox Judaism, losing the only identities and communities they have ever known and endeavoring to reinvent and reconstruct them." --Robert Wuthnow, Andlinger Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Princeton University
"A learned, imaginative study of defectors from Orthodox Jewish communities; Davidman's analysis of identity narratives and the process of transformation is original and provocative." --Joyce Antler, Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture, Brandeis University
About the Author
Lynn Davidman is the Beren Distinguished Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the University of Kansas. She is the author of Tradition in a Rootless World, which won a National Jewish Book Award, Motherloss, and Feminist Perspectives in Jewish Studies, co-edited with Shelly Tenenbaum. Her research has appeared in such journals as Sociology of Religion and Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. She serves on the advisory board of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University and is a member of the editorial board for Qualitative Sociology.
From the Publisher
Q&A with the Author
Aside from being the topic of your book, you also became un-Orthodox, and in fact were disowned from your family. How did your own experience becoming un-Orthodox inform your writing?
My own experiences of leaving Orthodoxy informed this book every step along the way. I had been reading and learning about self-reflexivity before I began this project, and I tried to be self-reflexive in every stage of the research, beginning with conceiving this study (which came out of my gut, reflecting my desire to learn about people’s similar—although also different—experiences in leaving). I analyzed my stance in relation to this book and wrote about it within the book. I felt strongly that readers needed to know “where I was coming from” to help them better assess the quality of my analysis. I also described some of my experiences throughout the book, I think a bit in each chapter; because I think it is a much more honest approach and because I think readers are interested in learning about the author and her life.
How did your own experience leaving Orthodox Judaism compare to those you write about?
My own experiences leaving Orthodox Judaism were in many ways easier (despite being disowned). Modern Orthodox Jews engage with the secular world; their philosophy is following Torah and being a person in the world. So, as a Modern Orthodox, I grew up knowing about the secular world of movies, TV, plays, etc. I went to a University, which helped me leave, and when I left I knew I could manage well in the secular world.
In contrast, the Hasidic defectors did not know much about the secular world. They grew up speaking Yiddish, and newspapers, TVs and other forms of secular media were banned from their homes. They grew up in a community in which they were encapsulated physically, socially, and ideologically. They were taught that non-Jews are threatening and that many of them were like animals. So they were terrified of leaving: they did not have the education needed to find jobs to support themselves in the secular world; they had no idea how to find an apartment, or how to finance it; the men spoke Yiddish and poor English. So they had a lot more cultural learning to do in order to leave than I had. Also they had to “disinscribe” the Haredi markers from their bodies—learn to dress differently (putting on pants was a big deal for the women) and comport themselves in a more open way.
Did any interviews surprise you? If so, what was it that surprised you?
One aspect of my interviews that surprised me is that none of the people I spoke to were fully cut off from their families as I had been. I expected I would find other defectors (than me) had been cut off from their families. Some remained quite distant or not in contact with their families for a few years, but usually became reconnected after the passage of time... or when a grandchild was born. Some, though, have very poor and painful relationships with their families, speaking of emotional distance and pain.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
For one, I want them to take away an understanding of the body as central to all social interaction and institutions. I would like them to see how embodiment is not one aspect of a person but the fundamental ground of everyone’s being. I have a fantasy they will come away understanding we need to reverse Descartes: I think therefore I am and instead have it as “I am therefore I think.”
I hope readers will understand both the uniqueness of Haredi life, and the similarities between defectors and others who change their identities through the medium of the body such as LGBTQ people. I want to complicate the common sense assumption that all Orthodox Jews are alike.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Unfortunately, there is so much repetition in this book. The author organized the book into different sections, with each section concentrating on a part of the "leaving" process, from when they first knew that the Haredi world wasn't for them, to the actual act of joining the secular world. Because of the way that the story is told, and the stories of the research "subjects", we are often told the same stories over and over. Not only are so many of the experiences shared by different participants, but the author gives us a recap anytime she references someone we're "met" before.
I can honestly say that this book could have been half the length and still provided the same amount of information. Instead of breaking the stories into sections and having to retell (or recap) each story in every section, I think the book would have had more of an impact if the author has told us the stories of each person in whole, giving us the complete stories of 4-5 people who had somewhat different experiences. Though I did learn a lot about Haredi (and Hasidic, in particular) Jews and the gender and learning constraints that they had, breaking up the book into sections caused the stories to be disjointed and lost the impact they could have had.
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Instead, most of the book's contents is the author's analysis, and there's a problem: the text is exhaustingly repetitive. In her (unnecessarily long) introduction, Dr Davidman writes about how she was trying to make the text "clear and understandable" [this is not a precise quote] for a reader who was previously unfamiliar with the Hassidic world — but instead, it seems that she's just trying to rub in the same conclusions 5-6-7 times, across different chapters.
The book does provide some very interesting insights into the matter but the text, as it is now, would have only become better and more appealing if it were transformed into a 20-30-page paper.
I grew up in the ultra-orthodox (Litvak) world in Israel. While I left that world, I've never met anybody else who did so (a relatively small number of people leave). As such, when talking with Lynn about this project I was surprised to see the commonalities between my experiences and those of the other 'defectors'. Such things as phases in which I pretended to be religious while being fully secular in worldview, the first time wearing secular clothes were shared with the other defectors.
Of course, I disagree with some of Lynn's theories (such as the non-standard nature of families of defectors). However, her sample size is larger than mine:) More importantly, the differences between my story and the stories she focuses on do not detract from either.
The beautiful exposition and evocative writing make this a book well worth reading if you are interested in the insular Haredi world. Obviously, merely reading a book is no substitute for having lived through in that world, but 'tis enough,'twill serve.