Abby Stein’s new book, Becoming Eve, exemplifies the pitfalls of the genre of OTD memoir. Her story differentiates itself from others, because Abby also came out as a trans woman, so hers is a story of “two transitions.” Each of Abby’s transitions intensified the other, especially as they both happened in her early twenties, shortly after Abby’s arranged marriage and the birth of her son. But the dominant story is Abby’s chafing and rebelling against the Hasidic Williamsburg community. She rebels against the faith. She rebels against the teachers and school rules. She reads the forbidden books. She engages in a taboo sexual tryst with a yeshiva classmate. And she also recounts rebellion against the rigid gender norms and against expectations that she perform manhoodshe refused to get her long hair shorn for payos when she turned three because she wanted long hair, and she had an angry argument with her father at the time of her bar mitzvah. Her dysphoria is but one of the various dissonances she has with this restrictive world. This all comes to a head when she leaves the Hasidic community to find the freedom to express her gender, beliefs, ambitions, choice, etc.

This is a story very familiar to me. I too left the Satmar Hasidic community for a degree of these freedoms, as have many others. The story of veering off a prescribed life, of leaving the arranged marriage and nuclear family to self actualize in a secular world that approves of this journey, is the quintessential OTD tale. In this way, Becoming Eve is an OTD book first and a trans book second, and its faults are the kind I often take issue with in the OTD genre.

When someone leaves the Hasidic community as I did, they soon learn that their life stories fascinate others. We are still greenhorns when others start encouraging us to write a book. We are urged to get our bestseller out by casual acquaintances and strangers, by our super, gym receptionist, customer service rep, or anyone who picks up on our Yiddish-inflected accent and politely inquires if we ever had sex with a hole in the sheet (“Sorry, you don’t need to answer, but do you mind…is it true…did you?”). We are constantly advised, instructed, cajoled, informed, that we must promptly go tell our terrific stories, and that publishing is how we can get rich quick. People gasp as we describe our arranged marriages and eek us on with encouraging oohs and ahhs when we divulge how many siblings we have; they wag a finger and ask why we haven’t written the book yet. We become keenly aware that some aspects of our livesordinary as they were among our childhood peersnow make us special. We learn that experiences that once made us feel awkward and ashamed in our Hasidic family, like divorce and broken family relationships, have become social, if not financial, currency in the secular world. We have a book within us without even needing to be writers. It’s the OTD story.

I don’t think OTD stories are problematic at face value. In fact, it is good to tell our stories, good to share, good to read. An introspective telling can remind us that we all have blind spots, unexamined beliefs, need for social approval, occasional herd mentality. I am also a sucker for a sappy personal growth story, and I will embrace a good one, if a little skeptically. But the problem with the off-the-derech narrative is that the secular world forces our varied and vast life experiences into a mold, a narrative arc. The narrative arc is this: We, the ex-Hasidim, were born into a world that suppressed our true selves, where we were engaged in bizarre ritual and eye-popping customs. Despite this, we were special, different from the rest, and we did not remain passive. We fought our way to freedom against all odds. In this story, our character is always self-determined, enlightened, searching, deliberate. We are one thing at first (a thinking agnostic woman in Abby’s case), and we only need the opportunity to express it. When we finally tear the costume off and reveal this core, we have chosen bravery over cowardice, freedom over passivity. We have done the right thing, which all others who stayed behind did not do, because they are too cultishly stupid. Our stories end on an uplifting note with some prized new experiences previously forbidden, like college, McDonalds and ill-fitted jeans.

Notice how we’re all the only agents of action directing the course of events. The language is “we leave,” or “we become,” we “went OTD,” and “we stopped believing.” It is never “we were pushed out,” or “we couldn’t find our place,” or “we were told we are no longer one of the group,” or “we had a falling out with a business partner or an affair that created a lot of wounds.” The natural interpersonal issues, rifts, instability, personality clashes, our own mess-ups and indulgences, or our appetite for greener grass, none of those are mentioned.

This story is far from the version Hasidim tell about us, which is often more complicated by bad ingredients like nasty gossip and schadenfreude, but which also includes more honest aspects, like family feuds and individual bad actors. For instance, I tell myself a narrative that somewhat indulges these tropes, but my mother would tell you a very different story. She recently surprised me when she told me quite angrily that my mother-in-law, called a shvigger, was the reason I left. “She ruined your life, your shvigger. She ruined it. All because of her…”

Did I leave, or did my mother-in-law make me? I would not compliment my former mother-in-law with so much power or with pronouncing my life ruinedit is very decidedly not, even if it is nothing I’d foreseen for myself. But there is probably some truth to my mother’s versionafter all, the evil mother-in-law from hell was a real nightmare I once dealt with. The friction that existed between her and me was like many of messy sub-plots (or main plots) that are inevitable in our lives.

The petty dramas and the fights that break out over whose challah recipe we might use (I turned down hers) will never play a real part in our OTD “bestsellers,” because these parts don’t fit the arc. No chatty beautician has ever listened to me tell of the wedge my mother-in-law drove into my marriage, and exclaimed, “You must write a book! My, that’s crazy, unbelievable, you gotta write a book!” Readers don’t necessarily want to hear what shaped me, only the life events that fit together to make a coming-of-age story, and perhaps elements that sound foreign or strange to them. They are flattered to hear that their lifestyle and values are worth the steepest sacrifices of the closest relationships in our lives. I deeply dislike books that indulge the audience on this. Such books are not enriching, and we don’t learn to have empathy for people different from us. They might tell a “true story,” but true only in the factual sense, not in terms of personal honesty.

Abby Stein’s memoir has many moments of candid, simple, sweet retelling, but for every page of straightforward memories, there is one that feels inorganic. She looks back, digging to find the moments that prophesied her trajectory. A precocious young child who was born premature and had some early health problems (a hernia at two), she remembers that she wanted a girl’s dollhouse after one of her surgeries, and tells us that this proves her future. When she turned three, she cried and resisted the traditional boy’s haircut, here also, we are told, because of how it conflicted with her true self. And as soon as she was a teen, she began questioning the faith. “I had no faith in anything I was told. If they were wrong about my gender, they could be wrong about God, too,” she writes. “I noticed these disconnects everywhere. I found them in every step.” The book tells us that the adult Abby was there all along, from the earliest age, only waiting to break free. The reader is almost relieved not to hear some anecdote about her crying during her circumcision, at eight days old, to revolt against archaic faith and gender pronouncements.

At age 13, Abby demanded answers to very big questions like, “Who said there is really a God? Who said Judaism is the right religion? Who said Hasidic Judaism is the right way to be Jewish? Do we even have souls?” Yet her questions were, “met with disdain and anger, and shock.” Abby adheres to the genre in imagining herself an exception. Only she was different: “I didn’t know any other teenagers who questioned the existence of God, the ultimate truth of Judaism as the only true path to God, the fact that we were the chosen people, or even the authority of the sages.” And then, “Soon, One book led to the next, and to more after that, until I eventually came upon two books that became my favorite: Richard Dawkins The God Delusion and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?” In tenth grade, her teacher cried, “heresy!” at her, because she dismissed the questions the class studies, because it was on something “insignificant written over eighteen hundred years old.”

The reader who is familiar with the linear “Enlightenment” journey (the God Delusion is a cliché here) must realize that this type of perfect knowledge into the world at a young age is not how human belief comes to be. We humans are notoriously flawed in our thinking and susceptible to confirmation bias and to fitting our reason to our personal needs. We believe stupid things despite evidence, and even stupider things when we have no evidence. In fact, our confirmation bias leads us to imagine that there is one simple truth that the OTD person can find if they simply embark on a treasure hunt. Again, it flatters the secular reader by saying that the truth lies in the western narrative, that western beliefs are superior, correct. But in reality, western beliefs are evolving and are now shown to be far from above superstition, propaganda, blind faith.

At the end of the book, when Abby finally acts on these misgivings, Abby comes out to her father. The father seems perpetually well-meaning but out of his depth with her. Abby brings Rabbi David Ingber, rabbi of the hippy-ish synagogue Romemu, to meet with her father, and Rabbi Ingber breaks the news that Abby has begun her physical transformation. It’s never clear how much her father understands about what it means to be transgender, but no matter, the explanations offered to her father by Abby and the Rabbi would never make sense to a teacher in a Williamsburg Hasidic yeshiva. Abby never unpacks what it might mean to her father to be in this confusing position, or the effect of the transition had on her son, her ex-wife, etc. The end is supposed to be uplifting, but I was left with many questions about the peripheral characters.

* * *

The real missed opportunity, is that there is almost no exploration of how toxic a gender-segregated world can be to those who can’t conform to the rigid male and female dichotomies. A book by someone raised as a man among only men and then comes out as a woman is a perfect opportunity to take a close look. As a Hasidic girl, I never struggled with the gender roles in the acute ways Abby did, but I struggled, I struggled plenty. I was socialized to make myself feminine, small, uncomplicated. The term “tomboy” did not exist in my vocabulary; rather, my friends would tease me that I was a bochur, a teenage boy, and I thought I was a freak of nature, a deformed woman, not quite right where I was, but definitely not acceptable among men. I came to believe men were intelligent and confident, and that women were wise but busy with materialistic trivialities (all the latest fads all the time!). I did not feel like I was good at womanly things (I really would like to wear the same outfit every day, in the fashion of Steve Jobs or a Hasidic G&G suitI’ll even sweat under a Hasidic shtreimel forever if that’s what it takes). There is an intense loneliness that accompanies the feeling that you are not a “proper” person of your sex. I had lots of girlfriends who loved me for all the ways I got myself in trouble, but I often worried that they were laughing at me, not with me. If I ever expressed interest in the talks or singing or rituals among the men, the men sent me away with disdain. I wanted to sleep in the sukkah like the boys; I wanted to do the thumb-dip over a Talmud like my brothers did; I wanted to be in on the drinking and dancing on Purim; I wanted to be able to scream at some protest for reasons I didn’t care about. I wanted to ride the Big Wheel bike down the steep driveway, but my floral dress, hemmed with a frilly ruffles, caught on the wheels, and I untangled myself with utter horror as I realized the tear was so large, it could not be patched. Most of all, I hated how stupid I felt when men made their inside jokes and Talmud references and mocked our girlish ignorance. And while I thought I was the only weirdo who belonged neither here nor there, I know that many other men and women contorted themselves to conform.

Abby touches on the problems of extreme gender roles. She had few female relationships throughout her childhood and the primary characters in her story are her father, her male teachers, male classmates, even the famous Vizhnitzer Rebbe. She struggled with isolation and depression and had trouble making friends among boys. I wanted to hear so much more on that. I wanted to hear how her socialization made her life different from, say, a Yentl, who was raised as a female but cross dresses to join the men. I know I was socialized to be female: to never sass back, to take up less space, to be uncomfortable with my body. But to be socialized among men, I am sure, would have completely changed me. It would have deprived me of the deep connections and many meaningful friendships that made me emotionally intelligent and at ease in the social world.

There is so much to consider about how our childhood contact with boys and girls shape us. I also see now, as a parent of a teen in a coed NYC school, that coed childhoods have their own problems, especially as they hyper-sexualize kids. I look into the Hasidic world for a contrast so as to better understand what we gained and lose. I look to the experience of formerly Hasidic men, women, and especially those who had a view in both. But Abby Stein adds very meager insight.

* * *

I want to see more OTD memoirs. I will read them. I will join the chorus and urge an insightful commentator to get writing. But I want a story that is more searching and reflective than the genre’s simplistic arc. My favorite example of a wonderful memoir (although it is not quite about leaving the Hasidic faith), is this year’s viral New Yorker story, “My Childhood in A Cult,” which tells of Guinevere Turner’s upbringing in the Lyman Family commune, which she reluctantly calls “a cult.” Turner’s experiences resonate with many of us from the Hasidic communityan ex-Chabad man wrote a letter to the New Yorker editor to say so much. But Turner’s story is not about a heroic escape; in fact, Turner was expelled from the cult unceremoniously when the Lymen lost jurisdiction of her and younger her sister. The story, still, is riveting, thoughtful, enlightening.

Turner writes, “I’ve always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that sixties and seventies cults are portrayed in the media. In a nation fixated on individualism, cults and communes are easy objects of disdain,” Rather than adhere to a tired narrative, her story challenges us to look at our own assumptions and ask: As individuals, how well are we positioned to say which systems of belief are right or wrong? How can we use our own stories to create meaningful, empathetic conversation between people of varying backgrounds? What are our own blind spots?

Hello There,
Over the years, I’ve read and collected many different resources on Hasidic Judaism. I’ve put together a selection of some of the most noteworthy ones for you to read, watch, eat, take in, and enjoy. You’ll find books, movies, tv shows, eateries, a whole virtual goodie-bag! I hope you’ll find in this list something interesting worth sinking your teeth into. I hope this will grow your curiosity.
Best,
PS: If you enjoy my resources, please tell your friends about my tour or consider supporting my work.

Shtisel / 2019 / Netflix, 2 Seasons

Shtisel is a brilliant, beautiful, gem. It is a lovely TV show and it does everything right in its treatment of its complex subject. It is the best way to learn about Hasidic Judaism. It’s hard to get into, but totally worth it.

Menasha / 2017 / Movie

The well-received movie about a Hasidic widower and his relationship with his son was filmed in Brooklyn, and features a storyline much more sensitive to the particularities of the Hasidic community. The main character is played by a Hasid, Menashe Lustig.

A Life Apart; Hasidism in America / 1997 / documentary

As far as documentaries go, this 1997 film is probably the best available primer on Hasidism in America with spectacular and intimate footage. Watch it especially for the way it tells the history, the stories of the rebbes and how the holocaust shaped American Hasidism. However, it gives only the surface story of modern Hasidic theology and belief.

One of Us / 2017 / Netflix

A documentary about three Hasidic New Yorkers who leave the faith. You can read some of my criticisms of the documentary here.

Fill the Void / 2012 / Movie

Before the niche fan-favorite Shtisel, I used to rant about this film. It’s among my favorite works set in the Hasidic world. A careful director brings the levitate marriage dilemma to life from the eye of someone inside, not the outside. Clearly, the good work on Hasidism is happening in Israel.

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof is timeless; it captures the intimate reality of generational differences and conflict between modernity and religion with all the pain, idealism, confusion that is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. The scene of Tevya rejecting his daughter will always cut to my soul. There is so much of Fiddler on the roof that captures the experience of sheltered Judaism today, so many years after its creation.

Mendy / Movie / 2003

Among former Hasidim we often joked that there are more movies about leaving Hasidism than there are people who leave. The movie Mendy is certainly not a perfect example of the leaving process, but rather a perfect example of how those in the community imagine the journey.

Felix and Meira / Movie / 2014

A recent movie about the common theme of leaving, but from the perspective of a woman with a child. The main male actor is Luzer Twersky, a former Hasid who bring the role to life with all the proper kvetches.

Unorthodox / 2020 / Netflix

Unorthodox will probably be the first recent major production set in Hasidic Williamsburg. The miniseries is based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman. Keep an eye out for when this title hits.

HASIDISM, A NEW HISTORY / 2017

Book by Benjamin Brown, David Assaf, David Biale, Gad Sagiv, Marcin Wodzinski, Samuel Heilman, and Uriel Gellman

The definitive, comprehensive, well-written introduction on Hasidism. This is an academic work and requires some work on the part of the reader. But for those interested in sharp insight, this book provides a modern history complete with analysis, a deep understanding of its subject and an ability to dissect the limits and problems of various ways Hasidic history has previously been understood. The book to be read by any student of Hasidism.

Goes like a couple in love with the Historical Atlas of Hasidism, by one of the above authors.

TEACHA! STORIES FROM A YESHIVA

Gerry Albarelli

This little, unknown gem was written by a former Hasidic English teacher, a community outsider, as he reports on the poignant and funny experiences of teaching secular studies to Hasidic boys who have little respect for what he has to teach. A rare glimpse.

My review of Teacha here.

ALL WHO GO DO NOT RETURN / Memoir / 2015

Shulem Deen

A recent memoir by Shulem Deen, a former Skver Hasid who left behind 5 children when leaving the Hasidic community. He doesn’t always pain a well rounded portrait, and at times the book is a little self serving, but it still remains the best memoir of the genre out to date.

My review here.

UNORTHODOX / Memoir / 2012

Deborah Feldman

A bestselling memoir by a Williamsburg woman who left the sect – soon to be a Netflix miniseries. Feldman’s views of Hasidic life are very influenced by her own rejection of the community, but her book gives us good insight into the process of leaving the community and feeling “different”. Interesting, she wrote a school essay about life in Williamsburg when she was still a member of it.

Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge: Memories of an American Youngster Growing Up With Chassidic Survivors of the Holocaust

Rabbi Eli Hecht

I found this book useful in understanding what life was like in the ten years after the holocaust, when surviving Hungarian Hasidim began to settle in Williamsburg. While Rabbi Hecht has a particular religious narrative which I find very limiting, the book is one of the few helpful English language resources in researching the story of this period.

A SUKKAH IS BURNING

Philip Fishman

Philip Fishman grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and his memoir helps us understand how the Williamsburg neighborhood changed from a diverse Jewish community to a singular Hasidic world.

My interview with the author here.

See many more titles on Hasidism, Satmar, Williamsburg-Brooklyn on my Goodreads bookshelf on the subject.

Here are sme food places to check out in Hasidic Williamsburg. Yum. I’m sharing some good places, but the spot for my favorite rugelech remains secret. To find out you have to either come to my tour or be the New Yorker food critic and come to me to apologize profusely for not even mentioning Hasidic bakeries in the piece A Search for Superior Rugelech, and the Harlem Baker who’s Making the Best in New York.

SANDER’S BAKERY  / 159 Lee Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / Divine pareve (neither meat nor dairy) and dairy Hasidic/Hungarian pastries.
LEVY’S DELICIOUS FOOD / 147 Division Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / Of meat deli products, this restaurant excels in combining modern setup with authentic homemade Hasidic food. Try the yapchik!
ONEG BAKERY / 188 Lee Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / A bit pricey and limited selection, but their pastries and challahs are the kind everyone’s mother makes. Try the rugelach!
CHOCOLATE WISE / 106 Lee Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / Handmade chocolate underrated and exquisitely crafted. This gem is mostly undiscovered by outsiders.
JEWISH LIFE IN MUNKATCH before the war. You see both the secular and very pious in one collage of footage of the time. Captures a conflict between secularism and piety that dates back before American Hasidism.
UPSHERIN CEREMONY in a boy’s school. The three year old boy just had his first haircut and got the traditional sidecurls and celebrates the start of a life dedicated to Torah studies.
HOLIDAY – PURIM. The holiday that falls on March is a time everyone wears costumes and men are obligated to drink alcohol until they “don’t know”.
INSIDE THE MEN’S SECTION OF SYNAGOGUE. This is what a men’s synagogue typically looks like. Note – the women’s section is not visible. It is above the gold-plated wall, and if it were visible, we’d see a heavily latticed partition covering that section.
INTERNET MEETING. This is a short clips of the masses of men who attended the 2012 “Internet Asifa” in the Citi Field stadium. It was an effort to unite all orthodox Jews in the fight against the internet.
THE CATSKILLS. A video capturing the energy and rush of the June exodus from Williamsburg to the Catskills, the mountainous north of the smoldering City. We also get to see some of life in the Catskills, but as with most videos, they are of the boys camps only.
EARLY HASIDIC MUSIC: This is YomTov Ehrlich’s Williamsburg, a Yiddish song published in the years after the Williamsburg Hasidic community settled there. It has Russian influences and is a tribute to the Hasidic survival in America’s New York.
MODERN HASIDIC MUSIC. A recent music video (not without internal controversies) clearly demonstrates outside influences. Note there are no women as men are not allowed to hear women sing.
LEAVING: A group of former Hasidim talk to NBC about their journeys, where they came from and what it was like to leave. They talk about Footsteps, an organization that was established to provide support to those who leave.
FROM MY OWN LIBRARY: Family bar mitzvah. My son on my father’s lap; my brother next to them. Both little boys have traditional sidecurls.
FROM MY OWN LIBRARY: My son and I. Many, many years ago.

PERSONAL ESSAYS

MY TINY UGLY WORLD: A confession written in 1910 by Rabbi Yitzhak Nahum Twersky of Shpikov (1888-1942), scion of a very prestigious Hasidic lineage of Chernobyl. In this exciting and moving text, he dramatically expresses his troubles, torn soul, and feelings of hatred toward the Hasidic world of his time.

WILLIZEN BLOG: An anonymous Hasidic man’s collection of community photo-essays. He has been photographing individuals for over a decade and discreetly captures life in its most intimate moments. I’ve heard from sources that he photographed many of the neighborhood’s holocaust survivors.

OY VEY CARTOONS: My collection of mixed media (essays and cartoons) in the years after I left the community.

SHPITZEL’S SECRET: An audio segment with the podcast The Longest Shortest Time in which I tell much of my life story, especially in relation to parenting.

SITES FOR THE INSIDERS

KAVESHTIBEL: An online forum in Hasidic Yiddish frequented mostly by men in the community. Many contemporary views can be heard on kaveshtibel, but one might say most of its commentators are more liberal in their views and thinking than their counterparts.

IVELT: Simalarly, a forum in Yiddish – mostly conversations amongst men. Ivelt is more heavily moderated and considered more “in the box” than kaveshtibel.

VENISHMARTEM: Just one of many solutions to the internet and smartphone problem.

SECULAR MEDIA COVERING HASIDIM

THE UNCHANGING STREETS OF HASIDIC SOUTH WILLIAMSBURG: A Slate article on the unchanging landscape in 21st Century Williamsburg.

BROOKLYN PROJECT SHAKES HISPANIC HASIDIC PEACE: A 1990 examination of how housing shortages resulted in lawsuits and conflict between Hasidim and Hispanics.

CLASH OF THE BEARDED ONES: New York Magazine explored the clash between Hasidim and Hipsters as the neighborhood changed in 2010.

NYC STALLED CONSTRUCTION: How the Satmar feuding led to a construction on Bedford Avenue sitting unfinished “on the stalled site list longer than any other thatTRD survey”

THE HEIR UNAPPARENT: New York Times on the feud between the two Satmar brothers, which later led to the sect splitting in two.

GENDER SEGREGATED SWIMMING CUT BACK TO 2 HOURS: New York Times on the clash between Hasidic women’s need for women-only pool hours and North Williamsburg’s appeal to end discrimination.

CYCLISTS REDRAW THE LINE IN WILLIAMSBUR: When Hasidim removed the bike lanes because it brought indecency into its community. The bike lanes were ultimately moved one block over.

WIRE DIVIDES WILLIAMSBURG EASING SHABBAT RULES SPARKS FIGHT: The Daily News on the eruv, the line that allows women to carry and push strollers, that was controversial and mostly banned when first conceived in 2002/2003.

LEARNING AND EARNING: HASIDIC BROOKLYN’S REAL ESTATE MACHERS: The Real Deal piece that examined how Hasidim effect Brooklyn gentrification and real estate development.

ESCAPE FROM THE HOLY SHTETL: A New York Magazine cover story reported how woman lost custody when leaving the community. (she was in my class)

A YESHIVA GRADUATE FIGHTS FOR SECULAR STUDIES: On the recent legal action by ex-Hasidim to force Hasidic yeshivas to give a better secular education.

I am so very grateful to Marcin Wodzinski for this Historical Atlas of Hasidism — and for his generosity with the material: he allowed me to use some of it in a printing for my tours. This book is the most helpful reference for anyone interested in the history of Hasidism. And it’s beautifully put together too.

The best bet for learning about the History of Hasidism is to buy this alongside the other major new tome (lots of activity in a sleepy field, ey?): Hasidism: A New History

Together, these books can be referenced again and again as our understanding of this unique history deepens.

With the Atlas, you get a really solid breakdown of the geographic movement of the dynasties, both within specific major dynasties as well as within Hasidism as a whole. I also came away with a better sense of Hasidism regionally rather than divided by dynasty.

 

Illustration of origins of sects. See how far north the Lubavitch dynasty began, in contrast to Satmar.

For the Hasidic history buff in your life (ehhem, lol), surely a great gift.

As someone who has left the Hasidic community and continues to be fascinated by how much nuance this insular community hides, I’m especially interested in literature that comes from insiders – and often, of course, they will have the bias of those who left. I read this book at about the time of its initial release, but didn’t analyze it too closely. Now, after some time and having heard many people base their knowledge of the Hasidic community on this book, I thought it’s time for a second, more critical look.

When I reread Deen’s book, I can still see the bright spots; especially in the scene describing his engagement. It’s warm, it’s funny, it’s real. Deen isn’t hiding any ghosts there – as far as I know – so he is able to portray an engagement that is original, humorous, human. There are several such isolated scenes that capture Hasidic life, and they speak to his potential. Deen isn’t an author of great insights but he is able to frame a sentence so that reading it is a pleasure; and small details effortlessly bring the scene to life.

But the book isn’t what it could have been, because in addition to being a memoir about leaving Hasidism, it is also a dance around Deen’s demons. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author of “Americana”, once described one memoir as “a well-written act of image-making”. Adichie sees through the memoirist whose slick honesty is there to disarm, whose self-criticism is calculated to deflect.

Deen also composes his story as an act of image making. He is aware that society can idolize the stories of the coming of age, leaving insular communities genre, but that the adoration turns sour when children are left behind. Since Deen’s relationship with his five children deteriorates over the last part of the book, he writes to avoid being judged harshly by readers.

Deen’s wife Gitty is never humanized. If we can’t feel her presence, we can’t imagine that there is more to this than one man’s feelings. Gitty rarely speaks, and when she does, the lines she’s given are so all over the place, it creates a dismembered character. On one hand we are told that there is nothing but clipped conversations between the couple — Gitty doesn’t even respond to a gift, and only offers a begrudging thank you after being asked for feedback — while on the other she is accused of taking over and being so overbearing, that Deen feels cast aside in her matriarchal tyranny. We assume that this is what Hasidic women are like; empty and dead inside, devoid of personalities, brainwashed. While I don’t know this woman, I’ve yet to meet a Hasidic woman who is like that. I found myself wondering what we are not told of Gitty. Either Deen really did not see her, or he thought it dangerous to tell the reader too much about her.

There are several other instances in which we are primed to see him a victim of impossible circumstances. He describes a Hasidic world of bleak poverty and no food to feed the many mouths. “Most of my friends from yeshiva were living the same way…. Either still studying in the kollel, or teaching at the chedar, and struggling, making do with whatever they could – yeshiva vouchers, food stamps, Section 8. They went from one poor moneymaking idea to the next…”

The subject of Hasidic economics is too complicated to go into here, but Deen does not even try; he turns to the stereotype of Hasidic men who are unemployed and uneducated, and gently goads the reader into outrage at the Hasidic system of “welfare mooching.” The reader gasps “who could stay in such a world?”

We get only a superficial glimpse into Deen’s life during the crucial years after he lost faith and before he got divorced. In 2003, when he had already been writing for some time under the pseudonym Hasidic Rebel, I started my own journey with a blog. My impressions from reading the few regular bloggers (including Deen) and from my interactions with them (some now close friends) were that these men lived double lives that became more untenable as they adventured more in the secular world  – bars, pot, travel, lovers, etc. But Deen writes as if he never as much heard of a party. He describes himself as a lone man spending night after night in Manhattan, venturing into bars alone, always alone. A man driven by longing. We are not reminded of Gitty whose world was unraveling while raising five children. How might this have played into the bitterness in the divorce?

In all, Deen’s story could raise an important question: is he culpable for his fall; the alienation from his family, the anguish that led to a breakdown? Should we all point fingers and say “I told you so” when the book ends with so much sadness? I wouldn’t say so. As often, responsibility can be split like fair minded pirates doling out loot. I think the important question the book could have raised is of the conflict between self and family. But Deen carefully casts himself as the pitiful victim of a society, paints over any moral ambiguity, and bangs the gavel, the verdict is out, he did all he could, the system wrought all his pain.

The book isn’t useless as a work on Hasidic life, but its depiction is flawed because it is contrived. As I saw it, it was written not to illuminate, but to absolve.

One of my favorite books that describe contemporary Hasidic life — and probably one of the least known — is Teacha; Storeis from a Yeshiva. The book only gives us a sliver of a glimpse into the community, through the eyes of Gerry Albarelli, a non-Jew who was hired to be a teacher in the Satmar boy’s school. Albarelli writes with candor and an eye for detail about the chaotic, rough, all-male bubble of education inside the Hasidic community. It is clear from his writing that he is neither intimidated nor awestruck by the wild and unusual yeshiva he finds. What we get instead is subtle warms, an occasional shoulder shrug, and a good sense of humor. Albarelli is able to show us how wild and untamed these boys are, a “factory” running into the evening, while it is also clear that he gets through to the children, grows on them as they grow on him. What I like about his stories is that he does not belabor any of these feelings. He just says it as he experienced it, and lets the readers feel the range of experiences through his.

It is told in short essays, but all of the essays together follow him through one school years, from when he was hired as he becomes more comfortable in the yeshiva, until he leaves at the end of the year. His first efforts to earn the boys respect:


“They (the Hasidic boys) were outside the classroom, six or seven boys, waiting, hopping in place, talking excitedly behind their hands. When they saw me coming, they ran inside, “Teacha! The teacha!” The tables and benches were shoved out of their usual arrangement and boys were running around them. Books and papers were all over the floor.

When the boys saw me walk in, they stopped what they were doing – chasing each other, walking on the tables, screaming, laughing, only long enough to let me know they were not going to stop.

Then I was the boy up near the ceiling.

He was on top of the wardrobe that contained their jackets and bookbags.

“Get down!” I said.

Everyone looked up.

“Teacha,” he said, smiling now that everyone was watching. “Look! I’m a janitor fixing the pipes.”

Later, Albarelli adapts and learns to navigate this challenging teaching post, but we know that this is not a situation where he ever completely wins the staff or student’s trust. He is only more successful and teaches more than the other English teachers, but that doesn’t say much, as many of the teachers are terrified of their own students and are just there to get out. Albarelli educates by putting on performances with the boys, or as the boys call it “makhen plays”, something everyone loved.

“The play began with one boy whistling and sweeping the floor of his store in the morning. It was easy to see the broom would have been taller than he was; it was probably even in the way he held the imaginary broom. Whistling, sweeping, and then he had a customer. All the other boys were watching; they were all sitting on the floor, on their tables, quietly listening.

There he was, with his peyahs, and white shirt tucked into his pants, whistling, and the other boys, looking exactly the same, were watching…

All of a sudden another boy entered the store, grabbed a chicken and ran out. When the store owner realized what had happened he was in a panic. He called the police. He was on a first-name basis with the policeman who answered the phone; he even told him to get right over there. The policeman arrived, took a description of the thief, went out, searched for and found him. Then he arrested him and put him in jail, which was the closet at the back of the room.”

We also get a little feel for how the children feel about this outsider, this teacher, who they call a goy, or a “half Jew, half goy” doomed for gehenna. There is an obvious chasm between the Yiddish speaking students and their “English” teacher. 

“Every day they teach me a few new words but they seem to have no faith in my capacity to absorb and remember because every time I throw a Yiddish word into a story, they look up, astonished. “This is a story about an old woman who sweeps with the besom, with the broom.” “Teacha,” a boy says, “you can Yiddish?”

A central character in the boys’ lives is Rabbi Katz, the man who carries the stick and the carrot and shoves around the boys and teachers with the same rough manners. He has a trademark “scariness” that is supposed to put everything in to order, yet his pushing and shoving means he’s not really taken seriously. We all know the bad guy in schools; from whom all the students run. And sometimes thhis bad guy is even the good guy.

“Sorry for my English,” Rabbi Katz says as though he weren’t sorry at all. “I’m born in Israel.”

Then, all of a sudden he switches gears.

“Eleven years I am a teacher. Not only a teacher!” Shouts Rabbi Katz. “I’m director from the boys’ choir. I’m running the kitchen. I run a summer camp. You ask any boy – any boy – who having the best camp! I work mit details!”

Rabbi Katz is explaining himself to us. He goes on and on. There’s a lot to say. He’s explaining himself to the teachers more or less the way he explains himself to the boys.”

Albarelli ends this way-too-short little book with the closing of the school year, when the boys are suddenly informed that they will no longer have English and they can leave early. As Albarelli leaves, there are no obvious expressions of affection to mark their parting, but it is clear that he does not leave the boys easily.

“Walking away, I was thinking about the boys. It was as if they lived on a rope stretched between a lake of fire, Gehenna, and the fires of ecstasy. The boys never saw themselves as individuals but as boys who were wild and in need of a smack. It was as if in the ruin of a classroom – all classrooms were ruined all the time as if ever day were the last day of the year – it was as if the ruin of a classroom was wild  ecstasy – chairs broken, overturned, paper, strips of paper balled up, paper all over the floor, candy, plastic bags with the remains of potato chips and pretzels, orange peels, overflowing trash, books spilling out of the class; all the wildness and destruction of the room – also ecstatsy.

I was walking away from the yeshiva, the rabbis and the boys, but leaving, it was as if I was still there. Even half a block away, I could hear the joyous screaming behind me.”