When Deborah Feldman’s memoir hit shelves in 2012, all hell broke loose. Not before or after have I seen so much to-do about our little niche world of defectors of the Hasidic faith. Everyone was talking about Unorthodox, raving, ranting, attacking, defending, calling her a James Frey or an Angela’s Ashes—fussing it all the way to the New York Time’s bestsellers list. I too was a cauldron of hot-headed opinion and “taking sides.” Soon, there were fault lines among ex-Hasidim. Some tried to criticize Feldman, and some saw this criticism as betrayal. I was among the critics, and that fact rained Feldman’s and other people’s anger down on me. I still hear about my unforgivable betrayal. Yes all we were talking about were pieces of the book and the book publicity. I didn’t give the book a careful read that first time. I was too worked up.

Now, the dust has settled. I have much more distance from the story. I’ve also reaped a bit of the overflow from the book’s success; many fans of Unorthodox wind up in Williamsburg on my walking tour because Feldman piqued their interest. We are also talking about her again because the Netflix miniseries adaption of her book is due to hit on the 26th of this month. I’m cooped up in our New York City apartment with my Kindle, suffering the Covid quarantine. It’s a good time to give the book a careful review, with, I think, more objectivity, and also with an eye for how readers have reacted to the book since its publication.

In order to give you the context in which I come to this book, let me tell you that I’m a metaphorical cousin second-removed to it. Here are the connections: I also was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community, and I also have one son. I am a year older than Feldman. We both got divorced with dreams for more, we both are public about our journey. I also lived in Rockland County. People often comment that I am like her. It makes me want to pounce and gauge their eyes out, but I can’t blame them.

More relevantly, I know half the cast of characters. Mindy the brilliant friend: She was my camp buddy and email pen pal for many years; she’s a magnetic personality. Her villainous mother-in-law: She was our chef through middle and high school, and she was like an icon in our schools; she was known for her eggplant parmesan and for shooing girls out of the kitchen as we went on the prowl for a toaster to make the whole-wheat bread more edible. Her husband’s “ugly” and “jealous” sister in law: She was my tenth grade first aid teacher and was known as “lively;” she, like me, lived on Satmar Drive. And the sleep-away camp scenes: Of course I too was in summer camp and can vouch for Mr. Rosenberg’s red beard and Mrs. Halberstam’s renown…and for that field of tall grass. And then there’s Eli, Feldman’s husband, who, like me, grew up on Satmar Drive in Monroe, although we didn’t know each other until much later. We met as residents of the greater Monsey area in about 2010, well before we had any idea about all the shit would go down. We were close for many years, and had a million playdates with our sons. Eli and Yitzy were really like family.

I never met Deborah. She came as close as pulling up to my house in an SUV to collect her son, but that’s it. I never understood her. But now, by rereading her book, I think I know her. And I don’t like her much. She lives in an inner world in which things are skewed, poisonous. She is an unreliable narrator because she sees the world in distortions, and herself as a victim of everything. This helped me understand her, but it also confuses any reader who doesn’t have enough context, and it ends up creating a false brand of feminism, pointing a judgmental finger at Hasidic women who don’t leave the fold, regardless of their reason or ability.

***

I’ve browsed the bulk of the reviews on both her books, and the single question readers want answered is: How did she escape? How did Eli allow her to take the child? How did she get custody? Was it proven that she lied about something? How did she get on her feet financially? Why doesn’t she fill us in on this in her follow-up memoir, Exodus?

She does answer all these questions. It’s there, in Unorthodox. She tells us of the important moments but with many spins and misrepresentations. She is so consumed with her perpetual victimization that the reader doesn’t notice how her life evolves, how she slowly inches away from her childhood world.

Let me tell you how she left, how she was able to get custody, how her husband allowed it; I’ll tell you by drawing entirely from Unorthodox.

UNORTHODOX, REDACTED:

Feldman introduces us to her life in the Williamsburg Hasidic community when she is a young teen. The early chapters of the book are very different from the second half. These are a series of descriptive essays without any forward progression in the narrative. She paints her world, and sometimes it is even lovely. She tells us the important part of her story: her shame. Her family isn’t “normal,” whatever the wretched word means. Her father is cognitively disabled, and her mother has previously come out as gay and left the fold. In the eyes of the community, Feldman is a bit of a pity. She feels that people look down at her and she is not comfortable being assigned to the lowest rungs in the hierarchy of status. She is already uncomfortable, already not snugly fixed into this world.

I don’t say this with judgement, heaven forfend; it is more likely that those who already don’t fit in will leave. Think Shulem Deen, who also published a memoir (you can read that review here) or Gitty Grunwalk, who was in New York Magazine. The community loves to point out that those who leave are more likely to come from “broken” homes. “Why did she leave?—ah, a broken home, poor thing, tut tut tut, she just fell through the cracks…” The community reads this as proof that the breakaways are damaged people who are not rejecting Hasidic society, but are rejecting their own lives. But that’s not why coming from a different background makes you more likely to leave.

People with families like Feldman’s are more likely to leave because they are not as deeply ingrained as those who have an entire respectable family in the community. For the “broken” homes, roots don’t run so deep, or there aren’t as many roots to begin with. In Feldman’s case, she had a mother on the outside and a father who wasn’t present. She lived with her grandparents where she had much less oversight than the supposedly normal children who suffered snitching and snooping siblings. (I know she has a sibling but don’t know the details.) Because she has a looser leash, she reads more. She can show off her advanced reading in class, and she buys herself contraband books in Boro Park. She gets away with it. She becomes a sixth grade secular studies teacher, a position held by the fanciest and most stylish girls.

I’m showing the ways she is “deviating,” but I don’t deny her struggles. Undoubtedly, she was raised in hard circumstances, in a community of trauma and where the patriarchy inflicts its damage on women on a whole other level. The small ways that she modernizes or chafes or breaks the norms trace the growing chasm between the expectations of the Hasidic community and her becoming an ex-Hasidic minor celebrity. The chasm grows slowly. The reader might easily miss it.

The weightier changes unfold in the second half of the book. At age seventeen, Feldman gets engaged to another “problem case.” She is to marry Eli, an older boy from the insular village of Monroe. He was twenty-four at the time, and that senior age tells you that he is trouble. Older boys are usually “bums,” the ones who just didn’t get engaged when their friends did and got bored and adventurous on the sly. It is hard to see in the early chapters that Eli is Hasidic Lite, because Feldman does not tell us much about him. She is fixated first on his blond hair (I hear one more word of blond hair and blue eyes and I scream!) then on silly grievances over the gifts she gives verses the gifts she receives, and then on the very heartbreaking difficulty consummating the marriage, as the couple grasps in the dark for answers and takes a year to understand and treat her vaginismus. This is especially devastating because as these sheltered novices grapple in the dark for help, their entire respective families butt in and violate their privacy, making things exponentially worse.

But even as several real and petty crises overshadow the story about Eli’s religiosity, we see glimpses of him as more “with it.” Here are some things that are a tiny bit subversive: Most girls from Monroe don’t talk on the phones with their grooms, a golden wristwatch is fancier than a pocket-watch (which is what my family gives in gift exchanges), and it is not par for the course for a sheltered Hasidic bride to be poured wine in champagne flutes. Romantic gestures from my wedding night entailed sitting at the kitchen table and making super awkward conversation while we noshed from the three-layer cake on the triple level cobalt dishes. Feldman and her husband are first to embrace the new phenomena of kosher Chinese food, and they “sneak out to go bowling.”

Things soon get devilishly goyish. Eli is a romantic (this I know to be true), and Feldman recounts that when she gets home from the ritual bath, she finds “the lights dimmed and rose pedals sprinkled on the bed sheets.” And ooh la la, “Eli likes foreplay more than I do. Before sex, he wants to kiss and touch, and feel loved.” Also not typical for repressed religious extremists, he “tries to teach me to kiss slowly…He wants to make the experience last as long as possible.”

Of course, sex alone is never indicative of an entire relationship, as too many hypocritical males on this planet will prove. In their everyday life, Eli is also “progressive.” When Feldman vomits, “Eli hears me and comes out to hold my head, which is something he is used to doing for me.” There he is for the housework. “He takes to cleaning up the kitchen while I am ostensibly at the mikvah.” He takes her to her appointments, from the doctors about a rash, hypnosis, the many pregnancy scares, anxiety treatments, the unexplained STD. He takes a great interest in their child and cries when she finds out they will have a son and then again when the child is born. When the baby is born, she doesn’t want to hold the baby right away because “A glimpse of squirming, slimy pinkness makes me want to vomit,” but “Eli is already over by the crib, peering between the shoulders of two doctors…Eli is tearing up next to me.” When they arrive home with the newborn, “Eli has cleaned the apartment thoroughly, and when we get home, everything has been set up for the baby.”

Eli agrees to relocate from the Williamsburg enclave to the city’s suburb, Rockland County. This gives her an enormous amount of freedom. Feldman describes her new home in a community of non-conformists:

“I moved to Airmont… It used to be a small group of Hasidic families that had migrated from places like Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, where the lifestyle was too rigid and extreme for them to be happy. A few young couples, like us—wives who wore long human-hair wigs and jean skirts, husbands who drank beer and smoked marijuana on poker nights. Someone called a “bum” in Williamsburg was now just another lapsed Hasid in the sprawling, diverse Jewish community of Rockland County. The difference between living in Airmont and living in Williamsburg is that as long as you don’t talk about it, you can break the rules. You can have the privacy to live the life you choose as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself.”

It’s a big deal that she can convince her husband to move; it’s an uprooting of sorts. I remember when people in my circle were saying she moved. I still lived in Kiryas Joel, and when I heard through the grapevine that she moved, I envied her so much because my husband was adamant not to move, as it’s a “slippery slope.”

Feldman needs only to prod a little to get her husband to pack up with her:

“Eli has difficulty adjusting to change; he is by nature averse to any sort of risk taking. For weeks I lay the groundwork, reminding him how tedious his two hour commute to work is and how deeply that will cut into his time with the baby. All his brothers and sisters live upstate, I point out.”

So they move.

In the new environment, Feldman tackles a new milestone: learning to drive. This would have never been possible in Williamsburg. I wrote a longer post about the way Williamsburg women came to be barred from driving. Women are not allowed to drive. If they do, their children are not accepted to schools. This can be a problem if the husband refuses to consider more modern schools. Leaving is so hard if there are children who are enmeshed in the expansive Hasidic school system, but Feldman will never enroll her kid there. Feldman lives in Rockland County and is pregnant with her son when she starts on instruction:

“Steve is my driving teacher…I wake up early so I can get the vomiting out of the way, and by the time he honks his horn outside, my stomach is usually settled enough… When we get back, Eli is sitting on one of the lounge chairs on the front lawn waiting for me, and Steve looks out at him and says “That’s your husband?”

I nod yes.

“Huh. He looks like a hip dude.”

Soon she grows her hair in and wears bouncy long wigs; her entire look changes. When she visits Williamsburg to introduce the baby to his grandparents, the local kids peg her as a shiksa:

“I return to Williamsburg in the summer to visit Bubby and show off the baby, and I wear my long wig with the curls in it and a pretty dress that I bought from Ann Taylor and had lengthened so it would cover my knees…Walking down Penn Street pushing the baby carriage we got as a gift, I hear a little boy, no more than six years old, whisper to his playmate,

‘Farvus vuktzi du, di shiksa?’—’Why does this gentile woman walk here?’

I realize he is referring to me, dressed too well to fit into his idea of a Hasidic woman.”

Her next secular endeavor is college. She is still married, still very young. As always, she is dreaming of ginormous things. She tells Eli that she will take college classes. She fudges a bit, telling him it will be for business, not literature. “I will learn bookkeeping and marketing and things like that.” He is fine with it. He asks her about the practical implications and “if I will be home to pick up Yitzy from day care.” According to Frimet Goldberger who was in her social circle in Airmont, Feldman drove about town with a Sarah Lawrence College sticker on the bumper.

She loves Sarah Lawrence College, tickling herself over her smart sounding comments in class, wearing jeans and her hair out, fraternizing with men, going to bars with blonde haired shiksas, tasting the glory.

It’s a long way from Williamsburg.

Feldman wants more; she wants something specific. She wants a big life, to be a somebody. In college, she connects with people who know people in publishing. As she sees the bright future, she feels held back by her marriage.

“Eli and I go to a religious marriage counselor together. Afterwards Eli turns to me and says ‘We should just get a divorce, no? It’s not like this is ever going to work.’

I shrug my shoulders. ‘We could get a divorce, if that’s what you want.’”

But instead of divorcing in the boring, paperwork-heavy style of western courts, Feldman makes a dramatic exit. I have no idea why she finds this necessary. She tells us that she rents a tiny Kia and fills it with garbage bags of her belongings and her kid. Poof, she is gone.

“I changed my phone numbers and didn’t tell anyone my new address. I couldn’t risk being tracked down. I needed some time for myself, time to settle in, time to find some sort of security.”

What about the father, Eli? Yitzy was very bonded with Eli. I know this from a lot of experience with both of them, but also, she tells us this sometimes between the lines. For instance, she admits Eli was willing to move to Rockland County in part so he could spend more time with their baby. She also tells us that she isn’t bonded with her son at all until she leaves. “We have to get to know each other…I feel as if I wasn’t allowed to be his mother until now…” She enlists the three or four-year-old kid to play into this new reality: “Yitzy is like a new person…We sleep in the queen bed I purchased after I left, and before we fall asleep, we have lovely conversations. He worries about me, and I can tell, by the way he gives me impulsive compliments.”

What is happening here? From her telling, it seems she has kidnapped her child without saying a word to the father! And to make it even more chilling, she is suddenly besties with the kid, burdening him with an emotional load in no way appropriate for a four-year-old.

Eli’s version of this event is just as unsettling. In 2012 I sat down with him in my dingy basement apartment and interviewed him, hoping to put his story out there. The project fell apart at some point, but I still have the notes. I have several pages worth, but here is his account of when Feldman left:

“At the time she left, she worked at Conde’s Nest until late at night and her car turned over on the way home. I got a babysitter for Yitzy and ran to the hospital to her but she was very angry, yelling, ‘Why did God do this?’ and she didn’t want me to stay.

That weekend she said she wanted to go to her mother for Shabbes for a break. On Friday morning Yitzy woke up, came in like every day, bursting open the door…he ran with his fat tiny little baby feet onto the bed. It was the last normal morning.

I went to work, and I got a text from her that said ‘I left. Yitzy is napping in the car.’ She never did this before. I flew home, ran right to Yitzy’s bedroom and found his entire closet empty. Nothing was there.

Air left my body. I collapsed in my own hands. I don’t remember how long I was standing there, but I remember the next time I walked out of the house it was dark. I don’t remember for a few days what happened. She stopped communicating with me. She didn’t let me talk to Yitzy. I kept asking about him. She kept saying ‘he’s fine, he’s distracted.’

Finally after a week or two she agreed to meet me with Yitzy at a restaurant. I got there; I saw that she cut off Yitzy’s side-curls. I didn’t say anything about it. I didn’t care about the side-curls, but it bothered me that she wasn’t telling me what was going on. She knew I’d never raise my voice in front of him, so she made sure to talk about the important things in front of him. She said she wanted different things in life. Right away she started talking about child support, and things I didn’t know about started to fall on me. It was like someone comes in with a ready plan in a folder, marketed, with business cards, and I’m the one who gets bombarded with all these things. I felt very lost. So I said ‘Do you want to go to someone, maybe we can work this out? Maybe we can compromise?’

I never missed my child more than I missed him at that time. From when he was born, I put him to sleep. I put him to sleep 98% of the time, not because I had to…but because I wanted to. To this day, whenever I have him, he falls asleep with me. I go into bed and he’s like, ‘You’re coming to cozy with me?’ and I’m like—yeah…I’m coming.

This is what bothers me. I had my child, basically she took that away from me. Now I’ll have a child who will never forgive us for what we did.”

So that’s how it ended. After a week or two of her silence, they agreed to split custody. Eli had all weekends and summers. This is how I met him in 2010, both of us single parents of boys the same age.

Eli didn’t talk much about his wife who left him. At the time, I was newly divorced, and I moved to Rockland County with my son and began modernizing (driving, college, ooh la la!) Eli’s son and mine were great friends. I loved Yitzy; he had the most contagious giggle fits. Two years of really lovely times before the book hit.

Eli told me that, “until the book came out, I did not believe that I would have more than a page in the it.” As it turned out, he was the main villain.

***

So many of us were incensed. Was it that she lied? A fact checker would have given her Pinocchio’s nose, sure, but that wouldn’t show the flaw. There was something else. It was the skewed manner in which everything was framed.

Take the pieces I culled to tell you her narrative. She doesn’t relay these moments as forward progression in a march toward freedom. She always frames them as more proof that she’s oppressed, abused, a victim, a hero.

When she befriends the intellectual Mindy and starts sharing a love for reading, we don’t see her start to expand and connect with kindred spirits, but rather, she relays the story to show how even the brightest are crushed, because in the end Mindy is an “empty shell of her former self” (fuck off). When she gets gifts during her engagement, she is incensed that the jewelry draws too much attention to itself, thus proving how appallingly peasant-like these Hasidic people are. When her husband sprinkles flower pedals on the bed as per Hollywood movies, she sees it as a betrayal, because she decides that—feh—he must have gotten the idea from a sibling. When he cleans the kitchen, it’s to get sex. When he doesn’t stop her from attending college, it’s because he is greedy and wants her to make a bunch of money for him. Also, he is only concerned that she should still toil in domestic labor (because he asks if she will still be there to pick Yitzy up from daycare). When he wants to kiss slowly, she pretends to go along with it, but starts biting him, feeling fully justified somehow in a counter attack. When he talks to his sister, he is choosing his sister over her. Even when her obstetrician is nice to her, she perceives it as some kind of nasty indicator that the doctor just wants to suck up to her because as a Hasidic woman, she’ll be a return customer. When she has a car accident, she believes her husband is fully guilty because he did not change the tires before, and she is further convinced of her suffering when he refuses to accept responsibility.

Getting inside Feldman’s head is a character study of dark, empty space. Everything is a vendetta, everything, and it’s all such an intense, dramatic, imaginary crisis that she carries everyone away with it.

This is why readers ended up confused about how she got custody. Feldman breathlessly tells us that on the internet people “warn me that no rabbinical court will let me leave with my son. Even if I were to keep all the laws, I still wouldn’t be considered devout enough to be a parent to my child.”

Notice that she doesn’t even say that she can’t leave with her son. She only quotes from people who say things that fit with her emotional reality. She writes:

“Their comments don’t scare me. I know that I am different from these other women, that I have something they didn’t have. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but one day I will be free.”

She probably believes at this point that she is facing down a mountain, as she has a victim mentality. Let’s unpack this with clear eyes: Feldman tells us about her risk by quoting from second-hand sources. Her sources are anonymous internet commentators. Okay, so are they right? They are certainly right that a woman in the clutch of the Hasidic system can almost never detach herself from it and come out whole with her relationship with her children intact. This is because she is economically dependent, socially isolated, and extremely reliant on the community’s educational institutions to help raise the kids. And if her kids are older and have bonds solely in the community, speak Yiddish, and are concerned about status, they become the real reason a woman can’t leave.

Feldman’s situation was not that. She had a young child she was raising in a modern community. Her husband did not use religion and religious authorities to control her (sadly, this is the case for women too often). She had a car and license. She went to college. She had gentile friends. She didn’t even look like “one of us” anymore. By her own telling, she was pretty much out. The only connection she still had to the conservative Hasidic world was that she was still in her arranged marriage. She can get divorced. We are Jews not Catholics; even the internet knows that!

Feldman imagines herself to face the same beasts as women much less fortunate than her. When she leaves her marriage by kidnapping her son, she congratulates herself for being braver and better than those pushover oppressed women. She doesn’t acknowledge the advantages she has. She lets the reader think she climbed some mountain that wasn’t there.

She is not a feminist hero. By pretending the undoable is doable, Feldman perpetuates the myth that a woman’s freedom is a matter of her individual resolve. She doesn’t acknowledge that some women will lose custody, that some women can’t pack a Kia up and go. She scoffs at them; she says none of them want big things, only she does, that’s why she left. Her “feminism” is the kind that pretends the solutions lie in individual choices. It is toxic because it implies that, if only women were girdling up in resolve, they’d have it all too. Her world is one of no compassion, of soulless ambition, no moral center. It fills me with dread to imagine that I left the Hasidic community for this value system. It makes me want to pack up a Kia, kidnap a child, and escape it.

In so many ways, my experiences are very different from Feldman’s.  However, what we have in common is that we had certain options, aspirations, and advantages that made our exoduses possible. I often try to remember that my needs and fortunes are different from those of my classmates.  It helps me put other women’s situations in perspective, and to respect their decisions, even when I have a lot of issues with the patriarchy under which they function. Falsehoods and misrepresentation aside, the real issue that lies at the heart of Unorthodox is Feldman’s lack of empathy for Hasidic women who do not take the same route she did. In dismissing other women as pushovers, Feldman simultaneously dismisses the patriarchy’s role in keeping many women in the fold and her own numerous advantages. Blinded by her own assumed victimhood, anger, and perhaps shame, Feldman creates a world of blame that casts feminism aside for the sake of her own glorification.

I get Google alerts when Hasidim are in the news. The other day, I was notified about an upcoming novel by a gay Australian woman who comes from the Hasidic community. The novel was titled On Division, which I liked immediately. Division Avenue runs along the approximate border between Hasidic Williamsburg and secular/hipster Williamsburg, as if the name was put there with foresight years and years before the divide was cemented. In other words, this was going to be a story of the world I trek day in and day out. I scanned the unusual, even far-fetched synopsis of this book:

The book tells the story of a fifty-something woman named Surie. A mother of eight children, fat and content in her life on Division Avenue, her world is upended when becomes pregnant with twins and, when, because she is already in her fifties and a bubby, she can’t get herself tell her husband. An odd story, to be sure, but I was excited that it was not going to be the trite “Brave and Stunning” story of a young woman who “breaks free,” that familiar secular conversion plot that I discussed in my review of Abby Stein’s book Becoming Eve.

The reviewers raved about the book, especially about the insight it provided into this insular lifestyle. The book was framed as revelatory because it was written by an “insider.”

“The author, Goldie Goldbloom, is Hasidic. A mother of eight. She reveals the inner world of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. ”

“It is rare that readers are given the opportunity to peer behind the curtain. Here, Goldie Goldbloom, who is Chassidic herself (and the mother of eight children), writes sensitively and convincingly about this insular community.”

“I was enthralled (and often appalled, to be honest) learning about a culture/religion that I am unfamiliar with. Being exposed to characters like Surie, and her husband Yidel, and their family and insular community gave this reader an understanding of what Chassidic families and communities have in common with any other community based on religion and/or culture.”

“An interesting glimpse in a culture, from both sides.”

“I knew nothing about the Chassidic community, making me excitedly curious about Surie’s story. Books that expose you to new situations and unfamiliar cultures have the potential to be the best reads.”

The book was a disappointment. Most egregious, its marketing misrepresented the authority Goldbloom has on the subject. While Goldbloom is indeed Hasidic, she is Chabad, a sect that can be so different from the Satmar sects, that touring Williamsburg with me and then the Chabad neighborhood in Crown Heights will offer little overlap. The Satmars speak Yiddish and Chabad do not. The Satmars don’t welcome outsiders, the Chabad does outreach. The Satmars don’t see the Chabad as Hasidim and the Chabad see the Satmars as anti-intellectual, not-the-real-deal Hasidim. The Satmars usually spell it Hasidic, and the Chabad usually spell it Chasidic, or Chasidish. A Hasidic woman from Williamsburg doesn’t look anything like one from Crown Heights, and the same is true for the men.

I don’t want to fault the author for a spin that she might not have played any role in, but the entire premise of how this is sold is disingenuous.

My problem isn’t that outsiders write about Hasidim. On the contrary, I’d love to see creative works that explore different angles of this culture! The problem is that if you write about a very nuanced world without properly doing your homework, you will misrepresent it, and the descriptions will fall flat. In so many ways, this was the case in this book. All the people who believed they’d seen this world through Goldbloom’s novel were sadly mistaken.

In On Division, the lack of deep familiarity is problematic and fundamentally misunderstands the Hasidic world. The novel depicts a world that is quaint, that is atomized, where the women are ignorant and isolated in their reproductive experiences, and where relationships between couples are so central, they feel almost secular.

In one vivid passage, Williamsburg is rendered in colorful details as a riverfront community where four generations live in one home, and the family yard is houses thirty chickens.

“The Ecksteins raised their own chickens. They didn’t eat red meat. The poultry lived in the backyard in a large coop Dead Opa, Yidel’s father, had built in 1951. He’d had chickens in the displaced persons camp in Austria too. The birds picked worms and rusty screws out of the dry, pale gray dust. The Ecksteins owned twenty-five chickens at a time, thirty before Rosh Hashanah, but never a rooster. On Sukkos, when Tzila Ruchel, Surie’s oldest daughter, had a sukkah that stretched across the entire front of their house and the doors opened and shut constantly, the chickens wandered out into the road and caused collisions.”

The Ecksteins also look out the window to a river and all its daily colors, and the reader is transported to a little Amish countryside that sets the scene for a quaint pastoral life. In reality, Williamsburg is a city, a gritty urban area, a grey, polluted part of New York. The Hasidic people are usually city natives, New Yorkers, able to navigate the subway to Chinatown and bargain on the price of an imitation Coach bag. Williamsburg’s views are not the thin strip of water that is the East River, because that’s mostly obstructed by fenced-off shipping and manufacturing areas. The view is of Manhattan. On September 11, my ex-mother-in-law who lives about where the fictional Ecksteins do, saw the Twin Towers burn. The community Goldbloom describes just does not hold up when you realize it is a block from the subway and a train stop from Manhattan.

The issues with the setting, however, aren’t simply the faulty details per se or how they might irk one particular nerdish tour guide, but about how the book cumulatively paints a portrait that resembles something completely unlike the real neighborhood. This especially upset me when the women are depicted as simple characters who deliver babies in muted pain, without ever knowing the first thing about their own bodies. In some instances, Surie is shown to have no knowledge of reproduction, despite having had so many children herself. Only when she is pregnant in her fifties does the midwife educate her:

“You know this already, but most babies are born headfirst, Mrs. Eckstein. If they come with their feet first, it is known as a breech. It’s far more common with twins. Don’t you remember what happened with your third kid? I don’t have to tell you what labor feels like. You know better than me!”

The nurse goes on to lecture this passive woman on what hemorrhaging means.

“You’re at risk of hemorrhaging. I’m talking to you. Can you pay attention, please? Blow your nose. This is not the time to fall apart. Do you know what hemorrhaging means? Bleeding. To death.”

I want to shout back: Don’t lecture me! I knew what hemorrhaging was before I even knew where babies come from, because I had watched mothers gossiping and covering their gasps with open palms when a neighbor’s friend’s sister nearly died from hemorrhaging.

Not only does the nurse explain this and folate (which my mother told me to take as soon as I called to tell her I was pregnant) but the Hasidic character can’t comprehend it in English.

“What is folate?” she’d asked, translating the midwife’s sentences slowly into Yiddish in her head. Which was still full of the wedding. ‘What is a neural tube?’ ‘Neural tube defect,’ Surie muttered in English, before reopening her purse and placing the bottle on the concrete. The vitamins weren’t kosher. She’d have to buy her own at a pharmacy outside the community. They’d stare at her scarf, her clothes, giggle about her accent, but at least they wouldn’t spread gossip.”

So, not only does Surie have to be educated by her midwife, but her trip to buy the vitamins will be a crushing indignity as others will, “giggle.” This ridiculous level of insecurity, for a city filled with weirdos and accents, is worlds apart from the actuality of Hasidic women who know how to elbow their way through the world when necessary.

Goldbloom’s description of this kind of lifeless, repressed, isolated and terrified existence is most extreme when the nurse reveals that when Hasidic women give birth, they don’t even scream.

“During her labor with Chaim Tzvi, Val had told her she should make sounds. Heck, she could go ahead and scream if she thought it would help. Sweat broke out under Surie’s turban and streamed from her body. The midwife had encouraged Surie to moo or bellow or cry. Something. Anything. But Surie had remained silent until almost the very end. ‘What is it with you women?’ Val had asked.”

I will tell you what it is with these women, as one of them: They scream. They are humans, not dead Stepford fantasies. Someone who understood the community AND was a sensitive writer would not have depicted Hasidic women as these religious ghosts.

The parts that depict the community as “positive,” are their own projections. We are shown in Surie’s life, however repressed, a husband who dotes over her and for whom life revolves around their romance. In one scene, the entire family is in the Eckstein house for the Chanukah lighting, but Mrs. Eckstein and her devoted husband are locked in the bedroom with one another.

See, the problem with finding redemption in romantic love is that it misrepresents what is so powerful within this community. In our modern atomized world of nuclear families where we project all the needs for intimacy and comfort predominately on our sole marital partner, the Williamsburg Hasidic community is a large, robust network of support. A woman like Surie, who had lived a simple life for many years, would not be rejected by her daughter for being pregnant, and would not singularly find ultimate solace in her husband.

In an authentic experience of a “high risk pregnancy,” the community would have mobilized to do whatever it could to connect Surie with a good doctor. This mobilization, while smothering and invasive on its nastier side, demonstrates the tremendous social support that makes this community shine. The story Goldbloom tells fails to imagine subversive social connections, the quirky or surprising personalities within the community, and the ways in which a Hasidic woman is rewarded for her sacrifices: with support not just from one man, but from a whole meddling village. The soul of what makes this unique world special is missing.

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 / 2001 / Memoir

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 / Memoir / 2004

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 / Memoir / 2012

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.