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Here's What Happens When Hasidic Jews Join the Secular World

Ramin Talaie/Getty Images News

The first time Lynn Davidman bit into a cheeseburger, she was worried for her life. “I was afraid some punishment by God might be imminent,” she recalls. She wasn’t sure what form his retribution for eating a non-kosher burger would take; she probably wouldn’t be hit by lighting in a restaurant, she figured, but perhaps she would be struck to the ground. 

A junior at Ramaz, a modern Orthodox Jewish day school in New York, Davidman had begun questioning the strict laws she’d been raised with years earlier. Davidman, now a (secular) professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, has spent much of her career studying communities like the one she grew up in. In her first book, Tradition in a Rootless World, she profiled American Jewish women who grew up irreligious and chose Orthodoxy as adults. For her latest book, Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews, Davidman got to know a very different group of people: forty men and women born into ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities who had, against all odds, broken away and joined the secular world. 

Alice Robb: What sets Hasidic communities apart—other than the way they dress?

Lynn Davidman: They’re taught to be modest: Aside from dressing in an unrevealing way, this means not talking in a loud voice, not wearing gaudy colors, generally not calling attention to yourself. Men, when walking down the street, will look down so they don’t catch a woman’s eye. Before marriageable age, there is complete and utter separation of the sexes. Inside the Satmar community, there are Yiddish signs indicating which side of the street men walk on and which side of the street women walk on. 

The entire day is filled with ritual. When you wake up, you are not allowed to walk more than three steps from your bed before you encounter a big bowl of water that was placed on the floor the night before. There’s a cup with two handles; you pick it up and pour it over each hand three times. Then you say a prayer thanking God for returning you from sleep. Then you go to the bathroom. There’s a special blessing to say after you go to the bathroom—you thank God that all your organs are functioning. Then there are more prayers, especially for the men. The men are obligated to pray every morning by a certain time. If you go to breakfast, you’re supposed to say a blessing over each food. There’s an order in which you say the blessings. If you have a fruit salad, but you have granola too, which do you bless first? One idea is that if the fruit’s grown in Israel, you bless that one first. There’s a whole system.

AR: How unusual it is for people to leave these communities?

LD: Very. It takes an enormous amount of guts, savvy, and bravery. The general idea in the community is to keep people as far away from the secular world as possible—it’s seen as polluting. They are taught that the outside world is dangerous, that they have to stick together because God chose them, and if they don’t follow God’s commandments they will be punished terribly. They grow up with a tremendous fear.

I’ll take the most extreme example. The Satmar Hasidic group lives in a place called Kiryas Joel in [Orange County] New York. They are ideologically encapsulated, they are socially encapsulated, and they are physically encapsulated.

They’re afraid of being disowned by their family and shunned by their community. They also know that if they defect, their family loses status; the marriage chances of the siblings are down. They are risking an enormous amount.

They don’t have skills to get a job. The men are taught in Yiddish. The women don’t go to college. They are aware that they have no way to support themselves outside the enclave. [Kiryas Joel has a higher proportion of people living in poverty than other village or town in America.] 

AR: So who are these people who choose to leave?

LD: They generally have had some childhood experience that doesn’t fit with the ideal Hasidic way. They’re taught that this is the ideal life—but if they’re subject to un-ideal conditions, they start to question what’s wrong. Sometimes there’s verbal or physical or sexual abuse. Perhaps they have two parents whose levels of religiosity differ. This is confusing for a kid, because [they’re taught that] there’s one right way. If their parents disagree, they start to wonder: Is there really one truth? Other people may have cousins or relatives who are secular. One woman said [of her cousins], “They go skiing, they have such a great time—and nobody’s punishing them.” People who leave are mostly young, up to around 25 years old. If you’re married and starting to have kids, it’s much harder to get out. 

AR: What happens when they start questioning things or breaking commandments? 

LD: They generally do their first “transgressions” far away from their community. There’s a sociological term: They do it in the “backstage,” instead of the “frontstage” where they could be seen and reported and disciplined. And they find that nothing happens. And that shrimp tastes good. And they keep doing it. That's the phase I call “passing”: They’re moving back and forth between the two worlds. Women might buy a pair of pants, put them on when they get to the bar at the corner of the neighborhood, and put their skirt back on when they go home. Guys might put their curly locks behind their ears if they’re in a dance club, which of course they shouldn’t be at. 

AR: How do they go from secretly putting on pants to actually leaving the community?

LD: Some start going to Manhattan more, trying to make some contacts. Eventually they find a place to live and start supporting themselves, but it’s a huge struggle.

In some ways, it’s even harder for women to leave. A few of the women married men who they knew were on the way out, so they would leave together. Men have a few more degrees of freedom. A man’s supposed to be studying at yeshiva all day, but if he goes out for a couple hours, it’s sort of overlooked. 

AR: What did the people you profiled end up doing once they left the community?

LD: Some of them did computer work. Some became professionals and took themselves through college, with a scholarship or through the city college system. One woman started working at Laura Ashley, as a saleswoman. Many went to college and learned some kind of skill—accounting, or one became a social worker. Doctors, lawyers.

AR: Did they maintain links with their old communities?

LD: Yes, which was shocking to me. None of them were disowned. It’s very tense, often—there are hard periods—but there’s contact. One woman is a lesbian; her mother calls her a whore. One woman married a non-Jew. Usually parents are supposed to sit shiva (do the mourning ritual) when someone marries outside the religion. I don’t think her parents did that, but they didn’t talk to her or her husband or acknowledge him. But then when they had a baby, her parents were interested in meeting the baby.

AR: Did they keep up any kind of Jewish practice in their new lives?

LD: Most did not. But when they started to have children, for many it became a different story. Here’s one example: One man and his wife had a child who was four. They had to put the child in some kind of school. The man wanted to put the kid in a Hebrew day school. The woman was really opposed: She said, he’s gonna learn things that contradict what we do at home. The man won, and they started sending their kid to a Hebrew day school. When people have children, some of them rethink whether they want to be totally free of any relationship to Judaism.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

In an earlier version of this interview, Davidman stated, "There is only one entrance [to Kiryas Joel], and it’s also the exit. On Saturday, it’s locked: Nobody gets in or out." Subsequent research by The New Republic was unable to assert the validity of this claim.