Walking the Line
Unchosen: The Secret Lives of Hasidic Rebels
By Hella Winston
Beacon Press, 216 pages
In Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Hella Winston chronicles the lives of Yossi, Dini, Yitzchak, Malkie and others as they diverge from the prescribed path of Chasidic Jewish culture and religion.
Let’s start by judging this book by its cover, which cleverly illustrates the title. (I have a degree in design, so I’m allowed to do that.) The photo shows a Chasidic man, complete with shtreimel and bekishe, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan. Thus, it highlights the ambivalence that many Chasidic rebels feel about the lifestyle they’ve been raised in, and the secular society they’re venturing into. The man is treading on the yellow line that divides the pedestrian lane from the cyclists’ lane—a literal illustration of “walking the line” between his religious home borough and Manhattan as a symbol of a broader secular world. (Though perhaps he is just trying to avoid being hit by those pesky hipster bike-riders.) I also suspect that the choice of blue ink for the title and the back cover of the dust jacket serves to visually relate this book to Judaism. (For us goyim, blue Chanukah wrapping paper in stores is a counterpoint to the red-and-gold foil at Christmas, and the only thing we recognize as Jewish. Except for that funny candelabra y’all use.)
The book is structured in an alternating-chapter format, with the author arranging her narratives around the character Yossi, who merits the focus of every other chapter. Between chapters about Yossi, Winston visits the lives of other rebels. The readers meet Dini, who vents her frustration about the restrictions on women in Chasidism; Chaim, who hosts open-minded gatherings; Malkie, the founder of Footsteps, an organization that supports those seeking to leave the community; and several other Chasidic rebels. Each character is a device used to explore one area of Chasidic culture or beliefs, and the reasons one might have for rejecting them. Because of this structure, the book often feels like a prolonged introduction; I wanted Winston to move past the explanations and into more of the fascinating narratives of the subjects’ lives.
I have no vested interest in maintaining a good image of Chasidim; I am a red-haired goy from the South who grew up in a religiously-ambiguous household. That being said, I don’t understand the emphasis in this book on the character Yossi. With his substance abuse problems and obvious mental illness, he seems like he’d be an outlier in any group—not just a selection of rebels. Additionally, Leah, the divorcée and young mother, is briefly addicted to drugs. Yossi’s prominent position (and Leah’s ancillary one) makes the other characters lose credibility. If he is put forward as representative of the dissenters, either the author’s discretion is lax or Chasidism can really drive one towards insanity.
Despite its shortcomings, I genuinely enjoyed Hella Winston’s writing. She integrates Yiddish terms into her explanations without them seeming clunky or distracting, and the treatment of each character is respectful and fair. The case studies inspire in the reader a sense of personal connection to each character. I’d love to see Winston write Unchosen Again (or Re-Unchosen?) as a sequel so that we can find out how Yossi is managing in life, or where Malkie plans to take Footsteps in the future. (In the case of Yossi, though, I fear the worst.)
The people for whom Unchosen would be an interesting read are voyeuristic goyim like myself who are fascinated with those whose lives are vastly different from ours, or the rebels among us who see a bit of themselves in every anecdote. In the case of the goyim, all the explanations of religion and ritual will be necessary and helpful. In the latter case, however, I imagine the reader will skim over it to get to the juicy parts, like someone thumbing through a romance novel for the sex scenes. That being said, there are many groups to whom this book wouldn’t appeal—secular Jews who would find the explanations tedious, goyim with no interest in Judaism, or Chasidim with a distaste for dissent. If you fit one of these categories, you’re at the wrong website anyway.
Unchosen is nonfiction, and is available in both hardcover and paperback from Beacon Press for $23.95. (Or, for the thrifty Jews among us, you can buy a cheap used version from Amazon like I did.) I award it four Stars of David, out of five.