After spending 2 years gaining the trust and confidence of over 60 individuals in mainly two of the Hasidic communities in Brooklyn, NY, Hella Winston has composed this narrative of their lives and their struggles with the insular lives they lead. She focuses on a few individuals, through whom she communicates the tension between the traditional and the modern, what is considered “safe” and what is occasionally hungered for. And she does so with curiosity and with compassion.
If you are not familiar with their history, the Hasidic community was established here in the US by a few leaders that were survivors of the Holocaust of World War II and that has had a great influence on their philosophy and their attitude toward the outside world. While they looked to the United States as a place of refuge where they were able to be free to practice their religion, they also saw it as a country of strangers who might tempt them into being led away from their customs and traditions. This tension has kept them insulated and isolated from the outside world, as they shun any contact with it – whether through media, language, or even secular education.
What is saddest to me is that so often the root of the difficulty is that the community and the families rule by fear, not by love. The most fundamental fear is of nonconformity. If one is different, it interferes with one’s chances of finding a mate, and the ultimate purpose in one’s life is to form a family and be “fruitful and multiply,” no matter what one’s true dreams or goals are in life. Even if one is not being considered for matching, one’s sibling may be, and so one must conform to ensure the security of one’s family’s matches as well. Any deviation from the norm, any rebelliousness, any questioning, any appearance of difference, can affect one’s standing in the community. Furthermore, there is a sort of underground watchdog system of spies in the community looking out for this deviance. And even when one is a victim of abuse or neglect, especially if one is female, one has little recourse, because, again, it just reflects badly on the perpetrator and on the community, so it cannot be called out or acknowledged.
There is not only bad here, of course. The Hasidic community is a tight-knit community that looks out for its own. No one goes hungry. No one is not cared for. And while the majority live in poverty, they do provide for each other (even if it is with your tax money that they do so!).
It seems to me that it all boils down to this quote, taken from Winston’s Afterward, “…the need to coerce people’s behavior through fear and shame suggests a fundamental weakness in the belief system itself. To feel forced to abuse or reject a loved one for his or her failure to conform to community standards seems to negate any claim to true religiousness. But this is the paradox of fundamentalism.” And Hasidism is absolutely religious fundamentalism, tolerating no deviance, allowing no questioning, and dictating by fear.
An interesting read, for sure. I wish there had been more cases discussed, more examples and more details – but it was certainly eye-opening, even for someone who had been familiar with this community and who’d heard some of these kinds of stories before.