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A Scholarly Unorthodox

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Karen H. Skinazi reviews Zalman Newfield’s Degrees of Separation.

When my teenage son was little, he used to sway back and forth if he was concentrating hard on something—a book, a puzzle, a Lego creation. ‘Who knew shokeling was hereditary?’ we joked. My husband comes from Hasidische stock.

If my son still shokels while he plays Fortnite, I wouldn’t know it. He’s a teenager—he keeps his door closed all the time now. But the memory popped into my mind when I was reading Schneur Zalman Newfield’s new study, Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, 2020), particularly as he discusses habits of mind and of body that remain for exiters of ultra-orthodoxy.

Schneur Zalman Newfield

This book is very timely, coming out in the wake of Netflix’s pandemic series Unorthodox, which was a huge hit. In fact, Rachel Harris’s ‘Frum Fetish Schlock’ and Yehudis Fletcher’s rebuttal, ‘Watching Unorthodox in Broughton Park’ proved to be two of the most popular JewTh!nk articles to date. This month, Unorthodox and its lead actress Shira Haas were nominated for Golden Globes, beating out such luminaries as Michaela Coel and her brilliant (and slightly Jewish) series I May Destroy You, among others. There is a fascination with stories of leaving Orthodox Judaism and any other religious community that is unfamiliar to everyday people. I devoted a chapter of my book Women of Valor to the ‘off-the-derech’ or off-the-path-of-Orthodoxy memoirs and fiction that have become a staple of Jewish literature in the last decade; I gather from colleagues it’s the most taught section of the book.

Newfield’s sociological study, Degrees of Separation, is an important scholarly work precisely because of popular interest in sensationalist stories of departure (liberation!) proffered in books and films. As the title suggests, Newfield wants to situate these popular depictions, which account for a minority of experience: ‘The image that emerges from memoirs written by exiters from the ultra-Orthodox community may conflict with my findings,’ he writes. He goes on to say that assuming the memoirists are being honest in their narratives, ‘there is a single explanation for the discrepancies. Specifically, these personal memoirs represent the narratives of a marginal group who are indeed so disconnected from their family and community that they feel free to write about it and tell the whole world their personal story. However, the majority of ultra-Orthodox exiters who still have some connections with their family or community are loath to publicly discuss their disagreements with the community for fear of causing offence and jeopardizing those relationships.’ Like continuing to shokel—or holding racist beliefs—staying connected to family is one of the many ways that ‘exiters’, whom Newfield argues remain a state of exiting for a long time, are exhibiting ‘degrees’ of separation, rather than a wholesale rejection of the past. Despite grand aspirations for reinvention (particularly true in the American context in which Newfield writes), self-transformation, he argues, is limited.

Group photo of Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim in 2015

To come to his conclusions, Newfield interviewed 74 exiters from two Hasidic communities: the very stringent Satmar, represented in Unorthodox, and the relatively liberal Lubavitch, known throughout the world for their outreach work. He pays close attention to the words and tone of his interviewees and searches for trends in their responses. He quotes liberally. He tracks the continuities with his respondents’ former communities, as well as their discontinuities. Newfield’s research nicely complements Ayala Fader’s anthropological study Hidden Heretics (Princeton University Press, 2020) about orthopraxic Haredi Jews (men and women who live in their communities and publicly behave as their peers do but without the accompanying belief), also published in the last year, and similarly marking a liminal space or category of people that our minds—taught to see the world in binaries (is she or isn’t she? Does he or doesn’t he?)—miss or dismiss.

Newfield is himself an exiter, and this fact means he is a real insider; he knows intimately the details of Lubavitch life that not many scholars could easily access. It also means that he has to work extra hard to maintain objectivity about his topic. Keeping in mind his point that ‘the majority of ultra-Orthodox exiters who still have some connections with their family or community are loath to publicly discuss their disagreements with the community for fear of causing offense and jeopardizing those relationships’, one wonders, at times, what information he might have chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to suppress for fear of causing offense. Nonetheless, he doesn’t shy away from discussing a number of very ugly elements endemic to these communities, like the xenophobic derision for non-Jews, often described in animalistic terminology and the obsessive, and at times perverse, focus on women’s modesty. Reading the account of one woman who explained ‘We felt the rabbis were undressing us with their eyes because they were telling us that what we were wearing is inappropriate and exactly how it was inappropriate,’ I suddenly had a flashback to being fifteen, and one of the Orthodox rabbi teachers at my high school looking me over—I wore a perfectly unslutty over-sized t-shirt and not-very-mini mini-skirt—and saying, ‘Miss Skinazi, your cleavage is showing.’ ‘Well, why are you looking at my cleavage?’ I demanded to know (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised my kids have big mouths…). ‘I mean your knee cleavage,’ he responded, pointing to the tiny gap between the bottom of my skirt and my calves. As if that made it ok.

Fiction and film can offer a spotlight on religious communities and the processes of disidentifying with those communities. Tamar Kay’s Israeli series Matir Agunot (Unchained in English), which takes viewers into the experiences, thoughts, anxieties, relationships, secret Facebook groups, and underground social lives of ‘hidden heretics’, for instance, does so slowly and enticingly, with hints and suggestions and a great deal of nuance. Disidentifying is not rejection in this series, and in fact, the ending leaves viewers without a clear sense of the future path of the main characters. In Unorthodox, in contrast, Esty transforms from miserable Borough Park housewife with awful wig to mezzo-soprano hipster Berliner in the blink of an eye (or four short episodes). In either case, someone who is curious to know learn both how typical the characters’ journeys are and what else goes on behind the scene would get a lot out of Newfield’s book.

Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism by Schneur Zalman Newfield is published by Temple University Press, priced £26.99.

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Dr Karen E H Skinazi is a literary and cultural critic who works as a Senior Lecturer and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.
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