Thursday, September 10, 2015

Off the Derech

For memoir lovers, there is yet another genre to enjoy: Ex-Frum Memoirs. A wave of ex-Hasidic writers have emerged to share their personal stories of life after leaving the insular world of Hasidism. For members leaving these communities, the challenges include insufficient education, language barriers, and crushing custody and divorce battles.

The first memoir I was introduced to was Leah Vincent's memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. This riveting memoir was impossible to put down, so I simply gave up and read it in a single sitting. Vincent details her life as a rabbi's daughter in the ultra-Orthodox Yeshivish community and the events that propelled her into the secular world, where she pursued a master's degree at Harvard. Vincent doesn't shirk from sharing her family's heartless rejection, the following years of isolation, and psychological torment that included self-injury and sexual exploitation . However, this is also a testament of perseverance and realness, when conformity isn't an option. Leah Vincent also became a member and board member of the non-profit Footsteps, a non-profit dedicated to helping men and women "Step Off the Derech" (path). 

The next set of compelling memoirs I discovered were Deborah Feldman's memoirs. Feldman was raised by her grandparents in the Satmar Hasidic dynasty, after her mother left and her disabled father was unable to care for her. Feldman poignantly conveys her sense of isolation and longing through her reminiscences of childhood literature, the reading of which was a borderline subversive act in her community. The breaking point for Feldman came in an arranged marriage and a tightening vise of expectations and restrictions. Following the birth of her son, Feldman courageously left her community with her son and managed to do something that most women in her position are unable to do; retain custody of her child and obtain a divorce. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots, details her self-actualization through education, free-thinking, and the chutzpah to be herself. Her follow up memoir Exodus, is a refreshing and liberating reading experience that allows us to follow her on a pilgrimage of self-discovery and travels through Europe, where she pays homage to her beloved grandmother by visiting her village in rural Hungary. 

Shulem Deen is the founder and editor of the blog Unpious, and author of the outstanding memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, a revelation about the particular heartbreaks a man can face in the Skverer sect, where his roles as husband and father were usurped, due to his intellectual curiosity and questioning that branded him an apostate. Deen's first so-called transgressions came merely from listening to the radio, visiting a public library, reading encyclopedias and then bringing a computer and TV into his home. Deen's excerpt of his book in "This Is How Lost My Faith: Science Helped, Yes - But Finally I Accepted the Holy Texts Were Written by Man" sums up his experience as a non-believer, who has to honor his authentic self and embark on a new path, gathering new found values along the way.

Shalom Auslander is a remarkable essayist and his fiction is bitingly funny. His memoir Foreskin's Lament recounts his rebellious upbringing in an ultra-Orthodox, exceedingly dysfunctional family. Auslander's anxious childhood concept of G-d is a temperamental, smiting, and adversarial entity. His humor is reminiscent of David Sedaris, but infused with a blistering sarcasm that readers can live vicariously through. His short stories Beware of God and novel, Hope: A Tragedy is like enjoying Woody Allen's short stories with an even sharper edge.

More books about Hasidism:

Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch

The Religious Thought of Hasidism:Text and Commentary translated and edited by Norman Lamm

No comments: