Revealing the double lives of Chassidic Jews

Hella Winston set out to write her dissertation on Chassidic Jews because their lives were so radically different from her own as a secular New York Jew. “These communities are so closed, and it’s so hard to gain acceptance from these people who are supposed to be co-religionists,” she said.

But once she managed to gain their trust, she learned much more than she had bargained for.

The result is “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels,” a nonacademic book that grew out of her dissertation.

Winston will give several readings in the Bay Area from Wednesday, Nov. 30, to Monday, Dec. 5, including one at Cody’s in Berkeley, which is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

A sociology student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Winston was initially interested in the lives of Chassidic women for her dissertation. Her doctor happened to have a lot of Chassidic clientele, and through him, she made some contacts.

At an introductory meeting with some women who were willing to speak with her, one of their daughters piped up and offered to tell her “the truth.”

That’s where the seeds were planted for her book.

Because several books had already been written about Lubavitchers — known as being the most open Chassids to outsiders — Winston deliberately chose to focus on the Satmar, one of the most closed sects, originally from Hungary. And after months of gaining the trust of several subjects, she managed to learn about the double lives quite a few of them lead.

Asked what her subjects had to gain by speaking with her, she replied that it was a give-and-take relationship.

“They were just as curious about outsiders as I was about them, and were talking to me, in many cases, to learn more about the outside world,” she said. “And in some cases, they felt they wanted to be heard, and they couldn’t be heard in their own communities.”

Winston found quite a few people discontent living a strictly Chassidic life.

Some regretted not having the chance to date or fall in love; instead, they were forced to marry someone they met once or twice at 18, and then bear children right away.

Some didn’t believe in God or the lifestyle, and hid their disaffection by changing clothing and going out to bars at night.

To the Satmar, even going to a movie or using the Internet is a subversive act.

But because in many cases their language skills are lacking — they speak Yiddish, not English — and they have no job skills, it is very difficult and in some cases, impossible for them to leave. Some do such things as sneak a television into their homes, or go on outings to Manhattan, carrying a trash bag onto the subway with a change of clothing inside.

Winston met some of her subjects in bars; one only agreed to meet her after she emailed him on Shabbat to prove she wasn’t a spy.

Winston found both those who stayed in the community but engaged in subversive behavior like using the Internet, and those who left.

She was also led to a young Lubavitch woman who offers sort of a “halfway house” for Chassidics looking to leave. This woman, Malkie Schwartz, had parents who became religious, but she also had a grandmother on the “outside.” (Winston found that those who usually leave and are actually able to succeed in the outside world are those with a nonreligious relative who can give them support.)

Winston was surprised to hear the stories of what happened when some young people tried to leave.

“I heard one story about a kid who was living on the subway,” she said. “And there’s a whole history of sitting shiva for people. That was very hard to see.”

“Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” by Hella Winston (185 pages, Beacon Press, $23.95).

Hella Winston will speak 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30 at Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley; 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5 at Modern Times, 888 Valencia St., San Francisco.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."