Dec 6, 2015

Review: 'Here and There,' a Renunciation of a Sect, Tinged With Love

Books of The Times
New York Times
December 6, 2015
‘Here and There’ available from CULTS101 Bookstore.
When Chaya Deitsch was a little girl, she wandered into her parents’ bedroom and found her mother anxiously running a comb through her sheitel, the false hair worn by married Orthodox Jewish women. “Does this look too wiggy?” she asked her daughter. “I shook my head no, even though I thought that all of her wigs looked pretty fake,” Ms. Deitsch writes in “Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping my Family.”

To this reader, whose cursory Jewish education barely propelled her over the finish line on the day of her bat mitzvah, that simple exchange is a revelation — and the writing of it a minor feat of alchemy. In a single scene, Ms. Deitsch transmutes the sheitel, an emblem of otherness, into something familiar: a stubborn, unflattering fashion accessory. Her mother had a great face for kerchiefs and hats, but not wigs.

“The big-hair, poufy creations that looked almost natural on other women,” Ms. Deitsch writes, “seemed not to sit quite right on her head.”

Over the past few years, mainstream publishing has created a provocative subgenre: memoirs from Hasidic communities’ various exiles and apostates.

I am still not entirely sure how to feel about this phenomenon. Some publishers are clearly exploiting our prurience, slapping one sensationalist subtitle after another onto these books, as if a great feast of anthro-porn awaits. (See: “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” published in 2012, and “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” published in 2014.) Yet the authors clearly feel an urgent need to tell their stories, and unless their audience’s sole objective is titillation or condescension, readers can learn lots about a subculture they once knew little about.

Regardless of how you feel about them, there are now enough of these reminiscences sloshing around the market that any new addition must explain its presence in some way. (The best of the lot, Shulem Deen’s “All Who Go Do Not Return,” came out just eight months ago.) The emotional arc of these stories is almost always the same: The narrator starts out in a cloistered world of stringent laws and customs, suffers a crisis of faith and eventually summons the courage to break away.

What attracted me to “Here and There” was the complexity implied by the subtitle: “Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family.” The introduction promises a story of appreciation as well as renunciation, told by a secular narrator who continues to journey to Crown Heights in Brooklyn for lunch with her Lubavitcher relations and still feels protective of the “sincere teenager” proselytizing on Fifth Avenue even as she avoids his gaze.

“Mine is not a narrative of escape,” Ms. Deitsch writes. “It is, instead, a memoir of staying connected while moving apart, of traveling simultaneously under and within the radar, of stretching without snapping.”

Would that this were so. Ms. Deitsch may be a nuanced observer of Lubavitcher life, but she delivers nothing so grand, complicated or original as what she describes. Rather, she tells a simple chronological story that ends too abruptly with her senior year in college. “I had more or less settled into the double life that would be the pattern for much of my 20s and 30s,” she writes. “My parents got highly edited versions of my New York life.”

That’s exactly what she told us about her conversations with her parents in Chapter 1. We learn almost nothing about her life between graduation day and the present. Ms. Deitsch is in her mid-50s. That’s a span of roughly 30 years.

It’s all very unsatisfying. This is a woman whose mother thought herself liberal when she cautiously allowed that perhaps her daughter shouldn’t get married at 18; 19 would be just fine. The reader is left with more questions than answers, not least of which are: Who are Ms. Deitsch’s parents? How did they make the highly unusual decision to overlook their daughter’s apostasy?

A book about them would have been far more interesting.

You do get small clues. Ms. Deitsch grew up in New Haven, far from the panoptic gaze of the neighborhood yentas in Crown Heights. Lubavitchers were thinner on the ground up there, and their adherence to custom considerably looser. Ms. Deitsch’s family owned a television and watched it without shame; her parents never censored her reading or music; she had male classmates right through eighth grade, and her fellow students ranged from Lubavitcher to no affiliation at all.

“It was a lapsed Bobover who told me that other Hasidim barely consider Lubavitchers Hasidic,” she explains.

And therein lies the case for Ms. Deitsch’s book. Despite their core similarities, no two memoirs in this unlikely category are alike. Outsiders may look at Hasidim and see an undifferentiated blur of men and women armored in stern attire, but Satmars are not Skverers, who are not Breslovers, who are not Lubavitchers; each memoirist reaches escape velocity at a different time in his or her life, and under different circumstances.

Ms. Deitsch tells her unique story, about a family of Lubavitchers in a sea of Connecticut Yankees, a faithful crew that still makes weekly treks to Brooklyn on Shabbat and continues to consult the rebbe for almost every important decision in their lives. They too are “Here and There.”

I am especially intrigued by her mother, who hid a pile of Ms. magazines under her box spring when Ms. Deitsch was in eighth grade. “To all appearances,” she writes, “my mother was not going through a ‘rebellious’ phase.” Her mother had borrowed them from a daring friend; she herself was sweet, refined and pregnant once again. “And yet,” Ms. Deitsch continues, “a pile of Ms. magazines somehow made its way into our home, as did Nora Ephron’s ‘Crazy Salad,’ which my mother did, in fact, buy.”

Was she also “Here and There,” though she never said a word?

Thanks to Gloria Steinem and Ms. Ephron, Ms. Deitsch feels the first stirrings of a feminist awakening. As her adolescence progresses, she grows increasingly resentful of being “consigned to the back of the shul and to scullery duty at Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch” while her male relatives began their niggunim: “loud, table-pounding, wordless melodies in which women were forbidden to participate and which drowned out any conversation among ourselves.”

By the time her favorite Brooklyn cousin gets married, she knows she wants a life beyond marriage and children — a young adulthood of “discussing Nietzsche during impassioned late-night debates with college friends, living in Manhattan on my own dime, kissing a boy I had no plans to marry, pulling on a pair of Levi’s.”

Ultimately, she leads just this life. She persuades her parents to send her to Barnard, and by her senior year she’s wearing those jeans and going to cafes on Shabbat. In the final pages, we learn that she gets the jewel-box apartment in Manhattan, the boyfriends, the unfettered existence of her childhood dreams.

It may seem like a radical transformation. But the women of Ms. Deitsch’s family were always possessed of a ferocious will to determine their own fates. One of her grandmothers survived on her own while her husband was in the gulag. The other “pushed her way through a mob to buy train tickets to Tashkent” exactly one day before the Nazis arrived in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov.

Their journeys can be measured in miles; Ms. Deitsch’s in something less quantifiable. Perhaps in her next book, she’ll tell us about her mother’s voyage, too, and how they both made an uneasy peace along the way.

Here and There

Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family

By Chaya Deitsch

227 pages. Schocken Books. $26.

A version of this review appears in print on December 7, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Renunciation Tinged With Love.

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