Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Great Reads: "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels"

In a fit of book straightening fury last week I happened across Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston in the Tenement Museum’s Jewish interest section. Though intrigued by the content and title whenever the book caught my eye, it was not until a slow afternoon that I finally had the opportunity to open the book’s cover. I’m glad that I did.

The Tenement Museum  engenders critical thinking about issues faced by current immigrant communities by exploring their historical antecedents. In large part, this is done by immersing visitors in the stories of specific families. Sociologist Hella Winston takes a similar approach, delving into the complicated lives of individuals struggling with their Hasidic faith, family, and community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood through a series of vignettes. As a trained anthropologist, I was particularly curious about this subject.

Unchosen is a quick, accessible read, but it’s by no means pedestrian. The people and Hasidic culture that she describes are compelling and the historical detail is illuminating. Twelve hours and two subway rides after I purchased the book, I had read it cover to cover.


Living in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, I come into occasional contact with the Hasidim of nearby Williamsburg and Crown Heights. These encounters are mainly experienced through a car or bus window and leave me wondering about who these people are and what their lives are like. Maintaining exceptionally strict community and cultural identity in the face of numerous social, technological, and cultural intrusions seems impossible or untenable. Yet, despite the odds (at least from external appearances) Brooklyn’s Hasidim appear to have discovered the formula.

While readingWinston’s book, I had the feeling that I have been asking the wrong questions, or at least framing them incorrectly. Guided by Winston’s insights, I realized that the more important question is not how Hasidic communities preserve traditions, but why--and if--they are ultimately successful. 

Not surprisingly, reading Unchosen piqued my interest in this visible and often misunderstood community. Thankfully we have three other equally intriguing books on the Hasidim: Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine, Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family by Lis Harris, and Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground by Robert Eisenberg.

--Posted By Shop Associate Leah Mollin-Kling

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