Ex-Hasidic Writers Go Off the Path and Onto the Page

How OTD Literature Became Its Own Literary Genre

BitchcakesNY/Flickr

By Ezra Glinter

Published May 27, 2014, issue of May 30, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 6)

For many OTD writers, it is the first part that proves most problematic. While they may succeed at drawing a convincing portrait of the Orthodox communities from which they came, they are also compelled to confirm outside expectations of extremism. Sometimes this is accomplished through factual details of behavior or practice — modesty requirements for women, for example, or ignorance of sexual realities — but just as often it is reinforced through cliché. Seemingly every OTD story uses stock descriptions to describe the Orthodox world like “insular,” “fervent,” “austere,” “rigid” and “close-knit.” The authors’ struggles with these communities are, subsequently, the acting out of “forbidden desires.” Like all clichés, such phrases aren’t incorrect, but they are assertions rather than explanations, and they play to predisposed attitudes rather than express original experience.

Yet these stories also create a more complex image of Orthodoxy than such descriptors would suggest. A built-in irony of the OTD story is that one of its major functions is to humanize the Orthodox world it rejects. This is necessary for narrative purposes — readers must be able to identify with the person the author was, and not just the person she became — but also for personal ones. While it may be possible to disavow your religion, your community, and even your family, it’s hard to completely disavow your own life, especially if you’re a memoirist. Something of those years must still have value, if only as nostalgia.

Thus, for example, in both of her books Feldman emphasizes the relationship she had with her grandmother, whose metamorphosis from prewar European lady to postwar Satmar matriarch she is at pains to uncover. Vincent, whose story is largely about the rejection she feels by her parents and family, also recalls happier days as a beloved daughter in a house full of siblings. Even religious practice sometimes comes in for positive treatment. In a 2011 essay for Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, Deen described a transcendent moment he experienced at age 13, at a gathering in the hasidic village of New Square:

Slowly, I was swept up in the fervor of the crowd, and when the tunes turned joyful, I joined the other Hasidim dancing in place, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, children and their fathers, yeshiva boys and the elderly, lifting their feet and stomping them on the floorboards. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that being a Hasid allowed for more than the daily grind of studying Talmud and adhering to the minutiae of our religious laws.

Deen goes on to describe how, despite finding an approximation of that experience years later at a Rainbow Gathering in the Allegheny National Forest, he could no longer lose himself the way he could at 13. Yet in this essay the power of Deen’s memory is palpable, both for the writer and the reader.

If such sympathies are necessary for ex-Orthodox memoir, they are indispensable to ex-Orthodox fiction. Though memoirs have been more prominent in recent years, tales of leaving Orthodoxy are hardly confined to autobiography. In fiction there is a wealth of antecedents for the OTD story, from Chaim Grade’s epic depiction of prewar Orthodoxy in “The Yeshiva” to Chaim Potok’s tales of mid-century hasidism in books like “The Chosen” and “My Name Is Asher Lev.” Contemporary authors who deal with Orthodox experience include Nathan Englander, who has set many of his stories in an imagined hasidic community in New York City; Tova Mirvis, whose novels span both the religious and secular Jewish worlds; and Anouk Markovits, who depicted a Satmar family from Paris in her 2012 novel, “I Am Forbidden.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.