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

How OTD Literature Became Its Own Literary Genre

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By Ezra Glinter

Published May 27, 2014, issue of May 30, 2014.
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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.”


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