Unchosen by Hella Winston

A12qgWcGfVLNonfiction — print. Beacon Press, 2006. 216 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels”, Winston introduces readers to young adults raised in Hasidic (also known as, ultra-Orthodox) Jewish families in Brooklyn, New York who are struggling within the confines of their community and the decision of whether to stay or leave. Winston’s interactions with the Satmar sect, who do not evangelize with the outside community the way the Lubavitch sect does, originated as a doctoral dissertation in sociology.

However, her plans to write about how Satmar women reject feminism were changed after an interaction with a young Satmar woman who stated that the Satmar community has high rates of suicide due to peoples’ desperate struggle to escape. While she could never prove this assertion, Winston did change the focus of her dissertation and begin interacting with those on the fringe of the community who long for greater personal and intellectual freedom than their communities allow.

Unfortunately, this shift in her central thesis lead Winston to believe she did not have to understand either the community she was writing about or why people would choose to stay. She uses terms for different sects of ultra-Orthodox Judaism with different traditions and hierarchical structures interchangeably and while her primary research is strong, she lacks the secondary research needed to create a base of understanding for both herself and for her readers. The book eventually focuses on a singular person, and I felt that Winston began to grow annoyed with her subject towards the end.

One aspect of the difficulty in leaving the community I had not read before was how leaving undermines the marriage prospects of a person’s siblings. Marriage is the most important moment in a Satmar man or woman’s life and matchmakers, who undoubtedly know all the gossip in the community, keep the sexes separate and unable to explain themselves to each other. Thus, the ability to make a good match for both themselves and their family members keeps people from toeing the line.

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