Monday, July 13, 2020

Reviewing: “Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism,” by Schneur Zalman Newfield. Temple University Press. 2020. English. Paperback. 248 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1439918968.

While not a parenting book in the least, there is a lot, in fact, that parents can learn in “Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.” In the book, author Schneur Zalman Newfield (assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York) interviews 74 former members of the Lubavitch and Satmar communities who left their communities and observance (he terms it exiting) to understand why and how they left, and the nature of their transition.

One of the earliest books to address why people leave observance was the 2005 “Off The Derech: How to Respond to the Challenge” by Faranak Margolese. Much has changed since then, and Newfield takes a more academic and formal approach to the topic.

The recent Netflix series “Unorthodox” gathered significant press coverage. An interesting, nuanced point Newfield makes is that the image that emerges from memoirs like “Unorthodox” conflicts with his findings. These memoirs may give the impression that those who leave their communities are completely cut off post exit and excommunicated.

He writes that neither the Lubavitch nor Satmar formally excommunicate those who leave the communities. He notes a simple explanation for the discrepancy is that these memoirs are from a marginalized group of people who are so disconnected from their family and community, that they feel the need to write about it and tell the entire world their personal story.

The drama that these novels write about really does not indicate what the exiters are experiencing. For most of them, their leaving of Orthodox Judaism is not an immediate event. Instead, it is a long-term process, and it is that process that Newfield details.

His research shows that the majority of the exiters he interviewed still have some connections with their family or community, and are loath to publicly discuss their disagreements with the community for fear of causing offense and jeopardizing these relationships. When empirical research conflicts with a Hollywood narrative, we go with empirical research.

This is a fascinating book in which Newfield attempts to understand why people leave. The complexities of life and religious experience are such that there is not a single answer. However, a common thread is that many exiters had deep questions that were either not answered or minimized. Many of these exiters are extremely intelligent, with sophisticated questions that bothered them. When they were given sophomoric answers, that in part led to their decision to exit.

What parents and educators can learn from this book is that sophisticated questions must have an equally sophisticated response. Moreover, if they do not have such a response, they need to consider the sage advice from the Talmud in Berachos 4a where it states, “Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.” These parents and educators need to say they do not know the answer, and then seek it out.

The publishing and entertainment industry has found an interest in those who leave ultra-Orthodoxy. But all one is left with there is the drama of Hollywood fiction. In “Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism,” one can go behind the scenes and see what is really happening.

By Ben Rothke