Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family
Here and There: Leaving Hasidism, Keeping My Family by Chaya Deitsch (Schocken Books, 240 pp. $26)
The plethora of books about life in various Hasidic communities, written by self-described “escapees,” largely seethe with pain, anger and rejection. Chaya Deitsch’s chronicle of her life in the Lubavitch community, however, throbs with love and reveals an undisguised, wistful nostalgia for the culture she turned her back on. Perhaps that is because the Lubavitch, known for their outreach to secular Jews, are more open to the larger world than other Hasidic groups.
Deitsch grew up in New Haven, Conn., at a distance from the Lubavitch stronghold in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Her parents revered the late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, making periodic pilgrimages to Brooklyn-based family and friends. Writing of those visits with great tenderness, she recalls the warm hospitality of her grandparents’ home, her voluble and affectionate extended family, the excitement of preparations for a cousin’s wedding. A charming description of the bride-to-be trying on her marital wig with “a perky flip at the bottom” reminiscent of Ann Marie, Marlo Thomas’s character in That Girl, reveals that the Deitsch family, despite their community’s disapproval, allowed a television set in their home. Thus, Deitsch and her sisters learned about life in the “there,” the world beyond their
insular “here,” which was perhaps a first step down the slippery slope into the secular world.
Although she tried valiantly to conform to halacha such as modesty in dress and behavior, Deitsch was a questioning and lonely outsider. Her loneliness was relieved by a high school teacher who introduced her to “a strict diet of literary classics,” encouraged her nascent writing talent and urged her to apply to Barnard College in New York City, which she did. She rebelled against her parents’ assumption that she would attend Modern Orthodoxy’s Stern College and then “find a nice Lubavitcher boy” to marry. She was accepted and her parents reluctantly agreed to allow her to attend Barnard, with the proviso that she first study for a year at an Orthodox seminary in Gateshead, England, hoping that would reinvigorate her Orthodoxy. That hope is futile; when Deitsch enters Barnard she embraces the intellectual and cultural world and abandons all Orthodox observance. She does not, however, abandon her large and loving family. Nor, to their great credit, do they abandon her.
It is her parents’ tolerance and understanding that intrigue. Sadly, although there are hints of the mother’s trespass into a larger world—secular magazines hidden beneath her mattress, friendship with someone who is not Orthodox—we learn little about this deeply religious couple who allowed their daughter to lay claim to her own life. Her mother’s observation that “children stretch you” offers a limited but not entirely satisfying explanation. Still, the reader understands why it was so important to Deitsch that she keep her family close even as she exits their world