Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a mem­oir about grow­ing up in and then leav­ing the Hasidic Jew­ish world. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

I was raised with­in New York’s Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty, where I spent the first 33 years of my life before reject­ing the Hasidic world­view and leav­ing it for a main­stream sec­u­lar life. Over recent years, how­ev­er, I have been dis­cov­er­ing that the world con­tains oth­er types of Hasidim, com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from the Hasid I had been. I call them the New Hap­py And World­ly Hasidim. (Or NHAW Hasidim,” for short.)

Hasidic, for most of my life, meant some­thing very spe­cif­ic and defined. 

Hasidic meant speak­ing Yid­dish. And shun­ning sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion. And men wear­ing shtreimels and side­curls and speak­ing real­ly bad Eng­lish. And women keep­ing their heads shorn under their wigs and ker­chiefs, and speak­ing slight­ly bet­ter English.

Hasidic meant arranged mar­riages, and meet­ing your future spouse for only half an hour before get­ting engaged, and know­ing noth­ing about sex, or birth control.

Hasidic meant not only that you don’t watch TV or movies, but you bare­ly know those things exist.

Hasidic also meant not only a cer­tain kind of prac­tice but a cer­tain mind­set, a deter­mined detach­ment from the broad­er world, shun­ning all sec­u­lar influ­ences, and stu­dious­ly avoid­ing engage­ment with outsiders.

Of course, Hasidim, the peo­ple, are dif­fer­ent from Hasidism, the move­ment and the teach­ings that gave this soci­ety its name. The for­mer are a group of peo­ple who form a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture. The lat­ter is a set of ideas, which are acces­si­ble to any­one who can read the books. But it’s the peo­ple and how they live, rather than the ideas in the abstract, that, to me, give mean­ing to the term: Hasidic.

I remem­ber first hear­ing about Matisyahu, the Hasidic reg­gae super­star.” I was intrigued, but also baf­fled: why does he call him­self Hasidic” if he’s a reg­gae super­star”? How was that even possible?

Matisyahu and Roots Ton­ic, 2007

Sev­er­al years ago, a woman named Chaya wrote a wide­ly-shared arti­cle on the web­site xoJane in which she claimed to be a Hasidic woman, and also, in her words, a media pro­fes­sion­al with a degree in Wom­en’s Stud­ies from a large, very lib­er­al university.”

In recent years, we’ve been hear­ing about an all-female Hasidic rock band,” which has been play­ing to sold-out crowds at New York City clubs. 

Not long ago, a friend rec­om­mend­ed that I read the books of a self-described Hasid” who writes about his love for the band R.E.M. This writer’s blog, I hap­pened to notice, fea­tures a nifty draw­ing of a naked human butt drawn by one Pablo Picas­so — some­thing that could eas­i­ly get you kicked out of every Hasidic shul I’ve attended. 

In the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty that I have known, sec­u­lar-influ­enced music is express­ly for­bid­den. I’d nev­er heard of Elvis Pres­ley or the Bea­t­les until well into my 20s. In my book—All Who Go Do Not Return—I describe how I had to sneak behind my then-wife’s back to lis­ten to the radio in secret. And here was a Hasidic reg­gae super­star.” And a Hasid” writ­ing about his love for R.E.M. And an all-female Hasidic rock band” play­ing music that is clear­ly sec­u­lar in its aes­thet­ic, if not in its message. 

In the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty I am from, attend­ing col­lege is anath­e­ma, let alone study­ing con­cepts like fem­i­nism. And here was a Hasidic” woman with a degree in Wom­en’s Studies.

And so, my first reac­tion to hear­ing about all these peo­ple was a kind of unease. Call­ing them­selves Hasidic” seemed dis­hon­est. It also sug­gest­ed a kind of smug­ness, as if deny­ing the expe­ri­ences of so many Hasidim — the vast major­i­ty, per­haps — who are raised with a rejec­tion­ist ide­ol­o­gy: rejec­tion of moder­ni­ty, rejec­tion of free­dom, rejec­tion of sci­ence and art and any pas­sion that isn’t for God or the Torah; a rejec­tion of our phys­i­cal bod­ies, of any spir­i­tu­al focus not root­ed in our own tra­di­tions; a rejec­tion of the rest of the world’s intel­lec­tu­al, emo­tion­al, spir­i­tu­al, and cre­ative contributions.

But the New Hap­py And World­ly Hasidim reject­ed none of those things. 

So what made them Hasidim?

We fol­low Hasidic teach­ings,” they say. I know they say this because I’ve had con­ver­sa­tions with some of them. We fol­low the Baal Shem Tov!” they tell me. And there’s noth­ing in the Baal Shem Tov’s teach­ings about reject­ing modernity.” 

They have a point. Hasidism is a phi­los­o­phy with­out strict mark­ers, a move­ment that split into dif­fer­ent streams and sects and was fur­ther sub­ject to ide­o­log­i­cal waves engulf­ing some seg­ments due to var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal process­es, but not others. 

It might be help­ful to get straight this point of socio-his­tor­i­cal arcana: there is lit­tle about the major­i­ty of Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties today that reflects the teach­ings of the ear­ly Hasidic move­ment. This can­not be said more plain­ly: the peo­ple we gen­er­al­ly refer to as Hasidic, its insu­lar core — the Sat­mars, the Belz­ers, the Svk­er­ers, the Vizh­nitzers, and oth­ers — are shaped as much by the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry anti-Mask­il­ic oppo­si­tion to reli­gious inno­va­tion than by the teach­ings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. 

Hasidism, in its ear­li­est incar­na­tion, was not only spir­i­tu­al­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly inno­v­a­tive but encour­aged a rejec­tion of con­formism. There are tales of ear­ly Hasidim who danced naked in the streets and per­formed som­er­saults in the pub­lic square as a form of self-abne­ga­tion and a rejec­tion of the ego. Some of these tales are prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal, but it’s fair to say they reflect a world in which Hasidic” meant some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent from what it means today. No one’s doing naked som­er­saults on the streets of Bor­ough Park.

There are his­tor­i­cal expla­na­tions for the movement’s shift, but ignor­ing this fact seems like an attempt to sug­ar­coat some of the ugli­er real­i­ties of the present-day Hasidic world. And there’s some­thing glib about those who choose an iden­ti­fi­er while behav­ing in ways that are anath­e­ma to the main­stream known by it — or, at best, only per­mit­ted on the fringes. 

The truth is, though, I like these New Hap­py And World­ly Hasidim, and I wish there were more like them. I love that there are peo­ple who can envi­sion a Hasidic” soci­ety that is open to the world, embraces cre­ativ­i­ty and a more expan­sive form of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and a more pro­gres­sive world­view. I wish that they — the New Hap­py And World­ly Hasidim — were the Hasidim who mat­tered in most Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties today. But they don’t; as things are now, the Hasidic world — its insu­lar core — is deeply prob­lem­at­ic. Right now, in Bor­ough Park and Williams­burg and Mon­sey and New Square and Kiryas Joel — the largest Hasidic com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States — there are few of these New Hap­py And Word­ly Hasidim; and those who choose to be like them are bound to suf­fer real consequences.

I am not an iden­ti­ty purist, and I am hap­py to call any­one a Hasid” if he or she self-iden­ti­fies as such. But I also think that lan­guage mat­ters, and we need to be spe­cif­ic about terms we use. I love the NHAW Hasidim who seem to be doing won­der­ful things in their own way. But they’ll have to for­give me if I choose to qual­i­fy the term Hasid” before apply­ing it to them. And New, Hap­py, and World­ly are good qual­i­fiers to have, I think.

Shulem Deen is the found­ing edi­tor of Unpious, an online jour­nal for voic­es on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brook­lyn Rail, Tablet Mag­a­zineThe Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward, and else­where. He serves as a board mem­ber at Foot­steps, a New York City-based orga­ni­za­tion that offers assis­tance and sup­port to those who have left the ultra-Ortho­dox Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. He lives in Brook­lyn, New York.

Relat­ed Content:

Shulem Deen is a for­mer Skver­er Hasid and the found­ing edi­tor of Unpious. His work has appeared in The Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward, Tablet, and Salon. He lives in Brook­lyn, NY.