Date of this Version
Published in Contemporary Sociology 47:2 (2018), pp 170-171. doi 10.1177/0094306118755396g
Lynn Davidman begins Becoming Un- Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews with a powerful story from her own life. She, like the respondents whose interviews provide the data for the book, chose to leave the Hasidic Jewish community in which she was raised. Davidman uses her own story and the stories of others to shine a light on an understudied religious community. In doing so, she richly illustrates a complex definition of what religion is: a combination of shared rituals and embodied practices, in addition to prescribed beliefs. This is why leaving religion involves more than losing faith. As Davidman argues, leaving ultra- Orthodox Judaism requires significant bodily transformations that affect the mundane and day-to-day (like getting dressed or preparing a meal) as much as life’s monumental occasions (like a wedding or birth of a child).
If the book’s rich descriptions are its strength, a lack of sociological theory is a weakness. Davidman engages with Goffman’s concepts of performativity and front/ back stage as well as concepts coined by Durkheim related to ritual and ‘‘collective effervescence’’ to interpret the narratives presented in her book but does little to extrapolate this analysis to broader implications for sociology. For scholars who do not share an interest in Orthodox Jewish communities, they would have to make connections themselves to common themes among other kinds of ‘‘defectors.’’ One attempt at these connections was Davidman’s persistent analogy to LGBTQ coming-out stories, but I found this to be superficial and distracting given the clinical and outdated description she presents. One area where I wish she would have developed a theoretical discussion is around her use of the term ‘‘passing,’’ or how her respondents deftly navigated multiple and varying social settings.
Davidman’s book presents a moving portrait of what it is like to leave Hasidic Judaism. It is a book that is felt and will surely find a place among readers in Jewish studies and those interested in conservative or Orthodox religious communities.