Hasidic Rebels, Badass Nuns, And The Dream Of Acceptance

I spend lots of time hanging around with groups where I don’t belong. Since I don’t belong anywhere, I guess I’m simply saying that I often hang out with groups. It all started with school—I passed many an hour there even though I didn’t fit in with the girls, the boys, the teachers, or even the lunch ladies, who used to get annoyed when I couldn’t find my way from the bathroom to the cafeteria. I loved boys’ clothes but hated playing or even discussing sports; hated girls’ clothes, jump rope, dolls, talking about celebrities, and debating which guys were good boyfriend material.

I enjoyed (or at least felt drawn to) worrying about death and wondering whether there was any overarching reason for my existence, but I knew enough not to mention such things. I was stuck in school for hours, day after day, and didn’t want to foment hatred against me.

If I could just slide through, watching and learning about my fellow humans, I’d be happy enough. They were fascinating, these humans. I learned how to hang back and just watch, a person on the margins, in the world but not of it, gaining insight into how it all worked. I got a sense for which students became popular and powerful—and accepted, intuitively, that I would never be among them. I’d have to change too much: pretend to like things that bored me; feign interest in popular trends; spend hours with other people after school when I could be alone, obsessing and panicking because one day I would die and life didn’t seem to be heading anywhere magical or even beautiful.

But I wasn’t a loner. I needed my alone time, but I also grew to need my time with other people: as an observer. As I moved into adulthood, I became somewhat fearless, willing to spend time in groups where I surely wouldn’t fit in—with people who thought they’d been abducted by aliens, or believed their religious texts were infallible and expressed all of everything, or liked to shop at Saks and get manicures, or… whatever. I’d tag along and soak in the experiences.

There’s an academic research method known as participant observation, which involves spending time with a group, living its life and following its rituals, while maintaining a certain psychological distance that allows for detached analysis. That’s me; that’s my world, whether I’m writing about a group or just going about my day.

Perhaps because I’ve spent so much time at the edge of various defined cliques—kind of in but mostly not—I feel drawn towards people who stay in strict religious communities while rebelling against them: The cloistered Roman Catholic nun who somehow smuggles in enough alcohol to feed her addiction. (I know a fascinating woman who managed to do this for years, before leaving the monastery, becoming a Protestant minister, and eschewing alcohol once and for all.) The Roman Catholic priest who sneaks in time with his boyfriend, breaking his vows and many laws of his faith, desperately wanting to maintain both his love life and his spiritual calling. (Years ago, I knew a guy in this very situation: his former boyfriend is a good friend of mine.)

When I lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, researching the teen girls’ lives within the Chabad sect of Hasidism, some of my most alive and joyful moments were spent at 888 Montgomery Street, home of a lively group of young Hasidic questioners. They were Chabad Hasidim born and bred, but they were different. Some had lost faith in Judaism as a whole. Others maintained a strong mystical sense but chafed against the community’s strict rules, wanting to get to know the other gender (this was the one mixed-gender social setting I found for Chabad teens and young adults), or ditch the skirts for a pair of jeans, or try non-kosher pizza, or check out a strip club (my one strip club experience happened with Chabad rebels), or—and this felt most important—explore ideas and passions that fell beyond Chabad sensibilities.

Crown Heights Hasidim who had never been to the famed 888 Montgomery Street apartment often heard rumors and assumed that it was a wild den of orgies and drug-induced lunacy, but the most common activity by far was vigorous, honest conversation among maybe 8 or 10 friends. The group ranged from late teens through perhaps late 20s and dubbed themselves “888” after their beloved hangout’s address. Their discussions were breathtaking adventures in emotional and intellectual depth. Many were disgruntled by the community’s obsession with their deceased rebbe. One brilliant young woman’s parents had kicked her out of her house for abandoning Judaic law and enrolling in a secular college, and she wanted to process her trauma among empathetic friends. A similarly brilliant young man’s analytical mind pushed him away from Judaic faith, but he still relished Talmudic study and Chabad culture; he loved sharing his observations with his friends.

They were creative souls: many wrote; a few were accomplished visual artists; most loved singing Hasidic songs with gusto. One night we all went to a now-defunct nightclub called Wetlands, and when we discovered a group of Jewish friends who were curious about Hasidic culture, my 888 pals formed a ring around them, belting out Hasidic tunes and proudly sharing that they were Chabad Hasidim despite their misleading dress and demeanor.

These Hasidim had a home. They questioned that home with like-minded buddies who understood their background and their misgivings. The simple fact of that questioning among friends created a home within a home: a small but warm place filled with understanding and a special kind of love that grows when problems come and caring people try to help.

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Crazy as it sounds, I was kind of jealous of them. I wanted to be part of an all-encompassing spiritual community and rail against it with friends who shared my passion. I craved something specific to challenge, so I could say: “I don’t fit in here” rather than “I fit in nowhere.” That would give my vague, empty sense of alienation a voice and a community.

Years ago, I visited a cloistered Roman Catholic monastery, and I had fantasies of joining and then inciting rebellion among my holy sisters. It was such a cozy, tight-knit community: they even got blessed by the Mother Superior before heading off to bed each night. I wanted to be blessed, too—after sneaking off with my fellow rebels to a secret corner where we’d eat forbidden treats (they followed a gruesome-sounding ascetic diet) and share tales of our growing discontent.

People who know me fairly well but not intimately often think I could find my home in academia. Academics, by definition, question, analyze, and stand apart from the world in order to get a dispassionate perspective. But I loathe academic jargon. When I was in graduate school, I had a terrible time forcing myself to do my required reading. I was convinced that many academic writers were deliberately arcane and confusing, using secret codes and terminology known only to a few who happened to be in their “field.” I didn’t want a field. I wanted to be a citizen and thinker of the universe, communicating with all who shared my interests and questions.

I do teach at a university, I’ve published a book that qualifies as academic, and, occasionally, I attend an academic conference. This year’s Association for Jewish Studies conference just ended, and, since it was right in Boston, I went. My main goal was to hang around the book exhibit and see whether any good publishers might find my two nearly completed (nonacademic) book manuscripts interesting. I gussied myself up (meaning I avoided jeans, sneakers, and sweatshirts: more than that is beyond my comfort zone and comprehension) and tried to schmooze with some editors.

While I was there, I figured I’d go to some panels, but I didn’t understand most of what was said. Should I admit that? It was surely my fault—for being too stupid, too prone to spacing out when every word of a dense essay counts, too ignorant of Judaic texts… or something. Granted, I chose all-dude panels involving academics with a capital “A” who have made Jewish textual study their life’s focus, while my work on those matters ended with my Bat Mitzvah at a Reform temple. But still. I was kind of expecting to understand at least the thrust of what was said, rather than just picking out kernels and thinking: “I know that word! I understood that sentence! Go me.”

I would have thought that speakers on a public panel would, I don’t know, explain stuff, ask if people were familiar with certain arcane terms, maybe even define certain concepts before beginning their talks. Fascinatingly, the conference’s keynote panel explored the question of whether Judaic studies scholars should be breaking out of their shells and speaking to wider audiences, not just to 20 or 30 people who happen to be in their fields. I’m not sure I’d say they should be doing that, necessarily. Some people might enjoy being part of a tiny, elite fraternity where they can express the full complexity of their thoughts and not have to dumb things down for someone like me who might swing by a talk out of curiosity. But let’s just say those panels reinforced my general sense that I was an outsider hanging out at the conference, not one of the bunch.

And yet… even this conference had a small band of rebels. They did something daring, and I’m delighted to say that I was there. One of these questioning spirits was concerned that an article about the event might jeopardize reputations, so I’m not saying much—except to clarify that it was 100% ethical and friendly by most standards. It was only badass within the bounds of specific Judaic law. I commit this act all the time and happily tell my parents about it. My father enjoys it as well, and my fifth-grade nephew has said that a version of it is his favorite thing in the world. But in the context of a Judaic studies conference, it was… well, I found it hilarious.

No one was hurt, and everyone seemed content. And I came alive, because I was immersed in something I love: small-group rebellion against a strict culture, by people who want to remain part of that culture, at least on some level. Boundary-pushing that, paradoxically, reinforces the boundaries, by emphasizing just how entrenched they are.

This rebellion had nothing to do with the academic world, and the people in that group seemed ensconced in the scholarly sphere. Several asked me where I was—and at first I was confused: Did they want to know where I lived? Or maybe they thought I looked spacey and wondered where my mind had landed during my daydream? But no, their question was very specific: Where did I teach, and in what department? It was funny and telling that their minds went in one direction, and mine tended to move in others.

Maybe one day I’ll find my group, rebel against it, and feel at home in a band of fellow rule-breakers. But that’s doubtful. I’d be happy just to feel that I’m discovering my life’s mission and thriving within it. I don’t need to rebel or even to belong. I need to be me—and feel appreciated in that shiningly specific role. I’m not there, but I am a relentless seeker.