“Off the Derekh”: Losing and Leaving Religion

Resource Kit by
Josh MossJessica Kirzane

Module Content

Introduction

Introduction

Hasidic communities typically value privacy, discourage interaction with the non-Hasidic world, and communicate internally in Yiddish. Consequently, information about the personal lives and close relationships of Hasidim is not readily available, and the information we do have comes primarily from atypical members of the community such as those who leave.

Recently, a small body of testimonial literature written by former Hasidim who have gone “off the derekh” (off the path) has developed. These narratives are valuable because they provide a glimpse into a Jewish community that many people know little about. They are universally compelling inasmuch as they highlight coming-of-age struggles, social and familial turmoil, and the shifting nature of individual identity. Those who remain in the Hasidic community might justifiably point out that these “off the derekh” narratives represent exceptions to the rule, since the vast majority of community members do not leave. Critics also note that these memoirs, written for outsiders looking into the Hasidic world, tend to emphasize the aspects of Hasidic life that readers may find most surprising, foreign, and exotic, turning the Hasidic community into an object of entertainment and celebrating leaving Hasidic life as a story of triumph. Read judiciously however, these narratives offer insights into Hasidic cultural and social structures. They are also personal accounts of transformation that might be relevant for anyone struggling to navigate between tradition and modernity, familial loyalty and individual identity, or religious and secular commitments.

Tales of young individuals leaving their religious communities and traditions for a modern, secular society and worldview are not only part of the 21st century landscape of Jewish literature; they are at the heart of modern Jewish literature in general. This kit makes the connection between contemporary works by ex-Hasidim and narratives, both fictional and autobiographical, by Jewish writers from earlier times, who experienced the confrontation between a religious upbringing and an increasingly secular world. 

Thank you to the Forward Association for generously sharing the cover image to this resource kit.

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