Right of Response: Sociology at its best

I spent nearly three years conducting my research, interviewing close to 80 'rebels'.

haredi 88 (photo credit: )
haredi 88
(photo credit: )
In his recent op-ed which discussed my book, Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Marvin Schick grossly distorts my work and its aims, accusing me of indulging in stereotyping and implying that I and/or my subjects have lied in reporting their experiences. As I clearly state in the introduction, the narratives presented in the book are those of a handful of men and women struggling either to live within or leave their native hassidic communities. I clearly indicate that these are the stories of individuals and make repeated efforts not to generalize to the entire community when describing their experiences. Indeed, I am somewhat amazed that I have to point out to Dr. Schick that presenting the experiences of individual people based on extensive interviewing and participant observation is established and legitimate sociological practice. While I certainly believe that it would be fruitful, as Schick suggests, to compare my findings to those that deal with defections among the Amish or Mormons, the fact is that this research was on hassidic "rebels." Other scholars have and will continue to research these other groups, adding to a body of literature that will facilitate such comparisons. HOWEVER, what seems to disturb Schick the most is his fear that some people might read what I have written and make generalizations about the larger Orthodox or Jewish world. The fact is, one cannot completely control how or by whom one's research is used. However, in my view, this does not justify suppressing one's findings, particularly when they have the potential to help the very people whose experiences Schick is so willing to dismiss as fiction. I would like to give Schick the benefit of the doubt and attribute his reactions to some of what I wrote to a lack of familiarity with contemporary hassidic life. Indeed, I spent nearly three years conducting my research, interviewing close to 80 "rebels" and contented hassidim combined, as well as dozens of researchers and social service professionals who work closely with members of these communities. I find it astounding that Schick claims that it is "inane" and "false" of me to assert that most young hassidim are formally taught almost nothing about sex before marriage. The fact is, not only is this confirmed by the findings of many other researchers, but by the explicit policies and practices of these communities themselves. Further, I am not sure how he can argue that reporting on some young men's reactions to learning about sex is "stereotypical writing at its worst." By his own definition, stereotyping is making an "accurate statement about wrongful behavior committed by one or more members of a group that is presented as characteristic of the entire group." While I cannot for the life of me see what about sexual ignorance constitutes "wrongful behavior," my use of the word "some" clearly indicates that these reactions cannot be generalized. (And I would also ask who is stereotyping when Schick declares that most liberal Jews are hostile to hassidim and concludes that because I am a liberal Jew, this must be the case for me as well?) What's most troubling are Schick's allegations that I and my subjects are not telling the truth. He has nothing on which to base these very serious accusations, other than his "guesses" and "assumptions." Indeed, the fact that he believes that someone who uses "foul language" and has a "raging libido" must be a liar betrays a serious flaw in his thinking. Either that, or it represents a calculated attempt to take the focus off the message by discrediting the messenger. (That he also refers to this individual as "dysfunctional and repugnant" demonstrates a stunning lack of compassion). Sadly, this is a tactic very familiar to those I have written about, many of whom were - and in some cases continue to be - subjected to similar accusations aimed at undermining their credibility and keeping them silent. Schick declares that the problems in the hassidic community should not be swept under the carpet, but treated "truthfully and with empathy." On this, I wholeheartedly agree. However, his reaction to my book - which I believe does just what he advocates - leaves me wondering how this is possible if he is unwilling to grant any credibility to those who speak about such problems. Perhaps Schick would like to read the dozens of appreciative letters I have received, particularly from hassidim themselves, thanking me for bringing these stories to light, and lauding the courage of those who were willing to share them.