Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox JudaismSchneur Zalman Newfield
Those who exit a religion—particularly one they were born and raised in—often find themselves at sea in their efforts to transition to life beyond their community. In Degrees of Separation, Schneur Zalman Newfield, who went through this process himself, interviews seventy-four Lubavitch and Satmar ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews who left their communities. He presents their motivations for leaving as well as how they make sense of their experiences and their processes of exiting, detailing their attitudes and opinions regarding their religious upbringing. Newfield also examines how these exiters forge new ways of being that their upbringing had not prepared them for, while also considering what these particular individuals lose and retain in the exit process.
Degrees of Separation presents a comprehensive portrait of the prolonged state of being “in-between” that characterizes transition out of a totalizing worldview. What Newfield discovers is that exiters experience both a sense of independence and a persistent connection; they are not completely dislocated from their roots once they “arrive” at their new destination. Moreover, Degrees of Separation shows that this process of transitioning identity has implications beyond religion.
“Degrees of Separation is an original and imaginative investigation of the character and consequences of exiting closed and closely knit religious communities. On the basis of extensive interviews and observation of two Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York—Lubavitch and Satmar—Newfield examines the experiences and consequences of exiting. He rejects the taken-for-granted assumption that exit can be clean and decisive and hence prefers to talk about ‘exiting.’ Like whistleblowers, exiting individuals are typically subject to symbolic attacks and are often regarded as psychologically unstable by the community. Exiting can never be complete, because individuals have deeply ingrained habits acquired from early socialization in the community. Degrees of Separation is not simply a study of religious communities; it offers important insights into membership of and exit from any community or ‘total institution.’” —Bryan S. Turner, Presidential Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and author of The Religious and the Political: A Comparative Sociology of Religion
“Degrees of Separation is a nuanced, sensitive book about ‘exiters’—those who leave their Hasidic communities of origin—for all kinds of reasons. Newfield’s account moves beyond a simple binarism, that of staying or going; instead he foregrounds the complicated ways that exiters experience long-term liminality, simultaneously attached to and independent of the totalizing communities in which they grew up. Newfield has written an accessible, fascinating book sure to be of great interest to a wide audience—a real accomplishment.” —Ayala Fader, Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University and author of Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age
"(T)his book is an important contribution to the field and is ideal for graduate or advanced undergraduate courses in the sociology of religion or social psychology. It is an interesting read, the writing is accessible and relatively jargon free, and Newfield allows the data to do most of the talking. Moreover, as an exiter himself, Newfield writes in an engaging, empathic way that does not exoticize the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community. Overall, this book will make a great addition to the library of anyone interested in religious exit, identity transformation, and the social construction of reality."
"Newfield treats both his subjects and their former communities with fairness and empathy. He presents the world of these exiters as they see and experience it, with admirable clarity and honesty. Degrees of Separation is truly an excellent book. It follows the gaze of Newfield’s subjects back at their former communities. But it’s the complexities of the hybrid lives they are living now that are the real and enduring revelations here."
“Degrees of Separation offers a fresh perspective on…following those who have chosen to exit Hasidic communities…. The book takes readers on a generally convincing journey into how exiters become something new while never fully separating from the people they used to be…. Degrees of Separation is a welcome addition to a nascent body of literature looking into Jewish ultra-Orthodox life from the vantage point of its restless, unruly, and permeable social margins.”
—American Journal of Sociology