Living Like a Hasid, Thinking Like a Heretic

Journalist Pearl Gabel documents Jewish men living double lives.

hasidim-top.jpgGuests stand outside a fundraiser for alleged child molester Nechemya Weberman. The trial left many Hasids feeling exposed, and uncovered schisms in the community. (Pearl Gabel)

Pearl Gabel is driving around Hasidic Williamsburg, her SUV gliding through this Brooklyn shtetl. The 35,000 religious Jews here live much the way their ancestors did in Eastern Europe, adhering to a strict code that instructs them to eat, dress, speak, marry, and pray in certain manners, and advises them to shun all alien ideas.

The community's secrets -- its conflicts, its imperfections -- are generally swept quickly behind closed doors.

Until this December, when a State Supreme Court jury convicted Nechemya Weberman, a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidic community, of sexually abusing a young girl while working as her therapist. The trial left much of the community feeling exposed before the press, not only revealing the existence of crime within a seemingly pious polity of perfection, but also uncovering schisms within a group that has worked arduously to present a united front.

Gabel covered the trial for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Daily News, photographing Weberman, as well as the conflict between his supporters and detractors.

But the fractures, which were new to many, did not surprise Gabel, who had spent the past seven years documenting Hasidic communities. More specifically, she spent hundreds of hours interviewing men in their 20s and 30s who consider themselves Hasidic heretics.

"Many are in agony over the situation that they're in," said Shulem Deen, the founder of the web site Hasidic Rebel and one of Gabel's subjects. Sins can range from the mundane -- reading a Hardy Boys novel -- to the profane -- feeling up goyim in bathrooms and soliciting prostitutes on dark streets. The consequences for such transgressions range from a verbal lashing from the rebbe to ex-communication.

deen2.jpgShulem Deen, raised in a Hasidic family, left his community and founded the blog Hasidic Rebel. (Pearl Gabel)

Gabel began the project, in part, out of anger: "I was angry that they didn't like me," said Gabel, who is Jewish. "I'm a reporter. I can get through to everybody. But man, I have never come up against such a brick wall as with Hasidic people."

Finally, in 2005, she approached a young black-hatted man sitting on the Brooklyn waterfront. He shocked her by responding to her questions. A relationship began.

"People live very happy lives here," she said on a recent Sunday, her car moving past Schreiber Fruits, past Oneg Heimishe Bakery, past Yaffa Wigs.

But a life without experimentation is not for everyone. "Human nature is human nature," said Gabel, "even if for your whole life you were raised without certain stimulations, and with this code of conduct, there's still that urge for other things."

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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