The Appeal of ‘Off the Derech’ Memoirs
“Off the Derech” (OTD) literature is a widely-popular genre among American Orthodox Jews. Including such bestsellers as Shulem Deen’s “All Who Go Do Not Return,” Deborah Feldman’s “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” and Hella Winston’s “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels,” the non-fiction novels typically present deeply personal, often traumatic accounts of ex-Haredim or ex-Hasidim that culminate in the protagonist's rejection of his or her dogmatic upbringings.
Datasets from several public libraries that serve major Orthodox Jewish communities attest to the OTD genre’s popularity. The Teaneck Public Library possesses nine total copies of the three aforementioned novels, which have been checked out 435 times by patrons. The Peninsula Public Library in Lawrence, New York owns thirteen copies and the Queens Library at Kew Gardens Hills owns twelve copies of the same novels, checked out 335 times and 629 times, respectively, by local patrons. The Finkelstein Memorial Library near Monsey, New York owns 20 copies of those same novels and, though the library was unwilling to share precise circulation details, one reference librarian assured that the novels have been read “many, many times.”
Putting aside a more rigorous comparative study to scientifically assess the degree of appeal, there is clearly a significant fascination in certain major Orthodox Jewish communities with OTD novels. What is it about OTD novels that so captivates the Orthodox Jewish readership?
After some consideration, four answers to this question present themselves.
Like any bestselling personal narratives, successful OTD novels are simply good stories. These novels masterfully employ clear organization and prose to bring to life compelling characters and their stories of conflict, redemption and all else that complex human experiences entail. In this sense, OTD novels engender broad appeal, irrespective of readers’ religious or cultural affiliations.
Another captivating element of OTD novels is the lens that they provide into the generally clandestine world of Haredim and Hasidim. Essentially cut off from the modern world, communities like New Square and Williamsburg are showcased by OTD novels and their up-close firsthand accounts. These communities naturally breed curiosity among outsiders who will never walk into the sacred study halls, synagogues or homes of ultra-Orthodox communities, let alone even manage to comprehend the communities’ basic properties due to deep cultural and language gaps. OTD novels bridge those gaps by offering processed accounts of mysterious communities, allowing the masses to digest, process and form opinions about their essences.
OTD novels offer another appeal specifically for Jews who lie denominationally to the left of the ultra-Orthodox. When Modern Orthodox, or even Yeshivish Jews who are modern compared to Haredim and Hasidim, read OTD novels, they experience a certain validation. OTD memoirists implicitly, and often explicitly, criticize hypocrisies and negative anachronisms inherent to the communities in which they grew up. Those Haredim are much more extreme than I, or I am not nearly as close-minded as this author’s parents and teachers, a comparatively modern individual might think when reading a traumatic account deriving from New Square or Brooklyn. Thus, OTD novels help religious Jews justify their own dogmas and practices as moderate in comparison with perceived extremists.
But OTD novels also breed, at least in some readers, a sense of admiration. Whereas readers may possess serious doubts about their religious lifestyle, they either have not yet, or perhaps never will, actualize their concerns into a bonafide rejection of Jewish practice. OTD novels allow these readers to live vicariously through other, braver individuals who bit the bullet and, despite inevitable backlash from their communities, left the fold.
To the extent that the third and fourth answers ring true, they should call attention to individuals’ and communities’ tendencies to divert attention from their own faults by pointing instead to those of others. It is easy to decry ethical lapses when they are presented about another community and in the organized form of a novel. Harder, though, is to put down the novel and instead constructively reflect internally.