Friday, July 15, 2016

After Hasidic Suicide (Esti Weinstein), Israel Looks in the Mirror

NY Times   In death, Esti Weinstein has started a national conversation. A 50-year-old mother of eight, Ms. Weinstein disappeared on June 21 and was found dead in her car six days later in an apparent suicide. She left behind a note and a manuscript of a memoir. She also left a long list of questions that have rekindled animosity between Israel’s secular majority and its ultra-Orthodox minority.

Ms. Weinstein had been a member of the Hasidic sect known as Gur, Israel’s largest, and she came from a distinguished family within the community. She was married at age 17 by arrangement and thrown into a relationship that she ultimately decided she could not endure. She left her family and the closed-off community eight years ago to lead a secular life.

Her book — copies of which have been distributed by mail and social media throughout Israel — chronicles in detail some of the esoteric habits of the sect from which she escaped. (After I submitted this article, Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir Publishing, by which I am employed, acquired rights to the book.) The Gur sect is rigid in its approach to marriage and modesty, with the aim of reaching a higher level of “kedushah,” or holiness. As researchers have documented, and as newspaper reporters have further detailed, Gur Hasidim “have sexual intercourse only once a month” during which they aim “to minimize physical contact.” A Gur Hasidic man will not use his wife’s name and he will reportedly sometimes get prescriptions for antidepressants to suppress his sex drive.

Peeping into the bedrooms of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, and mocking their habits — real or imaginary — has long been something of an Israeli national pastime. In Ms. Weinstein’s suicide story, the news media found a gold mine. But the issues go beyond mere voyeurism. [...]

Nonreligious Israelis are fascinated by the growing Haredi community — more than 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population and projected to be more than 20 percent in 12 years — and are apprehensive about its future impact on Israel. The ultra-Orthodox community already has political power. The popular minister of health is a Gur Hasid. The mayor of Jerusalem was elected largely thanks to the resounding neutrality of the Gur rabbi-leader. Israel’s ruling coalition is supported by the two Haredi parties.

After Ms. Weinstein walked out on her Hasidic life, her ties with her old community and her family, including six of her seven children, were severed. (One of her daughters also decided to leave.) A suicide is always complicated, and Ms. Weinstein’s story of personal agony that began long before her departure from the Haredi community is no different. However, following her death, many secular Israelis came to believe she had been a casualty of ultra-Orthodoxy’s unbending, fanatical ways.

Her family and the Hasidic community are telling a different story. At Ms. Weinstein’s funeral, one of her daughters gave a eulogy saying that her mother “abandoned” her young children without much explanation, and was a troubled soul whose unique and tragic story is now being used in a culture war against the ultra-Orthodox.

The eulogy was an unusual public act for a Hasidic woman. It’s highly unlikely that Ms. Weinstein’s daughter would have delivered it without being asked to by a man of authority in her community. The Gur sect worries about its image among Israelis. Like all Haredi groups, it wants to shield itself from secular society and its unholy habits. It feels unsteady behind its walls of separation as the lure of the outside world — especially one in which Jewish life thrives — makes the habit of seclusion harder to explain and maintain. Ms. Weinstein ripped a hole in these walls and allowed other Israelis to see what’s behind.

The level of criticism and ridicule by secular Israel on the ways and habits of the Haredi community will determine the long-term impact of Ms. Weinstein’s tragic story on the community from which she fled. The more mockery Haredim have to stomach over their religious customs — even sexual practices that may seem bizarre to many Israelis — the more they will close themselves off to the outside world. The more Israelis indict them as a community for the heartbreaking death of a heartbroken mother, the more they will raise their guard and resist taking part in a very necessary conversation about openness. The more Haredis are demonized because of their choice to have a different lifestyle, the less safe they will feel to keep “integrating” into Israel’s larger society, as Israel wants them to do.

Israel will better serve Ms. Weinstein’s memory by refraining from sensationalizing her story and judging her and her family. At the same time, her final act handed Israel’s Haredim a mirror. It is now their turn to decide what they want it to reflect.


  1. "Israel will better serve Ms. Weinstein’s memory by refraining from sensationalizing her story"

    Unless charedim are involved. Because if it is, go right ahead, "sensationalise" any chasdic aspect of the story if you can, and turn it into a international hatefast.
    And call it journalism.

  2. Besides israeli society in general is the ger community, let alonethe leadership, doing anything, and or reconsidering its positions?


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