While the popular memoir about leaving the ḥasidic fold is almost as old as Ḥasidism itself, the past decade has seen somewhat of a boom in this genre. But Schneur Zalman Newfield’s Degrees of Separation provides something these works do not: a measured sociological study of the phenomenon. Moshe Krakowski writes in his review:
[Newfield’s story] is not only novel and fascinating, but inconsistent in significant ways with those often assumed by media and popular literature (including many of the ex-ḥasidic memoirs). Many of Newfield’s respondents hold warm feelings toward their former communities. Abuse and scandal do not dominate their accounts. Their departures from ḥasidic life were not frequently marked by rupture and animosity. The vast majority of his subjects maintain relationships with their families and have been neither rejected socially nor in some way excommunicated formally.
Newfield is admirably honest about his data and writes with balance and empathy. Still, in a few places, the book’s portrait of ḥaredi life feels incomplete. . . . For example, Newfield argues that ultra-Orthodox life is inherently “anti-intellectual.” . . . He presumes that because ḥasidic students are not allowed to question the authority of religious texts and authority figures, their study is not intellectual, but this misunderstands what it means to engage in intellectual study, reasoning, and thinking. The reality is that students in ḥaredi schools, including ḥasidic schools, routinely engage in incredibly difficult and high-level intellectual work.
[Moreover], in leaving one community for another, one can easily see the norms of the new community as, well, normative. In framing the book around the narratives of exiters—looking back at their former communities—Newfield loses sight of the fact that they haven’t just left one community, but they’ve joined another.