After a long stretch of positive but distracting life events (a new job, a move), I find myself with enough mental room to rededicate myself to book reviews. Fortunately I have a backlog to review so I’ll jump on in with a book that deeply irritated me since I find a scathing review can be easier to write. The Pious Ones is an overview of the Hasidic community for the general reader. This is one of my main special interest areas, so I know a lot about this topic and was interested to fill in any gaps. I will say that I did learn some new facts and connected some dots (for example, I am a fan of the singer Mordechai Ben David and this book filled in a bunch of his family history for me). The book was readable and I flew through it quickly. I like it when non-fiction focuses more on individual stories and The Pious Ones had plenty of interesting capsule biographies. But this book had such glaring flaws that I don’t think I could in good conscience recommend it as a beginner book on the subject. You’d be better off with Holy Days, The Rebbe’s Army, or Who Will Lead Us. Or if you’re going down the interest rabbit hole like me, a subscription to Mishpacha will do wonders to give you a more up to date picture of the Orthodox world (given, with its own highly specific viewpoint and without any negativity at all).
First of all, this book felt like a cash grab to me because it’s such a clear reuse of his New York Times columns. He doesn’t have a bibliography and he keeps citing his own columns from 30 years ago — which is fine, but it doesn’t seem like he widened his scope beyond slightly updating them and stitching them together. And there are typos throughout, which added to the sense that the book was rushed (for example, Shulem Deen’s first name is misspelled within a few pages of being correctly spelled). I will always excuse one error but by the time you hit three in a book of rehashed 30-year old newspaper columns, it starts to grate. He also repeats definitions over and over again — I found myself getting irritated as he defined yeshivish or Hasidic for the third time. This also seemed to speak towards a lack of editing. A lot of the book felt like it was retreading the same ground because he kept redefining the same terms and repeating the same arguments.
My main issue with this book is his attitude towards Hasidic/Orthodox people. He keeps describing them as “scuttling,” which I felt like was a charged term to use since it’s usually used for insects, and the comparison of Jews to cockroaches or vermin is historically freighted. I am not accusing him of anti-Semitism — he talks movingly of his own family ties to Orthodoxy and his family history, so I don’t think he was using these terms consciously or maliciously at all — but there is a long-standing tension between the more mainstream Judaism of the Reform and Conservative movements, and a sense that the Ultra-Orthodox are their embarrassing backwards relatives. That was the loud undercurrent of this book — count the number of times he refers to them as “peculiar,” “blinkered,” or “an odd curiosity.” A lot of this book felt like gawking at a safari and saying look how weird these people are, which I really didn’t like. It felt exploitative and reductive. Also the amount of time he keeps saying women were “bewigged” really bugged me. I get it, the women wear wigs. If he had talked to one woman and asked how she felt about it, then fine, but he didn’t seem to care, he just wanted to remind the reader that these people wear wigs over and over to make them seem different and bizarre. And considering that he talked to Chabad Lubavitchers, he definitely had the opportunity, but decided to focus on the more salacious aspect of the Messianism around the Rebbe’s death. I also think he contributes to the painting of the entire Orthodox community as Hasidic while skimming over the Yeshivish/Litvak side, but that’s a whole other rant.
I give this two stars — one star for giving me new facts, and one star because it was readable. Minus three stars for a dismissive and reductive attitude, laziness, and my general irritation.
Warnings for: sexual abuse, murder of a child, sexism, upsetting discussions of the Holocaust