RBL: In Unchosen (see review excerpt in Religion BookLine), you look at some of the young outcasts and dissenters in the Hasidic community. What made you become interested in these Hasidic rebels?
Winston: Initially, I was going to do my dissertation on the lives of Hasidic women. It took me three months to even find a woman that I could begin to talk to. The very first time I really talked to her, she hosted a dinner where she invited many other women. It was a fascinating night. I was excited that some of the women were willing to make appointments to talk to me again. But when I was alone with the hostess and her daughter later, a whole different story emerged. These were religiously observant women, but they sat down for an hour and a half and poured out their stories of not conforming. The daughter was much more willing to be critical of the whole system. The more I started to interview other people, the more these things would slip out. I began to focus on those issues—their doubts, their questions.
RBL: What surprised you most in your research?
Winston: I knew vaguely about women having to go to a ritual bath, but I didn’t know many details. According to the laws of family purity, there’s a prohibition of any contact between husband and wife, not only in the time of the wife’s period, but also during the week after. So there’s a whole question if the woman is somewhat irregular, or she’s spotting. Then you take this matter to an authority, who is always a man in these ultra-orthodox communities. They’re trained to look at a stain for a few seconds and determine whether it’s uterine bleeding or something else. The women I asked about this did not seem remotely bothered by it. They talked very openly about it. In a way, it’s a surprisingly public issue whether a woman is unclean, though it’s hard for outsiders to understand.
RBL: The documentary film Trembling Before G-d brought Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox homosexuality to the fore in a new way. What were your findings about Hasidic homosexuality?
Winston: I found out that some people were very open about acknowledging homosexuality. The attitude was kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Now, I was speaking to a lot of fairly open-minded people. They know who the gay people are, and as long as they’re not calling attention to themselves, there’s a level—not of acceptance, but of acknowledgment.
Since there are so many variables that go into the decision to leave these communities, I think it would be a mistake to even try to attribute it to any one thing—like, for example, sexual orientation. Among those I interviewed, nobody discussed their sexual orientation as the main reason for leaving, though I did interview several people who identify themselves as gay or lesbian.
RBL: It’s unusual for a scholar who is still finishing the doctorate to use dissertation research to write an accessible, popular book. How and why did that happen?
Winston: I have a very close friend from high school who is a literary agent. So throughout this whole dissertation process, we kept meeting as friends and I would tell him about my research. He encouraged me to write a book. He wanted me to send him my dissertation proposal, but it put him right to sleep. It was theoretical and filled with academic language. He showed me that the average layperson would love the stories but want them presented in a completely different way.
I love doing research, and appreciate the amount of time a scholar can get to do a project. I also like the theoretical frameworks and find them useful. On the other hand, it’s always really disturbed me that most academic work winds up in journals that no one ever reads. I think it’s a shame, because there’s so much knowledge that doesn’t get to the people.
I also felt an obligation to the subjects themselves. My advisers were saying to wait, and to try to publish later with a good academic press. I felt that the people I had interviewed had given me their stories and many hours of their lives, so I had an obligation to not let their stories sit in a box.
RBL: In the book you mention some of the forbidden blogs where Hasids write anonymously about their struggles. Can you give us a link?
Winston: One guy I know personally calls himself Shtreimel, which is the fur hat they wear. His blog is hassid.blogspot.com, and he has links to a lot of other really good blogs. When I wanted to meet this blogger Shtreimel, I e-mailed him a lot of times. It was when I e-mailed him on a Saturday—the Sabbath—that he realized that I wasn’t a Hasidic spy who was out to get him.