A sociologist among the Hasidim

Credit: Philippe Montbazet

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Sociologist Sandrine Malarde has devoted her master’s studies to the phenomenon of Hasidic Jews leaving their community. She has just published a new French-language book, La vie secrète des hassidim.

Sandrine Malarde offers a rare view of the Montreal Hasidic community in La vie secrète des hassidim, which has just been published by Les Éditions XYZ. The book, which reprises Malarde's master's thesis at Université de Montréal in 2011 and includes many additional testimonials and observations, is the result of fieldwork to better understand a community that outwardly expresses its cultural and religious identity. Arriving in Montreal from France in 2006, the author (currently a teaching assistant at UdeM and instructor at Collège de Maisonneuve and Cégep Gérald-Godin) was struck by the Hasids of Outremont with “their somewhat obsolete clothes that in themselves are testament to the passage of centuries without concern for the passage of time.”

During her master’s studies, under the supervision of Jacques Hamel, she wanted to meet members of the community, but was unable to do so through the usual means. So she set about gathering testimonials from men who had left the community and who agreed to answer her questions.

For Le Devoir literary critic Louis Cornelier, Malarde’s book “is a fascinating foray into the heart of a mystifying world.” We met with Malarde in early November, a few days after a referendum in which the residents of Outremont refused to allow a synagogue to be built on Bernard Avenue.

Q. Why study the Hasids of Outremont?

A. Because they have fascinated me since my arrival in Montreal 10 years ago. It’s impossible not to notice them, hurrying down the street and avoiding eye contact with other pedestrians. I found them both unsettling and remarkable: they live in the middle of the city while remaining faithful to an ultra-orthodox ideology and religion. They have their own religious schools and have to pray whenever they do almost anything. The women of these communities, who have an average of six kids, wear long skirts and stockings in the middle of the summer. At first, they all seem the same, but they show complete solidarity. I wanted to know more about them; as a sociologist, I am attracted by social phenomena, and I had one right in front of me. How does this micro-society manage to live according to its values in a changing world?

Q. How were your received by the Hasids?

A. In fact, I did not get any reply to my requests for interviews, and since I was pressed for time, I relied on people who had voluntarily left their group. As such, my master’s consists of the testimonials of eight “ex-Hasids." It’s not easy to leave a controlling group in which individual freedom is almost non-existent.

The chapter “Leaving One’s Own” accounts for a third of La vie secrète des hassidim. But the book presents a broader view of Hasidism — its origin, its various current forms and its relationship with the outside world.

I think the community is not as closed as the media would suggest. In any case, there seems to be a growing openness towards other citizens. We see it in Outremont's parks, where the children as well as the adults are talking more and more.

Q. What would have been your position if you had voted in the November 20 referendum?

A. I’m a little uncomfortable answering your question. On the one hand, constructing a place of worship on a commercial street like Bernard Avenue is not ideal; even the Hasids agree with that. However, they were denied access to residential neighbourhoods because of a municipal zoning amendment. A location on Laurier Avenue was given up for similar reasons. There were no other options. I hope they find a place to practice their religion, because it’s a fundamental right in Canada.

You have to recognize, though, that the demographic growth of Hasids in Montreal raises awkward problems. There are currently around 20,000 Hasids, and it is estimated that this number could double in 20 years. They obviously cannot all live in the boroughs where they are already highly concentrated. Cohabitation problems may grow.

It is not insurmountable. A few years ago, a Hasidic woman created a group called Friends of Hutchison Street to increase the links between the two communities. I believe this is the kind of initiative that can bring hope.

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