Ex-Amish and Hasidim on NatGeo

I’m relaxing, watching television. Stumbled onto the tail end of a NatGeo program on ex-Amish, young men mostly, who have left their communities and are now earning their GEDs, learning to play basketball, etc. The basketball business reminded me of a news story I saw some years ago about two young women who had left a fundamentalist Mormon community with the assistance of another ex-fundamentalist woman. One of the first things they were shown doing upon their “escape” was going to get makeovers. Basketball for young men; makeovers for young women–these are the symbols of normality; these are the benefits of mainstream life; this is what you’ve been denied.

The program immediately following that one was about Hasidim, Only for God. I’m watching it now, trying to decide how useful it might be for teaching. A Life Apart is the classic documentary on American Hasidim, but this has the virtue of being more recent. As I’m typing, the program has moved into a segment on an organization for ex-Hasidim. As with the ex-Amish, they’re focusing on the exes’ sense of cultural deprivation and illiteracy: They don’t get pop cultural references; they don’t know how to interact with the opposite sex; the young men have a yeshiva education but otherwise are at a fifth-grade level.

Meh. I’m inclined to think it’s not pedagogically useful to reinforce what I suspect is students’ natural inclination to see religious minorities like these as outside the realm of “the normal,” ergo deprived or constricted. More useful to destabilize students’ assumptions about normalcy and the desirability of their own cultural goods. Also the assumption that the particular set of cultural norms that constrain their lives constitute “individual freedom.”

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