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The lost tribe

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IN a dark little bar on the outskirts of her neighborhood, "Dini" trades her thick flesh-colored stockings and navy suit for high heels and short skirt. Back home in Hasidic Williamsburg, she's the model of piousness - except for the dark towels covering her windows when she's watching her illicit TV, sneaked into her apartment in a garbage bag.

So goes the secret double life of a Hasidic rebel in the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect, whose members live in a time warp and shun contact with the outside world.

A controversial new book, "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels," takes a bold look at the handful of Hasids who just don't fit into their close-knit but strictly religious communities. Author Hella Winston spent many months exploring this largely unknown Orthodox underworld for her doctoral thesis at City University of New York, and found stories of Hasids hoping to either cope or escape.

Some of the subjects, like Malkie Schwartz, boldly rip away their fur hats, wigs and prayer shawls and walk away from family, friends and the only community they've ever known, building new lives on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Others, like "Yossi," shave their beards and stop believing in a "Torah life," but struggle to find their way in the outside world, remaining with a foot uncomfortably in each.

And then there are married fathers like Yitzach, who doesn't dare rebel openly - but secretly dreams of getting a tattoo. Others take their fantasies a step farther, watching movies and reading non-religious books, changing into jeans and gelling back their sidelocks on the subway to Manhattan - and blogging about their lives on the Internet.

Although she's been taking heat from the ultra-Orthodox at book readings and Jewish radio shows, Winston insisted she's not attacking Hasidism.

"By no means do I have an agenda to condemn these communities or the religion," says Winston, who's Jewish. "I'm trying to show a side of things that really hasn't been out there - to show there are some serious problems and people are suffering."

The book's main character, Yossi (like most of her subjects, Winston changed his name to protect his identity) was a respected young scholar from the ultra-secretive Bobov sect, trapped in a loveless arranged marriage and a faith that no longer made sense to him.

After getting divorced and shaving his beard, Yossi's father kicked him out of the house and cut him loose. These days, Yossi mostly wanders around the city, looking for free things to do, and dreaming of going to college and becoming a filmmaker. At night, he hangs out in an East Village bar, changing into his religious garb for the subway ride back to Boro Park, where he lives with his grandmother.

"Some people make a religion of leaving - they want nothing more to do with the neighborhood," says the mild-mannered youth, over cheese blintzes in a Boro Park eatery. "But I come to Boro Park, I still schmooze."

Now that he has left, Yossi knows the tell-tale signs of other Hasids in rebellion. Walking down a residential street off bustling 13th Avenue, the heart of Boro Park, he points out suspected double-livers.

"That guy, he had a nice trim beard and short sidelocks," Yossi says, pointing to a young man hurrying down the street. "If someone trims, you know he's up to something."

Yossi still has a Yiddish accent, but in secular clothes, he walks and stands differently. When he's in a bookstore, coffee shop or even a nightclub, he sometimes spots other Hasidic rebels just by their posture. He's been shocked to discover the number of fellow travelers.

"I see it's not such a small community as they tell you - and there's always coming new people," he says. "I thought I might have a hard time adjusting but I found people from all communities are the same. They have the same craziness."

The book brings out some fascinating things about Hasids' reaction to the larger world.

Hasidic men are notorious night owls, accustomed to big gatherings with alcohol and dancing. So it's only natural they gravitate to nightclubs to recreate some semblance of the social life left behind.

And secret male TV watchers love Jennifer Aniston on "Friends," because her hair looks a little like the wigs Hassidic women don to cover their shaved heads. But "Seinfeld," the quintessential TV show about New York Jews isn't so popular, according to Yossi.

But Winston was amazed not by the differences but the similarities as she researched "Unchosen."

"The most striking to me was just how much like everybody else they are," Winston says. "They like the same kinds of things the rest of us do - like the Yankees or "Friends."

Hasid sects & the city

Hasids are ultra-Orthodox Jews whose members are dedicated to a "Torah" life. They worship with fervent prayer, song and dance and mystical devotion. Men wear dark suits and hats, with long beards and sidelocks. Women dress modestly and wear wigs or scarves.

About 200,000 Hasids live in the New York City area, mostly in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Boro Park and Rockland and Orange counties. Sects are named after the Eastern European regions where they originated. Three of the most common in New York City:

Satmar - The largest sect, originated in Hungary and is among the most conservative. Its members are anti-Israel.

Bobov - From Poland, this group is less political.

Lubavitch - A Russian sect, it's concentrated in Crown Heights and is considered the most open to outsiders. Members try to recruit other Jews.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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