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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2011
Number 75
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Hasidic Women: Boundaries and Empowerment

A review essay by Shulamit S. Magnus

Mitzvah Girls: Bringing up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Princeton University Press.

Ayala Fader’s award winning Mitzvah Girls, based on her doctoral dissertation, is an ethnography of girls and women in the Bobover Hasidic community of Boro Park, Brooklyn and the ways that they are socialized and socialize others, to construct Hasidic society. It is a fascinating book whose purpose, Fader says, is to exemplify one major case of an “alternative modernity,” since as she shows, Bobov Hasidism seeks messianic redemption yet depends, in highly specific ways, on participation in and knowledge of secular modernity. Fader places her work in a school of literature contesting the notion of a “singular Western modernity against which non–Western others in postcolonial contexts react”—a construct its critics, including Fader, say essentializes Western modernity.

Fader’s research certainly contests and complicates any such simple dualism and brings the culture of Hasidic girls and women into the discourse about “parallel” or “alternative” modernities, major accomplishments. It also sheds important new light on contemporary Hasidism through its focus on female social organization and culture and the pivotal role that women play in constructing the gendered, hierarchical roles that underlie Hasidism, without which it could not function. Fader gives important comparative information about girls and women in other Hasidic groups to the right and left of Bobov, and about unaffiliated Hasidim (yes, all these exist), as well as about non–Hasidic Orthodox women who intersect with the Bobovers in their schools, as teachers (if nothing else, the book is an excellent primer in the heterogeneity of Hasidism, and Orthodoxy as a whole). Thus, we see Bobov society on a continuum of Hasidic and Orthodox attitudes and practices, which allows more nuanced appreciation of their particular approach to Hasidic world production and maintenance, to borrow Peter Berger.

Fader turns to advantage her disbarment as a woman from an ethnographic study of Hasidic men and the male rituals, texts, institutions, and authorities that are the more common stuff of studies of Hasidism, shifting the focus to everyday life in women’s domains: at home, on the playground, the street, and in particular, in girls’ schools, where women shape values, identity, and culture, and themselves. Fader spent years as a participant–observer in these settings, learning the languages (plural) needed to gain trust and a nuanced understanding of what Bobover women were doing, with what methods and understanding, as they seek to fulfill what they see as a divinely ordained mandate, mediated to them through the authority of their husbands, rabbis, and ultimately, that of the Bobover rebbe, to raise “the next generation of Hasidic Jews”—the only true Jews, they believe, whose Judaism can, or should, endure.

As a result, her book is also a significant contribution to the study of women and religion, in particular, to seeing how women are made dynamic agents in a patriarchal, utterly androcentric religious system, against common stereotypes of them as simply dominated and oppressed there. It is from the perspective of someone particularly interested in this last area that I come to this review.

Among the many strengths of this book is its methodological transparency. Ms. Fader opens with an excursus about Yiddish, since knowing variants of this language is crucial to her ability to carry out her work, and having some sense of it is crucial to her readers’ ability to understand what they are “hearing.” Throughout the book, Fader presents transliterated and translated conversation and other exchanges in Yiddish and Yiddish–inflected English recorded during her field work. Thus, readers are not asked to accept Fader’s interpretations or assertions based on these data, shortcomings of more anecdotal books about Hasidic society (and its dropouts), but see for themselves what her subjects said, and what Ms. Fader is making of it, why, and how.

As part of her methodological honesty in doing “ethical anthropology,” Fader reveals her own positioning as a researcher: she is Jewish, secular, urban, of a certain generation, and of course, a highly educated, professional woman. She becomes engaged and is married while doing her fieldwork, which includes a focus on these life stages among the Bobover, information she shares not only with readers, but with her informants. Fader considers the role that her identities and emotions (she becomes close to some of her informants, inviting one to her wedding), play in her field work, and in how she writes this book: what she chooses to engage, and to leave unengaged, particularly “political and religious convictions” of her informants that she says, without elaboration, are “troubling” to her. The larger implications of her subjects’ worldview and behavior for Judaism or Jewish life as a whole, and for the place of Jews in the larger world, fall outside the purview of this book, though they are certainly worthy of, indeed, call for consideration.

In her Introduction, Fader raises the seemingly counter–intuitive possibility that the Bobover women’s commitment “to civilize the secular world through Jewish practice has the potential to create an alternative religious modernity” (my emphasis). Indeed, the book is a substantial argument against simplistic, popular dismissals of Hasidism as throwback, as pre–modern, or even as traditional. Instead, Fader, citing other scholars of religion, calls the Hasidim “nonliberal” (rejecting the more popular term, “fundamentalist”), a function of their rejection of self–realization and individual autonomy as ends in themselves; how these values are adopted and made part of Hasidic worldview is a major focus of the book. The Bobover’s religious and political stance requires women—but not men—not to reject the modern, secular world, but quite the contrary, to engage with it—in order to enable male preoccupation with the sacred, a male–specific religious mandate and the apex of Hasidic values. In this gendered and hierarchical division of labor, women are made scouts, as it were, probes of the modern and the secular since these, or at least aspects of these, are indispensable to the group’s economic viability, for which women are made heavily responsible. Women are also made responsible for other vital functions, such as interaction with doctors, social service agencies, utility companies, that require a broader worldliness, and knowledge of English, than men are permitted. Thus girls (education is sex–segregated from the start), are taught more, and better, English, more and better math and other secular studies, than boys. As teenagers and in the post high school women’s teachers’ seminary that is common in Bobov (relatively moderate) Hasidism (but not in stricter, e.g., Satmar, variants; college is not an option for either sex in any Hasidic sect), they are made aware of new findings in child psychology and pedagogical methods and incorporate these, selectively and adaptively, into child rearing and teaching practices that are at stark variance with those of pre–modern Jewish society (on which, cf. Ivan Marcus, Rituals of Childhood, though Fader’s book provides many examples of mothers and teachers remarking on the variance between methods they practice and those of their parents and teachers, with theirs avowedly marked superior—hardly uninterrogated “traditionalism”). Compared to the extremely, even extravagantly distinctive clothing of boys and men, Hasidic girls and women wear “relatively unmarked” (secular) clothing (p.2), to facilitate their ability to interface with the outside world, Fader says. (I would note, however, that the lack of sacralized clothing for women—there is no women’s equivalent for men’s long black, or in some sects, gold brocade caftans; sacramental fur hats, flowing prayer shawls—is but a Hasidic variant of the lack of sacralization of women’s bodies altogether in traditional Judaism, in stark contrast to the sacralization of male bodies). [1]To readers familiar with pre–war Eastern European Jewish society, this arrangement will appear as merely the continuation of women of the shtetl running the shops so men could “learn” (a stereotype much in need of revision but useful for our purposes here). [2] However, in the surprisingly robust world of post–World War II American Hasidism, women’s outside engagement is not just economic and pragmatic but cultural, thus fundamentally different, more significant, and more interesting, than the pre–war variant.

Mandating engagement with the outside culture for half the population, particularly that charged with “raising the next generation of Hasidic Jews,” would seem profoundly counterproductive to the separatism and xenophobia that underlie most sects of Hasidism. This engagement, indeed, is recognized as a potentially subversive element requiring strong counter measures in the early and ongoing socialization of girls and women and the vigilance of the community. The interface with secular modernity, occurring in liminal space between Hasidic society and what Hasidim call “the goyishe” (Gentile) world—which, it must be emphasized, includes secular and even Modern Orthodox Jews—becomes a substrate, a fertile medium producing an elaborate, articulated system of sifting what is borrowed, or more precisely, adapted from the outside, and what is rejected. And it produces a Hasidic ideology that is the particular domain of women.

The interface with secular culture makes the Hasidic cultural position of girls and women inherently unstable. Since the outside culture is in constant flux—secular culture recognizes and valorizes constant change and “improvement,” while Hasidism valorizes what it claims is continuation of allegedly timeless belief and practice—the female Hasidic response to secular modernity is not fixed and definitive but dynamic, constantly changing in response to changing fashions in dress, music, in technological innovations both serious and seemingly frivolous (x boxes, other techno–toys). Thus, Hasidic female culture is in constant dialogue with secular modernity—the distinction typically assigned to modern Orthodoxy. Engagement with the outside, the ongoing creation of both sieve holes and boundary lines, and the ideology to justify both, mark female Hasidism in stark, though symbiotic contrast to male Hasidism.

Women’s Hasidism, Fader argues, is not about rejecting modernity but changing its meaning. Core modern values like freedom, progress, and self–actualization, are not rejected but redefined. Harnessed to the higher ideal of Hasidic religious practice, girls are taught that these values can and should be achieved; when “the religious and the secular, the material and the spiritual, the body and the soul are…made complementary and not oppositional,” girls are told, they will find true personal fulfillment as well as divine reward, and even a role in bringing about the final redemption (p. 3). The fact that women are entrusted with these critical functions creates agency and limited yet significant authority, endowing this most patriarchal of societies with a robust if distinctly subordinate female sector. This reality, too, complicates depictions of contemporary Hasidism as simply misogynistic and its women simply as dominated, and helps explain, in part at least, the hold of this culture on natives as well as its attraction to those who choose to join it, a phenomenon which evidence brought in this book makes clear, not limited to the outreach–oriented Lubavitch Hasidim.

The bulk of Fader’s inquiry is devoted to illustrating the mechanisms by which women’s role is constructed and conveyed to girls, who as adults become the teachers, mothers, and homemakers who enact its ideology and practice, molding Hasidic society. Fader surveys structures beginning with female infancy to normative late–teenage, arranged marriage, “to understand how Hasidic women teach girls to discipline their desires and their bodies as they redeem Jewish meaning from North American secular and Gentile life.” (p. 31). Her early chapters do a close reading of psychological and linguistic techniques to socialize girls to conform to Hasidic norms for them; to fear becoming “like Gentiles;” and to direct their curiosity in approved channels. The didactic techniques are unapologetically heavy handed. Approved behavior is conspicuously rewarded with fulsome praise, verbal and written: “mitsve–tsetlekh” (mitzvah notes) written by mothers and sent to (even pre–nursery age) children’s teachers for such behaviors as a two–year old boy going to morning prayers with his father; marks on charts and prizes for children (of both sexes) for sharing toys or giving up a treat to others; designating girls who exhibit approved behaviors (devotion in prayer, speaking respectfully, helping others, not complaining), “girl of the month,” in school assemblies; chastising less than ideal (withholding toys; tale bearing) or forbidden behavior (talking back to a parent or teacher), as “goyish,” the product of Satan (sutn) and the ever–threatening “evil inclination” (yayster–hure).

Appropriate behavior for the respective sexes is encouraged in ways that construct gender from the outset: groups of three–year old boys praised as they bless their tsitsis (ritual undergarment) in the morning; preschool girls praised for neatness, for coloring inside the lines of pictures of religious scenes (organization, neatness, and compliance being crucial traits for girls, particularly as they reach marriage–age, they are inculcated in them as early as childhood consciousness is attained, around the age of two and certainly by three). As Fader notes, praise is a post–war Hasidic child–rearing and pedagogic innovation; previously, wrong behavior was punished, but good behavior, expected, would not be noted.

Considering the primacy of compliance to the rule of authority (that of parents, teachers, rabbis, the Rebbe, God), Fader rightly considers how her informants handle defiance, or even asking questions outside the bounds of acceptable thinking (God made the world, but who made God?). She shows how certain forms of curiosity, but not others, are cultivated: “good” questions receive full answers and praise; “bad” ones are simply not answered, and if repeated, are chastised with the threatened disapproval of parents, other revered family members and teachers, or the community as a whole, with the threat of ultimate social excommunication the worst possibility. As one of her informants explained, a child who does not think becomes “an idiot,” certainly, Fader paraphrases, “nothing to strive toward.” But “given the choice between a child becoming an idiot or a heretic, any Hasidic parent would choose the idiot.” (p. 67)

“What” questions are acceptable (what is shatnes?—the Biblically forbidden mixing of wool and linen); “why” questions (why this rule?) are suspect or out of bounds (a radical restriction, we note, of the range of inquiry in classical rabbinical thinking expressed in even such relatively popular sources are Biblical commentary, never mind Jewish philosophical works). As a (Northeastern Yiddish–speaking) inspirational speaker brought in to address a girls’ school put it, “ma mame hot nit gefregt ken kashes. Emune iz simkhe”—“My mother did not ask hard questions. Faith is happiness.” A firm, “we don’t do that,” and a refusal to discuss further are used to squelch unwanted inquiries in the population Fader studies (she does not consider drop outs from this society—those who leave Hasidism, Boro Park, even observance altogether).

Hasidic girls who challenge authority threaten the very structure of their society, which rests ultimately on acceptance of divine authority. Gender first and, within it, age govern rules of respect and deference. Those who accept this “natural” order resemble the “wise” child of the Passover haggadah, whose intricate but informational question earns acclaim. Those who do not resemble the “wicked” child whose challenge–question earns excision. Gentiles, children are taught, ask “selfish” questions and do not respect authority; Jews who do (and not all do), deserve their special status as God’s People: following the well–known midrash about the giving of the Torah, Fader’s informants stress that it was the Jews’ blind acceptance of God’s offer of the Torah, alone among the nations, that earned them “chosenness.” Accordingly, defiant children who do not respond to warnings and epithets (khitspedik; mekhitsef— troublemaker); to leading and rhetorical questions (“can we say no to a teacher, a mother, a father?”); to the parachute suggestion that their behavior was a “mistake;” to incentives to make parents or teachers proud, or not cause them to be “sad” and disappointed, are chastised as “goyim,” or “goyish,” one of the worst epithets and an implicit threat that continued such behavior will result in actual ejection to the “goyish” world. Peers are enlisted to help bring about compliance. While tattling to humiliate people or out of pettiness is labeled a sin, “telling on them in order to help them be better Jews… is fulfillment of a commandment. Children are taught to be one another’s ‘policemen,’; helping them do the right thing.” (p. 77) Fader documents a tremendous level of social intimidation, a very effective tool of achieving compliance with group norms in totalitarian cultures, with which one might well class ultra–Orthodoxy.

Yet compliance, we would note, is not the only value Fader’s Hasidim impart, since they also inculcate and, indeed, exist only because of defiance: Hasidim, after all, resolutely and flagrantly reject the values of the majority culture, as well as other variants of Judaism, including Modern Orthodoxy. In the US, they use the quintessentially modern, liberal rhetoric of personal choice and autonomy to reject liberal modernity. Here, too, we see a far more complicated picture than the common stereotype of Hasidism as fundamentalist throwback. Further reflection on the meaning of boundaries of simultaneous defiance and compliance, on both of which Hasidic society is founded and functions, would be welcome.

Perhaps the most fascinating sections of the book are Fader’s chapters on the languages the Hasidim create and use, and the extreme ways that gender inflects speech and speech marks gender, as clear a delineation between women and men as their dress.

Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn have two spoken vernaculars: Hasidic English and Hasidic Yiddish, as well as “loshn–koydesh”—the Hebrew (and Aramaic) of sacred study and prayer. Language, of course, is one of the primary markers of group identity; with history, one of the basic components of separate national or in this case, minority group, identity. Fader shows that Hasidic linguistic syncretism—their blurring of boundaries between Yiddish and English—creates distinctively Hasidic ways of talking that “produce[s] essentialized differences between Jews and Gentiles” (p.88) (as well as between Hasidic and most other Jews, the vast majority of whom do not know Yiddish). She shows, however, that Hasidic syncretic languages are also used to produce essentialized differences between Hasidic men and women: upon reaching school age, girls are taught to use Hasidic English among themselves, while boys are taught to use predominantly Hasidic Yiddish (as opposed to secular Yiddish—that of “Yiddishists”: scholars of Jewish Eastern Europe, the socialist Workmen’s Circle). For both females and males, the mode of communication is Jewish, marking Hasidic separatism. But their respective Jewish languages mark the genders as distinct and different, creating a sense of mutual, radical otherness between them, a difference experienced as natural and inherent. With sophisticated linguistic analysis, Fader provides numerous examples of syncretic Yiddish English: me ken jumpn (you can jump); zol ikh fixn de hur? (should I fix your hair?); far vus men all of a sudden redn zayer shprakh? (why do we all of a sudden speak their language?); so far vus redn azoy? (so why are you talking like that?); ikh bin azoy proud fin Rukhy! (I am so proud of Rukhy!) When Fader asks her informants if the sentence, “ikh hob eym gezeyn fin across de street” (I saw him from across the street), is Yiddish or English, they answer that it is Yiddish, because the English words are Yiddishized in pronunciation: the ‘r’ of street is flapped; the ‘ee’ if shortened (“strit”); ‘the’ is made ‘de.’ Thus, what could be expressed readily in pure Yiddish—fin iber de gas—is made English Yiddish.

The use of Yiddishized English is not just strategic; that is, serving the obvious function of separatism. Fader shows that it flows from a broader religious ideology (derived ultimately from kabbalistic categories that infuse Hasidism), of “raising” the holiness of ostensibly secular, or neutral, or even negative phenomena. By bringing Yiddish to English, the latter is made holy; even pronouncing English words with a Yiddish accent (“vire,” for “wire;” a Yiddishized pronunciation of the Hasidic neighborhoods, “Bora Park” and “Vilyamsboorg”)—achieves this purpose, making the profane—“the language of the Gentiles”—“faryidisht”—judaized. One of her informants even tells Fader that what Jews did for German (bringing Yiddish into it), they are now doing for English. Hasidic use of English has given certain words specifically Hasidic meaning; e.g., “funny” (when written, transliterated in Hebrew letters), means “interesting” in a derogatory way, that is, someone who is not “normal,” especially someone who does not conform. Thus, English words are not simply imported into Yiddish but are given changed content to convey Hasidic ideas. As a result, the Yiddish of Brooklyn Hasidim is so different than that of Israeli Hasidim, whose Yiddish contains much contemporary Hebrew, that speakers of each cannot understand one another, requiring the use of Hasidic English as a better, if limited, alternative.

Hasidic English is the creation and language–base of female Hasidic society. Hasidic Yiddish is used to communicate to all Hasidic babies until the age of three, when gender distinction is introduced with boys’ first hair cut (the upshern) in the pattern that marks ultra–Orthodox men—closely shorn heads except for sidelocks—and boys are masculinized. Gender marking of boys means that girls too, are endowed with gender. The universal use of Hasidic Yiddish for babies means that girls, raised with it themselves and expected to use it with younger siblings and eventually, their own children, are fluent in it. Once in school, however, they learn other syncretic Hasidic languages: “loshn–koydesh” and Hasidic English, as well Hasidic Yiddish, with questions about proper boundary lines between the languages ongoing : is there a Yiddish word for the color “peach,” for use in first–grade coloring, or is the English word acceptable?—a question referred all the way to the principal. After the age of three, mothers address sons in Hasidic Yiddish but daughters in Hasidic English, a pattern girls replicate as they mature, adapting their speech depending on the age and gender of their interlocutors, while men (it is reported to Fader), speak Hasidic Yiddish to sons and daughters alike. Boys speak Hasidic Yiddish only, at least until a marriage or job requiring Hasidic English, which is then acquired (Fader does not say how). In the home, boys often function as language police, urging mothers to speak more, or only Yiddish, effectively, we would note, a challenge to the gendered arrangement that makes women engage more with the language of the secular world, or at the very least, a behavior that makes them feel guilty, less properly Jewish, for doing so, even as they are charged and socialized to do just this (guilt inducement is also a powerful method of social control in totalitarian cultures). Girls’ teachers, by contrast, do not demand that mothers speak Yiddish exclusively to their daughters.

Dividing lines against the outside, general ones and ones specific to gender, are elaborate. Hasidic society produces its own, highly didactic board games for children (in a version of the game of Old Maid—whose name is retained—the card to be avoided belongs to the yeitzer hora—the evil inclination—who is gendered male (!), is ugly and deformed, wears punk–style clothing and hair, carries weapons—and a computer—forbidden to Hasidim without special permission and supervision, since it is a portal to pornography and other inappropriate content and connections. There is a whole children’s literature in Hasidic Yiddish, from earliest reading through teenage girls’ tales, explicitly intended to provide an alternative to teenage girls’ series in the secular world (which educators and publishers are well aware of, as they are of the ability of Hasidic girls to get hold of them). These books inculcate values such as selflessness, as opposed to independence and self–realization. Thus is an all–encompassing culture created.

Despite all this, the lure of English is strong for the younger generation and Fader shows girls’ mothers and grandmothers, many of whom were not raised with Yiddish, tacitly supporting that link by speaking Hasidic English at home. Rather than this expressing resistance to religious stringency and cultural separatism, however, Fader finds that it is linked to female awareness that women must be fluent in the language of the secular world in order to discharge their Hasidic mandate there. Ironically, then, “girls’ participation in the heightened religiosity that defines Hasidic continuity today” is enacted through loss of Yiddish fluency as they mature. “For males, however, Hasidic masculinity carries religious authority… buttressed by fluency in Yiddish and a prestigious limited competence in English, both of which are linked to men’s immersion in Torah study.” Thus, in a marked departure from pre–war realities, Yiddish—“mame–loshn” (mother’s tongue)—has been made “definitive of Hasidic masculinity.” This gendering of Yiddish “represents a significant shift from pre–war Eastern Europe, where Yiddish was especially associated with women and ‘uneducated’ men who did not know loshn–koydesh (pp.120–121)”—further indication that post war American Hasidism is no mere carryover from a previous era or from Europe, whatever Hasidim or outsiders with limited knowledge about them, may claim.

Yiddish, which in pre–war Eastern Europe united millions of Jews across a wide ideological spectrum, now separates Hasidic from the vast majority of other Jews, as well as women from men. It also situates women on a spectrum of more and less stringently Hasidic practice: those who use only Yiddish (Satmar and other more extreme Hasidic sects), and those who use Hasidic English, differences that also correlate to styles of dress and types of education among the sects. The largely Bobover women Fader studied are critical both of Satmar women to the right of them who do not know sufficient English to navigate successfully in the outside world, whom they call “backward” and “primitive,” and those to their left, whom they consider “too modern,” too much “like Gentiles,” because their English is not sufficiently inflected with Yiddish. The balance the Bobover women seek is expressed in their rejection of being “modern,” but in a simultaneous desire to be what they term, “with it.” (They thus adopt an approach to those to the right of them, we would note, similar to that with which Modern Orthodox Jews regard Hasidim.) In the process, they produce a “distinctive Hasidic femininity that is increasingly stringent,” yet simultaneously, increasingly fluent in the secular world. This seemingly counterintuitive rejection of overly Yiddishized behavior, in speech but also in unfashionable hairstyles and dress (called “nebby” and “neb”—a takeoff from the Yiddish “nebekh”—pathetic, inspiring pity)—is as significant as their rejection of “modern” expressions. Satmar hyper–Yiddishism, we might call it, is even seen as religiously detrimental since, according to Fader’s informants, the Satmarer girl’s and women’s minimal education and exposure makes them especially susceptible to materialism and shallowness. Bobover “shtottiness,” by contrast (from “shtot”—town), their cosmopolitan behavior, strikes the correct balance, not “modern,” but “with it.” Much of the model for “shtottiness” Bobov society obtains from the Orthodox but non–Hasidic women teachers they hire to teach secular subjects in girls’ schools. Yet a variety of family and communal messages convey that that model—shorter, tighter skirts; longer wigs; Master’s degrees in Education—is not itself acceptable. Thus, Bobov girls and women negotiate an elaborate, ongoing dialectic between influences to the right and the left of them, producing a highly dynamic discourse about their choices and developing traditions.

Fader concludes her book with chapters about Bobov attitudes to physicality, modesty, marriage, and sex. Controls in these areas are particularly crucial, since physical desires and expression, irrational by definition, have the power to explode social limits. Since women are defined in this most androcentric of cultures as sex objects to men (presumed to be heterosexual), it is crucial that girls learn to discipline their bodies, voices, minds, and desires. It is for girls and women to restrain their physical manifestation in the world, not for boys and men to restrain themselves because, they are taught, males are less capable of self–control than females. Education to this end begins almost from infancy. “Modesty” is a virtue for both genders (hence the black and white sameness of male dress, the long sleeves and pants even in hot weather, though arguably, ostentatious silk brocade caftans and fur hats on Sabbath, holidays, and special occasions are anything but modest), but it is an obsession for and about girls and women. No hiking up dresses too high in jump rope (this is “crazy! Crazy!” one teacher cries when she witnesses her charges doing this—in all–female company, of course); no sheer stockings, violation of which is grounds for expulsion from school. Contrary to what outsiders might expect, “modesty” does not mean cultivating shyness or diffidence; Hasidic society, after all, depends on women’s assertiveness. Nor does it preclude being fashionable or attractive, in approved ways; high heeled shoes, lace, taffeta (albeit muted colors and in moderation), are “in” and allowed at weddings.

Fader asks how Hasidic women’s culture succeeds in inculcating the desire in girls to hew to the rules of modesty and finds, once again that it is through negative characterization of Others who violate these rules: Gentiles, but also other Orthodox women. Hasidic women are not taught to deny all desire to look good, adorn themselves, attract the right kind of attention; and modesty standards are recognized as open to interpretation—which colors, fabrics (denim is “goyish”); what skirt and sleeve length; which and how much makeup; what kind of head covering for married women (to mark them as sexually exclusive to their husbands, a requirement not imposed on husbands, for whom only sex with another man’s wife is a cardinal sin): wig (and if so, what kind, what length); kerchief; hat; turban; wig and hat? But like their intellects and other desires, physical drives must be properly channeled and used to ennoble the self and to serve higher, religious ends. In an extraordinary interpretive license that, one might think, would earn anathematization, one woman analogized women‘s’ adherence to modesty to men’s study of Torah (the latter, mandated in the Torah, the highest degree of commandment): for them, it was a route to divine reward just as sacred study is this route for men.

The rebbe as the pinnacle of male authority decrees modesty standards whose particulars are decreed on street posts and in schools and vary by sect. “Tsnies” (modesty) is the focus of an elaborate ideology asserting women’s allegedly superior ability to control their desires, which is portrayed as proof of women’s innate spiritual superiority (in which case, one wonders why it is not women who are charged with community leadership and the Torah study that is a prerequisite for it, an explosive question that Fader, perhaps understandably but lamentably, all the same, does not pose to her informants). It is for women to restrain themselves so as not to distract (combustible) men; for them to cross the street (one informant tells Fader that the streets, like the synagogue, “belong to the men”), so as not to distract a passing Torah scholar (even a youth), by so much as the clack of her heels on the pavement. This self–effacement, too, is women’s contribution to the furtherance of Torah study. It is simultaneously empowerment—one’s heels clacking can cause a Torah scholar to lose control?–and monumental suppression/oppression. It is also an expression of the hyper–sexualization in this world (and we would note, other cultures of extreme religion—Taliban, Iran under the mullahs, Saudi Arabia), where the sheer manifestation of a woman’s physical being is deemed enough to incite men’s (uncontrollable) lust. Whatever this culture makes of women, its image of men is none too flattering either, although the implications of the perceived weakness of men is hardly reflected in the culture’s ultimate power structures.

Such attitudes necessarily carry over to girls’ feelings about their physicality. Learning to repress themselves is marked as a sign of maturity; Hasidic women defined becoming a “big girl” as having an increasingly autonomous desire to conform to the family’s modesty conventions, which include not only dress but language, comportment, and exposure to secular knowledge. Girls who expressed a desire to participate in these forms earned fulsome praise; those who did not were scolded and labeled as deviant (“crazy”). Thus, a first grader who proudly told her teacher that she had volunteered to wear tights in the summer rather than the knee socks her family’s conventions permitted until girls reached second grade, won not only her mother’s praise, but that of her teacher and the principal. Learning modest behavior is a process, Fader shows, with training similar to that which girls receive in other areas of religious practice. “From a very young age, mothers pull their daughters dresses over their knees when they sit down, teachers remind girls not to sit too… [sprawled out] at their desks, and older girls constantly remind their sisters not to let their skirts ride up as they relax… saying reprovingly, “Tsnies!”

There is much rote in this training, which begins around the age of three, but also, Fader shows, an ideology to elaborate for Hasidic girls “how Jews are different from Gentiles, creating the desire to be a Jewish woman and the fear of resembling an uncontrolled Gentile.” (p.158; my emphasis). The role of the Gentile—people and culture—is enormous in this world. “Gentiles and the fear they inspire, particularly in children,” Fader writes, “can be a powerful way to socialize the desire to be different.” This fear is evoked is just about every setting, but perhaps above all about modesty. “Observing, imagining, and theorizing about what defines Gentile bodies and comportment by comparison defines modest Jewish behavior for girls,” and so “with their immodest ways,” Fader says, “goyim” sustain “Hasidic women’s claims to superiority and truth.”

Extremely binary thinking about Jews and Gentiles, Fader notes, extends to outright racism, with beliefs about a hierarchy of peoples and a distinctive Jewish “soul,” which children expect to see embodied in Jewish faces, as well as behaviors: if one of Fader’s informants sees a girl behaving “nicely,” she wonders if she has Jewish relatives, though she does also consider that the girl simply might be one of the “good goyim”—admitting that such exist. But wild behavior typifies “goyim,” while “eydl” (noble) behavior typifies Jews, seen prototypically in the Biblical brothers, Jacob and Esau, the model types of Jew and Gentile, respectively, the one enacting the desired traits of piety and love of Torah; the other, greed, impatience, and wild submission to crass physical needs. “Eydl” behavior, however, while linked to a “Jewish” soul, is not necessary and inevitable but the product of the larger disciplines of the culture as well as self–discipline. “Self–control and a consciousness of being a “ben–meylekh”—son of a king—… the chosen nation. We’re better than the goyim…You’re more aristocratic. It’s about decency. It’s about being a mentsh more than the goyim,” as one of her informants puts it (p.160).

“Goyim,” Hasidic women teach girls, are incapable of controlling immodest desires, their “evil inclination” (yaytser hure)—a typification that sounds remarkably similar to what is taught about Jewish men, a point Fader, unfortunately, does not explore with readers or, what would have been most interesting, with her informants. Gentiles—real ones live on the borders of Boro Park and interspersed among Jews in Williamsburg, and are often visible and audible on the streets, across back yards— are the ever–present warning against the consequences of failure to control wills and “cultivate Jewish souls,” with the help of Torah, which Jews after all, but not Gentiles, have, the ultimate distinction between them. Fader cites the anthropologist, Jerome Mintz, who describes a Hasidic man threatening his son that unless he follows ritual norms, he will be a goy. “That’s the worst thing in the world,” the man says. “His worst fear is he’s going to be a goy.” (p.161) For girls, modesty is the greatest demarcation between female Jewishness and Gentileness; Gentile girls flout their bodies shamelessly, have no behavioral boundaries, are “wild” (promiscuous, indiscriminate). Modest Jewish girls by contrast, are literally, “noble”: Fader sees kindergarden girls constructing paper crowns emblazoned with the words, “tsnies iz man kroyn” (modesty is my crown), told by their teacher that their modest Jewish souls make them royal, and to always walk as if they had real crowns on their head, to remind the world that they are the real princesses. If this reference is also a contrast to the anti–Jewish stereotype of the vulgar, materialistic “Jewish American Princess,” that is, not just to “goyim” but to Jews who do not uphold pious standards of behavior, we do not know. Goyish behavior, as noted, is not restricted to Gentiles.

Nor is modest behavior confined to dress; it governs speech too, both volume and content. Expletives defile the tongue; screaming violates Jewish “nobility” and weakens, as alternatively, good speech and intonation strengthen, the Jewish soul. Very young children are taught to discipline their speech: me redt nisht azoy, di kenst es zugn in a shayne veyg? (we don’t talk like that. Can you say it in a nice way?) While of course, parents in other cultures intervene similarly in their children’s speech, in this culture, the intervention is religiously mandated and infused and linked to the whole complex of behaviors, thinking, and institutional structures that construct the Hasidic world. To this world, “goyim” form the ever–present worst alternative. Thus, a young boy is overheard using the “f” word and when asked by a shocked mother where he learned it (the boy had no idea what it meant, thinking it just meant stupid or silly), responded that he had heard it in a game of shaygetz (!) (young Gentile male), from a friend (a Hasidic boy, of course). The game is a version of cops and robbers but here, the iconic bad guy is the Gentile; the scenario, Gentile–versus–Jew. The boy’s mother remarked that the friend must live on the outskirts of Boro Park and have heard this word on streets dominated by Gentiles. Just as Jews need to guard what they put in their mouths (by the rules of kashrut), she tells her son, so they must guard what comes out of them, in speech, raising this behavior to the level of Biblically ordained mandate, on a par with the ritual diet, perhaps the most fundamental demarcator of Jewish life from non–Jewish and Jews from Gentiles. Similarly, Jewish girls are taught to contrast their “fine” makeup, jewelry, dress, to the “crassness” of those of Gentile girls. All this Fader notes, coexists with a fixation on jewelry and clothes, particularly in the pre–marriage set (Boro Park has become an Orthodox shopping mecca), but for married women, as well, who one of Fader’s informants told her, exceed women in Manhattan for elegance (despite—in her view, because of—their wigs and hats). Modesty then, Fader points out in one of this book’s most important insights, is not simply about self–deprivation or control of women. Hasidic girls and women “use the disciplines of modesty to affect their everyday lives by enjoying, in culturally and religiously appropriate ways, the pleasures of secular consumption, bodily adornment, and literacy. “They legitimize their taste for fashion and finery with the rhetoric of Jewish “nobility.” With its orientation of the self toward an outside agent, discipline, Fader argues, citing Webb Keane, becomes an important alternative to liberal models of agency. For the women of Bobov Hasidism, who navigate between secular manifestations and their Jewish, Hasidic base (unlike “nebby” Hasidic women), the discipline of modesty becomes a way to collapse distinctions portrayed as oppositional, in this case, the demands of piety and the desire to look good according to reigning secular standards. In their practice, “these desires complement each other, challenging the liberal belief that the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the material, the body and the soul, need be oppositions at all.” (p.178)

Girls particularly engage the lures and dangers of the “goyish” world because of their mandate to enter and navigate that world. Concerted attention, therefore, is given to countering the subversive effects of this contact, by labeling, e.g., the same English–language (heavily censored) fiction that girls are allowed, even required, to read in school as deficient, compared to the religiously–themed, Jewish literature that Hasidic presses turn out. Schools work to limit girls’ leisure time reading choices, forbidding, for instance, visits to public libraries—a ban, Fader notes without comment, that many families ignored (defiance whose meaning and dimensions merit further investigation). She notes, moreover, that girls independently obtain books they know are contraband, setting off book bag searches at schools.

But the outside world imposes unavoidably. Even if they refrain from using headsets on airplanes, images of immodest dress, of male–female romance, loom on the screens of others. Ads on the sides of buses convey images of beautiful men and women in underwear, in embrace. Hence, the imperative of evoking autonomously directed self–discipline in the younger generation and of instituting self–regulating peer mechanisms of social control: girls are taught not only to challenge friends who may be violating norms, but to do so effectively (without humiliating them, which is not only a sin but counterproductive). Desire, however, also comes from within: girls at (of course, all–girl) summer camp who defy rules and do not cover up with robes and stockings (!) as soon as they leave the swimming pool, because they want a whole–body tan.

Actual or even contemplated defiance meets a potent counterforce in late adolescence, when girls reach marriageable age and face the rigors of scrutiny in the arranged marriage market: modesty is sine qua non for a good match. Enhanced modesty betters one’s prospects so girls and even the rest of their families often move up a modesty notch in their dress to attract a desirable match, or agree in premarital negotiations between the families for the girl to adopt a more stringent type of dress or head covering than is her family’s custom, in order to seal a desirable deal. This enhancement of Hasidic behavior can also better the marriage prospects of younger siblings, all of which necessarily filters “down” to educate girls about the benefits of compliance and “autonomous” adoption of stringent norms, and the equally significant consequences of defying them. Because, next to expulsion to the “goyish” world, the worst that can happen to a girl is failure to land a good match, life alone, without family and the manifold social placements that come from having a husband and children and re–creating in one’s own life the norms one has been raised to perpetuate.

Marriage is a critical, make–or–break, event not only in the lives of the partners but their families, with major social and economic implications. Not marrying is an immeasurable tragedy and disruption of communal rhythms. Even delaying marriage raises doubts about and seriously harms an individual’s marriageability: past a certain age, there is no approved social category of single people; by age 25, a single person is considered damaged goods and will have difficulty getting a match, considered “material” only for someone similarly “damaged,” whether by age or illness, physical and/or mental (“he’s a little funny and she’s a little slow—perfect match,” says one of Fader’s informants).

Accordingly, by the end of high school, girls move into the marriage market, under pressure to nail a good match in a small window of time when the best prospects are most plentiful, before they have been snatched by others, and the circumstances (their own youth and freshness on the market) are most advantageous. Each person is understood to have a “bashert,” one intended for her or him, but finding the “bashert” takes expert mediation, usually by professional matchmakers, that takes into account many variables that give candidates a ranking and eligibility rating in the highly competitive marriage market. Not just obvious things, like whether there is rabbinic ancestry, are considered, but whether there is disease in the family, especially, mental illness, or divorce. Even the death of a candidate’s parent marks one a notch down. The analogy with royalty, clearly, is more than metaphorical.

Some lines of investigation are gender differentiated, with girls investigated for looks, type of education, choice of friends, personality (quiet? gregarious—but not inappropriately so?), modesty, household skills and efficiency. Investigation of a candidate’s background and behavior is rigorous, with teachers, neighbors, even in one case Fader cites, the family butcher, consulted about character and behavior, and both sets of parents must first assign a high grade for a (chaperoned) introduction to occur. Hasidic society is extremely status conscious, with complex hierarchies based on family background (yikhes, or lack thereof), wealth, and occupation that decide an individual’s market value, about which Fader provides detailed analysis and an informative Table (“Categories of Hasidic Families”).

However secular or modern Orthodox readers may view these patterns, Hasidim have an equal critique of marriage (or caricatures of marriage) in Gentile or secular families, in line with their larger critiques of those worlds: secular marriage is about selfish indulgence of passion; individuals and their limited personal horizons rather than families and community; fleeting present rather than past and future; personal gratification rather than commitment to larger purposes. Here too, as in the other ways that this fundamental difference between contemporary Hasidism and the larger culture is expressed, Hasidism levels a moral challenge to secular modernity that is not easily dismissed. Even the system of vetting prospective partners would in essence if not in all particulars, seem a cogent alternative to the rash partnering and unpartnering that marks secular society. As one of Fader’s informants notes, anyone can be on good behavior on a date. Why would parents not care enough to check into whom their children are marrying, contributing to this most crucial decision from their greater life experience and perspective?

Hasidic brides take formal classes in which they not only learn the rules of “family purity” (which require that during menstruation and for a week after, not just sexual abstinence but the cessation of any physical contact or even endearing words between wife and husband, lest these lead to sex). They are lectured about the meaning of Jewish marriage and sexuality as vehicles for elevation of desire to holiness. In this arena too, Hasidic culture appropriates the discourse of secular culture but molds it to Hasidic purposes. Hasidic brides are taught that adherence to “family purity” will yield them not just the romantic love, but friendship and intimacy with husbands unknown and unknowable in the secular/ “goyish” world. Here too, then, religious discipline is said to come not at the expense of personal fulfillment, but alongside and, indeed, activating and actualizing it. Secular values are not denied; they are claimed and refashioned, using moral and psychological values upheld in the secular world.

Given the emphasis on modesty to the point even of valorizing distancing from one’s own body—Fader overheard Bobov girls proudly telling their mothers that they had learned to don clothing underneath their nightgowns, avoiding the sight of their own nakedness—and the absence of all physical contact between the couple, who may meet once or twice before becoming engaged, the transition to marriage and sexual activity is sudden and radical. Brides attend weeks of “kale” (bride) classes (and men, “khusn,” groom, classes, the latter, usually short–duration, one–on–one sessions with a rabbi), in which some learn about sex for the first time, with some, of both sexes, fainting at the news of what they are expected to do, in general, and with total strangers when they have spent their lives hiding from the sight of even their own nakedness (albeit, not the camp girls who want a whole body tan), and avoiding even eye contact with others of the opposite sex. Why teach such things before they are of practical use, the reasoning goes, when it would only serve as a harmful distraction, an invitation, even, to forbidden behavior? Fader herself was a bride during part of her field work and was able to attend a “kale” class (albeit only for the more moderate Hasidic elements, and in more modern Flabush, not Boro Park; parents in the latter did not consent to her presence, as a non–initiate, in “kale” classes), and speak with brides–to–be and their teachers. This provided an invaluable perspective that likely yielded richer, fuller information about this sensitive area than would likely have been the case had she and her informants not shared this status—or had Fader not shared this information about herself with her informants, with some of whom, mutual friendships developed.

In this critical area, too, perhaps especially, we see Hasidic society responding to awareness of secular models: the Torah way held up as a route to holiness and personal satisfaction. Blind obedience of the rules of “family purity,” as in other areas, was not the message; “elevation” of ideals upheld in the modern, secular world—intimacy, desire, pleasure—was (though bottom–line, we would note, conformity to the rules is required, whether or not one agrees with the rationalization given them, something Fader’s informants know very well). Torah practices became a “civilizing discourse that disrupted the liberal oppositions of nature and culture, the primitive and the civilized” (p.203), teaching the practice of both romantic and platonic love in marriage (see p.204 for the especially creative, indeed, brilliant metaphor that Fader’s teacher presented her students—some of whom did ask pressing questions about the “cold and depressing” strictures of family purity—indicating that they anticipate enjoying both physical and emotional intimacy).

Along with reference to the ideals of love and intimacy shared with secular culture was the ubiquitous derogatory comparison with “Gentile” norms—the “warped” absence of modesty; sexuality and lust flaunted on the streets and in coarse, explicit language; behavior empty of meaning and eventually, even of passion. On the other Gentile extreme, the Christian (actually, as Fader notes, just the Catholic) norm, was castigated for treating sex as dirty, with the highest ideal (exemplified by priests), being abstinence and celibacy. Jewish practice, by contrast, kales were taught, recognizes sexual needs as natural, legitimate, and potentially holy—with the ability to make it holy largely in their hands. That practice, paradoxically or not, we would note, also vastly expands the realm of the erotic by eroticizing seemingly insignificant, mundane acts, like a wife pouring juice for her husband, not likely to be a signifier in any other context but in this lifestyle, a message that she is “pure” and sexually available after her time of separation. Even the lack of attractiveness is eroticized in this system: a woman who returns from the ritual bath which ends her time of sexual withdrawal is without makeup or fine hair adornment (wet hair is bad for wigs), yet precisely these looks signal sexual availability to husbands, who respond accordingly.

This area more than any other in Hasidic life (and observant Jewish practice altogether), depends on autonomous compliance of women, since as Fader’s kale teacher pointed out to her students, “no one checks on you. This is between you and God.” The cycles of sexual access and withdrawal are in women’s hands and at their discretion: it is the wife who tells the husband when she is or is not “pure” (though in case of doubt—blood spot or not?—the wife is to take her underwear or the cloth used to swab internally for blood before going to the mikve for judgment by a rabbi who specializes in menstrual blood, a practice that would seem to violate modesty most outrageously, and which anecdotal evidence the kale teacher herself cites, is sometimes—? often?— defied). Here too, reality confounds simplistic depictions of women as mere pawns in the control of men. For, we would note, it is the male system—not just Hasidic, much less only the variant Fader studies, but rabbinic, going back to the earliest law codes—that empowers women this way, putting them, not men, in control of sexual access, a feature of this patriarchal system that profoundly perplexes this reviewer).

Fader sets out to make a significant case using an innovative focus and conceptual apparatus and succeeds, contributing to several significant areas of scholarship and yielding many fascinating insights. Her findings have complicated and troubling cultural and societal implications. While secular or even Modern Orthodox readers might find much of what Fader depicts objectionable—surely the racism and the proto–racism, however modified, contradictory, and inconsistent these (mercifully) may be—no group identity is possible without distinct behaviors and line drawing against other collective behaviors, and such distinctions are not possible or at least, not tenable in the long term, without some hierarchical value system that deems the group’s behaviors superior. The Bobov variant of this may seem extreme to those outside of their society, but it is a question of where on the continuum one falls. The critique of mindless materialism and consumerism, of hedonistic indulgence, in the name of higher, more enduring values and the sacredness of intimacy is one that others share, and like the Bobover, can make meaningful only through the enactment of very different norms for consumption and partnering than those in much of contemporary Western society. Those with liberal (or conservative) political values, who espouse vegetarianism or the environment, or oppose abortion rights—also fall on a continuum of demonizing those who do not share their commitments and of extolling their choices and lifestyle as superior, and tend to choose the society of others who share their views. While one might well argue for alternatives other than both those of the “secular” culture (an enormous generalization that Fader does not deconstruct) and those of Bobov (these are after all not the only alternatives available, a polarity the Bobovers erect but which hardly represents the range of social reality in New York, the U.S.—never mind the world), the need to establish and defend the superiority of chosen lines necessarily creates some of the same dynamics that critics of Fader’s informants might articulate.

Drafting women to carry the burden of constructing this society’s boundaries and its internal meaning and messages is a very complicated phenomenon. Women in this society are simultaneously subordinated and derogated—colonized—and empowered, given roles of great value and astonishing latitude to elaborate and enact systems of meaning. Clearly, despite my curiosity, expressed above, posing this and related questions to her informants in this project would have compromised Fader’s ethnographical methods. Perhaps her future work will probe some of these paradoxes and complications.

1. On this, see my “Ritual,” in Jewish Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia, Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1997), II:1150–1155.

2. See my Introduction to Pauline Wengeroff, Memoirs of a Grandmother, Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 52–61.


Dr. Shulamit S. Magnus, associate professor of Jewish studies and history at Oberlin College,is the winner of the 2010 National Jewish Book Award’s Barbara Dobkin Award for Pauline Weingeroff’s Memoires of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultureal History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, Volume One. She is also a contributing editor.

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