Bringing Up a Hasidic Generation
By Ayala Fader
Princeton University Press, 260 pages
Unlike most books, which I approach with an objective eye and mind, books about Hasidim instinctively arouse my jaundiced cynicism. My cynicism is justified: nearly every article or book or film about Hasidim gets it wrong. Most of these works are informed by presuppositions and stereotypes, and tend to overuse/misuse kitschy “Jewish” expressions. Furthermore, they focus on the formal, ritualistic aspects of Judaism that do not epitomize actual down-to-earth Hasidic life as Hasidim know it. What a pleasure, then, to be so thoroughly “disappointed” in Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls. Fader’s research is impeccable, her information is accurate and presented through an objective lens, and the emphasis is on the mundane, real aspects that make up Hasidic life.
In Mitzvah Girls, Fader attempts to accomplish dual objectives: to discover how and why Hasidic girls become Hasidic wives and and mothers, and to explore the role of language in the life of Hasidim, specifically from a gender perspective. The two intentions keep interweaving throughout the book, making for some interesting tidbits. For example, in a chapter entitled “With It, Not Modern,” Fader relates her bewilderment at the precise meaning of the word neb. The explanation provided—if everyone’s wearing her hair in a bob and one girl wears it in a ponytail, she may be considered a neb (or nebby)—says as much about the meaning of the word as it does about Hasidic girl life.*
The book starts with a brief history of the Yiddish language. For Yiddishists the information may be old hat, but most people, including people whose primary language is Yiddish, are unfamiliar with the basic details. Next are some notes on Fader’s transcription methods, followed by an Introduction to the book. The introduction is fairly lengthy, which is why Fader presumably made it a combination Intro/Chapter One. Besides explaining her methodology—standard fare for scholarly book introductions—Fader includes a fascinating overview of Hasidism, especially postwar Hasidism. Her language is a bit too academic (occasionally stilted) for readers not used to reading scholarly texts, but that issue is rectified in the rest of the book, which features accessible, engaging language.
Fader spent years as a participant and observer of the Bnos Zion school and Bobov community. Her thoroughness is apparent in her descriptions of the delicate nuances that most outsiders never get. Is talking about Mickey Mouse underwear taboo? What effect does the B.Y. Times book series have on Hasidic girls’ lives? Of course, she also allots plenty of space to the overall behaviors, attitudes, and speech that comprise general Hasidic life. How are certain biases subtly inserted and contained in the lessons taught to girls in school? At home? In the girls’ marriage lessons?
Although most of the book is devoted to the life of a Hasidic girl from birth to teens, an entire chapter focuses on becoming a Hasidic wife. It includes the significant phase of finding a shidduch and the actual kallah lessons themselves. Fader, herself a bride at the time, albeit a secular one, managed to sit in on many of these lessons. Her observations as an outsider are respectful, yet honest. She neither derides nor romanticizes the Hasidic marriage system, not an easy feat to accomplish.
What I personally found most noteworthy in this anthropological study is that Fader did not presuppose that Hasidic women are subjugated and/or mistreated and/or second class within Hasidic society. Because she approached her investigation from the social, non-formal angle, she was able to grasp the varied strengths a Hasidic girl’s position holds. Her observations, therefore, boast an accuracy rarely found in studies with less depth.
For anyone interested in an objective exploration of Hasidic life beyond the synagogue and study halls, especially the life of a girl/woman, this book is a must-read. Plus, you’ll learn the meanings of the words shtotty and yunchy.
* Another explanation provided is that if there’s a discussion in class and a kid makes an attempt to say something humorous, but nobody laughs, she’s kind of a neb. This explanation is accurate, of course, but I chose the above description because it highlights the expected conformity of Hasidism, even for something as trivial as hairstyle.Printable Version