Commentary Magazine


Mitzvah Girls, by Ayala Fader

Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Girls in Brooklyn
By Ayala Fader
Princeton, 280 pages, $22.95

A considerable literature exists devoted to the “problem of other minds,” occasioned by the inconvenient fact that we cannot climb into each other’s heads. I may believe that you think as I do, but you stubbornly refuse to provide me with sufficient proof. Of course, I will act as though we both see orange and feel warmth; I know I do. About you, only in idle moments do I have doubts.

The same leap of intuition must be made across cultures. When we read about tribes that have different ideas of time, can we understand them? Are they fundamentally like us, or fundamentally unlike? There are obvious political, philosophical, and anthropological implications to these questions, but in the end the accumulation of evidence is suggestive, never dispositive. They might look like us but really be very, very different.

Difference is to be expected when a group of people has never left a rain forest or a desert. But what shall we do with a culture that is plunked down right inside the modern world but refuses to be of it? Are they like us? Is there anyone from the world we inhabit who can genuinely understand the other?

For most Americans, and even most American Jews, the Hasidim of Brooklyn are as removed as the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Well, perhaps not as removed, but close. They speak Yiddish (mostly), avoid contact with non-Hasidic people (mostly), and treasure ancient ways (a great deal). To the unsympathetic eye observing the Hasidim of Brooklyn, it is as if the minute hand of history arbitrarily stopped in 19th-century Poland.

Ayala Fader, an anthropologist at Fordham University who is not herself Hasidic, has made a study of Hasidic girls growing up in Brooklyn; they were the subject of her doctoral dissertation, which she has now turned into a book. Though Fader’s Mitzvah Girls has the very occasional whiff of dissertation prose (people “engage with narratives of modernity,” “hyperbolize injunctions,” and such), for the most part it is clear, crisp, and compelling.

Hasidism is to a great extent a premodern society in a postmodern world. Fader demonstrates both how porous are the barricades against the modern world and how resolutely certain contaminants are resisted by the Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park: “Hasidic adults expect that by early adolescence children should know that certain questions and requests cannot even be asked.” Knowing the questions and requests points to modernity. Forbearing to ask them marks the Hasidic community as separate.

Fader details the workings of the Hasidic community she writes about—with a separate economy (operating largely through cash), a separate school system, clearly defined dress codes, and firm marriage customs, including, of course, arranged marriages.

Nowhere does Fader register the social nuances more finely than in the chapters on Yiddish. The degree to which these girls engage the world outside their community is largely determined by the extent to which Yiddish is in use in their households and daily lives. The languages commingle, and Fader reproduces hybrid sentences (“ikh hob eym gezeyn fin across the street”—I saw him from across the street) that serve to symbolize the fascinating combinations. In a chapter entitled “Making English Jewish,” she shows how linguistic commingling that changes the sound and valence of English terms brings those terms safely into the Hasidic system.

There are glances of the potency of religious ideology through the social netting. “A Gentile or heretic,” says a Hasidic rabbi quoted by Fader, “can scribe a Torah in perfect loshn-koydesh [holy language, that is, Hebrew], but his non-Jewish outlook will pollute the very letters, the holy letters, as he forms them. The book must be burned.?.?.?.” The greatest danger is not that Jews will leave Judaism or that Gentiles will carry on in their own paths, but that they will poison the well of devotion by seeming to copy Jewish ways. That animates the efforts to keep Jewish girls “pure.”

In the Jewish dietary laws, there is a principle called batel B’shishim—if a nonkosher substance finds its way into kosher foodstuff and makes up less than one-sixtieth of its mass, the foodstuff is still considered kosher. So if a drop of milk falls accidentally into a large meat stew, it does not make the entire vat unsuitable to eat. Throughout Mitzvah Girls, the same underlying principle is at issue: how much of the contamination of the modern world renders the lives of these girls pasul, or invalid?

Fader demonstrates the degree to which Hasidic girls grow up not in an alternate but in a parallel world. There are the same struggles for status, the same impulses to conform and to dissent (milder, to be sure) that one finds in studies of adolescent girls in other cultures. Here much of the status revolves around mides (positive character traits) and the competition to be better, but in a moral and ritual sense. The teacher in one classroom holds up a stop sign with a smiley face when a girl has successfully struggled with her yetzer hara (evil inclination).

While acknowledging that, to a modern sensibility, Hasidic girls live stunted lives, Fader writes that her subjects “are neither isolated nor oppressed by their lives.” They acknowledge readily that boys will study more, and have a wider social sphere. Girls will focus on family, on the demands of modesty and transmitting the core values of a Hasidic life to one another through the years of adolescence followed by marriage.

Hasidic girls are taught a strong essentialism—that is, the ineradicable difference between men and women. “I heard repeatedly that women have more control over their bodies and their desires than men,” Fader writes. A girl named Gitty tells her that the streets “?‘belong to the men.’ It is up to her, Gitty explained, to make sure that the Torah scholar is not distracted by her passing him, or even, as he casts his eyes modestly down, by hearing the sound of her pumps as she goes by.”

Fader brings us inside a Hasidic classroom at a girls’ school called Bnos Yisruel (“Daughters of Israel”), where we see authority operating on a level unimaginable in a secular context. Certain questions may not be asked; certain liberties not taken. Of particular interest are the classes devoted to educating Hasidic girls about their bodies in a way that reinforces the hierarchy of traditional Jewish values. Along the way she provides a useful guide to marriageability, based less on physical characteristics than on social class. Social class is more than merely money—although money plays a large role, to be sure—but includes yichis, lineage. Families of renowned learning are desirable, because Torah is itself a currency.

As Fader is herself a Jewish woman, the book is sprinkled with reflections on her own odyssey. One might expect such digressions to be intrusive, but in the case of Mitzvah Girls, they are useful. What is it like to be part of a community so removed from one’s own, yet exercising an indefinable tug? How much do the girls and women of Borough Park who are her sources and subjects trust this woman, who is clearly sympathetic but ultimately there to study them, not to be a part of their world?

The key question is this: are these girls deprived or exalted? For the most part, Fader leaves us to draw our own conclusions. On the social continuum from order to chaos, they lead highly ordered lives with the benefits of safety and the disadvantages of constriction such a choice implies.

The necessary limitation of Fader’s study is that it can only glancingly suggest the religious assumptions that undergird the entire social structure. The ideas that animate the world of Hasidic piety, or hasidut, get short shrift. Nonetheless Mitzvah Girls is a thoughtful look at the world of Jewish girls who grow up in 21st-century America, but don’t really.

About the Author