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Review: Mitzvah Girls

Study of a closed society

    Chasidic girls in New York dressed up at Purim
    Chasidic girls in New York dressed up at Purim

    By Ayala Fader
    Princeton University Press £15.95

    When a man passes her in the street, “Gitty”, a Chasidic girl from New York, says she steps aside. A young male Torah scholar should not be distracted by “hearing the sound of her pumps as she goes by”. The streets, she says, “belong to the men”.

    How does Chasidic society inculcate such beliefs and behaviour into its young girls? This is the question framing Mitzvah Girls, an ethnographical study by Ayala Fader, who teaches anthropology at Fordham University in New York. Fader, a non-observant Jew, spent 10 years visiting Boro Park, a strictly Orthodox area of New York, focusing on the everyday interactions between mothers and daughters, teachers and their female students. As a result, she provides a compelling and intimate picture of a society largely closed to outsiders, tracing the girls’ upbringing from early childhood until marriage, though she occasionally drifts into dense, academic language.

    Chasidic girls are taught from an early age to “fit in”. Mothers practise positive reinforcement, rewarding respectful behaviour. Meanwhile, they systematically ignore questions perceived as challenging to authority.

    Teachers emphasise that their students are “daughters of a King” — that is, God — and accordingly must behave modestly. Rebellion against rabbinic or male authority is treated as a rebellion against God. And there is a strong emphasis on the need to avoid being like “the goyim”, commonly portrayed as vulgar and less civilised.

    A consistent moral framework is drummed into the girls. Real freedom, they are told, comes through the self-discipline of suppressing one’s own desires in favour of the Torah and the good of one’s family.

    The larger theme is the Chasidic struggle with modernity. While every effort is devoted to protecting their daughters from mainstream society, mothers must also equip them to navigate it; it is the women who are expected to support their husbands, pay the bills, and take the children to the doctor.

    Fader argues that Chasidim are not, actually, “pre-modern”. Rather, she says, they take what they need from the modern world and put it to a Jewish purpose. Thus, mothers consciously use modern theories of child-rearing — paradoxically, in order to bring up what Fader calls “non-liberal” children. Chasidic women read “self-help” books — which direct them to put their trust in God.

    The problem for Chasidic society, however, is that even as they pick and choose elements of modernity that suit them, they still portray the outside world as wholly negative to their followers. When young Chasidim realise that “goyim” and secular culture are not as useless as they have been taught, they are vulnerable to a crisis of faith. The phenomenon of Chasidic drop-outs has become particularly apparent in recent years. The internet is now an amenable host to forums for “lapsed Chasidim”.

    This would not have been apparent during Fader’s research in the late 1990s. Still, when she showed her own wedding photographs to a Chasidic woman, the latter said: “‘I thought by those kinds of weddings....’ Then she stopped herself and said: ‘But you’re not like them. They’re so cold, like you see in the movies’. She made a face of disgust, implying that ‘they’ have weddings that are all for show, involving no real familial feelings.”

    One can only imagine the shock if it dawned on her that Fader was not a radical exception and that Chasidic society has no monopoly on caring, morality — or, indeed, Yiddishkeit.

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