Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Mitzvah Girls"--social education into Chasidut

I recently finished reading "Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn," by Ayala Fader. I found it an interesting study of the social education of girls that turns them from mainstream babies into Chassidic wives.

One of the more interesting aspects of Chassidic culture that I learned from this study was the ambivalence of the girls (and women, and apparently, in some cases, the males as well) toward those both more and less stringent in their religious observance. For example, Chassidic girls' camps might hire Orthodox counselors who were more "modern" to liven up the place, because Chassidic girls had so thoroughly absorbed their community's teachings that they should be not only modest in dress, but also quiet in their speech, and not draw attention to themselves with their behavior. Group cheers, for example, were better led by a "modern" counselor. On the other hand, while the extra-stringent religious observance of the Hungarian Chassidic women (Satmar?) was admired, their poor education was look down on, and while they were admired for their fluency in Yiddish, they were also disdained for speaking a version of "Hasidic English" so strongly influenced by Yiddish that they had difficulty communicating with non-Yiddish-speakers. In addition, while it was considered admirable for a girl to agree to a higher level of modesty for the sake of a "good" marriage, it was also acknowledged that a girl who agreed to "go beige" (trade her non-see-through but not black stockings for thick, seamed beige stockings) or to cover her hair, after marriage, with a scarf instead of a wig and hat was making a major sacrifice in terms of her personal appearance.

I was surprised to learn that there is such a thing as an "unaffiliated" Chassid. Little did I know that the singer Matisyahu was not the only Chassid who did not follow a specific rebbe.

I was also surprised to learn that, in the Brooklyn Chassidic community, a person can't change levels of stringency without permission from "an authority." (See Chapter Six, "Ticket to Eden.") A first-grader had to "ask her mother nicely" for permission to switch from wearing knee socks in the summer to wearing tights all year round a year earlier than is traditional for girls in her family? A wife had to get her husband's permission to switch from a wig and hat to a scarf? Someone should explain this concept of getting permission to become more machmir (stringent in observance beyond what's required by halachah/Jewish religious law and/or minhag/custom) to Modern Orthodox young people who go off to study in an Israeli yeshiva (for men) or seminary (for women) and come back "Yeshivish," much to the dismay of their parents.

What did not surprise me was the contention of the women with whom the author spoke that, no matter what language Chassidic people were speaking, it should be a Jewish language (hence, "Hasidic English," a mixture of English, Yiddish, and "loshon koydesh" ["holy language," that is, Hebrew and Aramaic]). (See Chapter Four, "Making English Jewish.") This pretty much confirms Miami Al's contention, in the comments to my "'Yeshivish' as a second language" post, that a deliberate mixture of English and Yiddish as a daily language pattern is "self-ghettoizing."

I found this book quite interesting, and recommend that you consider adding it to your future-reading list.


Anonymous Too Old to Jewschool Steve said...

I'm not sure I'd hold Matisyahu out as a "chasid". He's a BT who found a place with Lubavitchers, but then moved on to explore some more. If you go to Moment's site, I think they did a good profile of him in the last two or three years.

Thu Feb 25, 10:52:00 AM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the information, Steve.

Thu Feb 25, 01:07:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...

Matisyahu was a Chabadnik for a period, and now is a free agent. He self-identified as a chabadnik. That said, Chabad is a unique form of Chasidut in which there are true hardcore chassidim dating back to Russia as well as fellow travelers.

There have always been free agent chassidim since the beginning of chassidut. They are drawn to a particular rebbe, but may not be fans of the rebbe's successor, or, their family is from Belz, but they align with a different dynasty.

What do you get when you cross a Belzer Chassid and a Satmar?

The Bells of St. Mary!

(Satmar comes from the Roumanian Satu Mare, or Saint Mary.)

Thu Feb 25, 04:10:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous jdub said...

That's a folk etymology into a joke, btw, not a literal translation.

Thu Feb 25, 04:11:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

JDub, thanks for clarifying. This is all new to me.

And that joke was a nice distraction from today's fast.

Purim Sameach (Happy Purim), everyone!

Thu Feb 25, 05:15:00 PM 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Hope to read the book one day...

Sat Feb 27, 05:43:00 PM 2010  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

You're welcome. Hope you get to read it.

Purim Sameach!

Sat Feb 27, 08:38:00 PM 2010  

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