Wednesday, March 16, 2011

19. Hush - Eishes Chayil

Walker & Co., 2010
for: young adults and adults
HC $16.99
360 pgs.
Rating: 4

Eishes Chayil is a pseudonym. This book is written by a member of the Hassidic community in New York, and is an eye-opening page-turner. The first half of the book flips back and forth between 2000, when Gittel was nine, and 2008, when she was 17. The second half of the book is set a bit later, after Gittel is out of high school, 18, and hoping to find a husband and marry. This is what her whole life has built towards, marriage, and children. A family of her own. We watch her become engaged....married....pregnant. But as this all happens, she is becoming more frequently visited by a ghost from her past, a ghost who won't let go until Gittel does something to help her.

This is the premise of the story. Gittel is haunted by the best friend who committed suicide when they were 9. Devory had been sexually abused by her brother. The biggest problem - her community's "hushing up" of this sort of event. There are lots of great reviews out there in cyberspace, lots of raves for this book. I'll add a few links below.

I was, of course, appalled and upset by the premise of the book. But I was more distressed by the things I learned about the Hassidic community. The extreme hatred of "goyim." The absolute lack-of-knowledge about sex and sexuality. And the place of the female in this culture. More than extreme. Racism. Hatred. I realize that this sect of Judaism is very small, but it quite freaked me out.

Here's a review from a Jew in her blog, Bad for Shidduchim (and I learned, from reading Hush, the Shidduch means an engagement) I don't think she's an orthodox Jew, though. And then there's the review in The Curious Jew. And here's a third, from The Velveteen Rabbi.

1 comment:

Bad4Shid. said...


I found your link on my dashboard, so I figured I'd drop in and say hi.

First off, I am an orthodox Jew - ultra-orthodox, in fact. "Shidduchim" is the general term for the orthodox-Jewish marriage-arranging scheme. For most of us it's nothing like the hassidic version portrayed in Hush; it's dating. Differences: you get set up by friends, you date with a purpose, therefore you get married (or break up) faster, and you're usually engaged within a year (or you break up within a few months).

But mostly I'd like to address the xenophobia that creeped you out so much.

That xenophobia is actually very widespread. Not in orthodox Jewish circles. In every non-diverse community. Because people tend to value the same things. They see their neighbors validating their values and this makes them even more confident. Eventually everyone smugly believes they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Sometimes this can lead to mild reactions, like a bunch of local yuppies publicly denouncing a woman who painted her house colors they deemed ugly. (It defaced our beautiful neighborhood.)

Sometimes it's major, like inner-city blacks being convinced the world discriminates against them, the hatred of the west in isolated Islamic nations, and white bigotry (most common in non-urban, all-white areas).

Often, these feelings feed on each other. Hassidim live in insulated communities and rarely venture out. When they do venture out, their manners, speech, and appearance is so foreign, that they are treated differently. They get the vibes and assume it's anti-semitism. So they retreat back into their bubble.

They rarely have positive experiences with non-Jews, which reinforces their belief that nobody likes them.

This xenophobia, by the way, exists in almost all orthodox Jewish circles to some extent. It manifests as a coolness and reservation, though. We wait for non-Jews to prove themselves friendly before being friendly ourselves. It stems from an elephantine memory for persecution, and the belief that we're never really safe (after all, Jews were fully integrated into society before the Spanish expulsion, and the Germans were the pinnacle of civilization, etc).

As a kid, I always assumed that orthodox Jewish xenophobia was wrong. I knew that out there was a tolerant, accepting, modern society.

Then I grew up and went to college and got a few internships. I've had to put up with quite a truckload of garbage from my fellow students and coworkers. Most of it is mild bigotry, but it's still annoying. It highlights that Jews are still very much a race apart, and the xenophobia is not so ill-based as I'd previously thought.