Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn

December 17, 2009

Ayala Fader's Mitzvah Girls is a rigorous ethnographic study of the education of Hasidic girls in Brooklyn. It is entertaining and engaging, combining personal accounts and subjective prose with critical analysis. Fader's research takes the reader into the closed community of Hasidic Jews, but rather than focusing on religious practices, it examines everyday interactions among females - mothers, daughters, sisters, school friends and teachers. More specifically, she analyses the use of language in contexts such as the classroom, playtimes and mealtimes to demonstrate how notions of Hasidic femininity are inscribed and transmitted through ordinary linguistic discourse.

Mitzvah Girls spans the life cycle of Hasidic women from kindergarten to marriage. The chapter "Fitting In" concentrates on moral education. Young girls learn from their mothers and teachers to use their individual autonomy, not to fulfil their own needs, but to conform to those of the community. This is achieved through a structured system of praise and reward that is not dissimilar to a secular North American model of education. As Fader observes, female Hasidic educators readily employ popular North American psychology and child-rearing practices as a means of cultivating "non-liberal Hasidic conceptions of the self".

This is an important point that is highlighted throughout the book: Hasidic girls and women are fluent in "modern" culture, yet appropriate it to advance their own goals, thus undermining common notions of female agency in Orthodox Judaism. Categories such as secularism and religion are often pitched against each other, with the former representing civilisation, education, feminism and modernity, whereas the latter is associated with ignorance, superstition and female submission to patriarchy. Mitzvah Girls not only suggests that such categories are meaningless, but argues that anthropologists are obliged to discard them in order to conduct their research in a more accurate and less prescriptive framework.

The chapter "Defiance" looks at how Hasidic women respond to girls who behave rebelliously or who display a "culturally and religiously inappropriate" curiosity. There are, according to Fader, "good" questions that reinforce religious authority and "bad" questions that demonstrate a lack of respect towards this authority. Good questions are warmly and enthusiastically praised, whereas bad ones are met with answers that swiftly end further conversation, such as the Yiddish rejoinder "Azoy shtayt in de toyre" ("That's what's in the Torah"). With regard to insolent behaviour, Fader describes a method of discipline that is troubling. Not only are Hasidic girls actively encouraged to police each other, but disobedience is directly linked to Gentile behaviour. Here, the term "Gentile" denotes a plethora of negative qualities and represents what not to be. Hasidic identity is therefore reinforced by an imagined "bad" other.

"Making English Jewish" is a fascinating chapter analysing the complex way in which North American Hasidic Jews use language. Speaking English with a Yiddish accent or integrating Yiddish syntax into English makes it "more Jewish", so that English is no longer just another secular language but one "touched with 'sanctity'". Language is also gendered: while both boys and girls learn Yiddish as children, girls eventually switch to English so that they can better mediate the secular world around them, allowing the men to study.

This study is especially readable because it is peopled by several lively characters - Gitty Fried, Rifky Katz, Etsy Schwartz - interviewed by Fader on a regular basis, and who offer their insights and stories throughout the book. The chapters in Mitzvah Girls, critical and analytical though they are, often begin at kitchen tables over macaroni and frankfurters. This mix of writing styles means that the potentially dry subject of language socialisation seems instantly more accessible.

Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn

By Ayala Fader. Princeton University Press. 280pp, £37.95 and £15.95. ISBN 9780691139166 and 9173. Published 21 September 2009

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