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Mitzvah Girls

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

Ayala Fader
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Mitzvah Girls
    Book Description:

    Mitzvah Girlsis the first book about bringing up Hasidic Jewish girls in North America, providing an in-depth look into a closed community. Ayala Fader examines language, gender, and the body from infancy to adulthood, showing how Hasidic girls in Brooklyn become women responsible for rearing the next generation of nonliberal Jewish believers. To uncover how girls learn the practices of Hasidic Judaism, Fader looks beyond the synagogue to everyday talk in the context of homes, classrooms, and city streets.

    Hasidic women complicate stereotypes of nonliberal religious women by collapsing distinctions between the religious and the secular. In this innovative book, Fader demonstrates that contemporary Hasidic femininity requires women and girls to engage with the secular world around them, protecting Hasidic men and boys who study the Torah. Even as Hasidic religious observance has become more stringent, Hasidic girls have unexpectedly become more fluent in secular modernity. They are fluent Yiddish speakers but switch to English as they grow older; they are increasingly modest but also fashionable; they read fiction and play games like those of mainstream American children but theirs have Orthodox Jewish messages; and they attend private Hasidic schools that freely adapt from North American public and parochial models. Investigating how Hasidic women and girls conceptualize the religious, the secular, and the modern,Mitzvah Girlsoffers exciting new insights into cultural production and change in nonliberal religious communities.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3099-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Notes on Yiddish and Transcription Conventions
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-33)

    Hasidic Jews, who claim to be the bearers of authentic Jewish religion, arrived in New York City after the Holocaust and, defying all predictions, flourished. Women and girls are essential to this community’s growth, for it is they who bear and rear the next generation of believers.Women’s and girls’ responsibilities include mediating the secular world for Hasidic men and boys who study the sacred Torah. This book is an ethnographic study of how Bobover¹ and other unaffiliated Hasidic women teach their daughters to take on their responsibilities and become observant Jewish women. Studies of religion often focus on sacred texts,...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Fitting In
    (pp. 34-61)

    One wintry evening I sat at Mindy Gross’s kitchen table while she gave her children supper. Mindy had been a preschool teacher until the birth of her fourth child just a few months back. She was an easy-going woman with brown eyes and a shoulder-length brown wig with bangs. I met her at a “salad party” Esty Schwartz had thrown for some old high school friends, where each woman brought a salad to share.When Esty told Mindy about my research, Mindy invited me over to hear how her children spoke “only Yiddish” at home. Although this did not turn out...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Defiance
    (pp. 62-86)

    On one of her days off from teaching, Esty invited me to visit. We sat down in her airy, newly renovated kitchen that faced her leafy backyard. Esty was wearing the typical outfit of a Hasidic woman relaxing at home: a turban covering all of her hair instead of her usual, blond “China Doll”-style wig (a short bob with bangs), a long-sleeved flowered housecoat, seamed beige stockings, and clogs. Despite her casual outfit, Esty looked elegant. Perhaps it was her bright blue eyes or her willowy build. Esty had been exposed to more modern Jewish girls, having taught in a...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Making English Jewish
    (pp. 87-117)

    At least once a month I stayed for a Shabbes in Boro Park. In the quiet of Saturday morning, I walked to the Bobover synagogue. The stores were all locked and the streets were empty. Hasidic men, wearing their Shabbes-bekeshes(long, black satin jackets tied with a sash), wrapped in striped, blue and white fringed prayer shawls and wearing high beaver hats (shtramlakh), hurried by, holding little boys by the hand. I climbed the stairs to the women’s section, which was sprinkled with a few middle-aged women and newly married brides. Women with young families generally stayed home. In a Hasidic...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE With It, Not Modern
    (pp. 118-144)

    One afternoon, frustrated that her students had switched to Hasidic English during recess after speaking Hasidic Yiddish with her the whole morning, Mrs. Silver scolded them. She compared the biblical Jews in Egypt to her students, as she tried to convince them that English (even Hasidic English) is a Gentile language. The girls listened quietly to Mrs. Silver, and then burst into giggles when she mimicked them:

    Zay[the Jews in Egypt]hobn nisht geredt de goyishe shprakh . . . far vus miz me indz redn de goyishe shprakh? . . . De yidn in mitsrayim hobn gevist az...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Ticket to Eden
    (pp. 145-178)

    A story Gitty once told me about modesty (tsnies) reminded me that not all women think about the body and beauty, power and freedom, in the same way.¹ At age seventeen, Gitty told me, she went shopping with her mother and saw a beautiful matching skirt and top in gray and pink, her favorite color combination and one that complemented her dark hair and eyes. On closer inspection, however, she and her mother saw that the top had a low neckline that could not easily be altered. Her collarbone would have been exposed, which would have been immodest. Gitty remembered...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Becoming Hasidic Wives
    (pp. 179-210)

    The Hirsch Family sat around their long dining room table one Sabbath evening. They are a lively, loud Bobover family with nine children ranging from toddlers to married adults with children of their own.Mrs. Hirsch, a teacher at Bnos Yisruel, had invited me, and dinnertime was filled with laughter and good-natured teasing. In between the fish course and the soup, Mrs. Hirsch’s daughter-in-law, Perele, told the gathering about a girl who had gotten engaged. A small explosion of exclamations erupted. Mrs. Hirsch quickly asked, “To whom?” This was, of course, the critical question. Perele said, “To Cohen [the family name].”...

  12. Coda
    (pp. 211-220)

    Recently, I received an unexpected e-mail from a rabbi in California whom I did not know. He wrote:

    Hi Ms. Fader,

    Having been born and raised in a Chasidic household in Boro Park, I enjoyed the write-up on your research [in the Fordham Faculty Newsletter]. . . You nailed it pretty good. I look forward to your future book and articles. By the way, where would I google to find your published article? . . . Also, the word we use is Yinglish.



    How, I wondered, could this Shlomo from California possibly have read an article about my...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 221-234)
  14. Glossary
    (pp. 235-236)
  15. References
    (pp. 237-250)
  16. Index
    (pp. 251-260)