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

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

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

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

Synopsis


Mitzvah Girls is 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 Girls offers exciting new insights into cultural production and change in nonliberal religious communities.

Excerpt

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 Bobover 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, prayer, or special rituals. My research with Hasidic women and girls led me instead to listen to everyday talk in homes, classrooms, and the front yards of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park. Language organizes social life and is a springboard into broader issues such as the ways Hasidic mothers and girls talk about authority and desire, about the body and autonomy, about power and morality. Everyday talk between women and girls offers insight into how those who critique the secular world imagine it and themselves. Girls' willingness to civilize the secular world through Jewish practice has the potential to create an alternative religious modernity, one with the power to perhaps, one day, transform New York into a modern-day Garden of Eden.

Hasidic Jews (Hebrew, Hasid 'pious one'; Hasidim 'pious ones'), who organize themselves into sects, are a distinctive kind of religious group, what I call a “nonliberal” religious community. in contrast to other nonliberal religious communities in North America, for example, evangelical Christians, Hasidic Jews have neither the ability nor the goal of engaging in national politics beyond lobbying for laws and rights that support their own interests. As sociologist Samuel Heilman (2006) has noted, Hasidic Jews have done so well in New York not in spite of, but because of North American urban diversity, with its increasing tolerance for public displays of religion. Rather than gradually assimilating, as have previous generations of Jews, Hasidic Jews have increasingly become religiously stringent. For Hasidic women and girls, this heightened religious stringency requires new forms of femininity, which include their participation in the secular city around them.

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