Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers by Stephanie Wellen Levine

Subtitled “An Intimate Journey Amongst Hasidic Girls”, Levine’s book was recommended to me by Eva of A Striped Armchair. I had to submit an interlibrary loan request to get my hands on the book, but less than a week after returning to school my request was fulfill, I picked up the book, and read the entire thing.

Lubavitcher Hasidim attempt to inspire secular Jews to become more observant and for their messianic fervor. Strict followers of Orthodox Judaism, they maintain sharp gender-role distinctions. Girls are supposed to take on the role of mother and are supposed to be submissive to the men in their lives; boys are supposed to be spiritual leaders. At all times, except for within the home, males and females are separated. Yes, even at weddings!

“Perhaps Americans tend to dehumanize Hasidim because of their marginality in contemporary culture. The issue is not life-defining religiosity per se; few express astonishment that historical women with traditional religious rearing and conviction had singular desires and thoughts. But today, in a world where most teenage girls wear pants and many have boyfriends, Hasidic girls can seem more like anachronistic relics than the struggling, triumphing, giggling, brooding, hating, loving human beings who, of course, they are.” (pg. 68)

The book follows a handful of Hasidic teenage girls in what appears to be a single day. One particularly religious young women longs to be a male scholar while another girl works ardently to become a doctor with the full support of her parents and intended husband, chosen without the traditional help of a matchmaker. Another girl leaves Crown Heights after realizing her religion does not match that of her community while another visits a strip club and smokes pot but is determined to eventually return to the orthodox community.

Levine spent a year living with the Hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY, and found that on the whole, the Hasidic girls she met were more confident and posses a greater sense of self than teenage girls like myself. This runs completely counterintuitive to my image of meek, religious girls confined with rigid roles, unable to express themselves, but Levine attributes her finds to the phenomenon found in mainstream society. When girls are educated in classrooms without boys, research has shown that they are more confident and more likely to offer answers.

“…when I consider adolescents I have known, I am dismayed to observe that young women often do see their sexual appeal among the boys as a primary gauge of self-worth. Here’s the irony: Lubavitch girls, ensconced in their patriarchal system,  validate their own existence and define their own standing in the world — at least until the marriage search. Spirited personality, not the ability to inspire male desire, is the key to popularity in their circles.” (pg. 214)

I wasn’t expecting this thesis to be apart of the book, but I did find it to be an interesting premise to think about even after I finished the book. Having been a teenage girl I know that girls can be caddy, they will form cliques that exclude people based on appearance.

However, I guess I amused that such religious girls like those followed in the book would not form cliques, but some of the cliques are based on necessity. For example, the group known as “888” provided an open-minded forum for girls (and some guys) struggle to reconcile their own ideals about the roles of women and thoughts on religion.

Certainly a different approach to this conservatively religious community than any thing else I have read. However, if you’re looking for an introduction to Hasidim, I’m not quite sure this is best book to start with.

I have yet to read a book on the topic, but I did see an intriguing documentary entitled “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America” on Netflix Instant Watch. Until finding a good introductory book, I will recommend you start there.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Levine, Stephanie Wellen.Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Print. 255 pgs. ISBN: 081475192X. Source: Library.
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