Mitzvah Girls by Ayala Fader

k9064Nonfiction — print. Princeton University Press, 2009. 260 pgs. Library copy.

I originally picked up Fader’s book after reading another book about young, female Hasidic Jews back in January of last year. Subtitled “Bringing up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn”, this book takes on a more scholarly air in its examination of the education and raising on Hasidic boys and girls.

Do you know Hasidim is actually divided into sects? I have no idea until Fader’s book largely laid out the organization and history of this conservative religious group. Surprisingly, the majority of Hasidic Jews derive their traditions and origins from Hungary. And, unlike what I had previously learned, not all of them fervently try to convert non-practicing or liberal Jews to a more conservative practice.

Fader presents the rigid gender roles amongst Hasidic communities as a complex but worthwhile system. Women are actually more active in the outside world; their education prepares them to accept non-Hasidic Jews while the male education system encourages them to seclude themselves. She largely supports this through her examination of Yiddish and “Hasidic English”, but I had a very hard following this. Regardless, this “power” complicates stereotypes about women in conservative religions.

” In order to facilitate Hasidic men’s and boys’ study of sacred texts, Hasidic women adapt the cultural, political, and economic life of the city to the needs of their community. Their fluency in secular modernity, evidenced in their education, their relatively unmarked clothing, their use of English (rather than Yiddish, the traditional vernacular of Eastern European Jews), and their work outside the home, enables them to create a sheltered enclave for boys and men who study Torah…” (pg. 2)

The quote above may not be the best example, but this book does read like a very dry thesis paper. It’s actually why I originally put the book down; I was only encouraged to pick it up again by a friend who used it for a research paper.

Fader explains how being a Jewish women herself complicated her ability to be a nonpartisan observer in her anthology, and I did see several moments where she appeared to be judging her interviewees. They are also moments where her interviewees definitely appeared to being keeping her at arm’s length even though she claimed to be an insider.

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