On Hasidic Women

On Hasidic Women

Stormtroopers coming to liberate chasidic women from cultural oppressionRecently, Hasidic women became the subject of much heated debate after a fluffy little article by a Chabad woman named Chaya sparked inter-web-wide conversations. Let me precede by saying that I am absolutely qualified to add to the conversation since I am NOT a chabad woman and NOT a baales tshuva (yet) and NOT even Satmar (anymore). And because I have many siblings and friends who are true, authentic, Satmar Hasidic women.

What troubled me about these recent conversations was the absence of a single Satmar woman’s voice. We heard Deborah Feldman, who was Satmar in one of her pre-celebrity incarnations, and I am writing, having been Satmar without any celebrity incarnations, but Satmar women themselves said nothing. Can a Chaya from Satmar speak up? I assume the task of trying to explain what drives a Satmar woman feels impossible to any one of them. And Satmar women too seem to have resigned to the reality that the outside world just doesn’t get them.

It is indeed true that Satmar women shave their heads. Yes, indeed they are taught not to use birth control. Yes, they are relegated to the women’s section and unwelcome at male events. They are required to dress to the inch of the law of the town, and they do not choose their husbands. They send their underwear to the rabbi. They are not allowed to drive.

It is a life of law and limits for a Satmar woman.

But what do Satmar women say about these rituals? How do Hasidic women keep sending off underwear while they wait for the secular media to swoop in and liberate them? Can we try to understand what compels a Hasidic woman to adhere to these rituals and pass it on to her children?

Hasidic women live in a radically different culture than the secular American culture, and their world is more complicated and nuanced than the mere sum of these rituals. Things that seem strange and unjust to outsiders are natural and non-issues to Satmar women. A combination of indoctrination and very little exposure to different ideas makes for a community of women who themselves know only a world of motherhood and piety. They invest themselves in the home and find power and passion within the framework of their available religious outlets.

As a woman’s history student myself (yes, baby!), I often, in my studies, come across scenarios of women who voluntarily took upon themselves the most extreme stringency of religion. Nuns who fasted for days or Indian widows who jumped into the fire; these are extreme examples of women who embraced their religious, patriarchal setting and found passion and power within it. They did not want to be liberated.

In Hasidic culture, most women embrace their lifestyle and expand on the rules and regulations. Many women WANT to have many babies even while rabbis increasingly dispense birth control. These women direct their energy towards their children because it’s a community that invests itself towards its future generations, and because women find motherhood to be their only venue to express their passion and interest. And many find joy in these things. A woman without a baby will sit among her friends conspicuously childless, feeling as empty and misplaced as a secular woman without a career. A good friend of mine recently visited a rabbi for a blessing of a child, after five children and three years without another pregnancy.

When I was Hasidic, the women were the ones who were often the imposers of the law: the Hasidic women washed my back in the mikvah and commented on the length of my shaven hair; the women criticized my open neckline or sent me letters in the mail about my deviances; the women encouraged new rules to enhance community purity and stringencies.

Of course, as I became disenchanted and increasingly frustrated with the Hasidic lifestyle, I no longer understood the passion or conviction Hasidic women find in their lifestyle. I was no longer able to shave my head or send my underwear in the most nonchalant way. I began to experience everything that was previously sacred and natural as oppressive and strange.

Hasidic women may be content to spend their day washing dirty faces, rocking the baby carriage, preparing flowers for the holiday, washing the floors until the apartment smells of Mr. Clean and Challah and dressing the family in their holiday best. Perhaps in the midst of all this they also check their vagina for blood. It’s five seconds of their day and it’s hardly what they think about when they go to sleep at night.

The same experiences can feel suffocating and outrageous to Deborah Feldman and others like her who are on the fringe or who already left. Because once someone does not want to belong to the community, once someone chooses another lifestyle, there is hardly a way out. With a cloistered community that believes in the ultimate law, the community rears its ugly head at those that test its limits. That’s an ugly side many content Satmar women who toe the line never know, and I didn’t know until I began to ask for more myself.

We can decry Satmar women’s oppression and demand their liberation. But we’ll be missing the point. Satmar women don’t want to be saved. But problems exist in the community that need to be addressed. Increasing awareness and resources for Hasidic victims of domestic violence or women (and men!) who want to leave are some of the ways we can have a conversation about the problems in the Hasidic community without narrowly judging a people from the prism of our own culture.

31 Comments
  • Merle
    Posted at 14:07h, 25 May Reply

    Perfect post. It details the facts, doesn’t present them through a lofty, pie-in-the-sky lens, and it finally highlights what the protest at Citibank Stadium should have made clear. There’s nothing particularly ill with the Chassidic movement. It’s a community that fervently adheres to the literal and stringent interpretations of halachah. What is wrong, as illustrated for centuries in the Catholic diocese, is when a community stifles the cries of those victimized within the community. In an attempt to protect the Chassidic community as a whole, the community is protecting criminals within the community and silencing the victims. Change doesn’t come easily and certainly in cloistered Satmar and Chassidic neighborhoods victims won’t be protected nor vindicated until religious leaders permit sexual predators and perpetrators to face criminal prosecution.

  • shauli grossman
    Posted at 14:34h, 25 May Reply

    Have to much to say…
    i’m gonna take the liberty of copy pasting a poem i wrote about this, here, and you can just delete it. Yea, its way long. But i bet some people reading your article will enjoy or at least associate with it…
    -My first attempt at changing the system.
    by Shauli Gro’s

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 14:44h, 25 May Reply

    perfect factual observation of the culture as lived from within with an outside perspective. however the conclusion [admittedly unsaid] “stay away liberators, we are happy and fine” is up for discussion. when a docile society follows and perpetuates their oppressors by fully submitting and enhancing upon them, does not mean that they are not worthy of being liberated. furthermore when the numbers of those feeling disenchanted keeps on growing daily, that in itself is a call for the guns to come in and break the yoke of tyranny even of those that happily bend under its burden. additional food for thought would be to think of those societies and cultures that most even semi progressive people would agree are repressive for woman. i’m sure that many of the woman of those societies also live enriching lives and might even blossom while perpetuating their own submission.

  • frimetg
    Posted at 14:54h, 25 May Reply

    Wish I had the time to write a decent response; I’m too busy decorating cheesecakes (liberate me now!). Instead, I’ll just repost my comment from FB.
    Once again, Frieda Vizel nails it.
    This reminds me of the conversation I had with one of my sisters last night. While she’s going on about her seven children and all their wonders, her kokosh cake and all its raves, I couldn’t help thinking of all the recent conversations on Chasidic women. Liberation shmiberation. My sister loves her life! She’s so damn proud of her family and her accomplishments, she often can’t help but speak condescendingly to me–someone who is liberated, but doesn’t experience the joys of diapers and the ultimate, pious Satmar existence.
    Like Frieda said, there are issues that need to be addressed; there are individuals in dire need of help. But the vast majority of women in places like Kiryas Joel are genuinely happy with their lives.
    Oh, and 4 friends already shared my link. I tell you, it’s time you begin your celebrity incarnation.

  • Hesh Follman
    Posted at 15:10h, 25 May Reply

    very well said……the only comparison I can think of is the USA attempting to liberate many Muslim countries and bring western democracies there. While there may be a voice that will embrace it, as a whole the population dos not want this change.

  • S.
    Posted at 15:15h, 25 May Reply

    What might even constitute liberation? What could that look like?

  • Shpitzle
    Posted at 15:27h, 25 May Reply

    Anonymous,
    I did not mean to imply that we need to be hands off about the chasidic community. I was trying to say that a “grand liberation” is an attitude that smacks of lack of cultural understanding. We need to work towards improving problems in the community, but we also need to make an effort to understand that Chasidic women are not zombies and have minds of their own and they are not waiting for our liberation. Perhaps we can help, but we cannot liberate.
    Two things bother me:
    the assumption that Chasidic women must be helped from the outside
    And the assumption that everything that is strange with Chasidim is problematic.
    When we don’t understand what drives chasidic women, how can we expect to make a difference?

    • Anonymous
      Posted at 15:47h, 25 May Reply

      Point taken and accepted

  • Shpitzle
    Posted at 15:30h, 25 May Reply

    S. :
    What might even constitute liberation? What could that look like?

    s: See above for an illustration.
    You should know better than me what it would look like. In France, it looks like the ban on the hijab. That kinda thing.

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 15:58h, 25 May Reply

    Well put. The system may be appalling to an outsider, but most individuals within are quite happy with it. Ignorance can indeed lead to bliss. Female genital mutilation is another tradition that is kept alive mainly by women. It’s beyond my understanding how women who have suffered from this horrific tradition force it onto their children and grandchildren, but it is a fact.

  • BHB
    Posted at 16:11h, 25 May Reply

    Geklopt dem nugel oifen kup.

  • Ashmedai
    Posted at 16:15h, 25 May Reply

    What a perfect time for such a perfectly balanced message: kabolas hatorah.
    Indeed, this holiday is not about “giving” of the torah, its about “accepting” of the torah, hence the word “kabolas”.
    Each and every one of us “accepts” it in our own special way. Proudly.
    As for you shpitzle, your’e a wize woman, with a perspective on your world, and on the world
    you personally outgrew.

  • berl
    Posted at 16:21h, 25 May Reply

    i don’t know why you cannot get over your deb feldman jealousy you add nothing everybody agrees that the the women in Africa that get beaten and abuses by their husbands live happily live happily but we as humans shouldn’t point out the facts like feldman did?! and
    Whio the guys with the guns you or feldman?
    BTW my wife goes herself with the shmates not send it because i stopped being the mailman

  • Beeen there done that
    Posted at 16:53h, 25 May Reply

    Okay all…mrs. satmar woman has arrived. I grew up in Williamsburg attending satmar school. Hated it all with a passion. YES there r a lot of downright narrowminded people here. They can haunt u all ur life. I have rebelled against them all, dropped school, ate non kosher foods, did whatever i felt like on shabbos and felt FREE finally. My life was depressing at that point. Shabbos was my worst day. I had a lot of non jewish friends from diff cultures. Hung out with them n all, yet was still depressed at the end of the day.
    It irks me when i c people badmouthing all the dropouts, since i have been there. There r many who can be blamed.

    • Anonymous
      Posted at 17:11h, 25 May Reply

      Shpitzele
      What’s the equivalent of opening a can of worms in a good way? Breaking open a bag of jelly beans? You seem to have a knack at it. 🙂

  • fred
    Posted at 17:13h, 25 May Reply

    Speaking as an outsider, one who but looks (& reads) from beyond even the fringe of this “conversaion” I experience the above comments of Frieda as most profound, balanced, insightful, & generous to all parties involved. Frieda’s manner of discourse is the kind that encourages a conversation to go forward & not become mired in the swamp of right, wrong,their side our side. May the continuing conversation be within the spirit modeled here by Frieda. Shed light rather than stir the fire.

  • Anonymous
    Posted at 17:16h, 25 May Reply

    Can’t agree more to the last comment. On a lighter side it would be fun to hear ideas of how to liberate these subjugated mases.

  • berl
    Posted at 17:21h, 25 May Reply

    who brought guns to this discussion? all i see is this blog using violence not the media or feldman

  • S.
    Posted at 17:28h, 25 May Reply

    Shpitzle: “s: See above for an illustration.
    You should know better than me what it would look like. In France, it looks like the ban on the hijab. That kinda thing.”
    Okay, so this is the United States and that couldn’t* happen. So what then?
    * You know. Probably, almost certainly.

    • Anonymous
      Posted at 17:39h, 25 May Reply

      Progressive rules to free the satmars and belzer woman.
      1. All skirts need to be either 10″ below or above the knee
      2. Plunging necklines shall be work everywhere besides during blizzards.
      3. Eugenics will be practiced until the age of 38 or later
      4. Must engage in intercourse at least once a week without interruptions.
      5. Must make out with at least 6 partners and have sex with at least 4 partners before approval of a marriage license
      6. No marriage licenses will be give to woman marrying anyone with facial hair.
      7. No toilet paper should be used
      8. Ritual bath houses should be converted in to romantic love shacks
      More laws to come

  • J.
    Posted at 06:29h, 29 May Reply

    I suppose another aspect of this is whether Satmar women should be ‘liberated’ for the good of society if not for themselves. Besides for the ideology, Satmar (or other chassidish) women are akin to other mothers on welfare. They don’t contribute much to the economy and they produce lots of children who won’t receive an education that will allow them to contribute much either.
    I think ‘liberation’ is the wrong word, but what do you think of say, restriction of child welfare payments to the first two or three children? Or even enforcement of a more diverse curriculum for children in these communities? Adults can choose to do whatever they like with their lives but the state can (a) choose what it subsidises and (b) ensure that children are given an education that allows them to choose.

    • Merle
      Posted at 06:59h, 29 May Reply

      To impose a welfare restriction on Satmar families opens a whole can of worms in terms of religious freedom in this Country and demands a new definition of what constitutes a family. Utah, thanks to prolific Mormon families, has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the country. In addition, polygamous families with dozens of children living under the government radar, collect welfare through the first wife who is the only legally married member of the clan. The other wives, married in a religious common law ceremony, aren’t eligible for benefits but their children are. For years I lived on Army bases where evangelical Christian mothers home-schooled their dozen or so children in accordance to Christian values. As long as they submitted a curriculum to the state board of education, they could continue to educate as they saw fit. How do we impose a law that selectively imposes a law on one religious group but not on all? We would be enacting a blanket law as that imposed in France, one that equalizes education and restrictions on all religious groups.
      It makes more sense to restrict funding to Satmar schools unless school-age children pass testing standards imposed by the state board of education. If education levels aren’t met, funds are revoked.

  • J.
    Posted at 07:45h, 29 May Reply

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean to imply that there should be any laws which single out a particular group, which would be both morally abhorrent and totally impractical. I just think that welfare policies should take into account the ways in which they are utilized by religious (or other) groups to promote aims that are often at odds with those of society at large. The same goes for school curricula. I don’t believe the ‘outside world’ has any other means (or right) of directly interfering with people’s lives, as long as they are not breaking the law in other ways.
    And although the French model has its advantages, I find it too forceful in its refusal to allow people to bring their religious or cultural commitments into the public square, as they are allowed and even encouraged to do in Anglo Saxon countries. If wearing a yarmulka (or turban or whatever) is important to you, and it doesn’t stop you from doing your job, I don’t think the state has any business telling you not to wear it..

  • Miriam
    Posted at 11:32h, 29 May Reply

    Wonderfully written. I, too, know many women who are happy with this lifestyle and feel pity and contempt for anyone who is even slightly more “modern” than they are.

  • J.
    Posted at 11:47h, 29 May Reply

    I also wonder what a statements like ‘Satmar women don’t want to be saved’ means. The women who now constitute ‘Satmar’ are the descendents of a community that was bitterly divided a few decades ago between modernisers, secularists and those who fought to uphold the old way of doing things. I’m not sure there was anything innate about those who chose the latter path as opposed to the majority who adapted – they were spouses and siblings of those who remained after all.
    The fact that, for whatever reason, the last few decades have been conducive to the growth of Satmar-esque communities does not mean that it will ever be thus. The fact that the ideologies which took hold of the minds and passions of the great great aunts (or even great-grandmothers) of ‘Satmar women’ seem to have little currency now doesn’t mean that the currently successful resistance of modernity will be anything more than a brief historical quirk in the long run.

  • David Braun
    Posted at 13:00h, 30 May Reply

    Wow! Wow! Wow! Shpitzele you realy deserve a Madel for this writing, I have read alot of writings from ex satmar chasidish people and you are the first one who is thinking about the chasidish community on a positive way!

  • Gabriella
    Posted at 18:56h, 30 May Reply

    Wow! this is awesome Shpitzle. Did not know the format of the blog had changed. I am loving it. Congrats on the blog and your studies and everything.

  • Leapa
    Posted at 17:02h, 04 June Reply

    Very thoughful.

  • Mindy
    Posted at 01:46h, 05 June Reply

    No-longer-Shpitzel, you did an incredible job. I’m really enjoying your new incarnation. I’ll elaborate at some less unGdly hour iyh.
    Nice to see you alive & well.
    Mindy

  • whatever
    Posted at 00:15h, 04 June Reply

    ABC

  • Katherine
    Posted at 11:14h, 06 March Reply

    I think you have a lot of strength from God and I really appreciate your speaking out. Some people (myself included) are simply crafted to serve in a different place than where they were born. Blessings! I know you are going to do great things with your life!

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