September 25, 2017 The role of Hasidic women
A reader asked: Are most Hasidic women satisfied with their roles at home & beyond?
That is a hard question to answer without getting lost in the philosophical weeds of “what does it mean to be satisfied?” and “how can we really judge?”
When I was a Hasidic woman in the Satmar sect, I was often very satisfied. I feel, right now, at 6 am while sitting in my goyish living room with the big screen and snoring dog, a sad longing for the satisfaction of having a freezer filled with home-baked goodies for the upcoming holiday. I remember the feeling of getting up early in late September and setting out to make another cake; the three-color cake, let’s say; and the satisfaction at opening the freezer and seeing the neatly packaged product of my handiwork. It’s the same rush I get today when I write something that I’m proud of. But I’ve been suffering from writer’s block lately, but you don’t suffer from baking -block as a Hasidic woman. I’d be overwhelmed and overworked if I’d stayed in the sect, but I’m overworked and overwhelmed now too. That’s not to say that it’s all the same. Only that as a Hasidic woman, I often found the kind of satisfaction that gives me the most joy, in the domestic arts. I also felt frustrated by how petty women could be, how terribly judgmental, and how many other things I had to do that I didn’t want to.
This picture below is my handiwork, I’d say circa 2006. It was for the holiday Sukkos, which falls every year in the fall. My husband and I built this Sukkah on our porch and slept in it for a few days. I created the decorations – hours and hours of intense, hyperfocused, satisfying work – and fancy meals that were pre-cooked, down the mushroom sauce. I totally forgot all of these skills in the seven years since I left the sect. I don’t even know how to make a fan napkin with a stemmed glass anymore. And to this day I still have the planks of wood and bamboo for a Sukkah, but I can’t be bothered to put it up on my own. I’ve lost the will to be a stubborn feminist or an accomplished domestic queen, so here I am, getting the homesick feels.
(This is with me, my son, and my niece: BTW, I ordered the mirror on eBay, hand-painted it, bought the window shade. I spray-painted the waterfall pitchers, and it ran real water, which worked nicely with the blinking light as we lay there at night. I won’t even go into what it takes to make the other wall décor.)
Now I might be accused of being nostalgic and romanticizing, especially because you couldn’t drag me back to homemaking if you hired the mafia to get me to, but that’s because I’ve opened Pandora’s box. Just as you can be happy without a piece of technology before you know of it, but can’t give it up once you do, I can’t go back.
But I am almost done reading”, and he explains something that I think is important to remember: these women don’t live with the high bar for accomplishments that secular women do. There is freedom in knowing you can’t do big things and that your friends can’t do them either. He writes: “We envy only those whom we feel ourselves to be like; we envy only members of our reference group. There are few successes more unendurable than those of our close friends.” But if you are a Satmar Hasidic woman, the successes in your social circle are mostly domestic.
Alain de Botton traces the intense anxiety that rises out of a meritocratic society. As people are told they can do anything, they begin to dream of being everything and are therefore tortured by their unrealistic expectations. While Hasidic women might feel restricted, overburdened, miserable with the work, they do have freedom from the kind of self-loathing that an “egalitarian” society can create.
If you know that this is all you can be, and this is all your friends can be, you’d be surprised by how quickly you settle into making the most of your opportunity. Only when you realize your potential and begin dreaming larger will you really begin to feel the sour taste of the beginning of deep, violent discontent.
Update: No one asked me for more details on this Sukkah business, but once I went down the rabbit hole of memory lane, I found more sweet nostalgia. And more on the Sukkah.
Two videos of our Sukkahs during different years:
Making the star wall decorations:
Sleeping in the Sukkah:
My own sukkah after we left the Hasidic community (note no man and no money makes for a shabbier hut!)