March 11, 2020 Book review: ‘On Division’ by Goldie Goldbloom
The other day, I learned about an upcoming novel by a gay Australian woman who comes from the Hasidic community. The novel was titled On Division, which I liked immediately. Division Avenue runs along the approximate border between Hasidic Williamsburg and secular/hipster Williamsburg as if the name was put there with foresight years and years before the divide was cemented. In other words, this was going to be a story of the world I trek day in and day out. I scanned the unusual, even far-fetched synopsis of this book.
The book tells the story of a fifty-something woman named Surie. A mother of eight children, fat and content in her life on Division Avenue, her world is upended when she becomes pregnant with twins and, when, because she is already in her fifties and a bubby, she can’t get herself to tell her husband. An odd story, to be sure, but I was excited that it was not going to be the trite “Brave and Stunning” story of a young woman who “breaks free,” that familiar secular conversion plot that I discussed in my review of Abby Stein’s book Becoming Eve.
The reviewers raved about the book, especially about the insight it provided into this insular lifestyle. The book was framed as revelatory because it was written by an “insider” in Hasidic Williamsburg.
“The author, Goldie Goldbloom, is Hasidic. A mother of eight. She reveals the inner world of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews. ”
“It is rare that readers are given the opportunity to peer behind the curtain. Here, Goldie Goldbloom, who is Chassidic herself (and the mother of eight children), writes sensitively and convincingly about this insular community.”
“I was enthralled (and often appalled, to be honest) learning about a culture/religion that I am unfamiliar with. Being exposed to characters like Surie, and her husband Yidel, and their family and insular community gave this reader an understanding of what Chassidic families and communities have in common with any other community based on religion and/or culture.”
“An interesting glimpse in a culture, from both sides.”
“I knew nothing about the Chassidic community, making me excitedly curious about Surie’s story. Books that expose you to new situations and unfamiliar cultures have the potential to be the best reads.”
The book was a disappointment. Most egregious, its marketing misrepresented the authority Goldbloom has on the subject. While Goldbloom is indeed related to Hasidism, it is to Chabad. A Chabad woman from Australia simply is no “insider”. I don’t want to fault the author for a spin that she might not have played any role in, but the entire premise of how this is sold is disingenuous. And as an outsider, Goldblum seemed to have done no research at all.
In On Division, the lack of deep familiarity leads to a deeply offensive depiction of Hasidic women as extremely ignorant hicks. The novel paints a world that is extremely provincial, backward, and where relationships between couples are the central connection in life.
In one vivid passage, Williamsburg is rendered in colorful details as some pastoral countryside where four generations live in one home, and the family yard houses thirty chickens.
“The Ecksteins raised their own chickens. They didn’t eat red meat. The poultry lived in the backyard in a large coop Dead Opa, Yidel’s father, had built in 1951. He’d had chickens in the displaced persons camp in Austria too. The birds picked worms and rusty screws out of the dry, pale gray dust. The Ecksteins owned twenty-five chickens at a time, thirty before Rosh Hashanah, but never a rooster. On Sukkos, when Tzila Ruchel, Surie’s oldest daughter, had a sukkah that stretched across the entire front of their house and the doors opened and shut constantly, the chickens wandered out into the road and caused collisions.”
This is a book on grimy Brooklyn, New York! Williamsburg is a gritty urban area, a polluted part of New York. The Hasidic people are usually city natives, New Yorkers, able to navigate the subway to Chinatown and bargain on the price of an imitation Coach bag. Williamsburg looks out not at a thin strip of water that is the East River, because that’s mostly obstructed by fenced-off shipping and manufacturing areas. The view is of Manhattan. The Manhattan skyline looms over many Hasidic-occupied apartment complexes. When you walk on Division you can see the Freedom Towers.
The issues with the setting, however, aren’t simply the details per se, but how the book cumulatively paints a portrait that is extremely insulting. It brought to mind the way western travel writers would depict other cultures as savage and exaggerate how “uncivilized” these “unusual” peoples were. This is especially bad when Hasidic women are shown to deliver babies in muted pain, without ever knowing the first thing about their own bodies. Surie has no knowledge of reproduction, despite having had many children herself. Only when she is pregnant in her fifties does the midwife educate her:
“You know this already, but most babies are born headfirst, Mrs. Eckstein. If they come with their feet first, it is known as a breech.”
The nurse goes on to lecture this passive woman on what hemorrhaging means.
“You’re at risk of hemorrhaging. I’m talking to you. Can you pay attention, please? Blow your nose. This is not the time to fall apart. Do you know what hemorrhaging means? Bleeding. To death.”
I want to shout back: Don’t lecture me! I knew what hemorrhaging was before I even knew where babies come from because I had watched mothers gossiping and covering their gasps with open palms when a neighbor’s friend’s sister nearly died from hemorrhaging.
Not only does the nurse explain this and folate (which my mother told me to take as soon as I called to tell her I was pregnant) but the Hasidic character can’t comprehend it in English.
“What is folate?” she’d asked, translating the midwife’s sentences slowly into Yiddish in her head. Which was still full of the wedding. ‘What is a neural tube?’ ‘Neural tube defect,’ Surie muttered in English, before reopening her purse and placing the bottle on the concrete. The vitamins weren’t kosher. She’d have to buy her own at a pharmacy outside the community. They’d stare at her scarf, her clothes, giggle about her accent, but at least they wouldn’t spread gossip.”
So, not only does Surie have to be educated by her midwife, but her trip to buy the vitamins will be a crushing indignity as others will, “giggle.” This is all ridiculous. It is all ridiculous. There are vitamin shops in Williamsburg. No one giggles at Hasidic women in NYC. New York City, let me remind you, is the home of weirdo central.
It is the worst when we learn that Hasidic women give birth silently!
“During her labor with Chaim Tzvi, Val had told her she should make sounds. Heck, she could go ahead and scream if she thought it would help. Sweat broke out under Surie’s turban and streamed from her body. The midwife had encouraged Surie to moo or bellow or cry. Something. Anything. But Surie had remained silent until almost the very end. ‘What is it with you women?’ Val had asked.”
I will tell you what it is with these women: They scream. They are humans, not dead Stepford fantasies. Someone who understood the community AND was a sensitive writer would not have depicted Hasidic women as these religious ghosts.
The parts that depict the community as “positive,” are bad too, because they are not plausible or the real appeal of this way of life. We are shown in Surie’s life, however repressed, a husband who dotes over her and for whom life revolves around their romance. In one scene, the entire family is in the Eckstein house for the Chanukah lighting, but Mrs. Eckstein and her devoted husband are locked in the bedroom with one another! [!]
See, the problem with finding redemption in romantic love is that it misrepresents what is so powerful within this community. In our modern atomized world of nuclear families where we project all the needs for intimacy and comfort predominately on our sole sexual partner, the Williamsburg Hasidic community is a large, robust network of support. A woman like Surie, who had lived a simple life for many years, would not be rejected by her daughter for being pregnant, and would not singularly find ultimate solace in her husband.
In an authentic experience of a “high-risk pregnancy,” the community would have mobilized to do whatever it could to connect Surie with a good doctor. This mobilization, while smothering and invasive on its nastier side, demonstrates the tremendous social support that makes this community shine. The story Goldbloom tells fails to imagine subversive social connections, the quirky or surprising personalities within the community, and the ways in which a Hasidic woman is rewarded for her sacrifices: with support not just from one man, but from a whole meddling village. The soul of what makes this unique world special is missing.