March 11, 2020 Book Review: On Division by Goldie Goldbloom
I get Google alerts when Hasidim are in the news. The other day, I was notified 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 becomes pregnant with twins and, when, because she is already in her fifties and a bubby, she can’t get herself 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.”
“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 Hasidic, she is Chabad, a sect that can be so different from the Satmar sects, that touring Williamsburg with me and then the Chabad neighborhood in Crown Heights will offer little overlap. The Satmars speak Yiddish and Chabad do not. The Satmars don’t welcome outsiders, the Chabad does outreach. The Satmars don’t see the Chabad as Hasidim and the Chabad see the Satmars as anti-intellectual, not-the-real-deal Hasidim. The Satmars usually spell it Hasidic, and the Chabad usually spell it Chasidic, or Chasidish. A Hasidic woman from Williamsburg doesn’t look anything like one from Crown Heights, and the same is true for the men.
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.
My problem isn’t that outsiders write about Hasidim. On the contrary, I’d love to see creative works that explore different angles of this culture! The problem is that if you write about a very nuanced world without properly doing your homework, you will misrepresent it, and the descriptions will fall flat. In so many ways, this was the case in this book. All the people who believed they’d seen this world through Goldbloom’s novel were sadly mistaken.
In On Division, the lack of deep familiarity is problematic and fundamentally misunderstands the Hasidic world. The novel depicts a world that is quaint, that is atomized, where the women are ignorant and isolated in their reproductive experiences, and where relationships between couples are so central, they feel almost secular.
In one vivid passage, Williamsburg is rendered in colorful details as a riverfront community where four generations live in one home, and the family yard is 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.”
The Ecksteins also look out the window to a river and all its daily colors, and the reader is transported to a little Amish countryside that sets the scene for a quaint pastoral life. In reality, Williamsburg is a city, a gritty urban area, a grey, 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’s views are not the 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. On September 11, my ex-mother-in-law who lives about where the fictional Ecksteins do, saw the Twin Towers burn. The community Goldbloom describes just does not hold up when you realize it is a block from the subway and a train stop from Manhattan.
The issues with the setting, however, aren’t simply the faulty details per se or how they might irk one particular nerdish tour guide, but about how the book cumulatively paints a portrait that resembles something completely unlike the real neighborhood. This especially upset me when the women are depicted as simple characters who deliver babies in muted pain, without ever knowing the first thing about their own bodies. In some instances, Surie is shown to have no knowledge of reproduction, despite having had so 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. It’s far more common with twins. Don’t you remember what happened with your third kid? I don’t have to tell you what labor feels like. You know better than me!”
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 ridiculous level of insecurity, for a city filled with weirdos and accents, is worlds apart from the actuality of Hasidic women who know how to elbow their way through the world when necessary.
Goldbloom’s description of this kind of lifeless, repressed, isolated and terrified existence is most extreme when the nurse reveals that when Hasidic women give birth, they don’t even scream.
“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, as one of them: 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 their own projections. 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 marital 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.