Earlier this month, I saw a tweet by a Satmar Hasidic man, something about the Rebbe and his Hasidim, I don’t remember it exactly. With it was a video that showed a typical all male crowd surrounding the Rebbe. I wanted to replythere was so much I wanted to say back. In that moment, I was overwhelmed by thoughts that had been percolating in my mind for years on the absence of women in Hasidic culture. It was once such a normal fact of life for me, but recently, I see it and can’t unsee it, and it’s so striking and visible that I want to say something. I’m not social media literate, and I can’t hack twitter. I definitely can’t get a point across on that medium.  I stopped myself and didn’t reply to his post.

Later, however, I impulsively tweeted in response to different Hasidic men who advocated arming themselves in light of the anti-Semitic attacks. I asked why they are buying into toxic masculinity, then I realized that they wouldn’t know what toxic masculinity is, so I sent a series of new tweets in attempt to define it. I sent more tweets, asking where their women were. Quickly, I was shut down by angry responses. I deleted the tweets. This was going nowhere, and I wasn’t getting out what I was trying to say.

Hasidic men have become so much more emboldened, creative, ambitious. I see this in their shops, in my personal friendships, in the things they publish online and otherwise. Sure, there are individual men who have it much harder than others, but on the whole, there’s an undeniable pattern. There is fresh energy in all avenues of male lifein their creative industries, in their education, in their synagogues, and of course, in their online forums. They talk about many things, sometimes serious issues like boy’s education or mental illness or abuse, and lots of politics. But discounting some very rare exceptions in which they discuss publishing pictures of women and the role of Rebbetzins, they don’t talk about why women are missing from their conversations. When I am overcome with a dybbuk-like urge to reply to any of them, I want to reply to that. To what they are not talking about. Of course, answering back to nothing is a recipe for being misunderstood. I end up feeling silly.

Long after I thought the better of sending out my twitter garble and logged off, I continued to mull these feelings over; my desire to reply to them was still powerful. Despite urging myself not to, soon I was writing my thoughts down, and these thoughts rapidly built upon themselves and spilled into something much larger. My reply is now a *little* longer than a tweet and comes complete with a bibliography.

* * *

Here is what I want to speak to.

Half your population, specifically, the female population, is absent from this scene. Why?

The secular world has a simple answer. The poor pale Hasidic handmaidens are oppressed by men, that’s why! But you, the Hasidic man, and me, and anyone who lives in the Hasidic world, knows that this explanation runs counter to the actual lived experience. Who is imposing religion on whom? We know that women are often the most pious and resistant to change in the community. Women frequently police their men and one another. Women will often refuse to modernize even if their husbands urge them to. Women tell their two year old daughters to pull down their skirts and not jump rope in a way that shows too much skin; she takes her outfits to the seamstress to add extra collars and kick-pleats. As the Forward writes of the Haredi publications that don’t publish pictures of women, ”A particularly confounding aspect of the erasure of women lies in the fact that most Haredi magazines are edited by women.”

Sure, there are male zealots, and many women are dabbing a bit more mascara on these days and wearing designer boots. But I know many men who want their wife not to shave her head, to put on a longer wig, to go on vacation to someplace clandestine, to get a computer or job or just be interested in what the men are talking about. Men will say, “I wish my wife was more open,” but rarely will I hear this stance from women.

If this is a Hasidic man’s experience, he would need to reconcile why women are the ones enforcing their own oppression. It is fair to assume that many explain it in the way it was explained to me: Because, shhh, we don’t mean to disrespect what women do with making Pesachdig and nice suppers for the daughter-in-laws and all, but between you and me, women just aren’t made for these things. In other words the answer is that women’s nature makes them less daring and open minded, less rational and revolutionary thinkers.

I want to trace the history of Hasidism to the present to dig up the assumption that women are inferior, to explore the myth of the sin of Chava and how it has effectively kept me and other women trapped in society, and how, while technology has the ability to free us from that trap, it seems to be doing the opposite, and will continue to do so. I want to use history, science, and anecdote to acknowledge the innate sexism present in the Hasidic community and explain why it’s wrong.

* * *

From its very genesis, the Hasidic society was founded on the marginalization of women. It was built within a patriarchal framework. The Jewish faith, like any Abrahamic faith, tells a creation story that woman was made of the rib of man, as a secondary counterpart to Adam, and that women have been problematic from the start. Long before Hasidism came around, Jewish life was grounded in troubling views on gender. These views have historically taken their toll on Hasidic family life and in particular have burdened women with duties that kept them in their secondary status.

Hasidism was an eighteenth century mystical movement that was, by definition, male, a tree house with a gleeful sign reading NO GIRLS ALLOWED. It held a cultish appeal of spiritual brotherhood. In the book a Hasidism: A New History, it is described as a men’s club:

“Early Hasidism largely excluded women from its circles. Up until the twentieth century, Hasidism was, in a profound sense, a men’s club. For some men, perhaps threatened by women’s growing role in Jewish culture, Hasidim’s virtual exclusion of women may have been one of the attractions of the new movement. And it is also possible that the exclusion of women was a way for early Hasidism to distinguish itself from Frankism, with which its opponents sometimes confused it.”

The new movement was a kind of spiritual fraternity. It expressed itself,

“Primarily as religious ‘enthusiasm.’ It entailed prolonged sessions of ecstatic prayer punctuated by loud exclamations and wild gesticulations, and induced followers to ecstatic states via the consumption of alcohol, attenuation of ascetic practice, indulgence in joyful gatherings accompanied by song and dance, neglect of traditional rabbinic study or a preference for Kabbalah over Talmudic and halakhic texts, and claims to prophetic inspiration by men who apparently lacked high learning.”

These early men were not self-denying monks who rejected the material world for their spirituality; they had wives and children and lives back home. The wives were, in fact, what they seemed to have been escaping. A lot of the anti-Hasidim, called misnagdim, of the early movement were critical of how negligent men were of their family lives. In his memoirs, Yeheskil Kotak remembered how hefty a toll his father’s Hasidism took on their family: 

“When father was living on the Paseki estate, around the New Year’s day he felt a longing for his rebbe. For a lessee of an estate it was actually impossible to tear himself away from the farm at that time of the year. Around Rosh Hashanah all the work in the fields comes to a head.… But father was yearning for his rebbe, God forfend!

“Without thinking about the consequences … he took off for Slonim leaving all the work to one of the peasants. He stayed for eight whole days in Slonim and when he returned home for Yom Kippur he found the place in complete disorder: The oats had been harvested too late … the potatoes had not been covered up in the ditches, so more than half had rotted away.… As a result father’s trip to the rebbe in Slonim cost him between five and six hundred rubles, not counting the expenditures for the trip itself.…”

Imagine the perspective of the wife, who was not only left alone by her husband, but also suffered a financial loss because he did not prioritize her and the children over his own spirituality. In fact, we know from the few surviving records that women experienced frequent loneliness and heartache as their men went off to develop themselves. In an article written by a Litvish Rebbe Rabbi Sher, quoted here, we see how hard this was on the women, who gave up so much in their marriages, only to feel lonely and unappreciated.

“I have heard that some pretended God-fearing and pious men [mithasedim] take great care to fulfill this mitsvah for the sake of Heaven, without any desire. Such a person would busy himself half the night with Torah and prayer … and only then, after midnight, would he come home and wake up his wife, prattle to her placatingly in order to fulfill this mitsvah. [Naturally,] she allows him to do with her as he pleases, and he is proud of having managed to fulfill this commandment without [succumbing to] the evil inclination, [namely], without any impure lust…

Just as it is prohibited to abstain altogether from the act itself, which is the husband’s duty of onah in respect of his wife, so it is prohibited to refrain from physical intimacy with her, which is what the wife craves—to enjoy her physical intimacy with her husband. “

We catch a glimpse of women rejected, excluded, devalued, saddled with responsibility from the rare voice of a Hasidic woman herself.

Sarah Scenirer, (1883-1935), daughter of Belzer Hasidim in Poland who founded the Bais Yaakov school systems for girls, wrote a powerful description of what it meant to be a woman in the Hasidic world:

“And as we pass through the days before the High Holy Days…fathers and sons travel, and thus they are drawn to Ger, to Belz, to Alexander, to Bobov, to all those places that had been made citadels of conceited religious life, dominated by the figure of the rebbe’s personality. And we stay at home, the wives, daughters, and the little ones. We have an empty festival. It is bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual meaning that is concentrated within a Jewish festival. The mother goes to the synagogue, but the services echo faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women’s galleries. There is much crying by elderly women. The young girls look at them as though they belong to a different century. Youth and the desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities. Outside the synagogues, the young girls stay chattering; they walk away from the synagogue where their mothers pour out their vague and heavy feelings. They leave behind them the wailing of the older generation and follow the urge for freedom and self-expression. Further and further from the synagogue they go, further away, to the dancing, tempting light of a fleeting joy.“

When I read this I am struck by a number of things. I am moved by this woman’s ferocious intellect, but also by how she described the experience of women on holidays: empty. Why would she call a holiday empty, when she depicts a scene so rich, so full of life, longing, and holiday spirit? Because as a woman, she was not only forced to stay home, but also to believe that those who stayed home would not reach the same religious level as those privy to the secret knowledge and great sanctuary of song and dance.

Women didn’t have the luxury of creating movements like men did. It takes a man some five minutes to bring a life into the world, while it takes a woman nine months of her body hosting the fetus, not to mention the ensuing years of breastfeeding and care giving. There is an inherent inequity in reproduction that allowed for men to go and make men’s clubs while the wives were naturally excluded.

However, even if Sarah Schenirer (or the Belzer Rebbetzin in this clip) for instance, were to somehow manage to pull off a Yentl, it would not change the underlying problem, which is that we are still ignoring the female perspective, the perspective from the aerial view from the women’s balconies with their latticed walls. The perspective which is that of being born Hasidic and female.

Let me tell you about a woman in Russia, who, though neither Hasidic nor Jewish, was also a mother of many and was forced to spend her days in support of a man’s “great” higher calling, just as many a woman in Schenirer’s depiction. Her name was Sofia Tolstoya, wife of the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Sofia married young and had thirteen children. Her diaries remain, a heartbreaking record of how women, before the advent of birth control, spent their lives building everyone else up and bought into the notion that they carried a lesser value in this world:

“For a genius one has to create a peaceful, cheerful, comfortable home. A genius must be fed, washed and dressed, must have his works copied out innumerable times, must be loved and spared all cause for jealousy, so he can be calm. Then one must feed and educate the innumerable children fathered by this genius, whom he cannot be bothered to care for himself, as he has to commune with all the Epictetuses, Socrateses and Buddhas, and aspire to be like them himself.

I have served a genius for almost forty years. Hundreds of times I have felt my intellectual energy stir within me, and all sorts of desires – a longing for education, a love of music and the arts… And time and again I have crushed and smothered these longings, and now and to the end of my life I shall somehow continue to serve my genius.”

Despite their stirrings, Tolstoya was forced to ignore what might have been her “great” calling. At the helm of a family of thirteen children and an irritable, impatient husband, she was, like so many Hasidic women, forced to take a lifelong backseatand to do so quietly, graciously. Today’s Hasidic women are born into a community that was conceived on the basis of their exclusion.

* * *

To be sure, a lot has changed over its near-300 year history. Hasidism is no longer a network of fraternities with a charismatic mystic at each group’s head. Sects are now large dynastic operations led by the grandsons and great grandsons of the original leaders, and the major sects today reflect the geographic history of the region where the Rebbe led, as well as his personal philosophy. Over time, these different sects have changed their attitudes toward women to varying degrees and with limited effect.

The Chabad-Lubavich group, for example, which does outreach (and is not the subject of this post) appropriates a good deal of feminist language for its role of women in the movement, and is genuinely more modern than its counterparts. The Polish groups like Gur are often more inclusive of women in religious life; women are more likely to go to the synagogue, recite prayers, and observe fasts. However, at the same time, wives often come second to the religious priorities and are viewed as a distraction from male spirituality, as is discussed in the Tablet article on the Kiddushin crisis. Hungarian groups are very family oriented. It is very uncommon to leave the family behind to visit the Satmar or Pupa Rebbe. As Benjamin Brown of the Hebrew University writes in the Tablet:

“In Hungarian Hasidism (and possibly in Hungarian-Jewish culture in general), the family is considered a very important institution. Family cohesion is held to be a foremost value in the life of the individual and an important element contributing to the fortitude of the community as a whole. The idea that affectionate relations between husband and wife might interfere with man’s religious “ascent” is almost inconceivable in this culture.”

While in the Polish Gur sect, women are more welcome into avenues of worship, the concept of intimacy is fraught. Simultaneously, although intimacy is encouraged in Hungarian sects, women are extremely relegated to the domestic domain. Because Hungarian Hasidim don’t prioritize studying the Torah over family, the men don’t spend their lives in yeshiva learning; Hungarian Hasidic men are expected to go out and support their families and to earn a living. Meanwhile, the wives are to run shmekedig, lovely Hungarian homes that are immaculate and filled with very creative dinners and holiday desserts. Because the women are so completely confined to a female domestic sphere, the men have the most entrenched views of women as creatures uniquely belonging to that space. In my experience, they are most likely to explicitly or covertly express that women are simpler, more hysterical, gossipy, childlike, and overall less human than they are.

A family-oriented sexism can seem soft and sweet. Hasidic couples may form deep, endearing partnerships; they can forge a life together and lean on each other for support. Hasidic couples will be co-owners in the home. Often, the wife will be important sidekick in getting a new business venture off the ground. The Hasidic woman who was killed in the recent Jersey City attack died while manning the shop that she co-owned with her husband. A business partnership is not the rule, but there is definitely room for a teamwork even with the clear power differential. Today, the couple has the potentiality to create a Jewish home together, a far cry from the boy’s club of yore.

But both men and women are still raised in separate schools, with separate curriculum, separate spaces in the synagogue, anticipating separate futures. For men, it will be as the head of household and performer of most rituals, as the breadwinner; for women, it will be as the mother and wife. Women are still kept out of the religious sphere, still not allowed to study the Torah and books that the men spend hours pouring over, they are still tied down with all the little ones, still ignorant of the rules they keep, still unable to stretch their wings.

* * * 

I was born in New York in 1985 as a female, in the Satmar Hasidic village Kiryas Joel. I had short bangs, lots of hand-me-down dresses and jumpers, and was initially very shy. I hated to help in the house, and escaped the many chores we girls had by running about outside almost all the time. My mother would wag a finger and call me a gassen ying, a street child. We had a special room in our house called the Book Room, and it was filled with Hebrew and Aramaic law-book-like texts that the men studied, while me and my sisters spent a few Sundays cleaning for Passover. I often heard that “It is written” in regards to our faith and customs, but I could never see for myself what was written. I implored my brother to teach me some Talmud, but he kept shooing me off, because girls don’t get it.

In my girl’s school, big banners in Hebrew adorned the classrooms; they emphasized modesty: “The pride of the daughter of the king is within,” which was specifically translated as, “The pride for a woman is to stay inside.” I even knew this phrase in song. 

At about ten, I first came to understand that my biology was my determination, and that it was not something I could wit my way out of, like escaping the chores. I was in the bedroom with my older sister, folding heaps of laundry, a chore I dreaded, of course. We were singing songs and sorting large baskets into piles of boy’s socks and long nightgowns. We were fighting and bossing each other aroundthe normal stuff. Then my sister let me in on a horrifying secret: that at some point in her early teenage years, a girl starts to bleed from down there, lots of blood flowing out, and her stomach gets really sore. I imagined something vague and life threatening. I was devastated. I told her she was lying and that it wasn’t true. I demanded: And what about the boys? She told me the news matter of factly: Nope, only the women. What?! I was indignant! How come us and not them? 

“Tough!” She declared. “It’s because of the Sin of Chava, that she tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, this is our punishment.”

I could not accept that. “I have to bleed out in the most humiliating way because of her?” I pleaded for fairness. ”I never even met Chava. I wasn’t alive then!” I stomped around the parquet floor in my housecoat, insisting, demanding, refusing to believe. My sister kept shushing me; it was true, but top secret! To prove her point, she snuck me into the master bathroom and showed me the pads hidden in the vanity cabinet. “See? Told you!” Still, for many months after, I harbored hope that the secret was a mean prank.

But my sister was right; my body proved it. My female body did many intense, painful, miraculous, devastating and confusing things. By the time I was twenty, I was pregnant for the second time after a full term first pregnancy that was a stillbirth. And I had internalized my place in the world. Everything the community said about women, those poor meek women, oy, the womanly mind, I accepted. The inequity was still irrational to me, like a Schroedinger’s cat, a fact of nature that doesn’t quite fit with logic. I was still sometimes overwhelmed by my indignation at specific aspects of life, like the fact that my husband couldn’t touch me after I had a stillborn because I was “unclean,” or that women with a dozen kids had to struggle in and out of taxis instead of having their own cars. But what was I going to do with that frustration? It drove me crazy until I moved on.

I did not have enough information to know that my body didn’t prove everything. It didn’t prove that my cramps and pains were punishment for some allegedly bad deed a woman committed thousands of years ago. But how could I have separated fact from fiction? I knew nothing of evolution. I couldn’t ever have imagined that humans evolved from primitive animals, from whom we inherited reproductive mechanics that were not designed for extremely complex humans who walk on two legs and have huge brains.

My anatomy was not proof that I couldn’t study the Talmud or travel for spiritual validation or wear pants (so comfy) or drive a car or lead or decide not to have kids or one million of the other misogynistic beliefs we held. I didn’t know what I know now: that the most important differences between males and females lie in reproduction, not in temperament or in cognitive abilities. The neuroscience of the brain shows that there is a lot of overlap and a few differences between male and female brains, yet that, “the great variability within both groups makes it impossible to tell whether a given brain corresponds to a man or a woman” (Alonso). I did not have role models and access to feminist writers who could show me that some things were biological and a lot were just social inventions. So like many women before me, I accepted that I was there to ”serve the geniuses.”  

I think that in part, chance circumstances led me to leave Hasidism and leave all you geniuses. I imagine how many different outcomes I could have lived. This one wasn’t guaranteed. My personality isn’t cut out for deviating from the status quo and making myself into a pariah. I am afraid of risk, I don’t like to stand out, and I will set myself on fire to keep someone else warm if it will make them approve of me. I think I’m not different from other hard-headed women who stay, but for me, some things went awrylike the stillbirth and a wicked mother in lawthat created an opening. But if I had been born a decade earlier, if I had mothered a year younger, I probably would have lived out my life making the most of serving the “geniuses.”

* * *

Why would I have stayed? Why do almost all women stay?

Because people usually don’t rise up against systems that oppress them. There are many reasons for this, good reasons. In this case, women are conditioned to accept their oppression as inevitable, as natural or as necessary. They believe it. Most humans will be clear-sighted about other people’s fallacious reasoning, but blind to their own irrationality. We believe in the Messiah’s impending arrival and we believe the Rebbe is divinely special but we laugh at Chabad for believing their deceased Rebbe is still alive.

We as a species are not as smart as we like to tell ourselves. This is laid out very well in a New Yorker essay I’ve read many times. In “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes one theory of our faulty thinking as follows:

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.”

The collaborative aspect in the Hasidic community is why women are motivated to accept, justify, tolerate or seek confirmation bias for its sexist inequity. 

On an individual level, what would she do with the “wisdom” that she’s as good as the next man? March into the men’s section like a lunatic?

In the 1970s, one woman did just that. She was either an old lady or passed on when I was a child, probably a war survivor, and she became a legend for her madness. She was called Sharmasher Rebbetzin. She seemed to have been the biggest Hasid, or fan girl, of the Satmar Rebbe. On a regular basis, she walked herself right into the large men’s sanctuary of the synagogue instead of into the covered up women’s balcony. There she collected charity from everyone, and then gave all her loot to the Rebbe. She clearly wanted to be in the boy’s club. A well known story about her that I heard from several people goes like this: She told the Satmar Rebbe that she wanted to divorce her husband so that she could remarry the same man, but this time, the great Rebbe would officiate the wedding. In response, the Rebbe quipped: “Who said he will remarry you?” See, the joke implies that she is a lunatic and her husband would be out the back door if he had the chance to escape. Her enthusiasm for the Rebbe, which would be par for the course for men, was proof of her deformity. Walking into the men’s section did not make her their equal. 

A Hasidic woman doesn’t have the choice to become a man. She doesn’t have the choice to become an independent secular woman, not if at twenty years old, she has a child or two and deep bonds with a world that will not tolerate her rebellion. She needs the community more than she needs to become self actualized.

As long as she is an insider, her kids as young as five can walk the streets safely without their mother, because the entire community keeps an eye. It takes a village and here it is, a village. Her children attend school six days a week, all year round. They are picked up from her door by free buses and dropped back at home at the end of the day. At school, her children are fed warm and real meals, and she is not bothered for endless parental engagement roles like coming down to serve lunch once a week. Her sons do not even have homework, a bane of my own existence as the mother of a public school kid.

If she gets sick, her children will be cared for. One woman said her neighbor‘s children lived with her for months while the mother was treated for cancer. I have a terrible fear of getting sick, because I have come to understand that I simply don’t have a neighbor to leave my son with or anyone to fill in if I fall apart. I didn’t have this panic before.

A Hasidic woman‘s husband is not only a consistent presence in her life, but he provides her legitimacy, so that she can say, “My husband said it is fine,” so to add more weight to whatever she’s saying (a man even approves!), or in the way she can always say “we” instead of “I” and as a collective can take herself more seriously. “We are so thrilled,” makes her thrill less silly; after all, it’s also her husband’s. And of course, he provides her bread and butter, companionship, purpose.

In this state, she makes her bargains. She cannot afford to get too focused on her own needs, and so she builds her happiness through those around her. Hasidim have a Yiddish word, oifgeklert, which technically means something like “enlightened,” or literally “clarified,” but it’s derisively used to mean, “gotten too smart for your own good.” Women know that getting too smart is not wise. Paradoxically, the smartest thing a woman can do is to dumb herself down.

A Hasidic woman carves out a life in a tiny space. Some women find acceptable ways to modernize, which is often limited to consuming brand names, partaking in materialism, and occasionally pursuing female coded careers. Some get away here and there and practice a global version of whatever-happens-in-Vegas, before returning to the garb and motherhood. Others find power in oppressing from within, by policing other women, like the Aunts in the Handmaid’s Tale. And many women are just holding on to the same-old, because it’s a delicate stasis with much on the line.

In order for women in this community to develop their voices and come into their own, there need to be options that don’t turn the women into martyrs. The system has to shift to allow women to self actualize without burning the whole town down. Until that happens, you can’t expect women to be quicker to rebel than the men. There is an inverse relationship between dependency and the desire for freedom; the more dependent you are on the lifeline, the less eager you are to let go of it.

* * *

Now, people often tell me that things are changing, the community is modernizing. It’s a new world; the Hungarian survivor with the flimsy shtreimel who cried out to his lost family in his sleep is no more. Many in the new generation take pride in being with-it. Chilled. Lite. Fancy. 

On a recent Sunday after one of those winter tours where it’s dark outside by five pm, my group and I sat in Gottlieb’s Deli and ate steaming goulash. A woman with a stylish wig was obviously listening in from another table where she was having dinner with her husband and children. After my group dispersed, she called me over to debate with some of the things I had said. She didn’t agree that only in the secular world could you have hard conversations about difficult topics. So we schmoozed about it for a bit. 

It turned out that she was actually something of a personality, a Hasidic Instagram cooking celebrity who runs a channel called Raizy’s Cookin. She wasn’t from Williamsburg – she lived in a more modern neighborhood, but many of her followers were from Williamsburg. From her perspective, and that of her husband with the dapper white-on-white shirt and very trendy glasses, the community was making huge leaps forward. 

“All you experienced in the community, all that, it’s over, finished,” she told me. She held up her giant smartphone. “This. This changed everything. It’s a new world.” 

Indeed, things are changing, more in some neighborhoods than in others. There are even a few female Instagram celebrities in more modern communities. Even in Williamsburg, people are tired of being seen as Amish. They rightfully are proud of the community’s resilience. But in their rush to dispel one tale, they create another. 

Katle Kanye, an anonymous Yiddish writer who has blogged for many years and writes with a distinctly male voice of many colloquialisms that only a yeshiva graduate would get, described the Hasidic-lite phenomena in a recent book on Hasidic boy’s education (the translation from Yiddish is mine):

“After the devastation of the holocaust… [hasidim] naturally wanted to replant the roots and revive that which the enemy tried to destroy. With the second generation the images were still fresh, the wounds still raw, the breadth of the destruction stayed for another generation. Today however, that we are already almost seventy five years later, our lifestyle has completely modernized and the world around us entirely changed.”

Katle Kanye goes on to paint the scene. People now live “tzi gut in tzi leyt,” that is, with a healthy balance of religious duties and earthly pleasures. They enjoy plenty of American fair on the sly; internet access and shared Netflix credentials, shows like X-Factor and America’s Got Talent, music of Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift, even children’s movies like Scooby Doo once in a while. They share the scoop on secular celebrity gossip. The women wear more stylish clothing. The women even have fewer childrenalthough still many.

“We indeed look different, our language is Yiddish among the men and boys, our accent Brooklyn-Eastern-Europe, our politics socially conservative, the men’s clothing from nineteenth century Poland, and the women’s clothing is somewhat less immodest. But the worldly appetites are like a gentiles or like a worldly Jew in his mid-thirties or forties.”

A woman might have access to the internet through her own smartphone, or more commonly in Williamsburg, her husband’s smartphone, so she can see what’s up with whom. But we see hints of how shallow it can be when he writes, 

“A few of the men already got notices that this or that needs to be fixed [meaning some had gone too far] but nothing so much as to expel the men from the synagogues or the children from the schools.”

Yes, it’s still common for the man to be notified if a “problem” arises with his wife’s clothing. The husband is still, the de facto boss of things.

In many ways, any observable modernity is very superficial. It often amounts to no more than nibbling at pop culture and out-of-control materialism and brand infatuation, with some pop psychology in the mix. There are not meaningful structural changes. 

Boys still have grueling educations and are made to study for long hours from extremely complex, age inappropriate texts with tiny letters and archaic formats and no images. Women are still mostly only limited to the domestic realm. (Both issues, gender equality and boy’s educations are so resistant to change because they are so strongly imprinted on Hasidic DNA.) 

When I asked Katle Kanye why he didn’t acknowledge how meaningless this “middle class” reality is for women, he conceded that, “There are undoubtedly issues especially with the primary focus on modesty, breeding and minding the home and generally as if they are by accident of birth subservient to men and second class citizens.” 

His book, incisive in diagnosing where men aren’t making progress, didn’t even acknowledge that women’s modernity is as thin as the lace cookies the ladies spend hours making. In his defense, he said, he simply couldn’t speak to issues about women and girls because of the intensity of the community’s gender divide. But this is where I see an alarming cycle take off: The more opportunity men have, the more they can speak to the issues they knowmeaning male issues. Once these issues are spoken, they can attempt to fix them, and in turn forge onward and create further opportunity. The cycle continues. Meanwhile, women are stuck. 

And so, while the community modernizes, it also becomes more unequal. For men, the changes are foundational; for women, they’re cosmetic.

* * *

Think of automobile, the mishigas of Americhke. When our grandparents settled in New York in the mid twentieth century, they faced a new world and all its modern entrails. Here were cars owned by every other Yankeeor Yankya facet unimaginable in the shtetl. Sure, in der heim it had been okay to sit in a train, in the back of an automobile, on a boat or airplane, but the piloting itself was a whole new frontier.

Driving was not embraced. In fact, it was a peasant activity, a blue collar chore, something you hired a gentile for. If some fellow Yiddelech drove, it was for the cruder and less refined. The Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, himself never drove, of course. As was tradition, he had a personal driver on his staff. A large part of his royal duties as a figure of leadership was to sit in the back of an open-roofed Cadillac and wave, like the Kennedys. To this day, the grand male leaders are still driven around in motorcades; now even with police escort, with a huge hullabaloo by the followersas my tour visitors learned one day. My father in law never drove; he was a teacher, and in Williamsburg with the trains nearby, driving was not the norm.

The newcomers approached the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, to ask if driving was permissible. He had a strong dislike to what he called a “plague of this country,” and made exception only for “the minimum necessary for work or the like.”

“I have already expressed my opinion, regarding the plague of this country, the crassness that young men, both married and unmarried, regularly travel in cars, which is called drivingmy opinion is that this is harmful for one’s Fear of Heaven and one’s modesty, in that they drive in the auto in the streets and open squares, beyond the minimum necessary for work or the like; and [my opinion that] there is a great obligation on every individual to prevent people from driving, whenever possible.”

Teitelbaum’s intention was not for driving to be cut across gender lines. But because married men were the breadwinners, only they could get licenses. In 1979, some women moved to the suburbs of Monsey, New York, where it was nearly impossible to get around without a car. They got licenses. This caused alarm for one local leader, the Shinever Rav. The Rebbe was at the end of his life when the Shinever Rav got Teitelbaum to sign off on a clear prohibition on female driving which states in Teitelbaum’s voice:

“I was horrified to hear that recently, this breach in modesty has spread also to women, from kosher Jewish homes, which observe the Torah and its commandments. And this is the worst of all, this breach is so terrible, for a the Jewish daughter’s dignity is all within [to be inside, not outside on the streets.]”

Working men bought ugly station wagons. These men already had licenses, and they drove their station wagons to weddings and to see the Rebbe and to work and to the grocery and to drop off a child who had missed the school bus or had a dentist appointment. And what was to stop them from driving the family to visit the mother in the maternity convalescent home and see the newborn sibling? Who was to say that driving to Bubby for hot chicken soup wasn’t necessary? And so Teitelbaum’s words stretched, until no one remembered the “necessary” piece.

Today, even some of the sons of Rabbinic families will drive. But in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, none of the women do. Many Hasidic schools do not accept children of families whose mothers drive. And so, the community has modernized by verifiable measures, yet also has managed to become more sexist. Oh, the jokes about lady drivers, it’s endless!

How did we start with driving as a “plague” and end with permission for men and prohibition for women? We might be tempted to blame the men, women, the Satmar Rav or Shinever Rav. But that doesn’t go deep enough. That’s not to absolve any nasty characters of guilt, but we need to diagnose the source correctly. If we follow the evolution, we need to ask: Why didn’t any Satmar women “need” licenses? Because they do not work. Why don’t they work? Because they are home with the kids. Why are they home with the kids? Because from its very beginning, Hasidism has limited women to the domestic realm. The gender legacy goes so deep that new adaptations continue to fall into the same mold.

Yet day to day, people don’t look at the system, only at their private experiences. Many men see only that it’s a lot of pain to be the one in charge of giving everyone rides.

My father saw himself as the big victim of the chauffeuring headache. Of course, what else? He griped and grumbled when he was called to “coachman” duty. He declared that he wasn’t a horse-and-carriage driver. He had plenty semi-serious complaints when he had to wait for my mother to get dressed or if he had to sit in the van outside K-Mart while she shopped. The moment she was indecisive, he got so impatient! He had a rule: No last minute plan changes! No adding stops! No deciding someone would come along when it wasn’t in the plan! 

Here and there, men will tell their wives, “How about I let you drive in the Walmart parking lot, for fun?” and sigh when the wife is too cowardly. Never once did I hear a man appreciate that the taxi industry exists on account of women not being able to drive themselves, or about the money saved by not having two vehicles, or how nice it is to have their own little portable house that the wife doesn’t co-own, or how the roads are less clogged because half the population doesn’t have cars. But I did hear the honking, all the way down Lee Avenue, men in their cars sitting on their horns impatiently. Oy, they can’t take it anymore! Their focus is zeroed in on the smaller picture of being saddled with the car in that particular moment, in that particular situation.

(Meanwhile, in order to write this essay, I, a woman who was not allowed to drive and had to walk to work with my baby through all New York weathers, had to ask some generous men to find and translate the original response by the Rebbe, because I couldn’t even read the ruling that decreed my restriction! There should be a truck horn in a lady’s pocket book just for that.)

* * *

As it evolved with cars, so it is today with smartphones. Men “need” the gadgetry for work, while women use them merely as a sort of television through which to see the world, rather than a vehicle with which to interact. Zealots who fight the “new plague” of smartphones have largely given up on men, because the men’s excuses make it a losing battle. Many women gave up their phones and will just get their fill of adventure-by-proxy by browsing Instagram on the husband’s phone. New anti-smartphone posters in the street target women specifically. “A Jewish Woman Does Not Use a Smartphone,” declares one that’s plastered all over Bedford and Lee. Next to its text is an illustration of a pious woman holding a phone, with an x over her. Like with driving, schools will now reject children of mothers with smartphones, but not if their father’s have one.

That’s not to say that I see the role of internet in modern Hasidic life replicating an exact gendered divide as with cars. By definition, it can’t. You don’t need a license to use a smartphone and you can’t hide a car in your pocket, and when history repeats itself, it’s always with a new twist. But beyond the particularities, the changes wrought on by the web are falling along gender lines. The men are much more integrated with their tablets and laptops and smartphones, because they use them for work and will spend most of their day before some form of internet-enabled contraption. But for women, it’s largely an indulgence, since women don’t have any such “important” use for it. Women use tech either to share with each other about family and community, or to enjoy a glimpse of another world as if from behind a glass pane.

I don’t know what women hide, and it’s impossible to take an accurate, self reported accounting for which women do or don’t have access. But we get a good view from the streets and from the activity online. Outside, all women have kosher phones as do most men, but a few men have smartphones. It’s beyond the hood, on the trains and in Manhattan and even in my part of Flatbush, that I regularly see Hasidic men with smartphones, but never women. Women are also not online proudly and loudly sharing about this and that; there is no female ivelt or kave shtibel, two busy and interesting male forums. I also see this: the effect of tech on men’s confidence, worldliness, self-development, is extremely visible. The absence for the same among women, is just as unmissable. There’s a Yiddish expression that goes like this: a guest for a while sees a mile. The mile I see is a deep tech-induced divide between men and women, where for men, technology is a necessity, and for women, it’s an indulgence.

* * *

I ask men about the absence of women in all their yapping, pontificating, images, stories, equations. They point to a few outliers. They shrug. They tell me that from their perspective, all women should stop having so many babies and get smartphones, go to work, wear sheitels to the ass. They say they are more feminist than their wives. They want progress. They see feminism as a net benefit to them, so bring it on. After all, they reason, if women stopped reciting so many chapters of psalms and being so superstitious about their candles and rituals, it would be good for everyone. The ladies would be more sexually liberated, they wouldn’t be the religious gatekeepers, and they wouldn’t bear so many children who each burn giant holes in the pockets of the breadwinners. 

But, whether they acknowledge it or not, men would pay a hefty price if women came into their own. A man cannot be a feminist ally until he understands that women’s opportunity is not going to come without relinquishing some of his advantages.

If you are a Hasidic man, here are some advantages you might lose: you could lose your live-in help who does all the birthing and domestic labor, including your meals, holiday plans, laundry. You could lose your anchor, the patient ear who cheers you on and venerates you and believes you are God’s gift to humanity, who performs an intense amount of emotional labor for you. You also benefit economically from your wives’ position. The Hasidic community’s economy is deeply dependent on internal growth. When I walk through Williamsburg and Boro Park, I’m struck by all the expansionsthe new posh silver stores, modern looking toy stores, stylish children’s clothing stores, the gorgeous new annexes for schools. All of these can open because the community is growing internally thanks to its high birth rate. If women stop having so many kids, and you are a Hasidic boy’s school teacher or a toy store owner or you make music or distribute government programs, you’re in trouble, because the kids who need you will not be there. And while women having kids oils the economy, they are not getting paid for it. It’s cheap labor, a good deal. Meanwhile, women are not competing for almost any of the jobs. Those are some of the more stark benefits.

A lot of men also do the work of rejecting repressive sexual mores only, meaning they reject modesty and claim to want sexual liberation, and then they call it a day. They say: I am open to seeing uncovered knees. That’s nice, I guess, but doing the opposite of what you were raised isn’t feminism. Circulating images of real Hasidic women in states of undress, perhaps a huge invasion of their privacy, is extremely dehumanizing and puts her at risk. And if she agrees, you are exploiting a woman who was made desperate to be seen, which is not okay either. Importantly, the Madonna/Whore complex seems very common among Hasidic men. This is when a man thinks all women are either Madonnas, that is, the Christian figure of purity (not the celebrity in fishnet stockings) or Whores. Even if you do good work of having a healthier understanding of sex, unlike the slimy douches swapping pornie stuff online, it’s still not feminism.

* * *

What about Chava’s sin? This biblical story is the original sin of patriarchy. It blamed women for our own suffering, for our contractions and maternal agonies, for our exclusions. It said that our biology proves our inferiority. The version I grew up with went like this: At first man and woman lived in the Garden of Eden with no clothing and no pain, and presumably babies just effortlessly appeared. But then Chava came along with her scheming witchery, her manipulative mind, and ruined paradise—that snake. As punishment for what she did, all women were cursed to suffer a life of painful child bearing and rearing.

The myth has the science backwards. Females have XX chromosomes, which determines that we develop secondary sex characteristics and are able to carry and birth children. Our share of the “housework” has been painful and dangerous and icky for as long as it we have existed. Animals have essentially the same systems, although as bipeds, ours is even harsher. Chava didn’t cause it, she was born this way too. Otherwise, what made her different from man? 

The biblical myth says that first Chava sinned, and then women had a really hard time with childbirth. No, that’s wrong. First women were the smaller and more vulnerable sex, because we don’t have all that testosterone, because for much of history there was no birth control, rape was a fact of life, and childbirth was extremely dangerous to the mother. In this state, where men could push women down, the patriarchy was the one to commit the original sin. It created a characterization of Chava as a way to tell a story that flattered the victors. They puffed themselves up and said, “her suffering proves she’s bad, she must have had it coming!” when actually, her suffering made her too powerless to prove them wrong. 

In the same way, women who had thirteen children like Sofia Tolstoya couldn’t pursue their own actualization. She was kept pregnant and exhausted. But what if she yearned to do more? The men said “nah.” Better she cook for them and keep their jealousies at bay. Why help her have the same opportunities as they, if it would come at the cost of someone moderating their emotions for them, cooking for them, cleaning? Women could not access equal education and opportunity. Women could not make the same to-do about their spiritual lives as their Hasidic husbands. Naturally then, female accomplishments were few and far in between. But instead of blaming it on those who excluded them, the victors devised a flattering story about women’s inferior minds. 

What’s so pernicious about the sin of Chava is that it blames women and makes us blame ourselves. It says the unequal outcomes are proof of our unequal potential to fully develop. It points to me and says “see, your lack of success proves your inferiority.”

I’m thirty five. I’ve been a mother for pretty much all of my adult life. For the last ten years, I have been a single mother and done everything alone. I’ve had some very good times, but financially, it’s been treading water and gasping for air. I am still not able to go three months with enough for rent, and I recently had to file for bankruptcy. I’ve tried hard to break through. I produced hundreds of pieces of writing, drawn tens of cartoons, created my own illustrated maps and curriculum for the tours and built my own business. But doors haven’t opened, and my time is rarely paid for. Lest you start to feel really sorry for me, it’s not all bad! My tour business has been slowly and consistently growing, and I am enjoying it so much. The really hard part is that I am tortured by an internal voice, like Nelson’s from the Simpsons, that gloats at my impotence and shouts ha ha! It knows my longings to create, and it sees my lack of success as an indictment. Again and again I argue back. A loop runs in my mind, in which I say that most of my time and energy is going to surviving. I say, it’s not that I can’t, I just don’t have the chance! I’m spending all my time figuring out Chapter 7 with a confusing business and without an accountant or a lawyer! But the voice doesn’t listen. It says “the outcome proves it all, end of debate.” 

I often think about the vibrant, talented or genius women in the community who are making a rich life out of the scraps they were dealt. They invest almost everything into lifting up others, but their own ambitions will never be fully realized. These women, like Sofia, will have to try not to be bitter about it; who likes a bitter woman anyway? For myself, I hope to some day bring proof of outcome, but we’ll never be able to prove the lost potential of many other Hasidic women. 

As the Hasidic community becomes more unequal, I’ll meet more lively and bright Hasidic men, as I already do. They will be far more open minded, confident and worldly than most of their wives. There will be a more unvoiced feeling of superiority to the other sex. Meanwhile the ha has will taunt me more loudly. If I’ll one day succeed beyond my role as tour guide, the nasty bully will cry, see, your exception proves the rule. Ha ha! 

Perhaps that’s who this reply is to. Not only Hasidic men, but also the part of me that is still being gaslit by the myth of Chava. 


Mentioned Readings

Alonso, Jose Ramon. “Sexual differences in the human brain.” Mapping Ignorance, 10 May 2017.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. McLelland & Stewart, 1985.

Biale, David, et al. Hasidism: A New History. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Brown, Benjamin. “The Kedushah Crisis.” Tablet, 14 Feb. 2019.

Finkelstein, Barbara. “Moderate Haredi voices challenge extremist war against female images.” Forward, 9 Jan. 2020.

Kanye, Katle. Vetinok Lelamdo Sefer. CreateSpace, 2018.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” The New Yorker, 19 Feb. 2017.

Porter, Cathy. The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy. Harper Perennial, 2010.

Schwartz, Maier. Women peeping in from the doorway to witness the hasidic tish. 1929, The Jewish Museum New York, New York.

Teitelbaum, Joel. Jerusalem Bookstore Inc. https://tablet.otzar.org/en/book/book.php

book=170923&width=0&scroll=0&udid=0&pagenum=1

Abby Stein’s new book, Becoming Eve, exemplifies the pitfalls of the genre of OTD memoir. Her story differentiates itself from others, because Abby also came out as a trans woman, so hers is a story of “two transitions.” Each of Abby’s transitions intensified the other, especially as they both happened in her early twenties, shortly after Abby’s arranged marriage and the birth of her son. But the dominant story is Abby’s chafing and rebelling against the Hasidic Williamsburg community. She rebels against the faith. She rebels against the teachers and school rules. She reads the forbidden books. She engages in a taboo sexual tryst with a yeshiva classmate. And she also recounts rebellion against the rigid gender norms and against expectations that she perform manhoodshe refused to get her long hair shorn for payos when she turned three because she wanted long hair, and she had an angry argument with her father at the time of her bar mitzvah. Her dysphoria is but one of the various dissonances she has with this restrictive world. This all comes to a head when she leaves the Hasidic community to find the freedom to express her gender, beliefs, ambitions, choice, etc.

This is a story very familiar to me. I too left the Satmar Hasidic community for a degree of these freedoms, as have many others. The story of veering off a prescribed life, of leaving the arranged marriage and nuclear family to self actualize in a secular world that approves of this journey, is the quintessential OTD tale. In this way, Becoming Eve is an OTD book first and a trans book second, and its faults are the kind I often take issue with in the OTD genre.

When someone leaves the Hasidic community as I did, they soon learn that their life stories fascinate others. We are still greenhorns when others start encouraging us to write a book. We are urged to get our bestseller out by casual acquaintances and strangers, by our super, gym receptionist, customer service rep, or anyone who picks up on our Yiddish-inflected accent and politely inquires if we ever had sex with a hole in the sheet (“Sorry, you don’t need to answer, but do you mind…is it true…did you?”). We are constantly advised, instructed, cajoled, informed, that we must promptly go tell our terrific stories, and that publishing is how we can get rich quick. People gasp as we describe our arranged marriages and eek us on with encouraging oohs and ahhs when we divulge how many siblings we have; they wag a finger and ask why we haven’t written the book yet. We become keenly aware that some aspects of our livesordinary as they were among our childhood peersnow make us special. We learn that experiences that once made us feel awkward and ashamed in our Hasidic family, like divorce and broken family relationships, have become social, if not financial, currency in the secular world. We have a book within us without even needing to be writers. It’s the OTD story.

I don’t think OTD stories are problematic at face value. In fact, it is good to tell our stories, good to share, good to read. An introspective telling can remind us that we all have blind spots, unexamined beliefs, need for social approval, occasional herd mentality. I am also a sucker for a sappy personal growth story, and I will embrace a good one, if a little skeptically. But the problem with the off-the-derech narrative is that the secular world forces our varied and vast life experiences into a mold, a narrative arc. The narrative arc is this: We, the ex-Hasidim, were born into a world that suppressed our true selves, where we were engaged in bizarre ritual and eye-popping customs. Despite this, we were special, different from the rest, and we did not remain passive. We fought our way to freedom against all odds. In this story, our character is always self-determined, enlightened, searching, deliberate. We are one thing at first (a thinking agnostic woman in Abby’s case), and we only need the opportunity to express it. When we finally tear the costume off and reveal this core, we have chosen bravery over cowardice, freedom over passivity. We have done the right thing, which all others who stayed behind did not do, because they are too cultishly stupid. Our stories end on an uplifting note with some prized new experiences previously forbidden, like college, McDonalds and ill-fitted jeans.

Notice how we’re all the only agents of action directing the course of events. The language is “we leave,” or “we become,” we “went OTD,” and “we stopped believing.” It is never “we were pushed out,” or “we couldn’t find our place,” or “we were told we are no longer one of the group,” or “we had a falling out with a business partner or an affair that created a lot of wounds.” The natural interpersonal issues, rifts, instability, personality clashes, our own mess-ups and indulgences, or our appetite for greener grass, none of those are mentioned.

This story is far from the version Hasidim tell about us, which is often more complicated by bad ingredients like nasty gossip and schadenfreude, but which also includes more honest aspects, like family feuds and individual bad actors. For instance, I tell myself a narrative that somewhat indulges these tropes, but my mother would tell you a very different story. She recently surprised me when she told me quite angrily that my mother-in-law, called a shvigger, was the reason I left. “She ruined your life, your shvigger. She ruined it. All because of her…”

Did I leave, or did my mother-in-law make me? I would not compliment my former mother-in-law with so much power or with pronouncing my life ruinedit is very decidedly not, even if it is nothing I’d foreseen for myself. But there is probably some truth to my mother’s versionafter all, the evil mother-in-law from hell was a real nightmare I once dealt with. The friction that existed between her and me was like many of messy sub-plots (or main plots) that are inevitable in our lives.

The petty dramas and the fights that break out over whose challah recipe we might use (I turned down hers) will never play a real part in our OTD “bestsellers,” because these parts don’t fit the arc. No chatty beautician has ever listened to me tell of the wedge my mother-in-law drove into my marriage, and exclaimed, “You must write a book! My, that’s crazy, unbelievable, you gotta write a book!” Readers don’t necessarily want to hear what shaped me, only the life events that fit together to make a coming-of-age story, and perhaps elements that sound foreign or strange to them. They are flattered to hear that their lifestyle and values are worth the steepest sacrifices of the closest relationships in our lives. I deeply dislike books that indulge the audience on this. Such books are not enriching, and we don’t learn to have empathy for people different from us. They might tell a “true story,” but true only in the factual sense, not in terms of personal honesty.

Abby Stein’s memoir has many moments of candid, simple, sweet retelling, but for every page of straightforward memories, there is one that feels inorganic. She looks back, digging to find the moments that prophesied her trajectory. A precocious young child who was born premature and had some early health problems (a hernia at two), she remembers that she wanted a girl’s dollhouse after one of her surgeries, and tells us that this proves her future. When she turned three, she cried and resisted the traditional boy’s haircut, here also, we are told, because of how it conflicted with her true self. And as soon as she was a teen, she began questioning the faith. “I had no faith in anything I was told. If they were wrong about my gender, they could be wrong about God, too,” she writes. “I noticed these disconnects everywhere. I found them in every step.” The book tells us that the adult Abby was there all along, from the earliest age, only waiting to break free. The reader is almost relieved not to hear some anecdote about her crying during her circumcision, at eight days old, to revolt against archaic faith and gender pronouncements.

At age 13, Abby demanded answers to very big questions like, “Who said there is really a God? Who said Judaism is the right religion? Who said Hasidic Judaism is the right way to be Jewish? Do we even have souls?” Yet her questions were, “met with disdain and anger, and shock.” Abby adheres to the genre in imagining herself an exception. Only she was different: “I didn’t know any other teenagers who questioned the existence of God, the ultimate truth of Judaism as the only true path to God, the fact that we were the chosen people, or even the authority of the sages.” And then, “Soon, One book led to the next, and to more after that, until I eventually came upon two books that became my favorite: Richard Dawkins The God Delusion and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?” In tenth grade, her teacher cried, “heresy!” at her, because she dismissed the questions the class studies, because it was on something “insignificant written over eighteen hundred years old.”

The reader who is familiar with the linear “Enlightenment” journey (the God Delusion is a cliché here) must realize that this type of perfect knowledge into the world at a young age is not how human belief comes to be. We humans are notoriously flawed in our thinking and susceptible to confirmation bias and to fitting our reason to our personal needs. We believe stupid things despite evidence, and even stupider things when we have no evidence. In fact, our confirmation bias leads us to imagine that there is one simple truth that the OTD person can find if they simply embark on a treasure hunt. Again, it flatters the secular reader by saying that the truth lies in the western narrative, that western beliefs are superior, correct. But in reality, western beliefs are evolving and are now shown to be far from above superstition, propaganda, blind faith.

At the end of the book, when Abby finally acts on these misgivings, Abby comes out to her father. The father seems perpetually well-meaning but out of his depth with her. Abby brings Rabbi David Ingber, rabbi of the hippy-ish synagogue Romemu, to meet with her father, and Rabbi Ingber breaks the news that Abby has begun her physical transformation. It’s never clear how much her father understands about what it means to be transgender, but no matter, the explanations offered to her father by Abby and the Rabbi would never make sense to a teacher in a Williamsburg Hasidic yeshiva. Abby never unpacks what it might mean to her father to be in this confusing position, or the effect of the transition had on her son, her ex-wife, etc. The end is supposed to be uplifting, but I was left with many questions about the peripheral characters.

* * *

The real missed opportunity, is that there is almost no exploration of how toxic a gender-segregated world can be to those who can’t conform to the rigid male and female dichotomies. A book by someone raised as a man among only men and then comes out as a woman is a perfect opportunity to take a close look. As a Hasidic girl, I never struggled with the gender roles in the acute ways Abby did, but I struggled, I struggled plenty. I was socialized to make myself feminine, small, uncomplicated. The term “tomboy” did not exist in my vocabulary; rather, my friends would tease me that I was a bochur, a teenage boy, and I thought I was a freak of nature, a deformed woman, not quite right where I was, but definitely not acceptable among men. I came to believe men were intelligent and confident, and that women were wise but busy with materialistic trivialities (all the latest fads all the time!). I did not feel like I was good at womanly things (I really would like to wear the same outfit every day, in the fashion of Steve Jobs or a Hasidic G&G suitI’ll even sweat under a Hasidic shtreimel forever if that’s what it takes). There is an intense loneliness that accompanies the feeling that you are not a “proper” person of your sex. I had lots of girlfriends who loved me for all the ways I got myself in trouble, but I often worried that they were laughing at me, not with me. If I ever expressed interest in the talks or singing or rituals among the men, the men sent me away with disdain. I wanted to sleep in the sukkah like the boys; I wanted to do the thumb-dip over a Talmud like my brothers did; I wanted to be in on the drinking and dancing on Purim; I wanted to be able to scream at some protest for reasons I didn’t care about. I wanted to ride the Big Wheel bike down the steep driveway, but my floral dress, hemmed with a frilly ruffles, caught on the wheels, and I untangled myself with utter horror as I realized the tear was so large, it could not be patched. Most of all, I hated how stupid I felt when men made their inside jokes and Talmud references and mocked our girlish ignorance. And while I thought I was the only weirdo who belonged neither here nor there, I know that many other men and women contorted themselves to conform.

Abby touches on the problems of extreme gender roles. She had few female relationships throughout her childhood and the primary characters in her story are her father, her male teachers, male classmates, even the famous Vizhnitzer Rebbe. She struggled with isolation and depression and had trouble making friends among boys. I wanted to hear so much more on that. I wanted to hear how her socialization made her life different from, say, a Yentl, who was raised as a female but cross dresses to join the men. I know I was socialized to be female: to never sass back, to take up less space, to be uncomfortable with my body. But to be socialized among men, I am sure, would have completely changed me. It would have deprived me of the deep connections and many meaningful friendships that made me emotionally intelligent and at ease in the social world.

There is so much to consider about how our childhood contact with boys and girls shape us. I also see now, as a parent of a teen in a coed NYC school, that coed childhoods have their own problems, especially as they hyper-sexualize kids. I look into the Hasidic world for a contrast so as to better understand what we gained and lose. I look to the experience of formerly Hasidic men, women, and especially those who had a view in both. But Abby Stein adds very meager insight.

* * *

I want to see more OTD memoirs. I will read them. I will join the chorus and urge an insightful commentator to get writing. But I want a story that is more searching and reflective than the genre’s simplistic arc. My favorite example of a wonderful memoir (although it is not quite about leaving the Hasidic faith), is this year’s viral New Yorker story, “My Childhood in A Cult,” which tells of Guinevere Turner’s upbringing in the Lyman Family commune, which she reluctantly calls “a cult.” Turner’s experiences resonate with many of us from the Hasidic communityan ex-Chabad man wrote a letter to the New Yorker editor to say so much. But Turner’s story is not about a heroic escape; in fact, Turner was expelled from the cult unceremoniously when the Lymen lost jurisdiction of her and younger her sister. The story, still, is riveting, thoughtful, enlightening.

Turner writes, “I’ve always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that sixties and seventies cults are portrayed in the media. In a nation fixated on individualism, cults and communes are easy objects of disdain,” Rather than adhere to a tired narrative, her story challenges us to look at our own assumptions and ask: As individuals, how well are we positioned to say which systems of belief are right or wrong? How can we use our own stories to create meaningful, empathetic conversation between people of varying backgrounds? What are our own blind spots?

SEE UPDATE ON THIS SAGA AT THE BOTTOM!

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I think I might write a bit about my tour experiences now and then. Because my tours can be full of surprises and drama – some good, some bad, some fattening. Always interesting.

I’ve been a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg for six years, and I’ve had occasional trouble with the local Hasidic residents, but never like now. One particular Hasidic man, bullish, large, broad, with a curly black beard and booming voice, has taken to coming up to me and launching into a Yiddish-language attack that goes on without interruption.

The first time he did it, he came from behind on Lee Avenue. He was like a mushroom: suddenly cropped up, suddenly talking to me, but always looking straight ahead. “Go away from here, pitz-oop fin doo, get the hell away from here, you disgusting which, you evil rishanta, go away from here, no one needs you, you hate us, she hates us, she wants us all to drop dead, she despises us, why are you coming here, every day, every day, d-d-day, ev-v-!…

As he got further in, his speech turned into frantic stammers and his fury rose. I tried to say something. “Antchuldigt, we’re in the middle of a tour… Please. This is very disre…”

But he just kept going. Rambling in a loop about how no one needed me, I wanted everyone to peger – die, why am I coming here because I go to the media and say things that I want to something something, on and on without interruption. He went on even as he started to walk on ahead of us. And then he was gone.

I was surprised, shaken. Said something to my group. Asked if everyone was okay. Someone said he thought this was the hired entertainment, and we had a laugh and let it go. I wasn’t very worried. I figured it was a one-time-thing and the twelve people on my tour might never come back to Williamsburg again, but that’s the end of it.

But this individual came over to give us his treatment again the next time, and again the next. I now see him at a distance and start to consider a plan to avoid the worst of it. (I’ve yet to call out “run!!!” and start to flee. Lol, nah, we are not wusses) . At some point, in a moment of explosive rage, this guy spit on the street near me in disgust. Another time as he passed me and ranted, he through in among his word vomit that I should go kill myself. Best of all, he once turned to my group of visitors and said in a stammer of excited and broken english “you… you… you… you… listen to her?? Dis.. Dis… dis… guide bitch?!”

I wasn’t sure if I heard right. I asked the tour people what he called me. It was Guide Bitch alright. We all agreed right then and there that this should be my new business name and website address and personal title. If I had money, I’d quickly grab the domain and change my legal name to Guide Bitch. Or at least get a cute little storefront in Williamsburg with the name on. Tell people “he messed with the Guide Bitch, that’s why.”

Well, one day a few months ago, he left me this voicemail on my business line:

          You disgusting rishanta (evil woman)…

          Leave alone the religious yidden…

          You crazy, you are oopgefuren (ex-faithful)…

          Leave, why do you have to come make money by us, you evil woman.

          Eh… listen… leave it.

          Leave it!

          Don’t come! No one needs you here.

          Stay where you are.

          And that’s it!

The next time he bothered me, I took a picture of him, and asked around if anyone could tell me who he is and how I might get him to cut it out. A few people at a shop knew him and thought “he has nothing to lose. He doesn’t have a business or status. So what can anyone do? He won’t listen to anyone.”

So I let it go. I figured I’d try not to engage and hope I don’t get spit on.

Today, on the lovely and wonderful eve of Shavuos, when the streets are filled with little booths by this and that Ladies Auxiliary selling very elegant exotic flower arrangements, and I was in my best spirits, behold, there he was, across the street on Division from the Chocolicious candy store we were about to pop into for some pekelech treats. I told my tourists about him. I said “let’s rather keep walking” because there goes a man who could be trouble, and we were going to try to avoid the confrontation. But of course he saw me and soon wound his way through cars and across the street he came to bestow his charms upon the Guide-Bitch.

I just kept walking, but he asked someone where they were from, and when that person responded “Singapore”, he seemed to have hit a dead end and took off, his black rekel flying opn like a demon’s cape. I was so very glad, but all too soon. A few minutes later, he was on the top of the court-house style steps of the Viznitzer synagogue, screaming and ranting and making a huge scene, telling other Hasidim that I am a upgefooren (negative term for ex-hasidic) and as he went on he came straight for our group.

Maybe it’s that it gets so very hot in Williamsburg in the summer and I’m a bad sweater and my underarms pool and I’m wet like at a gym five minutes into leading my little ducklings down Broadway, or maybe it’s that we were stuck for like two minutes waiting for the Walk sign, but I stood there as he went on. And as I said nothing, I felt totally lost. A kind of dejavu voicelessness. All the passing Hasidic men that this individual engaged looked on with open curiosity, but not one objected to his loud, intimidating, violent slew that included recommendations that I should kill myself already and that I need to be killed. One totally normal -looking individual stopped to listen to him. I looked at this thirty-something Hasidic person hoping badly that he’d say something to cool the fire, but instead he got in on the action. He advised in Yiddish to the ranting lunatic “talk to them, them, the tourists… tell them not to buy anything from her, not to support her, tell them…” I just stood there – ugh, it was not a good situation. I think the “advice” from the normal person was the worst part. How could he encourage a six foot tall, broad shouldered beast of a man screaming at a 5”3 woman in front of all of us? It was the first time that a person yelled at me and other people, instead of saying “leave it”, fanned the flames.

I saw lovely old Mr. Roasted Chicken come out of his shop with a rug to clean or garbage or something. He’s a real old-timer, friendly and sweet, a little white beard, red flushed cheeks, often comes out of his store to ask me how it’s going. I looked away when I saw him come out, because it was all so awkward.

The individual didn’t leave us there. So I walked on and tried to resume the program. My good tour participants had a hard time following, what with the distraction behind us. “Pitz dich oop, get away from here, pitz dich up! Go! No one needs you! Go!” I tried to describe the previous life of the Viener Synagogue as the Wilson Theatre and the mom and pop shops on Lee Avenue, and meanwhile it’s go! go! go from here!

Then he was gone. The rest of the tour was nice. Hasidic folks were good to us in the shops we visited even though we are a clumsy group on a busy pre-holiday day. We had a lovely time at the deli around a single table and some good food. We had delkelech for Shavuot. It was so nice, I found myself welling up with relief. It’s strange, isn’t it? I’ve been doing this for six years, and I can still be so rattled that I can be surprised that I made it to the end without falling apart.

I wish I could get through a surprise like this as a Guide-Bitch; unfazeable and daring as hell. But I am not that kind of strong and I get affected and that’s okay too.

So now I’m trying to figure out how to go on from here. I am wondering if I should further pursue the idea of reaching out to people in his orbit. I can also mix up the route more. I can try to come up with a stinging comeback. Carry mace. Try to film him. Carry a bullhorn and out-loud him. Put on a white beard. I don’t know. I doubt any of it would help. But I’m not planning to cede my tour territory and neither do I enjoy death threats as part of my work experience. So. Anyone out there with ideas, please reach out.

 

UPDATE:

Last night, after the holiday ended, the man left me another message. He said he wanted to ask forgiveness because he was sometimes “overcome like… a dybbuk” and he takes it upon himself to not bother me anymore. He asked that in return I take off the link on Twitter. So I am taking his word in good faith and I removed the Twitter link and (most of, I think) identifying information on this post. I called him to tell him that I took the information off. I have no idea what brought about this contrition, but I hope that ends this saga. Phew!

This happened in Hasidic Williamsburg: playboy model Marisa Papen traipsed through the neighborhood, in the heart of its busiest areas, in the nude. For a photoshoot. There are a bunch of pictures on her website of this orchestrated photoshoot stroll.

According to this photographer’s post:

“Marisa’s goal is to raise awareness about the global suppression of women by the hand of religion.

“Inspired by the suppressed souls that we witnessed in the ‘One Of Us’ documentary on Netflix we decided to move forward on producing a fine art series about the community.”

I am trying to wrap my head around this. I’m not so much interested in the drama that went down with this photoshoot. There is a video of Marisa and company getting chased by Hasidic men who are screaming hysterically and panting and reporting that she was walking around the streets nakkit (lol!!??) and we see the cops during the last few minutes. It’s a bad film with little to see, just a predictable clash between a provocateur and shocked-aroused Hasidic men. We hear that someone says titties with a Hasidic accent. It’s a panic. You can imagine, surreal if ever. Does life get more absurd?

What I cannot understand is how this is doing anything about the suppression of women by the hand of religion. Let’s follow the logic here. The lady playboy goes out with a camera crew and flashes the expertly trimmed down-there to young Hasidic men who are shocked and traumatized. Okay. So she did that. Then what? How does she hope to get from this moment of pornographic sacrilege in March 2019 to the great liberation, wherein all Hasidic women proudly go about shopping on Lee Avenue with the nothing but a Kate Spade bag and Bugaboo stroller? What’s the plan, pray tell? How will the cure come of this peculiar treatment involving a photoshoot, a good hat and fancy shoes, and presumably, pickles from Flaum’s?

Nutty people exist. But Marisa’s stunt isn’t the act of a mentally ill person who forgot to get dressed before going out for appetizing. She is doing it to get attention and approval. She’ll get it – the story has already been picked up by a handful of bemused media outlets. The stories often criticize Hasidim for their reaction, not her. Because there is an implicit okayness to behavior when it is dressed up (ha ha) as concerned with the rights of women. It is given a sort of cultural stamp of approval. Or at least the Internet and Twiterrati won’t descend on her. Because her motivation is noble. It’s against the suppression of women.

Yeah, only here’s the problem. About the suppression of women it is not. What an Orwellian, empty use of words. She just appropriates real causes for cynical personal gains. Outside of her calling it righteous, there is nothing to show that it is. From everything we can see, she is concerned with her own photos and vanity. It’s totally transparent. We don’t dare say that we see right through it. We give tacit permission, because supposedly the cause is good.

Walking naked in Williamsburg for the liberation of women is the absurd example of a much more banal genre of profitable enterprises under the cloak of concern for women. There is a whole industry of publication that appropriates real feminist causes for pop culture ends. It’s in all the stories of the woman who “escapes”. Western culture loves these stories. In books, movies, tv shows, podcast, you name it. This includes the Netflix documentary ‘One of Us’, which is as skewed and dishonest and as concerned with women as an evangelical anti-abortion documentary. It makes sense that it inspired this nudity stunt. And there are the many books about religious women who heroically self-determined by throwing off the shackles and leaving. I’m thinking titles like ‘The Marrying of Chani Kaufman’, the Naomi Ragen series, Deborah Feldman’s self-flattering ‘Unorthodox’, Leah Vincent’s ‘Cut me Loose’, and probably a few others in my library. Even Judge Ruchy Frier, the ultra-Orthodox judge and something of a media favorite, is in this category. Her story is celebrated by the New York Times not because she is Orthodox, but because while she is Orthodox, she’s also bought into the modern idea that a woman’s value is found in her career accomplishments. In essence, Judge Frier escaped while staying. Her story has a fresh twist, but the same underlying problem.

What all these stories have in common is a complete and total disrespect for the life of the everyday religious woman as she values it. It scoffs at motherhood, domesticity, family and female friendships. It tells us that the Hasidic woman is living life wrong. That she isn’t living until she escapes for twenty-first-century capitalist striving. In this narrative the secular culture is always by definition liberating, the religious culture always oppressive. The girl who leaves her faith and roots is always brave, the woman who gives her all to her children a sufferer of the patriarchy. Those who escape are accomplished, those who stay are nothings.

The story never considers that some women might not share in this hierarchy of importance. It ignores that not everyone wants to walk around in the March cold with their cooter getting frostbite while mixing a confusion of personal ambition with zealous proselytizing.  It decides what kind of sacrifices are meaningful. It’s winter and you’re cold? Well, keep going, all the more heroic fight for the cause! The more you suffer to prove your feminist liberation, the more the suffering oppressed will be liberated. Everyone suffers, sure. But secular-feminist suffering is noble. The suffering of women who live differently is not.

The “Her Escape” story arc is not feminist. It is the total erasure of women’s lives when they don’t match our modern values. It is to impose meaning on someone else’s life. Real support for women is to try to understand the nuances of the challenges and triumphs of a religious woman and to respect what she wants, not what we want.

The genre is profitable though. There is always an audience for a coming of age tale of self-determination. It’s no surprise that Deborah Feldman’s book is being adapted as a TV show by Netflix. The story stells. And as long as it sells, there will be half-talents regaling them.

Audiences know that the motive behind these self-proclaimed activists are insincere, but they shrug, because — well, the story is still good. It makes secular society feel better and right. It makes secular society feel like it is emboldened, powerful, attractive, sure of itself. Look at us secular woman, strutting so free. Strutting so proud. Meanwhile, no one is allowed to say the obvious: that it’s crazy. That the empress has no clothes, and it’s goddamn nuts.

Besides for feeling slightly nauseas about the way feminist causes are co-opted, I’m also so bothered by the nude provocation itself. Pulling such stunts can do real harm. I feel sorry for these naive teenage boys. I know many people would comment about how lucky they are, (yuk) but it can be so damaging. I also am bemused that we should further the liberation of women by introducing men on first occasion to the most unlikely female body — one that very few women will see in the mirror even at their best, nevermind after many children. Hasidic men and women very rarely get to see what normal female bodies look like. They see models and celebrities and porn personalities, but they don’t see the vibrant diversity of boobs and butts that make up my Orange Theory Gym dressing room. It pains me that Hasidic people don’t realize what normal bodies look like. So to show as a model of female sexuality a body that is so unrealistic and creates so many insecurities among the rest of us plain-bodied. It is so harmful to women. Oh the irony.

On a happier note: whenever someone on my tour tells me they feel terrible for Hasidic women, I can now suggest to them that they strut naked in Williamsburg in order to make a difference. If you see a sixty year old IRS employee from Chicago going about in the buff on Division, and a forty year old mother from Melbourne without clothes shopping on Flushing, know that they are liberating women and it’s all peachy from here.

I made a video. You have not seen a video this ammueture since 1997. I wanted to try video instead of writing, because I thought it might be more enjoyable. So I spent an hour ranting into my Samsung Galaxy camera and then cut out all the times I got up to pet the dog, etc.

The video is on the measles outbreak, and all major theological, philosophical, economical, medical and other tangentially related issues to the measles or to things tangentially related to the measles. I tried to address many questions about the measles outbreak in a Q&A format. It was a panel with just me.

Here is the text, which I ended up writing anyway.

 

ABOUT THE MEASLES OUTBREAK

Is it safe to tour the Hasidic community during the outbreak?

I am no doctor, so I’ll tell you what my doctor told me: “Make sure you’re immune and you’re good”. If you were vaccinated, you are probably okay, but you might want to get a blood test to check if you are immune. They call it “titers”, with a hard I, like tiger, tights, like aie yaiy yaiy (per dictionary.com) So get that – the tay-ters. I got mine and have evidence of immunity to measles, mumps and rubella and I feel good about that.

If you have a baby who isn’t vaccinated, then talk to the pediatrician. A couple of people with babies changed plans because of the measles, and I get it. I’ll totally work with you if that’s your situation.

So the outbreak is scary. What’s going on?

Looks like a recurrence in several countries around the world, from where it spreads. It reached the New York Hasidic community via Israel from Ukraine, where there were more cases than any other country. From February 2018 to March 2019 they had 72,408 cases; in 2016 the WHO reported only 42% of kids were vaccinated.

I read about Hasidic anti-vaxxers. Is Hasidism anti-vaccine?

No.

The Williamsburg Hasidic community is pro-vaccines. There are always individual opinions and dissenters, as anywhere. They are an asterisk. I will talk about them later. But they are the exceptions, not the rules. You can say Americans embrace individual freedoms, and you can say Hasidim embrace vaccines. In both instances it doesn’t hold true for every single dingle person, but it is a correct generalization.

But Hasidim are anti-science and anti-modernity?

Nah. You can’t generalize like that. Maybe we can say Hasidim are against Enlightenment values and philosophies. But they are very much a modern phenomenon, shaped in the womb of modernity.

When it comes to many medicines, Hasidim are very eager to embrace the latest technologies – even if these technologies were developed by understanding evolution. Read about Hasidim doing in vitro fertilization in this really fascinating article in the Washington Post. The Hasidic charity organizations for the sick, Bikur Cholim, were in the news because Hasidic volunteers pushed for extending life which seemed to clash with NYU’s counseling for, say, patients on a ventilator who are only alive because of machines. From Jewish Breaking News; “They say that the NYU health system’s approach to end-of-life care has changed and conflicts with the Orthodox Jewish approach to issues surrounding ending life support and administering palliative care — and the hospital doesn’t want observers witnessing decisions that to Orthodox eyes may fall short of extending life by any means available.” Or check out Dor Yeshorim, an organization that performs genetic testing before marriage and according to their website, “successfully eliminates the agonizing occurrence of fatal and debilitating genetic diseases in Jewish families worldwide through its premarital genetic screening program.” It is as if Hasidim have almost no religious comments on many life-saving sciences, because once it is life-saving, it is usually “kosher” by definition. Think of the expression pekuach nefesh docheh shabbes, which means that to save a soul, the shabbes can be desecrated.

 

But Hasidim are anti-science in other way; they reject life-saving changes to circumcision practices or education. Isn’t this vaccine issue the same?

Dear New York Times: not the same. Ugh, the Times loves lump one Hasidic issue in with another. An annoying op-ed by some suspiciously unknown and supposedly Hasidic person, Moshe Friedman (who is he/she really?), brings up these two frequently cited parallels:

1. Metzitzah b’peh (the part of ritual circumcision that exposes the newborn to potential transmission of herpes.)

“When Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2012 introduced rules that required parental consent before an infant could have a form of ritual circumcision believed to be linked to the spread of herpes, some rabbis denounced those efforts as a blood libel or “the evil plans of the New York City health department.”
Some rabbis derided the health department’s scientific expertise, and one respected rabbi went as far as to question the health department’s statistics. “

2. Education (the Hasidic community’s minimal secular curriculum for boys)

“In more recent years, when the Department of Education pushed for an increase in secular studies in the city’s yeshivas, some of our leaders once again instigated their community to oppose these much-needed reforms.”

3. Vaccines: .

“We see this same approach now among some of our leaders toward vaccines. Some rabbis are contributing to the spread of disinformation, repeating unfounded claims about the health risks of the M.M.R. vaccine.”

So Friedman concludes:

“Whether out of shortsightedness or strategic malice, some of our religious leaders have directly fostered an atmosphere where thorough research is sneered at, the scientific method is doubted and the motivations of professionals are assumed to be nefarious and steeped in anti-religious animus.”

I don’t even know how to write a straight sentence without grinding my jaw down. Such sloppy simplifications. We can see from other examples that Hasidim clearly are not “doubting the scientific method” or assuming that the motivations of professionals are nefarious. Because surely that adds up with the Hasid who is going to top doctors for a transplant. “I’ll go to the top doctor. The top nefarious doctor!” Thought nobody.

By the way this author also incorrectly identified the leader of the largest sect in Williamsburg. He clearly has no expertise or insight. He seems to get all his information about Hasidim from the New York Times. Even if he is Hasidic, and of the sect in question, he does not add any information that an outsider wouldn’t have – so what’s the point?

But vaccines are not kosher…?

Again the New York Times: “some view vaccines as a violation of kosher restrictions and a danger to children’s health.”

And is a kosher phone edible? And are kosher cameras properly slaughtered? And are kosher pigs properly vaccinated? These are questions that should keep you up at night.

But then why aren’t they cooperating with the city?

They are. 21,284 doses of the MMR vaccine have been administered to people who are under 19 years old in Williamsburg and Borough Park since October, per the New York City Health website.

Seven yeshivas were closed, but they were also reopened.

Maybe not so well-organized. Maybe not willing to get into big wars with parents. But not not cooperating.

When the Hasidic community decides not to cooperate, like with the New York Sate education standards, there are mass protests in huge stadiums and outcries on the front page of their newspapers and the streetposts fill with posters warning people about the impending danger from the outside. They court politicians and the rabbi meets with the bigwigs and promises votes. It’s a ruckus. With the measles outbreak, there is nothing in the newspaper. Most of the anger is directed at anti-vaxxers, not people from the outside.

Then why is the outbreak so bad?

Let’s look at BAD in perspective. Let’s say there were 360 cases – an estimate. That’s out of a population of about 100,000. That’s .36% of the population. Measles will infect almost any unvaccinated person it comes in contact with. A rate of less than a half percent shows a huge, huge success rate on the part of the vaccine.

But there are many more outbreaks among Hasidim. Doesn’t that prove they have more anti-vaxxers?

More measles cases does not mean more anti-vaxxers.
Hasidim are a more vulnerable population than the rest of society for two main reasons:

1) They have a younger population, which means there are more babies. Let me put it to you in numbers. I’ll use the census data from Kiryas Joel, a Satmar village north of New York City, because we don’t have any census data for Williamsburg Hasidim — their data is mixed with that of other Williamsburg residents. Kiryas Joel is more insular but in all important ways like Williamsburg, and there the median age is 13! Thirteen! This means that half the population is thirteen or under. Compare that to the median age in New York as a whole: 38.2. So the simple math is that Hasidim have far more very young children. Herd immunity depends on a high percent of the population being immune. If 95% of a population is immune, the virus won’t spread. But what happens if 90% of the population are under age one? It’s more likely the measles will spread.

2) The extremely close proximity of Hasidic kids. Let me illustrate how close Hasidic kids come to each other. If a Hasidic kid is not vaccinated and is infected, he will be around an average of eight children in his family, he will go to school on a bus with twenty (six days a week), he will be in a classroom with thirty, at family celebrations with fifty, in the synagogue with hundreds. The opportunity to pass contagions is enormous.

But Kiryas Joel had much fewer incidents of the outbreak.

This is super interesting and it proves a number of things. That Kiryas Joel is more organized. They collaborated with the Hudson Valley health department for a pro-vaccinate publication months ago. It is also much more authoritarian. People who don’t follow conventions are often so marginalized, they have to enjoy suffering to stay there. Most would move to Monsey or Brooklyn.

It also tells you that the outbreak wasn’t a result of some conspiratorial friendship between DiBlasio and the Hasidim. Or that Hasidim don’t want to vaccinate. Because if any of this was true, Kiryas Joel would be at the forefront and the virus would go viral (ha ha, hilarious).

So tell me about the anti-vaxxers. Spill on these juicy nuts.

Anti-vaxxers in the Hasidic community are mostly women who consider themselves enlightened about health and refuse to just follow the masses in these conspiracies they see all around them. They see themselves as smarter and more informed than the rest and refuse to “put all these chemicals” into their perfectly healthy baby’s body. They are a tiny subset of unwieldy rebels within the community. They are the same women who have home births and go to this crackpot and that witchdoctor for all sorts of jewelry-swinging cures. You know the type. People who are very busy with themselves and their special vitamins and juicing and many mishigasen.

But this Hasidic woman told reporters that she doesn’t vaccinate because it’s her “religious freedom”?

Religious freedom is an American concept. Just because one woman cries religious freedom doesn’t mean this is actually a religious issue for her. If she says you should give her a hundred dollars for her religious freedom will you also take her at face value? She is borrowing from the American vocabulary and is using it to her advantage. She learns that if she doesn’t want to vaccinate, she needs to request an exemption for religious reasons. It’s not rocket science. This same woman wouldn’t claim religious freedom to the community.
Let me give you an example: If a Hasidic lady wants to wear, ehhh, say skirts to the floor instead of mid-calf, and to the floor is not really a-okay, she won’t argue with her finger-wagging neighbor that this her religious freedom. She will try to make arguments to its religious validity – like “this is modest”. Religious freedom doesn’t fly here. What freedom? This is the Hasidic community, Lol. Concerns for freedom don’t course through its veins.

But… what about religious exemptions for vaccines?

What about? Were religious exemptions written into law for the Hasidic community? I’m sure not. Let’s dig up why it’s there – I’m curious. Again, we need numbers and details. How many religious exemptions are there and how many medical exemptions? 

Because as per the principal of KJ UTA, a lot of people will be so secretive about health problems that they will claim religious exemption in order to hide the fact that they need a medical exemption. So I don’t even know — how many religious exemptions there are on the books, and how many net exemptions are actually voluntary.

In fact, take a look at this conversation on the religious women’s forum imamother, from 2016(!):

Woman OP: “For my own reasons, I’m an declining the varicella vaccine. I do NOT want my children to have it. I know in public schools, you can claim a religious exemption, and they will be fine with the lack of vaccination. What do you do for a frum school? It’s not like I can fake a religious reason when there isn’t one.Has anyone gotten an exemption for a vaccine from their school?”

Internet Person: “The school doesn’t really care, so if you want to use a religious reason you can (mitzva to take care of the body, and you feel that giving vaccines violates that mitzva.) “

See how it goes? What comes first the religious reason or the vaccine hesitancy? Obviously not the religious reason.

But these Hasidic women wouldn’t believe such nonsense if they got a regular education.

Ehh… How do we me measure this even? Count the number of fringe folks in Silicon Valley? Look – these Hasidic women are incredibly versed in their mishigas. They are not coming to it out of innocence.

Every society will have its conspiracy theorists, its individualists who believe they are the smartest thing to happen to mankind, its walking illustrations of the Dunning Kruger effect. I’ve come to see that some people are just beyond reason. They can’t see past the end of their noses, their logic fails to account for big picture or to keep risk in perspective, they believe they understand everything and everyone else is being led like blind sheep. They form identities based on their being misfits and outsiders and relish their uniqueness. There are such people. They are just human. No?

So what do we do about these anti-vaxxers?

Make their likeness into a piñata and hit it to shreds? Shame them until their lightbulbs go on. Yeah? No. We create laws to deal with the balance between their right to believe whatever and the risk that such rights might bring to others.

The Amish also had a large outbreak in 2014. Is this like — the same cause?

I’m not any more informed about the Amish than you!

I’d caution you against extrapolating conclusions about one insular community based on information about another. Just because there are similarities doesn’t mean that they’re the same in all ways. As they will say on my epitaph: nuance, baby.

Has the media accurately portrayed the outbreak?

No. The coverage made me really angry. A bad kind of anger, the isolating, unhappy kind. Not the one where we feel really good and smart and self-righteous after ranting. I’m exhausted of my anger.

It was a coverage bad for its omissions.

It was as if the reporters simply filed the CDC press release as their stories. No context, no additional information, just whatever the CDC had as its numbers. I can look at the CDC website myself. I need the media to frame the numbers. But since they didn’t, we only learned two things:

• The number of confirmed measles cases. (Now at 764 for the US in 2019)
• That “The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.”

Journalists have been hammering on the “unvaccinated” part. But here’s the rub: they are using unvaccinated interchangeably with anti-vaxxers. Just because folks are unvaccinated doesn’t mean they are an anti-vaxxer. Think of all the people unvaccinated in a pediatric oncology ward. Or all the infants in the maternity ward. All of them are at risk and are unvaccinated! The CDC told us that lots of people who got measles were unvaccinated – but the media went straight from there to blaming anti-vaxxers. An article a day in the Times about how anti-vaxxers are all to blame, because they are unvaccinated.

Again, Williamsburg will have a greater number of unvaccinated minors. There is no greater proof of this than by looking at what the CDC did: they ordered that we vaccinate Hasidic babies at 6 months instead of a year. If the regular vaccine schedule alone worked, and the only problem was anti-vaxxers, than all we’d do would be make the anti-vaxxers vaccinate.

In fact, I asked around about specific cases and this is what some people knew of: a newborn baby who got the measles and ran a high fever for a few days (terrifying!), a sickly two year old who wasn’t able to be vaccinated and caught it, a seven month old who had already had one MMR, an adult who didn’t think they could get it. Etc. Many unvaccinated, but not anti-vaccine.

What bothered me was that we never got figures or perspective, so everyone was left with the impression that Hasidim have as a group at a large rate passed on vaccines. But the media never gave us numbers. They never provided more information. This kind of omission created hate and misinformation. Zero sympathy from the public, all blame. I find this scary.

Why do you think the media has been covering this so poorly?

Because Hasidic anti-vaxxers … are you kidding me? A double-whammy of the permitted punching bag. Both anti-vaxxers and Hasidim are fodder for outrage culture. The stubborn single anti-vaxxer lady is red meat for the mob. The public loves to pick themselves up a little bit by collectively bashing those on the list of permitted hates. This must bring in lots of clicks for the newspaper.

Who is to call out the media for malpractice? Unlike, say, Jewish issues related to Israel, Hasidim don’t do PR campaigns to push back against the reporting. If the media doesn’t self-correct, what’s to improve this?
My ranting, that’s what. Of course.

So the coverage made things look bad. Why is it really a problem?

I think reporting should be fair and complete. On principal. Even if for no other reason that we don’t try to wing it with coverage if we can get away with it.
Don’t you want your news to be accurate?
Also – you are really kind of proving to Hasidim that they are right: the media is just out to hurt them.
Also – this is creating hate. A lot of unfair hate against Jews. Really.
Also – and most importantly – healthy coverage when inaccurate fails the public. By hyper-focusing on anti-vaxxers, the media missed an important part:

Some people need to be revaccinated. 200 cases of measles were of people who were vaccinated. This is the kind of information that the public health journalism is supposed to uncover and disseminate. They didn’t, because the media was too busy salting and delivering red meat. Here is a video created by a Jewish community in which one individual came down with the measles:

Update: CNN ran a story that illustrates how a humane story can look like. Watch here.