15 Jan A Reply to Hasidic Men
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 reply—there 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 life—in 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?
I have my theories. But I wonder: Why do you men think that is? What explanations do you give to yourself and others? Is the question even on your radar? If you examine your subconscious assumptions, what do you find there?
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.
* * *
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 backseat—and 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. In some cases, this has led to a slight increase in freedom for women within more progressive sects.
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, although, at the same time, wives often come second to the religious priorities, 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.”
However, not all sects have seen such gains in gender equality. 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 around—the 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 awry—like the stillbirth and a wicked mother in law—that 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 children—although 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.”
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 know—meaning 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.
* * *
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 Yankee—or Yanky—a 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 followers—as 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 driving—my 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.)
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As it evolved with cars, so it is today with smartphones. Men “need” the gadgetry for work. 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 since women don’t have any such use for it and for women it’s largely an indulgence, their use for tech is 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.
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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. Historically, when men realize this, their tune changes, and they suddenly are consumed with a zeal to put women back into “their place.” 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 expansions—the 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.
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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.
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