Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers:
An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls

by Stephanie Wellen Levine, with a forward by Carol Gilligan.
New York University Press, New York and London,
2003, xiv + 255 pages, indexed.

The Lubavitchers are a group of Hasidic Jews whose community is based in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Stephanie Wellen Levine lived among the Lubavitchers of Crown Heights for over a year in order to study the lives of the teenage girls and to write about how their identities were shaped by their Orthodoxy. Traditional societies and religious societies, usually the same but not necessarily so, typically assign very different roles to men and women. Often, women in such cultures are treated badly. In China, a century ago, women had their feet bound. In 1984, when my family and I were teaching in China, we occasionally saw old women with tiny feet. When I taught in China again in 1989, I no longer came across any women with bound feet.

Even worse than foot binding are traditions like suttee, which at one time was practiced in India, a custom where a woman was expected to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre after he died. Suttee no longer exists; it was abolished by the British in 1829, although according to the New Columbia Encyclopedia (1975), "isolated cases of voluntary suttee have occurred into the 20th cent." In Jordan, a modern country in certain respects, honor murders still take place. A recent book, Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern Day Jordan by Norma Khouri, describes the events leading up to such a murder.

Given this background, Stephanie Levine's book is full of surprises. Levine is a feminist on most issues, a product of a New Jersey suburb, a woman who eats pork and missed it when she lived among the Lubavitcher Hasidim and interviewed young women for her research.. Nevertheless, she writes about the segregated lives of Lubavitcher girls with a certain degree of approval:

"There is enormous beauty in Lubavitchers' opportunity to explore the most rarefied notions of life purpose without sexual jockeying and with the freedom to take roles often reserved for the opposite gender. Some small-scale segregation early in life just may help mainstream America transcend gender constraints. Without the other sex, young people may try out behavior that otherwise seems inappropriate (Lubavitcher girls were the jokesters, the loudmouths, the aggressive attention-getters)" (p. 209).

Is Levine saying that the very presence of men is oppressive, that women can realize themselves only in an environment where there is sexual segration? Perhaps she is. If so, what would she say about the world described in, say, The Cairo Trilogy by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, where the mother, Amina, who married before she was fourteen, was in effect an exploited servant who wasn't allowed to leave her house? What would she say about the real-world situation of women under the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where women could never get medical care at all; they could neither be treated by a male doctor, who would not be allowed to look at or touch a woman he wasn't married to, nor by a female, since women weren't allowed to practice medicine.

The United States Supreme Court, in 1954, ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal. They were deciding a case about race and not gender.

Segregation in the Lubavitcher community, and perhaps among all ultra-Orthodox Jews, is not meant to be oppressive. Levine tells us that "Lubavitch ideology emphasizes that women's job of caring for the home is holier than study" (p. 183) and that "Lubavitch does not ban women from learning; it simply expects them to make running a home their first priority" (p. 185). Lubavitcher girls, for the most part, agree with Levine.

"On the whole, they are thankful that they are girls, not boys, because boys spend much more time at school and have fewer outlets for nonacademic interests. When I asked one of these young women to consider what her life would be like if she were a boy,, her response was unequivocal: 'Baruch Hashem [thank God] I'm a girl. I don't know how boys stand being in school so long'" (p. 58).

Levine's impression of Lubavitcher young women coincides with my own. For eight summers, 1967-74, my family and I rented summer bungalows to a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim. We found them very pleasant and open people. There were some teenage girls who spent the summers there; the teenage boys, on the other hand, spent the summers studying elsewhere, although they came to the bungalows at the beginning and end of the summer, before and after their classes. The girls were poised, spontaneous in their behavior, and for the most part, very beautiful. The boys, on the other hand, tended to be pale, shy, and underweight — unless they were overweight. The girls spoke English among themselves; the boys spoke Yiddish. Their mothers spoke Russian among themselves; their fathers spoke Yiddish (See my "Bilingualism and Dialect Mixture Among Lubavitcher Hasidic Children," American Speech 43: 188-200. Reprinted in Never Say Die! A Thousand Years of Yiddish in Jewish Life and Letters, J. A. Fishman, ed., The Hague: Mouton, 1981).

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Lubavitcher young women are indeed livelier and more worldly, linguistically and otherwise, than Lubavitcher young men. Nevertheless, I don't agree with the unlikely feminist-plus-Orthodox coalition that argues for separation of the sexes. Traditional Judaism, unlike other traditional systems of value, has no place for machismo. Men are admired if they are learned, thoughtful, and good at arguing. Even among Jews who are not Orthodox, toughness and bullying are scorned as alien as well as objectively counterproductive. Hasidism restricts the lives of men and women in different ways; it can be argued that Lubavitcher boys are more oppressed than Lubavitcher girls. The cheerfulness and intellectuality of Lubavitcher girls does not disprove the argument that segregation is inherently unequal. It merely indicates that the inequality works in favor of the girls.

In a world where men and women lead different, separate lives, it is not easy for a woman to study the lives and views of men. Although Levine cites the young woman mentioned above who said, "I don't know how boys stand being in school so long," she doesn't seem interested exploring the contrasts and possible similarities between the lives of the girls and the boys. Levine's discussions of the girls who are the subjects of her research suffers from the lack of information relating to the boys. We would understand the girls better if we understood the boys a little more than we do.

Despite this lack, Levine's descriptions of the girls agree with my own impressions of the Lubavitcher tenants at my bungalow colony years ago. In other respects, however, the Lubavitchers have changed considerably since 1974, the last summer that I spent with them. Two things have occurred: First, the Russian-speaking women who used to be members of the mothers' generation now belong to the grandmothers' generation. The English-speaking teenagers I knew are now mothers themselves. Second, the revered spiritual leader of the community, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe, has died. A split has arisen between those Lubavitchers who believe that the Rebbe is the Messiah and will return and those who do not hold any such belief. There is no Jewish tradition of total allegiance to a human being, nor is there a Jewish precedent of a leader who returns from the dead; nevertheless, a majority of the Lubavitchers seem to believe that the Rebbe will be resurrected (see David Berger's "The Rebbe, the Jews, and the Messiah," Commentary, September 2001, pp. 23-30; see also my "Memories of the Lubavitchers," Midstream, February/March 1996, pp. 28-30).

I used to look upon the Lubavitchers as basically mainstream Orthodox Jews. The belief that the Rebbe is the Messiah separates Lubavitch from the mainstream. So does the aging of the generation that was educated in Soviet public schools. The Lubavitchers of the parents' generation whom I had known loved Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. No doubt they still do. Many Jews of many backgrounds have enjoyed music and literature. Although there is nothing explicitly Jewish about loving arts and letters, it is has been an aspect of Jewish life wherever Jews have been emancipated from the ghetto. It was extremely distressing for me to read of a girl "who no longer indulges in secular music or literature — she wants her soul to bask in purely Jewish pursuits" (p. 80). I had never heard that "the Rebbe had condemned all non-Jewish music as corrosive to the soul, particularly rock songs, whose lyrics are often deeply offensive to Hasidic sensibilities" (p. 81). Banning music is something I associate with the Ayatollah Khomeini, not with something a rabbi might do.

But the Rebbe's death introduced more prohibitions than anything he had said during his life. One girl, Chaya, reports, "When the Rebbe died, my mom turned into a different woman." Levine gives us the details: "Out went everything from the television set to Henya's support of Chaya's college plans. It was a traumatic time for all Lubavitchers, and many resolved to step up their observance levels in line with the widespread notion that every last Jewish law carries mystical significance, the power to alter the structure of the world, and, by extension, the potential to bring the Rebbe back as the Messiah" (p. 133).

Seven of the chapters of the book are devoted to individuals. Their privacy must be respected, and Levine writes, "I have altered names, family backgrounds, particulars of interactions and events, physical qualities, and other identifying characteristics of everyone I describe in this book" (p. 69). Although I understand why Levine did this, I am troubled. Are we reading a study? If "particulars of actions and events" are altered, perhaps the internal struggles described in the chapters about individuals have also been altered, albeit for good reasons. I don't know what else Levine could have done, but her book is less reliable as a result.

The subtitles of the chapters about the seven young women indicate how different they are from each other: ""Wild Times and Holy Designs," "Evolving, Not Rebelling," "Chutzpah and Holiness," "Strip Clubs and Soul-Searching," "Medicine and Marriage," "Miniskirts and the Messiah," and "Mystic and Maverick." The subjects of Levine's study differ from each other in observance, faith, commitment to the community, and belief that the Rebbe is the Messiah. We might expect these traits to go together. Shouldn't an observant person also have faith? Shouldn't observance and belief go together with commitment to the community? The answer, at least sometimes, is no. These apparent contradictions illustrate one of the great strengths of the Lubavitch movement and of Judaism as a whole: Two Jews, three views. In the Torah, Jews are commanded to love God and to obey his commandments. There is no commandment to believe, although it might be argued that belief is implicit in love and obedience.

In the Bible, especially in the Book of Numbers, we read that the children of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years disagreed with each other and with Moses. Some of them lacked faith in God, which is why they built a golden calf. The more they disagreed and the more they doubted, the stronger they became. They arrived in the Promised Land through their own efforts, since miracles had ended, for all intents and purposes, with the parting of the Red Sea. Orthodox Jews in general and Hasidim in particular are more likely to have faith than other Jews are; nevertheless, even among the ever-more faithful Lubavitchers, there is disagreement and doubt.

In many ways, the Lubavitchers remind us of other deeply religious groups, with their modest clothing for women, their separation of the sexes, their study of holy texts. One of these texts, however, is the Talmud, which records disagreements among rabbis, some of which are not settled. Lubavitcher girls, unlike Lubavitcher boys, are not required to study the Talmud. Nevertheless, the idea of argument is built into Jewish culture, even for those who wouldn't know the Talmud if they saw it. Judaism is a religion of disagreement, which is one of the reasons that Levine was so charmed by the originality and liveliness of Lubavitcher young women.

This review appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Midstream.