Saturday, March 19, 2011


I just finished Hush, by Eishes Chayil (a pseudonym meaning "woman of valor" in Hebrew). I'd never read a novel set in the Chassidic community before, though I took the bus through the Chassidic community in Williamsburg twice a day for a year on my way to and from work, and I lived within walking distance. But you can be a goy walking through Williamsburg and that doesn't mean you know anything about what's going on around you. I knew that the Chassidic community goes to great lengths to maintain their isolation from the outside world.

That's as far as I got in my review. I started reading other reviews of it, and I thought this one by a California rabbi was interesting, and there are many things about the book that he "gets" more than I possibly could, though he acknowledges that he is not Chassidic and says he would love it if a Chassidic reader would read this book and comment on the accuracy of it.

However, the book is, as he notes, primarily narrated by a young girl--the narration goes back and forth between Gittel at nine and Gittel at seventeen then eighteen. He says,

"The worldview portrayed in the book is absolutely terrifying. Anyone that is not exactly like 'you' is an enemy or at best a heathen. The self absorption and ignorance about almost everything is shocking. Characters in Hush describe any custom they have as 'The Torah say', even when the Torah certainly does not say the thing they are quoting. Characters in Hush subscribe to every possible superstition Jewish culture has to offer. And perhaps worst of all, every kind of prejudice about 'outsiders' that I am sure outsiders can sense in their real life interactions with the community. Characters in Hush have no working knowledge of what most communities call common sense and the facts of life."

I would argue that this is largely colored by the narration. It isn't what the author would argue that the Chassidic worldview is--it's what Gittel sees as the worldview in her community. And we learn what Gittel knows about the world, and therefore what she assumes others know.

This interview with the author is also fascinating.

And this review, by a Jewish woman, is recommended as well.

I liked this book a lot. I think I didn't understand a lot of it, being so far outside the community in which it is set, but at the same time, Gittel is a strong character and I liked watching her grow. Horrible, what happens, one of the big events in her life that makes her grow, but so clearly, honestly illustrated.

This is one of those books that I obviously can't talk about coherently, but I want to talk about it because I want people to read it.

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