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Mitzvah Girls is the first book about bringing up Hasidic Jewish girls in North America, providing an in-depth look into a closed community. Ayala Fader examines language, gender, and the body from infancy to adulthood, showing how Hasidic girls in Brooklyn become women responsible for rearing the next generation of nonliberal Jewish believers. To uncover how girls learn the practices of Hasidic Judaism, Fader looks beyond the synagogue to everyday talk in the context of homes, ...
Mitzvah Girls is the first book about bringing up Hasidic Jewish girls in North America, providing an in-depth look into a closed community. Ayala Fader examines language, gender, and the body from infancy to adulthood, showing how Hasidic girls in Brooklyn become women responsible for rearing the next generation of nonliberal Jewish believers. To uncover how girls learn the practices of Hasidic Judaism, Fader looks beyond the synagogue to everyday talk in the context of homes, classrooms, and city streets.
Hasidic women complicate stereotypes of nonliberal religious women by collapsing distinctions between the religious and the secular. In this innovative book, Fader demonstrates that contemporary Hasidic femininity requires women and girls to engage with the secular world around them, protecting Hasidic men and boys who study the Torah. Even as Hasidic religious observance has become more stringent, Hasidic girls have unexpectedly become more fluent in secular modernity. They are fluent Yiddish speakers but switch to English as they grow older; they are increasingly modest but also fashionable; they read fiction and play games like those of mainstream American children but theirs have Orthodox Jewish messages; and they attend private Hasidic schools that freely adapt from North American public and parochial models. Investigating how Hasidic women and girls conceptualize the religious, the secular, and the modern, Mitzvah Girls offers exciting new insights into cultural production and change in nonliberal religious communities.
Winner of the 2009 National Jewish Book Award in Women's Studies
Highly Commended 2010 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion, Society for the Anthropology of Religion
"Mitzvah Girls is a rigorous ethnographic study of the education of Hasidic girls in Brooklyn. It is entertaining and engaging, combining personal accounts and subjective prose with critical analysis. . . . [Fader] analyses the use of language in contexts such as the classroom, playtimes and mealtimes to demonstrate how notions of Hasidic femininity are inscribed and transmitted through ordinary linguistic discourse."—Giulia Miller, Times Higher Education
"A compelling and intimate picture of a society largely closed to outsiders, tracing the girls' upbringing from early childhood until marriage."—Miriam Shaviv, Jewish Chronicle
"As a monitor of socialization in the very personal, private worlds of Hasidic women, this book is fascinating. Although it focuses on this very special group, it opens many avenues of thought for readers not generally familiar with Hasidic women and their lives."—Sybil Kaplan, National Jewish Post and Opinion
"For a window into the rarely seen and little understood (at least by secular Jews) world of Hasidim, read Mitzvah Girls. . . . Fader, an anthropologist, focuses on girls and how they view their lives. . . . She captures their voices, their dreams, their moral vision."—Sandee Brawarsky, Jewish Woman
"Fader relies on years of ethnographic fieldwork in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn during which she delved deeply into girls' everyday life and what she terms 'Hasidic English,' a Yiddish-inflected hybrid evolving among these women."—Josh Lambert, Tablet
"Fascinating. . . . The work maintains a scholarly character and possesses the intellectual nature of a scientific exploration, while remaining a pleasurable casual read."—Jewish Book World
"Fader in effect presses the pause button and allows the reader to observe the moment girls become Jewish women. . . . Fader explores words themselves to illustrate how meaning shifts in relationship to religion and gender. . . . An extraordinarily fascinating read."—Jeanne Vaccaro, Feminist Review
"Reveals how through everyday talk Hasidic women teach their daughters to discipline their bodies and their minds to serve God. . . . Fader's reflections on fieldwork, such as when she agonizes over whether or not to wear a bathing suit with a group of Hasidic women and girls at a pool with gender-segregated hours, or how her young daughter peppered her with challenging questions when they visited Bora Park ('Why are the these girls wearing skirts?' 'What's modesty?' 'Do we follow what's in the Bible?'), personalize the fairly academic tone of the book, inviting us further into the world it explores."—Susan Sapiro, Lilith Magazine
"Clear, crisp, and compelling. . . . Mitzvah Girls is a thoughtful look at the world of Jewish girls who grow up in 21st-century America, but don't really."—David Wolpe, Commentary
"She breaks new ground by examining the formal and informal education of girls and the effort to enculturate them into the appropriate roles acceptable to their society. As a participant-observer with special capabilities in ethnolinguistics, the author is acutely sensitive to subtle variations in mother-daughter and teacher-pupil communication. . . . A brief review cannot do justice to the breadth and depth of insight that this exceptional study provides about ultra-orthodox Jewish American life."—Choice
"Ayala Fader opens up new possibilities of dialogue between different fields of anthropological knowledge. She also provides an excellent demonstration of the enduring and compelling nature of ethnography which remains one of anthropology's most significant defining features."—Emma Tarlo, Anthropology of this Century
Hasidic Jews, who claim to be the bearers of authentic Jewish religion, arrived in New York City after the Holocaust and, defying all predictions, flourished. Women and girls are essential to this community's growth, for it is they who bear and rear the next generation of believers. Women's and girls' responsibilities include mediating the secular world for Hasidic men and boys who study the sacred Torah. This book is an ethnographic study of how Bobover and other unaffiliated Hasidic women teach their daughters to take on their responsibilities and become observant Jewish women. Studies of religion often focus on sacred texts, prayer, or special rituals. My research with Hasidic women and girls led me instead to listen to everyday talk in homes, classrooms, and the front yards of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park. Language organizes social life and is a springboard into broader issues such as the ways Hasidic mothers and girls talk about authority and desire, about the body and autonomy, about power and morality. Everyday talk between women and girls offers insight into how those who critique the secular world imagine it and themselves. Girls' willingness to civilize the secular world through Jewish practice has the potential to create an alternative religious modernity, one with the power to perhaps, one day, transform New York into a modern-day Garden of Eden.
Hasidic Jews (Hebrew, Hasid 'pious one'; Hasidim 'pious ones'), who organize themselves into sects, are a distinctive kind of religious group, what I call a "nonliberal" religious community. In contrast to other nonliberal religious communities in North America, for example, evangelical Christians, Hasidic Jews have neither the ability nor the goal of engaging in national politics beyond lobbying for laws and rights that support their own interests. As sociologist Samuel Heilman (2006) has noted, Hasidic Jews have done so well in New York not in spite of, but because of North American urban diversity, with its increasing tolerance for public displays of religion. Rather than gradually assimilating, as have previous generations of Jews, Hasidic Jews have increasingly become religiously stringent. For Hasidic women and girls, this heightened religious stringency requires new forms of femininity, which include their participation in the secular city around them.
Hasidic women complicate stereotypes about women in nonliberal religions by their involvement in the North American public sphere. In order to facilitate Hasidic men's and boys' study of sacred texts, Hasidic women adapt the cultural, political, and economic life of the city to the needs of their community. Their fluency in secular modernity, evidenced in their education, their relatively unmarked clothing, their use of English (rather than Yiddish, the traditional vernacular of Eastern European Jews), and their work outside the home, enables them to create a sheltered enclave for boys and men who study Torah and later also join the workforce.
The participation of women and girls in the life of New York City is tempered by the critique they make of what they call the "goyishe 'Gentile' world," the "secular world," and "modern" Jews. These categories, discussed below, are certainly not monolithic; they are differentiated by, for example, race, class, gender, and ethnicity. In interactions between Hasidic women and children, however, these categories often functioned as ideal types that provided a shorthand for articulating Hasidic distinction. In fact, Hasidic descriptions of the secular world, Gentiles, and more modern Jews are often based less on regular interaction and personal experience and more on Hasidic women's ideological beliefs about an authentic Judaism that includes imagined others. When Hasidic women and children observe and talk about others who represent what not to be, we gain insight into Hasidic notions of the nature of Jewish difference.
In the chapters that follow I show how the Hasidic women I spent time with teach girls, through everyday talk, to use their autonomy to "fit in" with communal expectations and how they deal with girls' questions and defiance; how Hasidic girls in first grade begin to speak a Hasidic variety of English (English mixed with Yiddish), which marks them as distinctively Hasidic; and how the embodied disciplines of modesty form the basis for Hasidic alternative narratives of romantic love, consumption, and the family.
Hasidic women I worked with disrupt what anthropologist Webb Keane calls "a moral narrative of modernity," which, he suggests, emerged out of Western liberal thought, rooted in the Enlightenment and entwined with an earlier strand of Protestantism (2007:49). In this narrative, progress is associated not only, for example, with urbanization, industrialization, and secularization but also with increasing individual freedom and autonomy (ibid.: 6, 46).
The Hasidic women I worked with engage with this narrative of modernity, but they change its meaning. They do not want to be what they call "modern," meaning Jews who are similar to Gentiles (see below), but they do want to be what they call "with it" in their interactions with other kinds of Jews or Gentiles. The version of Hasidic femininity I describe is defined by the ability to be "with it" enough to selectively use and even enjoy the secular and the Gentile world, while never becoming Jews who are modern or secular. Instead, these women envision a religious way of life, which I call an "alternative religious modernity." Real freedom, progress, and self-actualization, Hasidic women tell their daughters, can only come about through the self-discipline that is learned through Jewish religious practice.
Hasidic women's authoritative version of religious modernity dismantles an opposition between the secular and the religious that is central to social scientific definitions of the modern. In their moral narratives, Hasidic mothers promise their daughters that when they learn to make the religious and the secular, the material and the spiritual, the body and the soul complementary, and not oppositional, they will find true personal fulfillment, be rewarded by God in the afterlife, and even, perhaps, do their part to hasten the final redemption.
This book is about the everyday projects of Hasidic women and girls as they strive to redefine what constitutes a moral society. Anthropologist Saba Mahmood has argued that by creating culturally and historically specific forms of sociability, members of nonliberal religious groups attempt to change the moral terms of everyday life. Movements that advocate moral reform, she notes, though often seen as apolitical, are in fact about how "embodied attachments to historically specific forms of truth come to be forged" (2005:34).
Embodied attachments to truth, however, are produced not only by adults in synagogues, churches, or mosques. Equally critical to a movement of moral reform are the everyday exchanges between adults and children and between children themselves in the more intimate spaces of the home, school, and neighborhood, where children may become very different from what adults intend (Kulick and Schieffelin 2004). A grounded analysis of the Hasidic moral project through everyday talk between women and children reveals a modern religious way of life with redemptive possibilities.
RELIGION, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN
A series of related questions with theoretical implications are central to this book. What do the terms "modern," "religious," and "secular" mean to Hasidic women and girls, and how are these categories engaged in everyday life? This includes Hasidic women's and girls' notions of power, difference, and discipline, as well as the everyday practices that shape the meanings these concepts hold. Further, how do embodied practices across the life cycle (e.g., language, comportment, and dress) produce the desire or its opposite in girls to become Hasidic women? My approach to these questions integrates scholarship in the anthropology of religion and of childhood with linguistic anthropology and Jewish ethnography.
Talal Asad (1993) has persuasively shown that the social scientific categories of the secular and the religious are themselves a socio-historical product of European modernity. According to Asad, any discipline that tries to understand religion must also try to understand its "other," the secular. Contemporary nonliberal religious groups are an especially important topic for investigation, because, despite cultural and religious differences, they often share an explicit critique and rejection of the normative categories of the religious and the secular. Studies of nonliberal religious groups cast into relief the historical lineages to which anthropology of religion has long been tethered.
Ethnographies of nonliberal women, in particular, have made important contributions to increasingly complicated understandings of power and agency. A rich body of scholarship examines the religious practices of nonliberal women. Perhaps attempting to explain why so many women began embracing patriarchal religions since the 1970s, much of the scholarship focuses on the unexpectedly progressive outcomes of women's increasing involvement in religion. For example, evangelical Christian women's participation in North American and Latin American churches and prayer circles have created opportunities for these women to acquire newfound authority in their families, combat inequalities of gender, class, and ethnicity, and even reinterpret secular Western feminism to serve women's religious aims.
More recently, scholars have shifted their focus to nonliberal women's religious goals and desires-for piety or submission, for example-in order to develop new approaches to the study of religion and gender more broadly. Nonliberal religious women's critiques of the secular world, especially goals for individual freedom and autonomy, require that scholars acknowledge the secular liberal assumptions that are at the foundation of their disciplines and research questions. Saba Mahmood (2005), for example, uses her study of Egyptian women's involvement in the mosque movement, part of the wider Islamic Revival, to show how liberal beliefs about action, freedom, and the individual have been naturalized in feminist theory. She argues, based on the time she spent with Egyptian women engaged in religious study, that the desire to grow closer to God and create a more ethical world can be as meaningful and legitimate for some women as gender equality or progressive change is for others. In a different cultural and religious context, R. Marie Griffith's (1997) study of the Women Aglow movement, an evangelical Christian prayer network in North America, similarly argues for more complex understandings of the concept of agency through an analysis of religious submission. Griffith shows that evangelical women's submission to a patriarchal religious hierarchy does not preclude their individual autonomy or fulfillment. These scholars and others attend to nonliberal women's religious activities in order to develop approaches to the study of religion that are unbound by secular liberal assumptions about the person, power, and action.
I build on this scholarship to propose a different approach, one that focuses on everyday life in order to account for the ways that nonliberal women's lives and desires transgress easy distinctions between the religious and the secular. Analyses that exclusively address nonliberal women's religious practices, I contend, reproduce a definition of religion that is artificially discrete from wider social life. This social scientific category of religion, one informed by Protestantism, cannot account for the realities of nonliberal women's lives. Consider Hasidic women who criticize goals of progressive change without rejecting participation and pleasure in the secular realm or hopes for personal fulfillment. The desire for piety and, say, shopping or romantic love can be complementary if women discipline their bodies and minds to conform to Jewish religious practice. Hasidic femininity is predicated on developing the autonomy to discipline the self to religious practices that include a particular engagement with the secular world. Indeed, Hasidic femininity is formed through the very collapse of the religious and the secular.
Ethnographic attention to children and everyday talk reveals the processes by which nonliberal desires and gendered ways of being in the world are negotiated, produced, and sometimes changed. Scholarship in the anthropology of childhood has shown that children and childhood are critical to understanding the politics of cultural production and change. In this literature, children are approached not as immature adults but as agents themselves who participate significantly in social processes, particularly in the production of differences of gender, class, and race. However, with some notable exceptions, little research has been conducted with children in religious movements. Perhaps this is because nonliberal religious childrearing practices trouble secular liberal thought in much the same ways that women's participation in nonliberal religion has challenged feminist theory and politics. Investigating nonliberal religious childhood requires rethinking what are often naturalized assumptions about children and how childhood should unfold, especially around topics such as creativity, discipline, curiosity, and questioning.
A language socialization approach can be a powerful tool for examining gender, cultural production, and change in nonliberal religious communities, because it makes interactions between children and adults the primary site for delving into broader cultural themes and relationships (Ochs and Schieffelin 1984; Schieffelin and Ochs 1986). A language socialization approach contrasts to earlier anthropological work on socialization, which often treated children as the passive recipients of culture and overlooked everyday language, a key medium of socialization. Instead, language socialization centers on the negotiations, by and through language, between adults and children, and among children themselves, to explore how children acquire or reject culturally specific ways of being in the world (Kulick and Schieffelin 2004:352).
An ongoing challenge to language socialization studies, however, has been how to embed the analysis of micro-level interactions within broader political processes. Recent attention to morality and ethics in the anthropology of religion can clarify how micro-level practices constitute broader frames of knowledge and power, thus politicizing language socialization studies. This is especially true in nonliberal religious communities that legitimize their very existence to their children by laying claim to one moral "truth." A focus on children and their interactions with adults offers a grounded methodology for ethnographically studying the intersection between morality and politics, especially as it is negotiated with the next generation.
Another challenge to the language socialization approach has been to go beyond its exclusive focus on language and begin to examine broader relationships between semiotic registers such as language, clothing, hairstyles, and comportment. Researchers in linguistic anthropology are beginning to theorize how beliefs about language interact with beliefs about the body and material culture in specific historical and cultural ways. In a community where the Torah is believed to be the words of God, the relationship between religious signs and their referents is not arbitrary; it is divinely intended, as scholars working with sacred languages have noted (e.g., Elster 2003; Haeri 2003). A central question in this book is how beliefs about divine truth which shape sign relationships in explicitly religious contexts, such as prayer, interact in everyday signifying practices in other contexts. How, for example, does the belief that Hebrew-Aramaic sacred texts are God's words affect how little girls, who will not study Torah, learn to read and think about texts in other Jewish languages such as Yiddish or a non-Jewish language like English? Or how is God's commandment to dress modestly interpreted on a shopping trip to Macy's? Throughout the book I examine Hasidic "semiotic ideologies," that is, cultural and religious beliefs about the nature of signs in different contexts (Keane 2007).
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Posted December 16, 2009
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