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

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From the ardently religious young woman who longs for the life of a male scholar to the young rebel who visits a strip club, smokes pot, and agonizes over her loss of faith to the proud Lubavitcher with a desire for a high-powered career, Stephanie Wellen Levine provides a rare glimpse into the inner worlds and daily lives of these Hasidic girls.

Lubavitcher Hasidim are famous for their efforts to inspire secular Jews to become more observant and for their messianic fervor. Strict followers of Orthodox Judaism, they maintain sharp gender-role distinctions.

Levine spent a year living in the Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, participating in the rhythms of Hasidic girlhood. Drawing on many intimate hours among Hasidim and over 30 in-depth interviews, Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers offers rich portraits of individual Hasidic young women and how they deal with the conflicts between the regimented society in which they live and the pull of mainstream American life.

This superbly crafted book offers intimate stories from Hasidic teenagers' lives, providing an intriguing twist to a universal theme: the struggle to grow up and define who we are within the context of culture, family, and life-driving beliefs.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers presents a comprehensive snapshot of women's experience in Crown Heights . . . Levine's personal response to the Lubavitcher way of life weaves itself into each chapter and is one of the book's most engaging aspects."-Eric Caplan,CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly
Boston Globe
"Levine's book shows young Lubavitchers mingling spiritual fervor with the joys and fears all young people experience, from shopping to worrying about their weight."
Moment Magazine
"The light Levine's research sheds on her understanding of our secular culture and her recommendations should be required reading for educators across the country."
Jewish Book World
"Through her vivid descriptions of everyday life and dramatic portraits of seven girls, Stephanie Wellen Levine has provided a riveting account of the daily lives of Lubavitch girls. We learn about Hasidim, the Crown Heights community and Judaism. We sense the serenity and joy of being a deeply religious person committed to observing Jewish traditions and spreading this message to others. As a study of adolescent girls, the book offers much information that would be of special interest to parents, grandparents, and educators."
The Jerusalem Report
"Seven fascinating profiles of Lubavitch girls…at turns charming and scandalous."
The Jewish Week
"Captures the voices of [Hasidic] girls and their worldviews, in complexity, subtlety and depth, and with heart."
The New York Sun
"Compelling…moving…with a talent for inventive images"
"Deeply touching and written with a fiction writer's flair for the lyrical phrase"
The Jewish Advocate
"With precision and color, Levine places readers smack in the neighborhood and in the interiors of the girls' inner thoughts and in the spiritual beliefs and routines of their families."
The Jerusalem Post Lit. Quarterly
"Levine does a splendid job of presenting how the girls cope, and paints vivid pictures of Shabbat around their family tables."
Na'amat Woman Book Reviews
"Levine steps back and lets the girls speak for themselves; their voices, layered with determination, yearning, confusion and wonder, emerge clearly."
The Jewish Standard
"Her book is neither a jargon-laden academic study nor a work of pop sociology. It is instead more like an old-fashioned novel in its richly detailed study of character and milieu."
Publishers Weekly
This absorbing ethnography acts as one subculture's corrective to Reviving Ophelia, in that it offers a refreshing portrait of adolescent girls who are far from insecure. In this refreshing portrayal of girls who are far from insecure, Levine presents a contrasting path to that of mainstream adolescent girls. While a graduate student in American studies at Harvard, Levine spent a year living as a "participant observer" in the Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, entering with the following assumption: "The possibility that these girls' lives could be anything other than the Platonic essence of feminine subjugation seemed as unlikely as a suckling pig on a Shabbos table." What she found instead is that Lubavitch culture nurtures most girls' inner and outer voices. Though they are not immune from adolescent concerns about fashion, weight, looks and cliques, the Lubavitch emphasis on each person's godly mission to bring the Messiah deepens their spiritual outlook; the single-sex environment in which they mature helps develop vibrant, expressive personalities. Those who clash with Orthodox strictures, however, experience intense and painful struggles. From interviews with 32 girls ages 13 to 23, Levine found "downright juicy" material and culled seven portraits of girls (disguised in name and background) in their "idiosyncratic splendor." The essays are sometimes repetitive within the context of the entire book, as if Levine wrote each to stand on its own, but her bright, lively narrative compensates. Levine invites readers to share the "pure delight" of knowing these girls, and challenges us to draw on Hasidism as an unexpected source in helping our own girls develop into secure, confident adults. Starred review Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
When Levine graduated from college, she spent a weekend with orthodox Jewish women and never forgot the experience. Later she decided to spend a year studying the lives of young female Lubavitchers, a sect known for its extreme beliefs, even among Hasidic Jews. Females are considered "innately on a higher spiritual plane than males," which allows them more freedom in school in choice of subjects; ironically, their knowledge of the world is considered a protection from the evils of it for themselves and their future families. Levine found that while the girls in a group all looked more or less alike and shared the same core beliefs, there was considerable difference among individuals and "cliques" of the girls. The book is a thorough introduction to their belief in the coming of the Messiah, which can be hurried through acts of kindness, rituals and holy acts. It also looks at teenage girls with the typical need to rebel, fit in with their friends and "find themselves" even as they embody a range of modern Lubavitchism as lived by women, at least in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Although the author does not claim that they are "representative," she does categorize, as seen in the title. These girls range from Rochel, who has rejected the traditional life, to Gittel, who is combining marriage with medical studies, and Chaya, who works as a waitress in a strip club and lives non-traditionally. Levine treats all her subjects with respect. At the core, this is a popularly written academic study. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, New York Univ. Press, 254p. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Levine did much of the research for this book as a graduate student in American studies at Harvard, working under Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice), who provides a foreword. Spending a year living as a participant observer in the Lubavitcher Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Levine sought to discover whether adolescent girls raised in strict religious orthodoxy had what could be called a free voice. Indeed they do, and Levine found that the girls she studied had a refreshing liveliness and freedom of expression. Seven of the girls are portrayed here in-depth. Levine concludes that the single-sex atmosphere in which the girls are raised until they marry, along with the Hasidic philosophy instilled in them that teaches them to attend to and cultivate the divine spark within them, enables the girls to grow up with vibrancy and chutzpa, energy and spirit. A useful companion piece to Making Connections: The Relational World of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School (edited by Gilligan and others) and a vivid portrayal of the Lubavitcher community, this is recommended for social science and Judaica collections as well as for YA girls.-Marcia Welsh, Dartmouth Coll., Hanover, NH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814751923
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 11/26/2003
  • Pages: 255
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephanie Wellen Levine teaches at Tufts University.

Carol Gilligan is University Professor of Applied Psychology and the Humanities at New York University. She is the author or editor of many books, including In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development and Joining the Resistance.

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Carol Gilligan
Introduction: What I Sought, What I Found
1 The Community: A Cultural and Psychological Tour
2 The Cast
3 Esther (Estie) Gutman: Wild Times and Holy Designs
4 Rochel Lehrer: Evolving, Not Rebelling
5 Nechama Dina (Dini) Rockoff: Chutzpah and Holiness
6 Chaya Jacobson: Strip Clubs and Soul-Searching
7 Gittel Kassin: Medicine and Marriage
8 Malka (Malkie) Belfer: Miniskirts and the Messiah
9 Leah Ratner: Mystic and Maverick
10 Into the Future: Adulthood and Insights from the Hasidim
Selected Bibliography
About the Author

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2003

    An incredible read!

    MYSTICS, MAVERICKS,AND MERRYMAKERS is an incredible read. Who would have thought that Hasidic girls would be so diverse, or that one writer could capture each one of these teenagers¿ spirits with such depth? I¿m still thinking about the young women: the charismatic but hard to control kid with passionate faith, the brilliant nonconformist who flirts with suicide, the intense nerd who is so religious her peers have trouble understanding her, and so many others. This book is a masterpiece of creative empathy¿it¿s incredible how well the author communes with each girl¿s hopes and struggles. Levine¿s writing is exquisite. I still have lovely phrases of hers etched in my mind. I can¿t remember when I last read a book that taught me so much in such beautiful language. The conclusion¿s ideas about how readers could learn from the Hasidic community as they try to negotiate their own lives are fascinating¿this book really has wide relevance beyond Hasidic borders. Levine¿s analysis at the end of what it all means will blow you away. Levine is a wonderful storyteller; I got engrossed in these girls¿ lives. It was incredible to see how different they were from most Americans, with their strict laws and intriguing rituals, and yet how well I could relate to their struggles, thoughts, and triumphs. When I say this book is fabulous, I mean it as a sincere and honest critic. I can¿t recommend Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers highly enough.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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