It wasn’t easy for Fordham University anthropologist Ayala Fader, Ph.D., to gain access to the Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. In many ways, it’s a world unto itself — and not particularly open to outsiders.
But Fader persisted by getting to know people within the community and eventually she got the kind of intimate access that an ethnographic study invariably requires. And what she was able to document was the remarkable ability of mothers and teachers to refashion the secular world, especially the English language, so as to allow them to build boundaries around their way of life and imbue children with a deep sense of what it means to be a Hasidic Jew.
“My initial thought was that these women and girls, all of whom speak much more English than Hasidic men, were trying to become more like secular Jews,” Fader said. “Over time, I came to see that it wasn’t the right interpretation. Actually, as they do with many aspects of secular North American life, Hasidic women and girls are combining English and Yiddish in new ways so that Hasidic English is actually becoming a Jewish language. This happens in socialization practices, how parents, and really mothers, teach kids to become members of their community and thus to stay within that community and reproduce it while they also they actively change it.”
Fader, who teaches in Fordham College at Lincoln Center, would eventually spend two years immersed in the world of Hasidic Jews in Borough Park and amass countless hours of recorded conversation by children and their mothers and teachers. She attended Hasidic girls’ schools, hung out in the playground, routinely visited families with young children and listened in on their dinner conversations, went to any number of holiday celebrations, and even participated in a Hasidic bride class.
It was a unique and fascinating look at the everyday life of Hasidic children and women. The Hasidic movement (the word comes from the Hebrew Hasid, or pious one) traces it origin to 18th century Eastern Europe and the teachings of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezar. Hasidism was a reaction to, among other things, a hierarchical rabbinic structure of the day, which Fader said was based on the ascetic study of the Torah. In contrast, Hasidism is ecstatic in nature, where singing and dancing brings one closer to God. Each community, known as a court, has a spiritual charismatic leader, or rebbe.
Much of the Hasidic community in Europe was decimated during the Holocaust, but some resettled around the world, especially in the United States and Israel. After the war, Hasidic Jews, like many others, have become increasingly conservative in terms of stricter religious observance. However, they don’t seek to withdraw from society — it is women in particular who take the forms of secular life and give them a different meaning.
In fact, although men continue to speak Yiddish into adulthood, Hasidic women stop using it by the time they start school except for certain limited contexts (such as with babies or with men).
Instead, they speak English or a cross between English and Yiddish that Fader calls Hasidic English. One reason for this, Fader said, is because Hasidic women are the ones who are often relied on to engage the wider society by doing such things as taking children to the doctor. In this community, it is men who carry on “tradition” through studying the Torah, and women who protect them.
It didn’t take Fader long in her field research to detect a repertoire of practices, of which language was one, that mothers and other caregivers use continually to teach girls how they are different from Gentiles, and even other Jews, and transmit the hierarchy of authority that is so important to Hasidism.
Those practices run the gamut from maintaining a modest appearance and bodily comportment to acceptable ways of speaking and questioning. One example of how Hasidic women alter society to suit their purpose involves the stricture of dressing modestly. The women shop for clothing at secular department stores, “but they modify those clothes to make them modest,” Fader said. “They add pieces of material at the neckline and they lower hems or sew up slits. It’s the same thing with hair and books or organic food or self-help literature — and the same thing with language.”
Unlike other ethnic enclaves in New York City, Fader found an unusual consistency across home and school where time and again parents and teachers reinforced each other in the praising of children — and in shaming them when they transgressed against religious norms. The women made clear to the girls that to challenge them was to question a line of authority that stretched directly to God.
“One of the things that Hasidic kids have to learn is to use their autonomy as they grow up to struggle to morally improve themselves and to fit themselves into communal expectations,” Fader said. “You also have to conform in public schools and at home. That’s not so different. But in this case, the hierarchies of authority that kids encounter go from your babysitter or your mom all the way to God. There is a direct line. So if you challenge your parents, whom Jewish law says you must respect, you’re also ultimately challenging God’s word.”
Early last year, she published some of her findings in the scholarly journal Language in Society and has two more coming out in the spring. And more recently, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded her a grant to complete a book based on the research, Ticket to Eden: Raising the Next Generation of Hasidic Women.
“Jews have not been a central focus of anthropological study,” she said. “My goal is to bring Jews into the conversation in anthropology and anthropology into the conversation about Jews.”
By Victor M. Inzunza