Exposé of ultra-Orthodox “turned everything upside down”


“Hush” is a novel about a fictionalized, Brooklyn Hassidic community and the burden of silence it imposes on a child victim of sexual abuse. Ultra-Orthodox groups have received the book as a malicious exposé. About that, the novel’s author, Judy Brown explained in one of her monthly “Inside Out” columns for the Jewish Forward,“ [A] group of people, warm and giving in so many ways, viciously deny the suffering right in front of their eyes,” because “this way the community continues to feel safe, to hold an image of itself as whole, unbroken, secure…”

In a phone interview with the Jewish Light, Brown spoke at length about the American Hassidic communities that sprang up after the Shoah and the path her life is taking post-book.

Within the household of your novel a lot of Yiddish is spoken. Was it like that at your house?

We spoke Yinglish. English with a lot of Yiddish and Hebrew that had been melded into English. When my publisher gave me lists of words that needed to be translated, I was completely surprised: Are you kidding me; people don’t know what rebbe means?

Has writing the book changed your connection to the Hassidic community?

It totally changed everything. My world turned upside down. Speaking badly about them makes you an outsider, a traitor, a mercenary, an evil person, a bad person, a satan. . . I am no longer part of the community. My book was a one-way ticket out.

Has your family been supportive?

Anyone it touches can’t be openly supportive. The support I have is very secret. Family members or close friends have said: I support you; don’t tell anyone.

Recently Nechemya Weberman, a previously respected member of the Satmar Hassidim was convicted, as you wrote for the Forward, “guilty, guilty, guilty on 59 counts” of pedophilia. Can you elaborate on what that verdict meant to you?

There are thousands of victims, now grown, most of whom have left the community, that were watching the trial closely. They have been trying unsuccessfully to bring awareness for years by speaking to journalists, going to the police, even attempting to educate the community from the inside. The conviction was a milestone for all the victims.

Are you able to credit yourself with having made a difference?

There’s a group of people who affected or let’s say forced change. But we don’t look at it that way, because we will always be seen by them as the enemy — no matter how much they change because of people like us. It’s painful. But we have to leave thatbehind and move on.

Did something happen that made you decide to speak out when you were a young mother of young children, perhaps not the ideal moment to start a book?

I was 23, when I first learned what the words rape and molestation meant. Being able to connect words with the experience so many of us had had was what made me decide to write the book at that time. Becoming a mother made me stronger in the desire to speak out. I didn’t want to raise my kids in a world where pedophiles had free reign.

The first person narrator of your book has a limited education. Was yours like that?

After I finished high school, I went to Touro College. But when I went to write the book, I realized: I don’t know how to write. Then, when I was in Israel for five years, I enrolled at Bar-Ilan University in a wonderful, excellent, creative-writing, MFA program for Americans in English. I had a mentor through the program, and my thesis was the first part of “Hush.” That really propelled me forward.

So, at that time, you started reading a lot of things that you hadn’t read before?

Yeah. I read enormously. I had a lot of catching up to do. Mark Twain became my favorite writer. I like the child’s voice. And it’s just brilliant: his satire. It synched very much with something in me.

With your own children do you read American literature in English?

Absolutely. That’s the only kind of literature we read. I am giving them a very different upbringing than the one I had. A more progressive Modern Orthodox upbringing.

In Gittel’s world a lot of her Judaism is about right practice: eating, dressing, celebrating the holidays, shidduchim/matchmaking, marriage—everything ‘in the right way.’ What about theology?

Our theology was our tradition. Did we philosophize about God? Absolutely not.

Are you aware of other writers like yourself who have become alienated from the ultra-Orthodox sects?

My publisher told me it’s becoming a genre. In the next five years, 10 years, it’s going to explode as more of us have left, or are in the process of leaving, because we’re the third generation survivors of those from Europe, from the shtetl. The whole Hassidic world—where do we come from? We weren’t here before the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, our grandparents came to America and rebuilt their lives. They raised our parents on the guilt of the Holocaust. When our parents, the second generation had between 6 and 14 children, we increased about six times the amount we were. Problems that were easily hidden before, burst out. We became less of a community and more of a system. Over the last decade, as the problems proliferated from all sides, more and more of us began to leave. And we’re learning to tell our story.

Do you have another novel in the works?

Yeah. It’s about the community in which I grew up. But in a totally different way. Let’s leave at that.