Novel spotlights ultra-Orthodox cover-up of sexual crimes

By Elaine Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

“Hush” by Eishes Chayil (a pseudonym and the Hebrew expression for “woman of valor”) is a novel about child molestation within the ultra-Orthodox community of Borough Park (Brooklyn) New York, fictitiously identified as the “Yushive” Hassidim. Although there is justice in the ending, it is a heartrending book inspired by real events. Be prepared to weep.

When “Hush” was first published in 2010, members of the Hassidic community considered the novel a scurrilous attack and the publisher received multiple death threats. Later, the author dropped her anonymity and came forward as Judy Brown, the daughter of Ruth Lichtenstein, who is the editor of Hamodia: The Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.

Since then, Brown has contributed a first-person series to the Jewish Forward about Hassidic practices and has been through a round of book talks. In fact, she is slated to be in St. Louis as a guest author of the Jewish Book Festival on April 10.

“It all started,” says Gittel, the book’s first-person narrator, when the Rebbe “commanded that the Jews set themselves apart from the world in every way [in order to] survive.” The subsequently radical form of Judaism practiced by real-life Hassidim is an admixture of fundamentalism and folkways, piety and prejudice, discipline and superstition, religiosity and a degree of smug righteousness… Brown has written on the web that the insular community in which she herself grew up where “[e]very block has its own shul, every group its own school,” is “suffocating but reassuring.”

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In Gittel’s world, Shabbos and Kashrut (the dietary laws) are strictly observed. Yiddish is a primary language. Home delivery of the New York Times is suspicious. TV and the Internet are forbidden. College is dangerous. “Once you start opening a boy’s or girl’s mind like that” says Gittel’s father, “nebech, how will [you] ever marry [them] off?”

In Gittel’s world, men wear long side locks, white stockings with a bekesheh / a coat-like garment instead of pants, and on Shabbos and special occasions (even on the hottest summer days) the outsized fur hat known as a shtreimel. (Strangely, this Chassidic dress models the garb of Polish nobility in a bygone century.)

Women (“whose most important role is modesty”) wear skirts (never pants) at least four inches below the knee. The Rebbe disapproves of black stockings (goyish and provocative), denim (it comes from cowboys) and hooded sweatshirts (too fashionable). A married woman must cover her hair with a wig—made from the hair of another woman.

But here as everywhere, little girls love candy and glittery purple jump ropes, make up silly word games, share misinformation about marriage and babies, and daydream—about having goyisheh parents and living freer.

And here as everywhere, “thick walls” can keep the world out “but cannot protect against…evil that grows within.” When Gittel is nine, she witnesses the sexual abuse of her best friend Devory (as the author was witness to the sexual abuse of another child). It is Shmuli, Devory’s 15-year-old brother, a precocious Talmud scholar and the apple of his mother’s eye who is the perpetrator. “ As Gittel eventually tells her father, “[Daddy, I saw him.] Shmuli came into her bed and pushed her under the blanket.”

As the story progresses to the point at which the narrator graduates high school, turns 18 and marries, increasingly, it takes up the response to sexual abuse within the Hassidic community—which in the book and in real life—ignores the suffering of victims, intimidates or shuns witnesses, stonewalls police investigations and enables abusers to violate other children.

In December 2012, Nechemya Weberman, an (unlicensed) mental health therapist and a respected member of the Satmar Hassidim was convicted of repeatedly molesting a young, female client and later sentenced to 103 years in prison. The conviction represents a victory snatched from Weberman supporters, who were in the courtroom during the victim’s testimony, threatening her privacy by photographing her with their cell phones and trying to bully her into silence.

“Hush” is a first novel for Judy Brown. It was originally published for the Young Adult market. But adult readers will also appreciate the narrative’s depth and range with dimensional characters, convincing dialogue, gentle satire (particularly in the descriptions of shidduchim /match-making and the intimate encounters of Hassidic newlyweds) and moments of grace (as when the neighborhood Rebbe, Gittel’s father, and her sheltered young husband feel her pain and support her protest).

Brown has written her book for children who are violated and then made to carry the added burden of silence—without being pedantic or preachy. Her book proves the power of narrative to illuminate suffering.