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Reflections on Ghetto Anthropology

Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls is an unusual book.  It could be classified as anthropology of religion or childhood, as linguistic or urban anthropology or as diaspora, gender or Jewish studies. Its originality lies less in the contribution it makes to any one of these domains than in its location at their intersection.

At one level the book intrigues because it lets us into the lives of a group of people with whom many of us have no more than visual familiarity – Hasidic Jews, conspicuous through the black hats, long coats and side curls of their men and the discreet respectability of their suit and wig-wearing women. Their very presence in some of the most cosmopolitan cities of Europe and North America seems to disrupt the secular visual norms of the urban landscape, posing questions as to how and why such conspicuous forms of religiosity and ethnicity have not only survived but increased in the cities where many Hasidic Jews fled and settled in the aftermath of the Second World War, and where they seek to live by the 613 mitsves (commandments) of the Hebrew Bible in an ongoing state of “exile.” Whilst the dramatic depletion of numbers during the Holocaust left Hasidic migrants with a mission and will to reproduce on new soil, this alone hardly seems enough to explain the ongoing relevance and appeal of Hasidic practices to youth born and raised in cities like London, Paris and New York.

Mitzvah Girls (literally, girls who live by the commandments) is by no means the first book to offer glimpses into the world of Hasidic migrants. It joins a slow but steady stream of books documenting the adaptation of Hasidic communities to life in New York City. In the 1960’s Solomon Poll and George Kranzler wrote ethnographies charting the early years of settlement in Williamsburg, focussing in particular on the ritual lives and piety of men and on socio-economic conditions. Their works were presented almost as a form of “salvage anthropology” in which they anticipated the demise of Hasidic traditions which seemed unlikely to survive in the fiercely competitive secular environment of New York. Later scholars such as Egon Mayer and Mark Kamen demonstrated that Hasidic practices were not only surviving but adapting and reproducing through the establishment of Yeshivas (religious schools) and a variety of other institutions. Later feminist scholars became intrigued by the appeal of the Hasidic way of life to young American women from modern secular backgrounds who were, and still are, “returning” or converting to various forms of orthodox Judaism.   Lyn Davidman, Deborah Kaufman and Janet Belocove-Shalin were amongst those who provided intimate accounts of this new embrace of orthodoxy  by women who self consciously reject feminist politics whilst at the same time incorporating some of the language and ideas of feminism within the patriarchal structure of orthodox and ultraorthodox Judaism. More recently Sue Fishkoff’s The Rebbe’s Army (2003) has provided interesting accounts of the overt recruitment strategies of the Lubavitch in their active global mission to convert people into the faith whilst Hella Winston’s Unchosen: The Life of Hasidic Rebels (2005) tells of the covert and often abortive exit strategies of those attempting to escape the constraints of a Hasidic way of life. What does Ayala Fader’s Mitzvah Girls add to this literature?

The interest of Mitzvah Girls lies in its focus on the everyday. It offers intimate insights into the lives of women and children who were born into Hasidic communities in one of New York’s largest Hasidic neighbourhoods in Boro Park, Brooklyn.  It is about second and third generation migrants and the socialisation processes through which they learn to be Hasidic and classify the world around them through the lens of stringent Hasidic norms. It is less about lofty religious ideas and institutions than about day to day things: language, conversation, education, shopping, bodily discipline, popular psychology, growing up – in short about the processes by which young girls become Hasidic wives and mothers and transmit their values and way of life to the next generation. It speaks not only of the processes of transmission but also of the logic, mechanics, self-discipline and perceived benefits and virtues of a Hasidic way of life to those socialised within the community. If Winston’s book, Unchosen, provides insights into how and why some individuals may seek to leave such communities, Fader’s book bears witness to the sense of purpose and security gained by many who remain firmly planted within the fold and who seek to instil their values and virtues in the next generation.

In contrast to other orthodox and non liberal religious groups where women often have more limited access than men to the wider social environment around them, amongst the Hasidim it is, we are told, primarily women who engage with the secular world, keeping their men both “protected” and “free” to concentrate on spiritual matters. In what has over the past 2 decades become the increasingly gender segregated environment of Boro Park, girls and boys are educated separately from the age of three. They learn not only different religious roles, responsibilities and modes of bodily deportment but also different languages and linguistic skills and competence. By first grade boys are educated in Yiddish and Hebrew whilst girls are taught in both English and Yiddish, and often blend the two in their everyday speech. This Yiddification of English is one of the primary means by which girls are socialised both at home and at school into their Jewishness. Fader shows how such language transformation plays a vital role in creating and maintaining distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, women and men, more and less pious Jews – all distinctions essential to the maintenance of a Hasidic identity and outlook. She also points out the interesting fact that many of the younger generation are more fluent in Yiddish than their parents owing to the incorporation of Yiddish as a language of instruction in schools.

What comes across throughout the book is how the perpetuation and development of Hasidic practices have come about not through disassociation with the language, ideas and material culture of secularism but through engagement with and transformation of them. Just as English is learned and transformed into Yinglish, so women’s clothing is purchased at mainstream American department stores such as Macy’s and made to conform to Hasidic ideas of self-discipline and modesty through its adaptation and wearing. Similarly, unlike the boys’ schools which are modelled on the Yeshivas of Eastern Europe, Hasidic girls’ schools are modelled on North American parochial and public schools and promote many of the same activities and values. These are however combined with strict emphasis on the development of self control, bodily discipline and moral character and upheld through systems of rewards and punishment which include a “chair of penitence” for inappropriate behaviour.

Whilst much contemporary literature on issues of ethnicity in inner cities points to the way particular communities are marginalised and excluded from the mainstream, this book joins others which point to the way difference may be valorised and cultivated by segments of religious minorities who perceive their way of life as morally superior. One of the key means through which good behaviour is taught and learned is through the recognition of bad behaviour as exemplified by Gentiles who function as the “other” in the discourses of Hasidic mothers and teachers alike.  Building on the notion that Jews are born with superior souls, they educate children with the idea that they have the capacity and potential to become more ‘elevated’, ‘civilized’ and ‘decent’ than those around them and that it is their moral responsibility to live up to that privilege. In this respect the surrounding American population serves as an ever-present reminder of what could happen if a child or adolescent fails to fight their inclination for evil. Here the cultivation of difference, inscribed and sanctified through speech, bodily actions and modest styles of dress and behaviour, becomes an important route to the ethical self fashioning of a new generation of Hasidic Jewish women. In their narratives of progress it is religion, not modernity, which functions as the civilizing force even if they engage with modernity in their daily lives through their competence with the national vernacular, their consumption patterns, their knowledge of popular developmental psychology and familiarity with the language of romantic love – all of which, if correctly appropriated, are made to conform to Jewish ‘truth’.

The discourses of Hasidic Jews, like those of other non liberal religious groups, may disconcert because they offer a critique of Western modernity from the heart of the so called “Western world” and point to the uneven texture of contemporary multicultural urban living. They confront those who subscribe to liberal views with the uncomfortable but familiar fact that social environments which foster tolerance and pluralism provide fertile ground for the cultivation and defence of non-liberal discourses in which ideas of inequality may be actively condoned. Yet when such communities come under attack from right wing policies aimed at wiping out difference in the name of “security” or “social integration,” it becomes important to defend their right to difference. Contemporary studies of Hasidic Jews also illuminate the highly partial nature of current reactionary discourses in politics and the media which portray visible and verbal assertions of Muslim distinctiveness as a problem but which, at this particular juncture in history, pay very little attention to strands of separatist Jewish discourse and life style. Of course this has not always been the case. Many of the accusations levelled against Muslims today (that they refuse to “integrate” and that you can see this from the way they dress) bear a striking similarity to the discourses of intolerance levelled against orthodox Jewish migrants earlier in the century.  Yet the fact that Hasidic Jews live today in the heart of cities like New York and London without causing any major disruption to the national fabric might act as a reminder that the quest for difference and the maintenance of non liberal religious values do not provide a valid pretext for the resort to alarmist and reactionary responses.

Mitzvah Girls began primarily as a study of the role of language in acts of transmission, but it rapidly became something else – a book about the socialisation of children, the reproduction of religious minorities, the making of gender differences, the blurring of boundaries between the religious and the secular, the development of alternative narratives of ‘modernity’ and multiculturalism.

In an interview for Fordham University the author, Ayala Fader stated that she wanted “to bring Jews into the conversation in anthropology and anthropology into the conversation about Jews.”  In many ways, Mitzvah Girls achieves that ambition.  In the process it disturbs many of our assumptions about borders and boundary making. Hasidic Jewish women, who on first appearance, seem insular and provincial, turn out to be selective but savvy cosmopolitans, who negotiate the urban landscape of New York with skill and multi linguistic competence even as they uphold discourses of separation and distinction. But what of anthropologists? One of the things that struck me as I immersed myself in the literature about Hasidic Jews in the United States was the almost total absence of equivalent ethnographic literature about the lives of members of Hasidic communities in Britain in spite of the fact that the Hasidim represent the fastest growing section of British Jewry. The other thing which struck me was that all of the authors of books about Hasidic and other orthodox Jewish communities in North America are written by people who self identify as Jewish. What we have in effect is an enclave of anthropological literature on American Jews by American Jews which rarely enters into mainstream anthropology courses taught in Britain and Europe. Courses in the anthropology of religion in Britain, for example, are far more likely to be packed with books about Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, all of which are associated with ex-British colonies. Meanwhile courses on diaspora communities tend to focus on South Asians, Hindus, Muslims, Rastas or other non-white minorities which link to post-colonial paths of migration. All of this casts doubt on the cosmopolitanising pretentions of anthropology and suggests that circuits of anthropological knowledge are more localised than we often care to admit. Is it the anthropologists here who are the ones huddling in to small and exclusive ghettos?

In bringing “Jews into the conversation in anthropology and anthropology into the conversation about Jews,” 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.


Belcove-Shalin Janet ed., 1995, New World Hasidim, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Davidman Lynn, 1991, Tradition in a Rootless World: Women turn to Orthodox Judaism, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fishkoff Sue, 2003, The Rebbe’s Army: inside the world of the Chabad Lubavitch

Kamen Robert Mark, 1985, Growing Up Hasidic: Education and socialisation in the Bobover Hasidic Community, NY: AMS press

Kaufman Debra, Rachel’s Daughters) : Newly Orthodox Jewish Women,  New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Kranzler George, 1961, A Jewish Community in Transition

Kranzler George 1995, Hasidic Williamsburg: A contemporary American Hasidic Community, Northvale: Jason Aronson

Mayer Egon, 1979, From Suburb to Shtetl: The Jews of Boro Park, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Poll Solomon, 1962, The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg, New York: Free Press of Glencoe

Winston Hella, 2005, Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Boston: Beacon press.

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