Gittel is a Chassidic Jew in modern Brooklyn, but in many ways her life looks — by design — like something out of Fiddler on the Roof. Everything is prescribed by law and tradition: what to wear, what to read, how her husband will be chosen.* To Gittel this feels perfectly safe and secure, until as a child she witnesses a horrible crime. It is unthinkable to speak about, so Gittel and her family remain silent. Now a teenager, soon to be married, Gittel feels crushed by the years of silence and considers how to speak out without destroying herself and her community.
I can’t talk about this book — nor can I in good conscience review it — without one spoiler: the nature of the crime. The book is told in alternating chapters, Gittel’s childhood voice leading up to the crime and her seventeen-year-old voice reflecting on it. The two voices don’t work back to specifics until the middle of the book, though it’s a safe guess earlier.
Gittel’s best friend Devory is raped by her older brother. The incident Gittel witnesses is part of a repeated pattern of abuse throughout Devory’s childhood. She’s ultimately unable to handle it and hangs herself in Gittel’s bathroom. It’s an incredibly painful sequence to read, obviously, and anyone who might have issues in this department should definitely be warned.
“Eishes Chayil” means “woman of valor,” and is a pseudonym. The author is a Chassidic woman who took a personal risk speaking out about this sort of abuse, though it’s also very clear that she loves her community. It’s so easy, when writing about someone harmed in a very different culture, to lean heavily on the judgment and imply that no one should live that way. Chayil never takes that road. It’s an important book, both for anyone from within an insular community who might get to read it (it’s a first of its kind, I think), and for its description of the Chassidic world to outsiders. The Amish are a much more familiar closed religious society in American popular culture (not that we have many novels written by Amish women, either). I’m Jewish and still knew almost nothing about this version of Judaism. So it’s important, and very well-written, but I wouldn’t call it enjoyable or an easy read.
*Not, oddly, what to eat (aside from the regular kosher laws). I found it completely fascinating that a community so focused on separating its members from the outside world, whose clothing choices and entertainment and everything ignore the modern world as much as possible, thinks nothing of eating Rice Krispie treats.
The characters also mention psychotherapy, which is apparently acceptable — though since the culture is so firmly “ignore it and it will go away,” I’m not sure how the therapist is supposed to help. The cultural lines were the most interesting part of the book for me, for sure.