When Stephanie Wellen Levine befriended seven teenagers at Bais Rivka, a Lubavitch girls’ high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, she wanted to test Carol Gilligan‘s theory that contemporary culture silences girls as they grow older. In Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey among Hasidic Girls, Levine, a Gilligan protégé who teaches at Tufts University, offers a series of portraits of girls grappling with faith and their place in the community and the universe. “Chaya” (the girls’ identities have been disguised) takes Levine to visit a formerly Lubavitch friend who works as a cocktail waitress at a Queens strip club. Gittel worries whether married life will eclipse her ambition to become a doctor. And Leah, while volunteering, gives a patient a forbidden donut since once the Messiah comes, “all the sick will be healed, and all the dead will be brought to life.”
When you describe the year you spent in Crown Heights it comes off as more than just research. It’s almost a flirtation with their lifestyle.
That’s fair. I have always been fascinated by religious faith and at the same time jealous. It’s something that I’ve wanted and never quite had, having grown up in a secular home in New Jersey. I would go into New York and see these mysterious characters who shared my religion but were immersed in beliefs that were alien to me. I had done a summer program—the Lubavitch invited young adults to come into the Catskills and learn with them, live with them, explore the life. Hasidim fascinated me.
Now, I am in no way Orthodox, you know, I’ll probably eat shrimp for dinner. But I did not go in as a dispassionate observer looking for the objective truth about Lubavitch. I went in there partly as a seeker enthralled with the idea of passionate faith, and also wanting to get to the bottom of these girls’ lives. There is a spiritual undertone to everything they learn, and it was a 100% single-sex school. The girls’ social lives were single-sex, too, and I realized how positive that could be for many girls. There’s this stereotype that they’re squelched, they’re miserable, and I wanted to get to the bottom of that.
What in the Lubavitch community made the biggest impression on you?
My view of my world shifted because of my time there. There was a definite notion that every act you engage in has wide-ranging mystical significance. You can hasten or delay the coming of the Messiah because of a seemingly small action—you could light Shabbos candles, and that that might be just the thing.
The ability to interact and alter the world for better or worse in concert with God was part of their lives in a way I had never imagined. There are all these bright, vibrant people who believe it’s entirely possible that tomorrow a whole new era is going to be upon us. What a thought!
How else were these adolescents different from other American girls?
Lubavitchers as a whole are taught to think about the Jewish soul, and whether it be their soul or somebody else’s, they think seriously about how they treat other people. This value comes from their philosophical text, the Tanya, which talks constantly about the tension between the animal soul and the godly soul. That’s not to say there are girls who aren’t nasty to other girls. But I didn’t see quite the same cruelty among these kids that I remember from my own teenage years.
Also, very often when you have a coed environment, boys tend to be more domineering. Kids who tend to be retiring tend often to be girls. In this community, the energy, the spirit, the wit, and the freedom from the early introduction to sexuality allowed many of these girls to express their personalities more freely. As much as they obsessed—thought they were overweight, didn’t like that they had acne, all this stuff—there was a level of agency that freedom did give them. That was not what I was expecting.
But you also talk about the tremendous pressure to conform—how girls got suspended if slits in their skirts were too high.
Absolutely. For the majority of girls, the combination of coercion and certain surprisingly liberating aspects worked well. They seemed content.
However, there was a sizable minority that did not mesh with the Lubavitch world, and they were devastated. One girl I write about lost faith and it was very painful. She was ostracized by her family, flirted with suicide—but also she went to Hunter College and managed to fulfill a lot of her dreams. But it was agonizing knowing her. Somebody who doesn’t fit into that scheme of getting married so young—or, for that matter, getting married at all—is going to be extremely alienated. This is far from a perfect culture.
Some of the girls rolled joints in front of you, others took you to weddings, parties, their homes. How did you get them to open up?
Maybe I was naive, but I thought, I’m a nice Jewish woman, I’ll call the high school principal. Sure enough, she writes back, ‘I’m really sorry.’ Bais Rivka also has a girls’ seminary in the same building; it offers two years of post-high shcool classes. I approached the principal of that division and she was fine with it. Because it was in the building, I went down to lunch with the high-school girls. By the end, even the principal would just kind of wink at me.
The trust level was the key. People sensed early on that I wasn’t just the objective observer. I was open to their ideas. I wasn’t denigrating them from my secular angle.
Missionary work—shlichut—is part of the Lubavitch enterprise. For these girls talking to you offered an opportunity to turn you on to their message. Not only that, but your book becomes a vehicle for their shlichut.
That’s a good point. I didn’t know what to expect, and as you see, I write about the exquisite beauty of their beliefs and I also frankly express the misery that some of the girls feel—there were rebels that were sitting around questioning their faith, and these too were passionate people.
Beyond their religious message, are there elements of Lubavitch culture that outsiders can learn from?
This group really has the idea that you need to work on yourself constantly. The soul is this godly, delicate instrument that has a lot of power, and we need to be sculpting it in a conscious way. We don’t have that in secular society nearly as much. We don’t have this conscious community-encouraged self-exploration. That is something we can learn from and secularize.
You’re very cautious about making judgments, but what was your reaction when the girls started talking about the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994—as if he were the Messiah? They are filled with this passion that seems, for lack of a better term, cultlike.
I do not believe that it’s wrong to eat bacon, nor do I believe that the Rebbe is the Messiah. I’m not more or less offended by one or the other. But if I’m talking to a girl who’s going on about how wonderful the Rebbe is because that’s how she perceives things, I’m fascinated by the belief. I get swept up. And, very often if I step back afterward I’m like, ‘Wow, how can they possibly believe that?’
Did any of their ideas rub you the wrong way?
They did have a particular belief that never failed to upset me: that Jews and non-Jews are qualitatively different, that there’s a special Jewish soul that only Jews have. It just does not resonate with my experience of the world. They would talk about this and I’d be a little—not irritated, but I definitely don’t agree. I tried hard to be respectful, I didn’t get into intense arguments with any of them.
Have you studied any communities similar to Lubavitch?
Yeah. In college, my thesis was on a group of evangelical Christians, college students. And I remember at first it struck me as hokey, at every single meeting people coming in, hugging each other, ‘It’s so nice to see everybody.’ They were brothers and sisters in Christ, very much caring for each other. They support you in your belief.
Did your year in Crown Heights change your practice of Judaism?
At one point, my brother came to New York and we met for lunch. I ordered moo shu pork and was not even thinking about it, and he looked at me, a little floored, and said, ‘Stephanie, out of all the things you could have gotten.” But I have not changed my observance, except for the fact that I fast on Yom Kippur.
They really did drum into me that this is the holiest day of the year, and if you are going to do the right thing at any point, this is the day. I don’t necessarily think Orthodox Judaism is the right way, but there was a piece of me that was charmed by what I discovered in the community. I felt like I can do something that may be difficult this one day.