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Out of the Silence

A new young-adult novel tackles sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox world

Marjorie Ingall
November 08, 2010
Flickr/Jay Williams
Flickr/Jay Williams
Flickr/Jay Williams
Flickr/Jay Williams

Hush, a young adult novel by the pseudonymous Eishes Chayil (the pen name is a Yiddish-inflected version of eishet chayil, which means “a woman of valor”), received starred reviews from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and the notoriously hard-to-please Kirkus Reviews. Booklist called it a “stunning debut” and “powerful stuff.” School Library Journal called it “thoughtful, disturbing and insightful.”

So, why hadn’t I heard of it?

A librarian who reads Tablet Magazine alerted me to its existence, saying she hadn’t seen anything about it in the Jewish press. Indeed, a Google search finds only a snotty thread (based on Amazon’s description rather than on the book itself) on an ultra-Orthodox-run discussion board called Hashkafah, and a rave review on the blog The Velveteen Rabbi (written by a female rabbinical student in the Jewish Renewal tradition). That’s it.

The book is certainly upsetting. But it’s also deeply readable and engaging. It’s the story of Gittel, a girl growing up in Hasidic Borough Park, Brooklyn, who witnesses her best friend’s Devory’s sexual abuse at age 9. The perpetrator is Devory’s brother, a promising scholar home from yeshiva. Horror ensues, but the entire community conspires to pretend nothing has happened. The novel ricochets in time between Gittel at 9 and Gittel at 17. Teenage Gittel should be happy as she prepares for her wedding, but thoughts of Devory haunt her. How will Gittel come to terms with the past? What does it mean to be a true eishes chayil? Who will support her if she refuses to keep quiet?

I expected Hush to be important and harrowing. I did not expect it to be warm and funny, too. The portrait of Gittel’s closed community is simultaneously affectionate and critical. There’s so much rich detail here about life in Borough Park, about growing up sheltered and naive. I laughed out loud at a scene in which little Gittel is confronted with a supermarket aisle of feminine-hygiene products. She initially thinks they’re adult diapers. But her mother gives her an extremely truncated “Eve’s sin” speech and tells her that one day she’ll be a woman and bleed. Gittel, terrified, ogles at all the choices: “Long Super Pads with Flexi-Wings and Long Super Pads with Flexier Wings and the Long Super Fresh Pads with the Flexiest-of-Wings. There were the Overnight Maxi and the All Day and Night Maxi and the Make Your Period Disappear Maxi, which wasn’t there but I kept searching for it anyway.” She then tries to make her mother buy every item in the aisle. “It was extremely important that I have all those wings, all of them,” she says. “What if I used the wrong pad? I needed all those maxis, because one could not know what unexpected circumstances might require the Extra Heavy pad or the Flexiest-of-Wings as I lay somewhere and died a sad and lonely death.”

There’s an equally funny scene involving a group of girls in a basement devouring an illicit copy of O, The Oprah Magazine, another about a young groom’s fervent belief that only goyish women have breasts, and a throwaway line that cracked me up, about someone seeing a specialist for secondary infertility after her fifth child.

Hush is clearly autobiographical. It’s also clearly written by someone who still feels a lot of love for a community that has repeatedly failed to protect its most vulnerable members. “In Bobov, in Satmar, everywhere—it’s a problem,” a sympathetic but powerless rebbe tells one of the characters. When this rebbe tries to take an abusive teacher out of a yeshiva, his own salary is docked for five months because “he could not destroy the income of a teacher, a father of six children, based on assumptions.” The rebbe says the only thing he can ever do is persuade the teacher to leave for another yeshiva, where, of course, he continues to teach. In another case the police try to get involved, but “there were never any witnesses; everybody was so fearful.” The consequences of lashon hara, having an evil tongue and speaking ill of others in the community, are dire. Gittel’s parents fear that the shadchan, the matchmaker, will never find their daughter a husband if she doesn’t shush, and the entire family will be shunned.

As in the novel, real-life ultra-Orthodox enclaves have discouraged families from going to the police after rapes and sexual abuse. The communities promise to resolve such problems internally, through rabbinical courts and counseling. But stories abound about victimizers who continue victimizing without consequence, and the social service agencies that are supposed to deal with sexual abuse have less-than-stellar historical records of punishing abusers and keeping them away from children. At the October 2009 sentencing of a bar mitzvah tutor and social worker who molested two boys, a New York State Supreme Court judge had bitter words for “a communal attitude that seems to impose greater opprobrium on the victims than the perpetrator.”

Increasingly, victims seem to be going to the police despite the dangers, because they don’t feel they can get justice otherwise. In 2009, 40 minors in Brooklyn Orthodox communities agreed to testify in court about their experiences. Maybe things are changing.

Hush doesn’t offer easy answers. The ending feels a bit pat, because the author clearly wants to end on a hopeful note. But I respect the feeling of authentic struggle.

I interviewed the author via email. (The book’s publicist ferried the messages). Fervent about retaining her anonymity, the author started writing the book at 23, then struggled with it for five years. As a child, she witnessed a friend’s molestation and grew up knowing of several other broken, victimized children in her community.

“It’s a book that came out of a need to tell a story that should have been told a long time ago,” she told me. As for the distinctive, childish, funny voice of Gittel, she said, “the voice was obvious to me and I never could have written it in any other way, because that was the experience. We were young girls when these things happened, and our world was processed through that mindset.” She seemed baffled by my questions about whether her use of humor was a strategy to make the story more bearable. “Humor is never a consideration; it’s an instinct,” she said.

“Eishes Chayil” worked as a journalist for several ultra-Orthodox newspapers; one such paper plays a role in the book. “The words ‘sexual abuse’ and ‘molestation’ did not exist” in the Ultra-Orthodox press, she said. “As for cherem [a ban by the community of a person, paper, or business], that happens for things far more trivial than [writing about] sexual abuse. When Mishpacha [an Orthodox magazine in Jerusalem] wrote about a modern Orthodox rabbi, there was an advertiser boycott until appropriate apologies were offered.” Sounds familiar.

“It’s been an extremely painful process for me, as the entire issue of abuse remains an open wound in the Orthodox community,” she continued. “Things are slowly opening up but will take a long time. Borough Park is not a democracy, and even when issues are finally acknowledged, they are done in a certain way, by certain people with the approval of certain authorities. An honest discussion about how this happened and why is not a possibility and is the reason so many victims leave the community entirely or break down.”

And does she still identify as Hasidic? “I currently identify as Extremely Confused Jewish Lady,” she said.

How does she think her former community will feel about Hush? “Obviously such a book is not ‘good for the Jews,’ but I don’t think the Orthodox community yet knows of its existence,” she replied. “It is very new, and I certainly did not announce its release at any wedding or bar mitzvah.” She predicted that the story will be “assumed to be a lie, written by some ‘self-hating Jew’ who ‘just wants attention.’ This is not a society that accepts criticism. And for the element that will know it is true, and applaud it, they must stay silent.”

I hope that’s not so. I hope the book finds its way to wounded, fearful kids and their friends, of every faith and ethnicity. Girls who love stories about friendship, feeling isolated, coping with grief and finding the courage to speak out against injustice will particularly respond to Hush. Its heroine is actually far more brave and empowered than Twilight’s Bella Swan, and she even finds a man who is worthy of her love. This is a powerful and beautifully edited act of storytelling.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.