On Hasidic Women

 Posted by on May 25, 2012
May 252012
 

 Stormtroopers coming to liberate chasidic women from cultural oppression

Recently, Hasidic women became the subject of much heated debate after a fluffy little article by a Chabad woman named Chaya sparked inter-web-wide conversations. Let me precede by saying that I am absolutely qualified to add to the conversation since I am NOT a chabad woman and NOT a baales tshuva (yet) and NOT even Satmar (anymore). And because I have many siblings and friends who are true, authentic, Satmar Hasidic women.

What troubled me about these recent conversations was the absence of a single Satmar woman’s voice. We heard Deborah Feldman, who was Satmar in one of her pre-celebrity incarnations, and I am writing, having been Satmar without any celebrity incarnations, but Satmar women themselves said nothing. Can a Chaya from Satmar speak up? I assume the task of trying to explain what drives a Satmar woman feels impossible to any one of them. And Satmar women too seem to have resigned to the reality that the outside world just doesn’t get them.

It is indeed true that Satmar women shave their heads. Yes, indeed they are taught not to use birth control. Yes, they are relegated to the women’s section and unwelcome at male events. They are required to dress to the inch of the law of the town, and they do not choose their husbands. They send their underwear to the rabbi. They are not allowed to drive.

It is a life of law and limits for a Satmar woman.

But what do Satmar women say about these rituals? How do Hasidic women keep sending off underwear while they wait for the secular media to swoop in and liberate them? Can we try to understand what compels a Hasidic woman to adhere to these rituals and pass it on to her children?

Hasidic women live in a radically different culture than the secular American culture, and their world is more complicated and nuanced than the mere sum of these rituals. Things that seem strange and unjust to outsiders are natural and non-issues to Satmar women. A combination of indoctrination and very little exposure to different ideas makes for a community of women who themselves know only a world of motherhood and piety. They invest themselves in the home and find power and passion within the framework of their available religious outlets.

As a woman’s history student myself (yes, baby!), I often, in my studies, come across scenarios of women who voluntarily took upon themselves the most extreme stringency of religion. Nuns who fasted for days or Indian widows who jumped into the fire; these are extreme examples of women who embraced their religious, patriarchal setting and found passion and power within it. They did not want to be liberated.

In Hasidic culture, most women embrace their lifestyle and expand on the rules and regulations. Many women WANT to have many babies even while rabbis increasingly dispense birth control. These women direct their energy towards their children because it’s a community that invests itself towards its future generations, and because women find motherhood to be their only venue to express their passion and interest. And many find joy in these things. A woman without a baby will sit among her friends conspicuously childless, feeling as empty and misplaced as a secular woman without a career. A good friend of mine recently visited a rabbi for a blessing of a child, after five children and three years without another pregnancy.

When I was Hasidic, the women were the ones who were often the imposers of the law: the Hasidic women washed my back in the mikvah and commented on the length of my shaven hair; the women criticized my open neckline or sent me letters in the mail about my deviances; the women encouraged new rules to enhance community purity and stringencies.

Of course, as I became disenchanted and increasingly frustrated with the Hasidic lifestyle, I no longer understood the passion or conviction Hasidic women find in their lifestyle. I was no longer able to shave my head or send my underwear in the most nonchalant way. I began to experience everything that was previously sacred and natural as oppressive and strange.

Hasidic women may be content to spend their day washing dirty faces, rocking the baby carriage, preparing flowers for the holiday, washing the floors until the apartment smells of Mr. Clean and Challah and dressing the family in their holiday best. Perhaps in the midst of all this they also check their vagina for blood. It’s five seconds of their day and it’s hardly what they think about when they go to sleep at night.

The same experiences can feel suffocating and outrageous to Deborah Feldman and others like her who are on the fringe or who already left. Because once someone does not want to belong to the community, once someone chooses another lifestyle, there is hardly a way out. With a cloistered community that believes in the ultimate law, the community rears its ugly head at those that test its limits. That’s an ugly side many content Satmar women who toe the line never know, and I didn’t know until I began to ask for more myself.

We can decry Satmar women’s oppression and demand their liberation. But we’ll be missing the point. Satmar women don’t want to be saved. But problems exist in the community that need to be addressed. Increasing awareness and resources for Hasidic victims of domestic violence or women (and men!) who want to leave are some of the ways we can have a conversation about the problems in the Hasidic community without narrowly judging a people from the prism of our own culture.

Frieda Vizel

Frieda Vizel left the Hasidic community, the Modern Orthodox community and the Formerly Orthodox (OTD) community. She now lives in Pomona and is actively looking for a new community to leave. She deals with the perplexities of the communities she left by drawing cartoons about them, a habit that gets her into an excellent amount of trouble.

  30 Responses to “On Hasidic Women”

  1. Perfect post. It details the facts, doesn’t present them through a lofty, pie-in-the-sky lens, and it finally highlights what the protest at Citibank Stadium should have made clear. There’s nothing particularly ill with the Chassidic movement. It’s a community that fervently adheres to the literal and stringent interpretations of halachah. What is wrong, as illustrated for centuries in the Catholic diocese, is when a community stifles the cries of those victimized within the community. In an attempt to protect the Chassidic community as a whole, the community is protecting criminals within the community and silencing the victims. Change doesn’t come easily and certainly in cloistered Satmar and Chassidic neighborhoods victims won’t be protected nor vindicated until religious leaders permit sexual predators and perpetrators to face criminal prosecution.

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  2. Have to much to say…

    i’m gonna take the liberty of copy pasting a poem i wrote about this, here, and you can just delete it. Yea, its way long. But i bet some people reading your article will enjoy or at least associate with it…

    -My first attempt at changing the system.
    by Shauli Gro’s

    ·
    My town is asleep.

    TV’s are on, generators hissing, but the colors are gone and the people missing
    Signs all around that no one seems to be able to read
    The gates wide open, hands unbound, but nobody who wants to be freed

    My town is asleep.

    An epidemic of mannequins commercializing everything to remain the same
    Molding hearts with plastic parts bound by the rules of some ancient game
    Breeding clones that cling to a code that like their king was dead long ago
    Desperately upholding a smiley facade, drowning all the facts in white out, so no one should ever know

    My town is asleep.

    I’m running around this empty town, screaming out loud, throwing my weight on the ground, waiting to be found,
    Waiting for someone to wake up from this daze, to shake off this haze, and make a sound

    But I’m talking to zombies, that don’t wanna listen, don’t wanna hear
    Close-minded in harmony, even if its the only thing they share
    Cold robots of steel, dead within and deaf without
    Religiously believing in everyone else’s doubt

    My town is asleep.

    And I’ve got to protect it, all alone, hold back the flood, on my own
    Catching every tear before it hits our heads
    Fixing mistakes I didn’t make Tending to scars, and shattered hearts I didn’t break
    And even though Ive done it yesterday, I might not last today, there is only so much I can take

    My town is asleep.

    And no one seems to notice that the rainbows are black and white
    As if women won’t exist if we keep them out of sight
    As if beauty is meant to be hidden in a brown bag
    Covered with a burka, with a tichel and black shabbos rags

    No one seems to notice the silent screams of souls who yearn to be loud
    As if their pleads don’t count if we stitched up their mouths
    No one who is ready to admit this longing for freedom exists in their midsts
    As if they didn’t themselves do this. Think, feel, touch, kiss, once upon before ignorant bliss

    They don’t seem to grasp, don’t seem to understand, that a flower grown into a forced form, is not a boxy rose, its a dead flower in boxy pose
    They just look on with a blank stare at my attempts to expose reality
    Lost somewhere in the atmosphere of blow-up rubber flowers and styled insanity

    My town is asleep.

    Its like they don’t want me to disturb it, begging me to stop
    Its like they have forgotten if they wanna be awake or not
    Some of them were born into this prison and they cant see the bars
    You don’t miss the warm summer nights when you have never seen the stars

    But I’ve seen what you won’t believe and I looked it in the eye, I did
    Now when I look into the eyes of a thief i see his hungry kid
    And I’ve looked into the eyes of a thousand teenagers, and saw lost luggage in the airport
    Lost between the pages of a bible and the terminal skylight, wishing to be free from this overprotective fort

    By now I’ve seen children dying, as grandmothers pray in vain
    I’ve seen fathers denying, and going on living just the same
    I’ve seen pretty woman sighing, keeping their suffering buried
    Shaking their heads sadly replying, “all I ever dreamed of by the 18, was being married”

    I’ve seen little children acting dead, raped from their youth and innocence
    Others relenting to what they’re being fed, denying them talent and brilliance
    I’ve seen the other side, I’ve seen too much to act dumb
    And by now Ive become that other kid their daddy warned them from

    But my town is still asleep.

    And I might as well give up and go to sleep too and wait for some prophet to arrive
    At least dream of a day that ill be free from the invisible chains that enslave me
    Dreaming of a day when it pays to be,
    Alive.

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  3. perfect factual observation of the culture as lived from within with an outside perspective. however the conclusion [admittedly unsaid] “stay away liberators, we are happy and fine” is up for discussion. when a docile society follows and perpetuates their oppressors by fully submitting and enhancing upon them, does not mean that they are not worthy of being liberated. furthermore when the numbers of those feeling disenchanted keeps on growing daily, that in itself is a call for the guns to come in and break the yoke of tyranny even of those that happily bend under its burden. additional food for thought would be to think of those societies and cultures that most even semi progressive people would agree are repressive for woman. i’m sure that many of the woman of those societies also live enriching lives and might even blossom while perpetuating their own submission.

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  4. Wish I had the time to write a decent response; I’m too busy decorating cheesecakes (liberate me now!). Instead, I’ll just repost my comment from FB.

    Once again, Frieda Vizel nails it.

    This reminds me of the conversation I had with one of my sisters last night. While she’s going on about her seven children and all their wonders, her kokosh cake and all its raves, I couldn’t help thinking of all the recent conversations on Chasidic women. Liberation shmiberation. My sister loves her life! She’s so damn proud of her family and her accomplishments, she often can’t help but speak condescendingly to me–someone who is liberated, but doesn’t experience the joys of diapers and the ultimate, pious Satmar existence.

    Like Frieda said, there are issues that need to be addressed; there are individuals in dire need of help. But the vast majority of women in places like Kiryas Joel are genuinely happy with their lives.

    Oh, and 4 friends already shared my link. I tell you, it’s time you begin your celebrity incarnation.

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  5. very well said……the only comparison I can think of is the USA attempting to liberate many Muslim countries and bring western democracies there. While there may be a voice that will embrace it, as a whole the population dos not want this change.

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  6. What might even constitute liberation? What could that look like?

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  7. Anonymous,

    I did not mean to imply that we need to be hands off about the chasidic community. I was trying to say that a “grand liberation” is an attitude that smacks of lack of cultural understanding. We need to work towards improving problems in the community, but we also need to make an effort to understand that Chasidic women are not zombies and have minds of their own and they are not waiting for our liberation. Perhaps we can help, but we cannot liberate.

    Two things bother me:
    the assumption that Chasidic women must be helped from the outside
    And the assumption that everything that is strange with Chasidim is problematic.

    When we don’t understand what drives chasidic women, how can we expect to make a difference?

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  8. S. :
    What might even constitute liberation? What could that look like?

    s: See above for an illustration.

    You should know better than me what it would look like. In France, it looks like the ban on the hijab. That kinda thing.

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  9. Point taken and accepted

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  10. Well put. The system may be appalling to an outsider, but most individuals within are quite happy with it. Ignorance can indeed lead to bliss. Female genital mutilation is another tradition that is kept alive mainly by women. It’s beyond my understanding how women who have suffered from this horrific tradition force it onto their children and grandchildren, but it is a fact.

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  11. Geklopt dem nugel oifen kup.

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  12. What a perfect time for such a perfectly balanced message: kabolas hatorah.
    Indeed, this holiday is not about “giving” of the torah, its about “accepting” of the torah, hence the word “kabolas”.
    Each and every one of us “accepts” it in our own special way. Proudly.
    As for you shpitzle, your’e a wize woman, with a perspective on your world, and on the world
    you personally outgrew.

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  13. i don’t know why you cannot get over your deb feldman jealousy you add nothing everybody agrees that the the women in Africa that get beaten and abuses by their husbands live happily live happily but we as humans shouldn’t point out the facts like feldman did?! and

    Whio the guys with the guns you or feldman?

    BTW my wife goes herself with the shmates not send it because i stopped being the mailman

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  14. Okay all…mrs. satmar woman has arrived. I grew up in Williamsburg attending satmar school. Hated it all with a passion. YES there r a lot of downright narrowminded people here. They can haunt u all ur life. I have rebelled against them all, dropped school, ate non kosher foods, did whatever i felt like on shabbos and felt FREE finally. My life was depressing at that point. Shabbos was my worst day. I had a lot of non jewish friends from diff cultures. Hung out with them n all, yet was still depressed at the end of the day.

    It irks me when i c people badmouthing all the dropouts, since i have been there. There r many who can be blamed.

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  15. Shpitzele
    What’s the equivalent of opening a can of worms in a good way? Breaking open a bag of jelly beans? You seem to have a knack at it. :)

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  16. Speaking as an outsider, one who but looks (& reads) from beyond even the fringe of this “conversaion” I experience the above comments of Frieda as most profound, balanced, insightful, & generous to all parties involved. Frieda’s manner of discourse is the kind that encourages a conversation to go forward & not become mired in the swamp of right, wrong,their side our side. May the continuing conversation be within the spirit modeled here by Frieda. Shed light rather than stir the fire.

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  17. Can’t agree more to the last comment. On a lighter side it would be fun to hear ideas of how to liberate these subjugated mases.

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  18. who brought guns to this discussion? all i see is this blog using violence not the media or feldman

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  19. Shpitzle: “s: See above for an illustration.
    You should know better than me what it would look like. In France, it looks like the ban on the hijab. That kinda thing.”

    Okay, so this is the United States and that couldn’t* happen. So what then?

    * You know. Probably, almost certainly.

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  20. Progressive rules to free the satmars and belzer woman.
    1. All skirts need to be either 10″ below or above the knee
    2. Plunging necklines shall be work everywhere besides during blizzards.
    3. Eugenics will be practiced until the age of 38 or later
    4. Must engage in intercourse at least once a week without interruptions.
    5. Must make out with at least 6 partners and have sex with at least 4 partners before approval of a marriage license
    6. No marriage licenses will be give to woman marrying anyone with facial hair.
    7. No toilet paper should be used
    8. Ritual bath houses should be converted in to romantic love shacks

    More laws to come

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  21. I suppose another aspect of this is whether Satmar women should be ‘liberated’ for the good of society if not for themselves. Besides for the ideology, Satmar (or other chassidish) women are akin to other mothers on welfare. They don’t contribute much to the economy and they produce lots of children who won’t receive an education that will allow them to contribute much either.

    I think ‘liberation’ is the wrong word, but what do you think of say, restriction of child welfare payments to the first two or three children? Or even enforcement of a more diverse curriculum for children in these communities? Adults can choose to do whatever they like with their lives but the state can (a) choose what it subsidises and (b) ensure that children are given an education that allows them to choose.

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  22. To impose a welfare restriction on Satmar families opens a whole can of worms in terms of religious freedom in this Country and demands a new definition of what constitutes a family. Utah, thanks to prolific Mormon families, has one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the country. In addition, polygamous families with dozens of children living under the government radar, collect welfare through the first wife who is the only legally married member of the clan. The other wives, married in a religious common law ceremony, aren’t eligible for benefits but their children are. For years I lived on Army bases where evangelical Christian mothers home-schooled their dozen or so children in accordance to Christian values. As long as they submitted a curriculum to the state board of education, they could continue to educate as they saw fit. How do we impose a law that selectively imposes a law on one religious group but not on all? We would be enacting a blanket law as that imposed in France, one that equalizes education and restrictions on all religious groups.

    It makes more sense to restrict funding to Satmar schools unless school-age children pass testing standards imposed by the state board of education. If education levels aren’t met, funds are revoked.

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  23. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean to imply that there should be any laws which single out a particular group, which would be both morally abhorrent and totally impractical. I just think that welfare policies should take into account the ways in which they are utilized by religious (or other) groups to promote aims that are often at odds with those of society at large. The same goes for school curricula. I don’t believe the ‘outside world’ has any other means (or right) of directly interfering with people’s lives, as long as they are not breaking the law in other ways.

    And although the French model has its advantages, I find it too forceful in its refusal to allow people to bring their religious or cultural commitments into the public square, as they are allowed and even encouraged to do in Anglo Saxon countries. If wearing a yarmulka (or turban or whatever) is important to you, and it doesn’t stop you from doing your job, I don’t think the state has any business telling you not to wear it..

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