Today Mr. Dorron Katzin sent me an article with a link to Tablet Magazine and a review of a book called Hush written by a woman who used the pseudonym Eishes Chayil, Woman of Valor. I read the review, clicked to the book on Amazon and 'looked inside.' I then realized that this was a book I had to own, so I walked over to Borders during lunch break and bought it. And I have now finished reading it.
This book made me laugh and it made me cry. It made me sad, very sad, mostly because of how accurate it is. It is dead on. It's set in Boro Park and it contains the beauty, the joy, the excitement, the passion and the brilliance of Boro Park. But it also contains the darkness and the ugliness and the sorrow. The author's note is particularly powerful. She writes:
When I was twenty-three years old, I began writing Hush. It wasn't a book back then; it was only a story. My story. It became my story when I first learned what the words sexual abuse meant. I had known of the words, had heard of them, but wasn't quite sure how to define them- except that they defined something that happened by the gentiles. By us, the ultra-Orthodox, the Chassidic, the chosen Jewish nation living in Brooklyn, New York, it wasn't a term we needed to know.I think the best way to show you the power of this book is simply to give you some of the excerpts. This post, therefore, contains spoilers (although I haven't typed up the absolute best sections, excerpts or quotes because for those, you should read the book). Here you go.
Oh, there had been stories. As children and as teenagers, we heard them all the time- whispered rumors, murmured gossip, secret scandals- all made up by some desperate people who spread lies. People who, because of mental instability, hatred for our community, or perhaps the influence of Satan, were spreading blood libels- like the gentiles do- saying things that wouldn't have dared happen by us.
But it could happen. I was a young girl when I watched my friend being molested, though I could not understand what I was seeing. I was a young girl when an eleven-year-old boy from the community hanged himself. They said he did it because he didn't have any friends. Others killed themselves, ran away, fell apart, but we were young and ignorant and just ran outside with our friends, where we played and laughed and stared at passing gentiles, wondering at the evil they hid inside, wondering at the empty lives they led. Of this we were certain because that is what our teachers told us again and again- and that meant it was true, even if we couldn't understand why.
Hindy swallowed the last of my Super-Snack, sighed again, and said, "Okay, this is how you get married. First, you have to get a diamond ring. Without that you can't ever get married. Then, a long time later, you have a wedding where the kallah- the bride- with the diamond ring has to wear a big white gown. Hashem can't know that you are married until you put on a white big kallah dress for the wedding. And if it's not at least this white," she said, pointing to her dirty homework sheet sticking out of her briefcase, "Hashem will get totally mixed up."
"Then comes the chuppah, the canopy," Hindy pointed her chubby finger at me for emphasis. "That is when you really get married. The chassan- the groom- stands under the chuppah shaking and mumbling, and then the kallah walks down the aisle with her mother and the chassan's mother. The kallah," Hindy explained, "must shake so that you can tell she is crying. The mother and the chassan's mother also must cry, but not too much, because they are holding torches in their hands and can't even wipe their makeup. When they reach the chassan they walk around him seven times, and then everyone in the family has to be very serious and cry at least a little, or at least wipe their eyes with a tissue and hold one another's hands. Then when they finish going around and around, the sobbing kallah stands near the shaking chassan and lots of different men say a lot of brachos- prayers- and after all that, the chassan has to smash a glass cup under his foot, and everyone screams mazel tov- good luck- and the kallah and chassan walk together down the aisle holding hands, and that's when Hashem knows that you are married."
Whoa, that was a long wedding.
And then I jumped.
"Holding hands?" I asked.
"Uh-huh." Hindy nodded her head hard, up and down. "Uh-huh."
Yikes. I looked straight ahead at the torn leather on the back of the seat in front of me, trying with all my might not to look too stupid. Truth be told, perhaps I could deal with holding hands, but I was really nervous about all that crying. Carefully I asked Hindy if I really had to cry and shake just so much in order to get married. Hindy said yes, absolutely. It was the main part of the wedding, and if I wouldn't cry Hashem would never guess I was married. I asked Hindy what happened then, and she said, oh, the rest was just food and dancing and everyone was happy, and forgot they ever cried.
Well, then," Devory said, "she isn't in heaven. Only Jews go to heaven." But Kathy insisted her mother was in heaven. She said that all good souls went to heaven and it didn't matter what religion you were. But we knew it did matter, and we told Kathy that the only way you could get into heaven was if you were Jewish and, of course, wore a hat. She laughed and said, "No, no, there are no hats in heaven, only souls."
We felt terrible disappointing her, but Devory whispered to me that she must know the truth. I agreed and earnestly informed her that there was just no way her mother was in heaven and if her father didn't wear a hat of some kind he wasn't there either.
Then it suddenly struck Devory that Kathy's father did wear a hat. She pointed excitedly to the picture in the album showing Kathy's father wearing the very bend-down kind of hat like the litvish wore. I was relieved and told Kathy that her mother could get into heaven after all
"Maybe," I mused gravely, "your father was a secret Jew who never told anyone but only wore the hat." But Kathy only laughed again and said, "No, no, everyone wore a hat then."
"But if everyone wore the hat," Devory said, puzzled, "it must have been awfully confusing to Hashem. How did He know who was Jewish and who wasn't?
Shidduchim was an important subject. In fact, it was the single most important subject in the community and was a traditional and passionate part of our weekly family conference.
"You wouldn't believe what Chavie Goldberg told me before Shabbos," my mother said as she settled down on the couch. "I'm telling you, you have no idea how angry she is with Mrs. Cohen. She told me that that lady thinks just because she is a shadchanta for thirty years, she could offer her the most ridiculous shidduchim.
Surela leaned closer to my mother. "Who did she suggest this time?"
My mother shook her head indignantly. "You know the Mandlbaums from Fifty-seventh Street- her sister davens in the Fifty-sixth Street shul? So Mrs. Cohen thinks that Mrs. Mandlbaum's daughter would be perfect for Chavie Goldberg's son! Could you imagine? Chavie was fuming and, boy, did she give it to her. She told me that she told her, "Would you take a girl whose grandmother was divorced? I don't care what kind of girl this is! You have no right to suggest my son for a girl whose grandmother was once divorced!"
My mother pressed the button that released the leg rest and leaned back.
"And she is absolutely right. I mean, if there had been a problem in the family, then I'd understand. Mrs. Teitlebaum made a shidduch with- what's his name, nebech, that poor boy who doesn't have a father- oh yes, Bloom, because her daughter stuttered. So she figured, the boy is a top one, he's smart, he's a top learner, so fine. She didn't have a choice and she took an orphan. But a prestigious family like the Goldbergs with money and good background yichus- good family- why would they ever take a family like that, whose grandmother was once divorced? I just don't understand that shadchanta."
"It is very important that you understand not to talk to anybody in the class about what happened. Nobody will understand and they will only bother you about it and most of all it is loshon harah- evil talk- because everyone will talk bad about Devory's family and you know what a big sin that is. Loshon harah could ruin people's lives, and there is nothing we have to be more careful about. You can talk to any adult you want, like me or your mother or father. They will help you as much as possible.
I'll tell the girls in the class that I do not allow anyone to talk about it. Devory was a very sick and sad girl and that's what made her do what she did."
"It's not true," I said. "Devory did it because she hated her brother."
My teacher cleared her throat and smiled hesitantly. "Gittel, we don't really know why Devory did it. But I just want you to try to remember what I said. It is very, very important not to tell any girls in the class anything about Devory."
She then gave me three chocolate chip cookies and walked with me back to the classroom.
Today we started seminary. Summer is over, and most of our class is attending Bais Yaakov Teacher's Training Seminar to learn how to become teachers for our schools. Today we learned that people who kill themselves don't get to heaven. Is it true? We also learned that children under eighteen can't go to hell. Where are you then? I am only asking you because I have no one else who is Jewish to ask. So I don't know.
I brushed my hair again. I touched up my lipstick. My sister, Surela, had applied the makeup earlier and my mother and I had sat in front of the mirror staring intently into my reflection, trying this lipstick then that, smudging on beige eye shadow then brown, until we agreed that it was just so- not too much so I looked modern and not too little so I looked too young. I put on the Versani shoes, my first $180 high-heeled shoes, and my parents had proudly watched as I clicked precariously around the room. Now was the time to spend, they said.
My mother warned me not to wear any jewelry for the fateful meeting. "The less your in-laws see you have, the more they'll buy you," she advised me, so I removed the necklace, watch, three rings, and large pearl earrings my father had bought me, and left only the simple gold earrings my grandmother had given me for my Bas Mitzvah.