In Boro Park, girls are raised up to be mothers. Their role models are women who raise children and simultaneously lead lives of hesed. There are women who are in charge of Bikkur Cholim committees, women who head gemachs, women who are happy to watch other people's children so that the mother can get some rest, women who cook for new mothers, women who are shadchanim and so forth. As a girl born into this society, your focus is on modesty and growing up to become a Jewish mother. You know how to cook and clean because you've helped your mother to do so. You've taken care of children, including little babies, all your life. The accoutrements of marriage that may come as a surprise to American brides of 37 will be no surprise to you. You have been raised within a family unit and hope to perpetuate that family unit.
And there's a lot of beauty in that mentality, that innocence and the purity that comes along with it. Yes, compared to me, these women are sheltered. But in Boro Park they will argue that the children are protected rather than sheltered. I think that protection has to end at some point so that women can assert their independence and right to think. But there are many women who are not so very troubled by the supposed restrictions that are incumbent upon them. After all, this dependance is reflective of the whole society in that all of them, like sheep led by a loving shepherd, follow the guidance of the Rebbe.
A lot of research goes into a shidduch. Each side of the family checks the other one out, makes hundreds of phone calls and tries to determine whether the family suits one another. Then they take the names to the Rebbe, who will offer his thoughts regarding the match. Assuming that all meets with approval, the young man and young lady are introduced to one another at a b'sho, which is an hour to an hour and a half meeting in the house or an apartment. The parents sit in one room and the children speak in the other. What do they speak about, you may wonder?
This is another place where there's a sweetness and a sadness mixed together. In our world, when young men and women date, they will speak about their studies, their planned careers, their breakups and the emotional toll severing ties took on them. They will compare notes regarding their life experiences. To some extent, they can be very weary by the age of twenty. In Boro Park, the children speak about sweet things like their EMT experience or training, the work they do, their hobbies and interests. Important questions and intimate questions are not: How did breaking up with the man you thought you loved affect you? Rather, they take the form of: Would you be willing to eat out (at restaraunts)? Would you come with me on vacation if I happened to visit a different state? Do you want me to shave my head or not? Would you let me drive (most Hasidic women don't drive as it is considered immodest)? And the man may ask: Would you wear a band (a white embroidered handkerchief) on Shabbos? What about an apron? There is no need to ask how each one plans to raise their children; clearly they plan to raise them within the parameters of the Hasidus that they follow.
On the one hand, I am deeply troubled by the idea of a relationship that begins on such (to me) seemingly shallow grounds. Where is the emotional depth, the passion, the understanding of one another? How can a marriage be made based on the fact that a young maiden enjoys a man's company- after all, she has no other experience to compare that with? And yet, having tasted of the frenetic experience of bitterness and joy that encompasses trying to find one's husband in the Modern Orthodox world, I cannot discount the simplicity and honesty in which this match is sought. Is it better to have one's heart broken first, to drink the draught of experience, or to venture into a marriage undamaged (at least in that way) with a commitment to making everything work?
Each youth has the right to say no if they believe the other is not suited for them. Of course, there is a lot of pressure to say yes. But I know people who have turned others down while searching for their husband. They're uncommon but they exist.
Erich Fromm writes in his exquisite book, 'The Art of Loving'-
- Erotic love, if it is love, has one premise. That I love from the essence of my being—and experience the other person in the essence of his or her being. In essence, all human beings are identical. We are all part of One; we are One. This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love. Love should be essentially an act of will, of decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is, indeed, the rationale behind the idea of the insolubility of marriage, as it is behind the many forms of traditional marriage in which the two partners never choose each other but are chosen for each other—and yet are expected to love each other. In contemporary Western culture this idea appears utterly false. Love is supposed to be the outcome of a spontaneous, emotional reaction, of suddenly being gripped by an irresistible feeling. In this view, one sees only the peculiarities of the two individuals involved—and not the fact that all men are part of Adam, and all women part of Eve. One neglects to see an important factor in erotic love, that of will. To love somebody is not just a strong feeling—it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?
Taking these views into account one may arrive at the position that love is exclusively an act of will and commitment, and that therefore fundamentally it does not matter who the two persons are. Whether the marriage was arranged by others, or the result of individual choice, once the marriage is concluded, the act of will should guarantee the continuation of love. This view seems to neglect the paradoxical character of human nature and of erotic love. We are all One- yet very one of us is a unique, unduplicable entity. In our relationships to others the same paradox is repeated. Inasmuch as we are all one, we can love everybody in the same way in the sense of brotherly love. But inasmuch as we are all also different, erotic love requires certain specific, highly individual elements which exist between some people but not between all.
Are Hasidic couples happy? It depends on what you mean by happiness. They have very different expectations than we who are doused in Western culture do. They are not expecting happily ever afters. They don't expect perfect kisses, carriages, red roses, romance and expensive gifts (which is not to say, by the way, that husbands don't woo their wives anyway- but after they're married). They were not raised on fantasies of Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. They want companionship with their husband; they want to help him succeed in his studies, believing that this is their path to fulfillment and to the World to Come. They want to enjoy his company. And so long as that is all right, often they will feel contented and happy. The great belief in God and in their Rebbe's guidance that they have also serves to make them feel happy. Not only the man they are marrying but the marriage itself is part of serving God. And they have been taught to feel glad and fulfilled when they serve God.
Also, Hasidic couples often spend time apart. There are so many functions (smachot, brisim, weddings etc) that they are attending with men separated and women separated that much fulfillment is found in the companionship of women (especially fellow newlyweds or young mothers) as in the company of their husbands. Of course this is not true of everyone, but the difference in thought in Boro Park vs. say Washington Heights is the focus on a community-oriented, family-oriented culture rather than an individualistic culture. Here in the Modern Orthodox community, we expect to find happiness as individuals. Two individuals who love one another could live in Antarctica away from all civilized society and still be deeply happy. But this is not the thought in Boro Park. In Boro Park, everyone is a member of my family and thus everyone's business is my business. The husband, the in-laws, the next-door-neighbor, my best friend from school- they're all part of my extended family, in a way. That culture lends itself to feeling included and cared for, even if that is never expressed in the way that it would be in the Western world.
To some extent, I admire the women of Boro Park. I almost envy their simplicity, their steadfastness, their deep faith in God and their Rebbe. I admire the way in which they are so competent in a household at such a tender age. I think the fact that their faith in God is such that they can marry after meeting someone only three times and then make that marriage work and grow in their love for one another is a beautiful thing. It is not something I could do and I would argue it is not something that any thinking rather than faithful person- someone who puts choice above devotion- could easily do. It is not something whose essence is to be an individual- as mine is- could do. But I believe their method has worked for them and I have seen very devoted, happy couples in Boro Park. I've seen the other kind as well. What's true here, as it's true everywhere else, is that we must not judge by shock value or appearances. B'shos seem strange to us, but we are no stranger to Miley Cyrus' provocative photos or GQ's "Glee" shoots where women suck lollipops with their legs spread to show their dainty underclothes. Sometimes I wish I were indeed a stranger to the sex-laden culture of Western society- and that I had the faith and devotion that would have allowed me to wed based on my trust in my parents and God.