I have just read a remarkable book. It is powerful and funny and sad and it made me weep by the time I reached its end. It's a young adult novel written by the pseudonymous Eishes Chayil (the name, which comes from Proverbs 31, means "A Woman of Valor.") It is called Hush, and it is about sexual abuse in the Hasidic community.
The book alternates back and forth between two timelines: the "then," when our narrator Gittel is a child who spends all of her time with her best friend Devory, and the "now" when Gittel is eighteen and about to get married and Devory has been dead for ten years, having hung herself with Gittel's purple sparkly jump rope to escape repeated molestation by her older brother.
Hush is a story about living in an insular religious world -- both the blessings of that life (Shabbos observance, the joy and the warmth, Torah learning everywhere, a deep sense of close-knit community) and the downsides (a willful lack of knowledge about the outside world -- and the chilling effects of silencing in a system where if a girl is known to have spoken out against something like rape, she and her sisters might never find a marriage match.) The book does a beautiful job of showing the many subtle ramifications of the reality that because sexual abuse is never spoken about, it remains unthinkable, and therefore those who endure it do so in silence, without words for their trauma or their shame.
Parts of this book are funny. Like Gittel and her friends dressing up as brides for Purim, or the scene where Gittel and her friends first encounter Oprah magazine, or the scene where Gittel first finds out how babies are made -- at eighteen, just before her marriage -- which is both hilarious and also kind of appalling. And many of the characters are wonderful: Gittel's father, for instance, who is drawn as a sweet and compassionate man who genuinely wants the best for his daughter. On the top floor of the house where Gittel lives is a non-Jew, a woman named Kathy, and Gittel's relationship with her (which is secret through much of her childhood -- what would people think if they knew she lived so near to an outsider?) is one of my favorite things about the book. Even Gittel's eventual husband, Yankel, becomes a likeable three-dimensional character by the end.
But parts of the book are completely heartbreaking. The sexual abuse, of course, and Devory's acting-out, and the other kids' inability (and the adults' refusal) to understand why she was behaving the way she was. The shock of Devory's death, and the immediate erasure of what really happened to her. But even more than that, what moved me most were Gittel's painful and halting attempts to make sense of this tragedy ten years after the fact, as she began to move into adulthood. Once she got married and first encountered sex and intimacy, her memories of Devory rose up and overwhelmed her, and Chayil doesn't flinch away from showing us what that does to Gittel as she struggles to move forward in her own life.
I enjoyed Hush's portrayal of life in the Hasidic community of Boro Park. My own Jewish life takes a rather different form than what's described here, but Reb Zalman -- my beloved teacher and founder of my rabbinic school -- was originally ordained as a rabbi within Chabad-Lubavitch, and has often adjoined his students to ensure that we remember that we and the Hasidim are part of the same broad Jewish community. It's hard for me to judge whether Chayil's portrayal of the Hasidic world would be accessible to someone who was a complete outsider to this world, but the book contains a glossary of the Yiddish and Hebrew words which might be unfamiliar to some readers, and I suspect that just immersing in the world of the book would be satisfying even if the environment Chayil describes is foreign to you.
I think this is an amazing book, not only because it's a young adult novel which tackles an incredibly difficult subject head-on but also because it does so with so much love. It is clear to me that Eishes Chayil, whoever she may be, comes out of a Hasidische community and has a lot of love for that community alongside her righteous fury. Religiosity does not innoculate a community from having members who are drawn to commit sexual assault, and a communal policy of maintaining silence about such things (God forbid we should allow outsiders to see that there is anything wrong in our collective house!) makes things even worse. It seems to me that Chayil is arguing that it's exactly because this community is a religious one that child molestation needs to be exposed and protected-against. Because to do otherwise -- to pretend that molestation doesn't happen by us, that we as Jews or as religious people are immune from these kinds of traumas -- flies in the face of our most deeply-held religious values.
Hush was given to me by a friend of mine who's a children's librarian, who tells me that this book is getting a lot of attention in the YA-literature world. (Here are some reviews: Hush reviewed by GreenBeanTeenQueen, Hush reviewed at the Book-Splot. One thing I haven't been able to find are any reviews written by Orthodox Jews, teen or adult -- I wouldn't expect to find a review online by anyone Hasidic, in part because of that community's mistrust of the internet, but if you have a link to an Orthodox person's review of the book, please let me know.) One way or another, I'm glad that this book is making the rounds. This is a subject we need to be able to discuss -- no matter what kind of religious or secular community we call home -- and this book does a beautiful, and poignant, job of talking about sexual abuse and the people it hurts most.
Kol hakavod to Eishes Chayil for writing this powerful and necessary book.