Present Tense
The Magazine of World Jewish Affairs

Autumn, 1983

 

A Haven Among the Hasidim

 

My friend Stephanie Weiss (a pseudonym, like the other names in this story) seemed to have it all. By the time she was 30 she had a high-level, high-paying job in the television industry that put her in constant touch with a variety of celebrities. There always seemed to be an attractive man in her life. She even owned her own Fifth Avenue co-op apartment.

Then one day, about two years ago, Stephanie told me she was thinking of taking a six-month leave of absence from her job. She needed some time to think about her life. "Every time I take another step up the success ladder l feel a slightly larger hollow inside,” she explained. "There must be more to life than this, l tell myself."

Shortly thereafter, 0n a flight from Los Angeles to New York, Stephanie happened to sit next to a Lubavitcher Hasidic couple. By the time the plane landed in New York, Stephanie had accepted an invitation to spend the following weekend with them. That spring she spent practically every weekend at their Brooklyn home.

Today Stephanie, who hadn't entered a synagogue since her early teens has become a ba'al t'shuva (Hebrew for a.non-observant Jew who returns to Orthodoxy)/ She prays several times a day, observes the Sabbath, follows the dietary laws Later this year she will marry an attorney who is also a ba'al t'shuva. In accordance with strict Orthodox laws pertaining to sex, she has had no physical relationship with her fiancé. Stephanie says she has never been happier.

While I had been aware of the Lubavitchers' campaign to get Jews back to Orthodoxy, Stephanie's "return" made me realize how successful they have been. This aroused my curiosity about the reasons why intelligent, sophisticated young people,-women in particular-accept what appears to be a sexist and repressive form of Judaism, which their immigrant parents and grandparents quickly abandoned for the freedom of a secular American way of life.

To try to find answers to my questions., I sign up for An Encounter With Chabad Weekend ("Chabad" and "Lubavitcher" are synonymous) in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where approximately 25,000 Lubavitcher Hasidim make their homes. The thirty-five other female participants and I spend most of our time listening to lectures at Machon Chana-the Lubavitcher women's dormitory where women from non-religious backgrounds and places as distant as Minnesota, Ohio, France and Israel come to pursue Judaic studies.

The weekend begins on Friday afternoon. The lighting of Sabbath candles in the dining room is the first event on the calendar. About fifteen trim, well-dressed young women stand around a table filled with candles. Some who have already lit their candles pray intensely, hands over their faces. Others are waiting their turn. Scattered around the room facing the walls are young women with prayer books in their hands. They sway back and forth as they pray. When they are done they wish each other "Guten Shabbos" in Yiddish.

It is one thing to hear or read about the return to Orthodoxy. It is quite another to be confronted with a scene like this. My only experiences in Orthodox synagogues took place during my childhood, when I accompanied my grandfather on the High Holidays. Since then I'd picture only old, Yiddish-speaking men and women praying like this-not pretty young girls in designer jean skirts. I am shocked.

At the synagogue where Friday night services are held, my reaction changes from shock to annoyance. As in all other Orthodox synagogues, women are separated from men. The women's section is upstairs, screened off from the men's by a smoked glass partition. Everything below looks dark and blurry, when in fact the synagogue is brightly lit.

"It's a one way screen," Rachel Stem explains. She is a soft-spoken young woman from Cleveland who has lived at the dorm for several years. "We can look down. but the men can't look up," she tells me. "It would distract them from their prayers to see women. That's why we can't sit together."

Many of the restrictive Orthodox rules relating to• women were established to curb male sexuality and thus avoid premarital sex and adultery. Lubavitcher women are not even allowed to sing in the presence of men other than their husbands-a woman's voice is considered sensuously arousing.

"Doesn't it bother you that the women are not allowed to participate in the services?" I ask Rachel.

Her answer is typical of the attitude of many of the women I question. "It bothered me at first," she admits. "But now that I have a better understanding of Judaism, it doesn't. Judaism is a way of life and its focal point is the family. Women's religious functions center on the family-keeping the dietary laws, educating the children, observing the holidays, lighting the Sabbath candles. They are as important as men's religious activities in the synagogue."

I ask myself whether Orthodox Jewish men who thank God in their prayers every morning that they were not born women think that soaking and salting the meat is as important as being called up to the Torah.

As the weekend progresses I become aware that many of the young women attracted to this place are reacting to sexual promiscuity. "The current dating scene is a form of prostitution," a very attractive 24-year-old woman from Boston asserts angrily. "The guys take you out and they expect to be paid back in sex. A religious guy looks at me as a person, not a body. There are other means of communication than going to bed."

Most of these women share a feeling that women are treated more seriously and with more respect in this environment than in the liberated world of tight jeans, see-through blouses and one-night stands. So they are more receptive to what they hear, more willing to accept explanations which might seem highly inadequate to those less in need of support.

In addition, many are reacting against what they consider excessive and burdensome freedom. "The freedom of choices you have to make is almost shackling," is the way Joan Klein, a college student from Rockville, Maryland, puts it. "Young people lack identity; they lack a sense of direction; they lack meaning; they are like wandering sheep." For her, this is not theoretical discourse; Joan's voice trembles with emotion as she speaks.

"America is a place of nothing. Nothing is handed down except freedom. You can die of freedom," another woman tells me.
Reared in a world which places ultimate value on freedom and self-realization, these young women crave structure, order and morality. A 3,000-year-old tradition which has these to offer, as well as a feeling of returning to one's roots and of belonging, appears to many of them a way of life they can't reject.

While I agree with many of their criticisms of contemporary American society, I am concerned about the pendulum-swing nature of their interest in Hasidism. Aren't they trading the familiar inadequacies of one extreme for the unfamiliar inadequacies of another? The young women in particular will have to pay a high price for the security and support they will receive. Besides the shaytls or wigs they are required to wear after marriage, plus the bans on female singing, dancing and swimming in public, and the nonparticipation in synagogue services, they are also required to have as many children "as God will give." Contraception-and, needless to say, abortion-are forbidden. Having raised two children myself, I have a concrete sense of what having five, six or seven involves. These young women don't.

A major goal of the intensive program of lectures is to persuade us that in contrast to the dominant culture, which offers superficial materialism, vacuous freedom and drugs, the Hasidic way can provide us with a joyous, meaningful and moral life. The point is made again and again that, contrary to appearances, Hasidism is not ascetic that there is nothing wrong with physical and worldly pleasures as long as they are sanctified through the practice of religious commandments.

I had always connected the laws of marital purity, which forbid contact during menstruation and for seven days thereafter, with sexual repression, and mikvas, or ritual baths with primitive superstitions about blood and cleanliness.

The Lubavitchers interpret mikvas and laws of marital purity as part of the sanctification of marriage-the elevation of the purely sensuous to a higher, more spiritual level. The immersion represents a spiritual and sexual renewal of the marriage. The laws of marital purity are also presented as a brilliant method for preventing sexual boredom.

"Only a genius could have thought of such laws," one enthusiastic young ba'al t'shuva tells me. "Now I know that monogamy is possible. God is a genius!"

Many of the other young women are equally enthusiastic. Accustomed as they are to living in a world where having sex is like brushing your teeth, the idea of the sanctification of sex through the mikva and laws of marital purity is very appealing ...

The other main message of the lectures is that Judaism and Hasidism are not sexist. Several of the speakers offer nonsexist interpretations of the fact that men thank God for not having made them women. I am not alone in remaining unconvinced, and in finding the speakers highly defensive on the sexism issue.

In the last eighteen years, the Lubavitchers have opened close to 100 Chabad houses in the United States. Many of these centers are located on college campuses; they appear to be a major factor in the return to Orthodoxy of many young Jews. One, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, serves the five colleges in that area. Ten students from these colleges are with us for the weekend.

Rebecca Feldman, who is from San Francisco and attends Amherst, speaks with great enthusiasm about the University of Massachusetts Chabad House: "The Friday evening services are very attractive. A large part of the service is sung. There's a lot of spirit, a sense of caring."

Rebecca's attitude and history are typical of a good number of the young women I meet here. She describes herself as coming from an "ultra-Reform" background. "My parents are hysterical about this," she admits. She has a relatively conservative background. She has never been involved with heavy drugs or spiritual searches; she has never dropped out of school. She sees herself becoming Orthodox.

It is quite a different story with the older ba'al t'shuvas who have moved to Crown Heights and are part of the Lubavitcher community. While exact figures are not available, I am told that there are about 500 resident ba' at t'shuva families. After the weekend is over, I return to interview some of them.

I arrive at Sara Esther Singer's home. Visibly pregnant, she is clad in a long skirt with a loose fitting top and a bright lilac scarf around her head. She is diapering her two-year-old daughter. Her husband, who does cancer research at Sloan-Kettering, has already left for work. A few minutes later, her friend Ida Rachel Benger arrives. She is wearing a long, faded blue, embroidered Indian cotton dress and a bright scarf. The two look as if they just stepped out of a 1968 commune.

Within a few minutes, Mrs. Benger has told me that she and her present husband, a deep-sea diver, have no children of their own. Her nine-year-old daughter is from an earlier relationship; the father was not Jewish. She recalls: "I was a full-time dedicated hippie. My life was drugs, but drugs for a purpose higher consciousness. I wanted to connect with God." Seven years earlier, she explains, when she badly "needed a pad" she was offered a free place in Crown Heights-and that is how she got involved in Hasidism.

Mrs. Singer's history has many of the same elements-drugs, a macrobiotic diet, Oriental religions. Her son is also from a previous relationship. She was married to the father, she says, but since he was an Iranian Muslim, it did not count as a marriage according to Jewish law.

"Some ba'al t'shuvas have black children from previous liaisons. There's a black girl in my daughter's class at the yeshiva," Mrs. Benger tells me.

While a large percentage of the over-thirty ba'al t'shuvas come from the 1960’s counterculture movement, they are quick to point out that this is not universally true. "For every guy who took acid, saw God and God said to put on tefillin, there's a nice family in Levittown who decided to keep the Sabbath," one woman assures me.

There is a common thread running through the explanation these women give for turning to Hasidism: There is a coldness about Eastern religions which lead to spiritual experiences but do not require moral standards or a sense of social responsibility.

For them, Hasidism's constant observances of God's commandments and its emphasis on the family lead to a sanctification of everyday life. One woman described it as "a wedding of earth and heaven."

Frequently, they point out that people elsewhere also live by rules and rituals, many of which grow out of harmful social pressures and commercialism. Still, they admit that there are particular difficulties in their new Jives: "This is not utopia.
It's a hard life. It requires a lot of discipline, control, self-denial," one says.

The women appear to have the most difficulty with the question of birth control. When I ask them about it, they seem very uncomfortable.

Some say it is possible to get a dispensation, others tell me the Lubavitcher community runs two excellent day-care centers. Several work part-time, none has had more than two children so far. They are not deeply affected yet, but they are worried about the future.

Their lives are made somewhat easier by the knowledge that in some areas they are having an influence on the community. There is now a health food store in Crown Heights. In its windows are posters advertising events which would have been unthinkable in a Hasidic community ten years ago--a modern dance class, a Hasidic art gallery, a meditation group, a course for young mothers given by a certified family therapist. There is much more involvement in technology, communications and aesthetics.

Even so, their influence is minute, compared to the sacrifices they must make.

After I've spent a long day with the ba'al t'shuvas, I get into my car and drive toward Manhattan. I feel a sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, I enjoy a feeling of freedom, of coming alive, as I shrug off the endless rules and confining mind sets which govern life in the Hasidic community. I turn on the radio and listen to country music, relieved to get away from all that ethnic insulation. I wonder how, having known the freedom and diversity of the outside world, the ba'al t'shuvas I met can bear the restrictions of their present lives.

The other side of my ambivalence answers my questions. For I also feel envious of the sense of security, support, and community they have gained, of the fact that they have extricated themselves from the crazy-making pressures of the outside world.

If I could believe with them that the Torah is God-given, that the Jews are God's chosen people committed by Covenant to obeying 613 laws and prohibitions-then disease, death, important life decisions, everything would be so much easier to deal with. But I cannot even begin to believe it. Besides which, I know that deep down I cherish my freedom more than their security. And so with ambivalence but no hesitation I return to the mixed blessings of the world which the ba'al t'shuvas have escaped

 

Myriam Miedzian Malinovich is a professor of philosophy and writer who has appeared in Newsday, Mademoiselle and The Humanist.