So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls. Stephanie Wellen Levine

I read this book as a non-Jew who was interested in Hasidism. This particular book attracted me because I am the parent of two teen-age daughters. Having close contact with the problems my daughters face in the modern world I felt would help me understand the issues of Hasidic young women. Although the book is not designed to give a rigorous introduction to Hasidism, I am quite delighted by Stephanie Levine's work and the chance it has given me to have a glimpse into the spiritual and mundane issues of modern Lubavitch Hasidism.

Far from being a broad review of young Hasidic women, Levine focuses on the Lubaticher sect of Hasidism and its community in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. She spent over a year living with and interviewing the students, teachers, and parents associated with the Bais Rivka Lubavitch high school, a girls-only school.

Hasidic girls have very little contact with males outside their immediate families. Their religious beliefs allow them only the slightest contacts with the world outside their community. Popular videos and music are not allowed and dietary restrictions only allow eating in the most kosher of restaurants. The "mavericks" part of the title has to do with the rebellious response that the young women sometimes bring to these severe restraints.

The "mystics" aspect of the title has to do with the deeply spiritual aspects of Hasidism where every thought and action of an individual's life has cosmic implications as the community does all it can to bring about the coming of the messiah. The last chaper of this book, "Into The Future," begins with a wonderfully clear and concise description of Lubavitch mystical beliefs.

The irrepressible joy and exhuberance of the young women, that the spiritual practice of Hasidism seems to promote, leads to the author's use of the term "merrymakers" to describe the subjects of this book.

Levine starts off the book with a general introduction to the Crown Heights Lubavitch community and the background to her study. She talks about the Bais Rivka school and its students.

Then in a series of seven chapters she takes in depth looks at seven of the young women she was able to get the closest to in her year of research. We meet their families and see their day to day life. We hear them describe their current life and aspirations. As the most important duty of a Lubavitch woman is to marry and have children, their mate selection and preparations for married life are part of these chapters.

The last chapter contains a look at the future for both the young women and the Hasidic movement. This is a wonderful book for anyone like me who is interested in Hasidism or the lives of young women in the modern world. Levine is a wonderful writer and she treats her subjects with fondness and respect. Yet she is honest and direct. So this study has both objectivity and admiration, a delightful combination in such a work.

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