The ProsenPeople

Brooklyn and its Not-so-famous Mitzvah Girls

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Libi Adler

Just picked up this book from our stacks called Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn by Ayala Fader. After skimming through it, I learned that Fader is an anthropologist who searched for subjects to write for her dissertation which later became the subject of this book. Her topic was femininity in Hasidic society. According to Fader, this book “is about the everyday projects of Hasidic women and girls as they strive to redefine what constitutes a moral society.”

This book focuses specifically on the women and girls of the Hasidic society in Brooklyn and their impact on daily life. Fader explains how contemporary Hasidic femininity requires women and girls to engage with th1e secular world around them, protecting Hasidic men and boys who study the Torah. Fader interviews and meets with many women and their children and learns slowly about their everyday lives, their practices, and the restrictions that they uphold in order to create a moral community.

As an anthropologist, there is always a concern when you study a society that your mere presence is going to cause a change in behavior in a positive or negative way. This has been an issue for many research studies done in the past. In the case of the Hasidic community, one that is close knit and very private, being an outsider is not an easy task. Reactivity is always a concern. This is also known as the observer effect whereby the knowledge of an outside presence causes a change in the behavior of the subjects. The community then wants to make a good impression; something that Jews have always strived to do in reaction to anti-Semitism. Fader does the opposite. She makes an effort to “accommodate to communal practices and not to be provocative…always conscious, especially in [her] work with young children, of [her] position as an outsider whose contact with the Gentile world was considered potentially polluting.”

Fader works to insert positive and negative experiences she had while visiting Boro Park in her research. She describes what it feels like to be a stranger in a community that has rules and regulations on each aspect of life, and how this phenomena affects the children. Do the women run the community or are the women run by the community? How much does the outside world affect the people of this community? All these and more are written in a very methodological way by Fader in this informative book.

Read the first chapter here.