Archive for the ‘Stephanie Wellen Levine’ Category

I was alternately infuriated and impressed by Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine, making for a very emotional reading experience as I swung between the two extremes.  I found the first lengthy chapter on the Lubavitch community particularly difficult to get through.  I am less than enthusiastic about organized religion at the best of times and am easily incensed by the extreme factions within faiths, particularly ones with such missionary zeal (though the Lubavitch passion for conversions extends only to other Jews since, according to their beliefs, “only Jews have a godly soul, the piece of the self that yearns for holiness.  Non-Jews can be ethical, benevolent, and compassionate, but they lack the divine spark, the aspect of the Jew that transcends her physical nature and seeks communion with God” (p. 226)). 

This was my main problem in judging the book: separating my feelings towards the group’s religious practices from the individual voices of the girls themselves.  And most of the book is devoted to the unique experiences of these girls and it’s wonderful.  Levine has highlighted an impressive variety of girls within what, to most outsiders, appears to be a homogenous society urging conformity rather than individuality.  The girls are energetic, withdrawn, some happy, some not, some deeply religious and some struggling with their faith.  You truly feel, after reading the profiles, you’ve sat and chatted with them in their homes as Levine did.  I don’t know how better to express it than to say that the girls are very real and that’s something that is difficult to pull off in any book, never mind one by a writer who began this as a graduate studies project.  The writing is far from academic, giving this book widespread appeal.

Sometimes, for me, it’s a little too far removed from academic writing: if there was one thing I could change, I would wish that Levine had been able to restrain her impulse to put so much of herself into her writing.  The saga of her personal spiritual development intrudes too much.  I would prefer facts and clear-eye analysis (teenage girls are already dramatic enough, we don’t need the researcher to be going on a similar emotional journey), not the ramblings of a would-be convert.  Her strength is when she focuses on the girls, not herself.

Perhaps what Levine was most impressed by after getting to know the girls in the community was how confident they were and how unique and outgoing in comparison with their secular, public-school peers.  Lubavitch girls spend most of their time with other women, only interacting with men when they’re at home with their fathers and brothers.  Unlike girls growing up in co-educational environments, Lubavitch girls never feel the pressure to subdue their natural personalities to flatter a male classmate or to appear more ‘feminine’ in order to catch his attention.  As far as Levine can see, there are far more loud and rambunctious, outgoing and assertive girls in the typical Lubavitch classroom than in a typical public school classroom elsewhere in the city.  For Levine, that’s one of the great benefits of the community: the confidence it gives the girls to be themselves, without them feeling the need to subvert their personalities to fit the so called ‘norm’.  While most American girls seek validation from external sources, namely males, as they hit their high school years, “…Lubavitch girls, ensconced in their patriarchal system, validate their own existence and define their own standing in the world – at least until the marriage search.  Spirited personality, not the ability to inspire male desire, is the key to popularity in their circles” (p. 214).

I think that because I went to an all-girls school for my teen years, this revelation had less of an impact on me than it did on Levine.  The attitudes and energy she finds so extraordinary among the Lubavitch girls were the norm when I was at school.  Levine at one point describes the girls as “child-like” in their behaviour, referring to how loud and playful they are when she first meets them.  I really disliked this description.  Joy and confidence are two things most children possess but that does not make them childish traits.  As far as I’m concerned, the confidence she finds so extraordinary in these girls proves the value of a single-gender education system, not a strict, religious community.

The Lubavitch definition of acceptable behaviour for girls (and you are considered a girl until you marry, usually around the age of 20) is, as you would expect, quite narrow.  Your fate in life is to marry, have children, and keep the faith.  For many, this clear direction gives them a “combination of comfort, direction, and a sense of strength that eases their lives and cultivates a deep-seated confidence in their ability to influence the wider world” (p. 196). But for those girls who hope for more than what their mothers and sisters and neighbours have, who want careers or even just the chance to experience secular culture, this world can seem stifling.  As Levine notes, “…there is little place for the person who falls beyond basic assumptions about belief, desire or personality.  For many, a limited band of choices can offer a measure of safety, but for others, it walls off the only satisfying options” (p. 204).  “For all its strengths, this culture is miserable for some of the most creative, passionate people: the trailblazers whose needs and visions are not contained with their world” (p. 208).  These are the girls I sympathized with most, the ones who want to know what else is out there, the ones who have questions they haven’t been able to find answers to within the community.  They want to do more, to know more, to be more than they have been told they can do/know/be within their community.  The conflict this creates is awful for both the girls and their families and I can only be thankful that I have the parents I have and that I’ve have never had to face the prospect of alienating my family and all my friends in order to pursue my chosen path.

Read this book.  I have my issues with the theology of the group but the book is marvelous and perhaps the most educational and fascinating thing I’ve read all year since almost all of the information it contained was new to me.

Read Full Post »