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What women's media needs to know about Chasidic women

Mr.Tea
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Mr.Tea
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Hi. I'm Chaya, and I am a Chassidic Jewish woman. I am also a media professional with a degree in Women's Studies from a large, very liberal university (magna cum laude, baby!).

In the past few days, I've been reading the backlash against "the asifa," a recent mass meeting of religious Jewish men meant to draw a few boundaries around Internet use in our homes (meaning religious Jewish homes; not your house).

Whenever religious Jews make a stink about some cultural issue, the media moves in on it with a bizarre kind of vengeance. Like yesterday, Katie J.M. Baker published an article on Jezebel about the event, in which she actually compared Jewish men to ants!

See: "While men in traditional Orthodox garb filed into Citi Field as steadily as a never-ending line of ants approaching an anthill..." Um, where have I seen Jews compard to insects before? Oh, wait, WWII.

As a resident of Brooklyn, the epicenter of all things hipster and the home of many, many clad-in-black religious Jews, I'd like to clarify a few things for all of you. Here are a few things you need to know about Chassidic women:

1. We are not imprisoned.

The last time I checked (which was right now), I am free to do whatever I want to do. Nobody is making me do anything. If I want to leave the community I live in, whether to go grocery shopping or to put on a pair of pants and go to a disco and snort coke, I can. Nobody is going to stop me. Would I wear a pair of skinny jeans and snort coke in a disco? No. Why?

Read the rest at http://m.xojane.com/relationships/hasidic-women-sex

 


kropotkin1951
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Joined: Jun 6 2002

Are you a Chassidic woman?  Your bio here says you are M. Unless that is your voice in the article please put it in quotes.

It reminds me of the women of other religions who wear modesty apparel of various kinds.


Catchfire
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Joined: Apr 16 2003

Mr. Tea is quoting from the linked article.

Chaya's piece is somewhat a response to this February interview with Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox: the Scandalous Rejection of my Hassidic Roots:

Quote:
25-year-old Feldman (now divorced and Sarah Lawrence-educated) recalls Satmar as a bleak world of oppression, hypocrisy and life-threatening negligence, in which women receive little education beyond religious and domestic training, and are taught from an early age to fear all outsiders.

Already legions of pious detractors have rushed forward to silence her, claiming Feldman is mentally ill, that she is a liar, that the anti-Semitism she’s inciting could lead to another Holocaust -- “the standard party line,” observes the author, whenever anyone speaks out against the community. The threats of violence aren’t particularly surprising either.

 

A recent interview with the NY Post squeezed Feldman’s story for its juiciest details -- of which, to be fair, there are nearly too many to count, particularly regarding the humiliations Feldman suffered during sacred rites intended to purify her for (arranged) marriage at the age of 17, and Satmar’s design-by-committee approach to sex (under their elders’ tutelage, it took Feldman and her groom over a year to consummate their marriage). 

But "Unorthodox" is more than just a voyeuristic guilty pleasure, and Feldman's motives for sharing her story have little to do with retribution. By sharing her story, the author hopes to reach other women and children (and yes, even men) who yearn to plot their own escape.

Feldman responds in the comments:

Quote:
Well, well, well. Poor Deborah Feldman here. I would love to debate you on all of your assertions but for now I will make one point. For months, you and many others like you who felt offended by my decision to share my personal experience attacked me on the grounds that I was trying to speak for all Hasidic or Orthodox women. However I refrained from using pronouns such as "we" and "us" - a phenomenon your article is peppered with. Do you really believe you have tapped into the communal consciousness of all Hasidic women? Especially the majority of Hasidic women, who did not grow up on the liberal fringe, but were deliberately prevented from even achieving a high school diploma? Yes you are indeed a lucky exception. The day you start fighting for all Hasidic women to have access to the privileges you enjoy is the day you will become my hero.

And:

Quote:
First off, it is my understanding that you are a ba’al teshuvah, which translates as a “returned to the faith.” Please correct me if I am wrong. If you are indeed a woman who chose to become religious, than you have grossly misrepresented yourself in this article by choosing to omit that tidbit of information. As you well know, most women who are born into the Hassidic community do not have the privilege of choosing their religion, especially not a particular brand of it. In fact, lack of personal choice is one of the most difficult aspects of growing up Hasidic, I would say, based on MY personal experience.

Sounds like it's a bit of a parochial tiff in many ways, on an obviously not-parochial topic. I agree with Chaya that the media tends to jump all over juicy stories of religious sexual or gender oppression of "mystical" religions, but I think there's more to her story than she is telling.

In the final analysis, I have no interest in targetting Hassidic Judaism for criticism any more than Judaism in general.


Mr.Tea
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kropotkin1951 wrote:

Are you a Chassidic woman?  Your bio here says you are M. Unless that is your voice in the article please put it in quotes.

It reminds me of the women of other religions who wear modesty apparel of various kinds.

Sorry for the confusion. I'm not the author of this piece. I just posted it. It's all from the link at the bottom.

 


Timebandit
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Joined: Sep 25 2001

Interesting.  Although there's a resonance there that's a little disturbing - sort of like FLDS women saying that their lives are a matter of choice and there's no exploitation or lack of freedom *at all*.  Or women who choose to stay with an abuser.

Recognizing that there's a wide range of experience within any context, I think you have to take a longer look at the system in question.  I don't think Hasisdism, like any other fundamentalist system, is particularly supportive of the idea of the equality of men and women, nor is it very sympathetic to women's emancipation or feminism.  And while Chaya may feel that she's free to go do any number of things inconsistent with the belief system she ascribes to, there isn't much mention that there are consequences to making such a decision. 

In short, I'm not buying it.


6079_Smith_W
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Anyone catch that documentary a few years ago (on the SUnday Edition, I think) about an orthodox woman who took her husband to court to force him to grant a divorce?

 


Timebandit
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I think so.  They'd initially tried to go through a faith-based "court" system, hadn't they?  And it came down to the husband's say-so if the divorce was to be granted?

Michelle
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I agree with the article in the opening post that it is inexcusable for anyone writing about any religious community to compare them to insects, but particularly Jewish communities, considering how that exact kind of rhetoric was used to describe Jews (as vermin, insects, etc.) during the Holocaust.  You'd think the article writer or the editor would have had the sense not to write such a thing.

I also think that the author from the opening post raises good points about how mainstream white feminists do tend to marginalize women from religious communities and assume they know (and can dictate) what is best for them.

That said, I'm glad that Catchfire posted what he did about and from Deborah Feldman.  I read another article on xojane about Feldman's book, and I support the struggle of women within patriarchal religious movements fighting for reform or to get out or to help others get out if they or their children need or want to.  (Another interesting book along those lines from a decade or two ago is Secret Ceremonies by Deborah Laake, a former Mormon.)

Does this mean that women inside some of these religious groups should be generalized about, assumed to all be forced into their lot in life without choice?  No, of course not.  It's an assumption often made in white, nominally Christian society about Muslim women too.  I also don't believe that all Christian fundamentalist women are forced to be observant either.

And I also think it's good when women from within religious communities who embrace traditional practices explain why the perceptions of those on the outside about certain religious practices may not be what they seem or what mainstream society assumes about them.

That said...I also have a lot of time for dissenters from within religious communities who speak out about abuses they have suffered from within, because when fundamentalist religions oppress some of the people within it, darned if they don't just so happen to usually be women and children.

Here is an interview with Deborah Feldman where she discusses both the personal AND systemic oppression she has written about from within her religious community.

http://www.xojane.com/issues/it-happened-me-fleeing-hasidism-and-living-...

The event that the writer in the opening post (and the article she is refuting) refers to is a 40,000 strong gathering of ultra-orthodox men to hear about the dangers of the internet.  One of the side stories about this gathering that the offending article-writer highlights is that there were a number of Jewish protesters (including Feldman) who showed up to demonstrate about what they claim is a cover up of child sex abuse within the communities and severe intimidation of those within communities who try to report it to the police, or try to help the victims of abuse.  These are people FROM these communities trying to raise awareness and, in many cases, promote change from within, not white mainstream feminists imposing their will from without.

I agree with the writer's surface points in the opening post about how mainstream feminists need to listen to women from religious communities instead of assuming that they know what is best for them.  But that's not all she was doing in that post.  She was also marginalizing dissenters from within her community.  When she does her best to marginalize voices of dissent from the oppressed from within her own community, I think it's a good thing when those voices then come along (in the comment section of her post, and elsewhere) to call her on it.


Mr.Tea
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Timebandit, yeah, basically, the husband must grant a "get". They can be legally divorced in whatever country they live in but not divorced according to Jewish law, which means that the woman is not free to re-marry. She takes on the status of "agunah". There have been some high profile cases of late. Withholding a "get" is considered a really terrible thing to do so when a husband refuses to grant one, the community mobilizes and puts all sorts of pressure on them.


6079_Smith_W
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Timebandit wrote:
I think so.  They'd initially tried to go through a faith-based "court" system, hadn't they?  And it came down to the husband's say-so if the divorce was to be granted?

It ultimately went to a civil court and he was compelled to grant it, if I remember correctly. 

But one of the things the documentary touched on is that when that system worked in a more traditional way there was supposed to be peer pressure influencing the man to do the right thing, as Mr. Tea said. That isn't the case in some modern communities.

Though I am sure that is not how it always happened.

 


Mr.Tea
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Yes, there's a case right now where an aid to a congressman won't give his wife a "get" and there are mass protests outside of his apartment and a letter writing campaign to his boss (the congressman) trying to shame him into doing. He seems to be more from a "modern orthodox" community where he's less reliant upon the community and thus, less susceptible to their pressures. For people in very traditional orthodox communities, the pressure is a lot more effective. They'll organize boycotts of the husband's business, not allow him into synagogue, shun him socially etc.

The rabbis are trying to come up with solutions, like the husband granting a "provisional get" before the marriage even occurs that the wife can choose to invoke whenever she decides (sorta like in the olden days when men would sign a provisional "get" before they went off to war, dissolving the marriage if they don't come back and nobody knows what happened to them).


Michelle
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Joined: May 10 2001

This is an interesting article on prenuptual contracts that women, including that Congressman's wife, is promoting.

I also found it interesting that there were a number of references in the article to men within the community taking matters into their own hands and even going as far as to use physical violence against men who refuse to give a get. 

But I have to wonder (and just wondering since I have no contact with anyone in one of these traditional communities) how uniform that kind of advocacy is.  For instance, if a woman is well-liked, or if her family has more status, would there be a better chance of a community moblizing behind her than if, for instance, there was a perception that she had "done him wrong", or she wasn't as well-liked, or if she didn't have much family backing? 

Firm laws based on principles of equality seems to me like a safer bet than trying to rely on social capital to get justice, whether in family matters or otherwise.


Mr.Tea
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Michelle wrote:

I also found it interesting that there were a number of references in the article to men within the community taking matters into their own hands and even going as far as to use physical violence against men who refuse to give a get. 

It's happened. I've heard that members of the community have, in extreme cases, taken the husband aside and explained to him that a woman is released from marriage in one of two ways; either when the husband issues a "get" or when the husband dies, and he should decide which way he prefers...


Timebandit
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Michelle, there is a difference between force and coersion.  So yes, it's technically a choice - but the other choice is to lose many near and dear to you, to have to venture out of a comfort zone, to be unsupported in your decision.  It's never as simple as "it's a choice".

In one sense, yes, we need to listen and pay attention and understand that there is a range of experience, as I said above.  But I also think that you have to call a duck a duck.  The system itself is predisposed to discriminate against women - like most religions.


6079_Smith_W
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@ Michelle

Exactly.


Timebandit
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Any system that has to rely on community pressure is flawed and likely inconsistent.  And it still comes down to the man saying yea or nay, leaving the woman's fate out of her own hands.

I remember my father discovering that one of the neighbors was in the habit of smacking his wife.  My father and a couple of his friends put the fear of "peer pressure" into him one night.  I think it was fairly effective in the short term.  However, I think domestic abuse prosecution, real deterrence and a social safety net that allows a woman to leave an abusive situation are much more constructive and long term. 

You could argue that men like my father kept domestic violence under control back in the good old days of patriarchy - but we know that it isn't true, it didn't work in the big picture and that this is probably true of community pressure on men who get to decide whether or not to issue gets to their estranged wives.


Catchfire
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I think it's also important to note Feldman's allegation that Chaya was not born into the Chasidic faith. We tend to think of "choice" as some autonomous agency we need only to be empowered enough to grasp rather than a whole set and range of cultural practices, conditioning and mores we are born into. I'm thinking of Rumspringa and the "surprise" revelation (to non-Amish) that some 98% of the (male) youth who partake return to the faith. Of course they return to the existence they've been moulded by their parents, friends and societal structures to feel most comfortable and flourish in! Why would they go to a mainstream culture which deliberately alienates them?

Setting a Chasidic woman free on a New York street corner after 20 years or whatever in a close-knit community and telling her she is "free to choose" is not what I'd call a fair deal. I don't mean to make a moralizing judgment here (because lots of Western society falsely offers "free choice" in dishinest circumstance) but just to point out this problem. 


kropotkin1951
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Ostracizing and banishment are some of the most coercive types of fundamentalist oppression.  It is a very effect system of control.  The Jehovah Witnesses are ruthless in their application of those communal punishments.  The Puritan leadership used it and the idea of breaking consensus as an offense against community to turn a supposed democracy into an oligarchic government.  Public shaming as an enforcement mechanism has no place in any justice system.


NDPP
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or a 'progressive' babble board...


Timebandit
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I don't know, NDPP, there really is that difficult juxtaposition between choice and free choice that is one of the hardest things to reconcile within feminism.  Taking on a role that is more traditional and gendered is a choice that some women do make freely, but the thorny question is when is that choice free and when is it coerced?  Chaya obviously has freely chosen, but Feldman felt her circumstances made that choice heavily coerced if not non-existent.  So where's the line?  What can we, as feminists, support or not?  I think that's a good discussion for progressive feminists to have. 

Mr.Tea
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Catchfire wrote:

Setting a Chasidic woman free on a New York street corner after 20 years or whatever in a close-knit community and telling her she is "free to choose" is not what I'd call a fair deal. I don't mean to make a moralizing judgment here (because lots of Western society falsely offers "free choice" in dishinest circumstance) but just to point out this problem. 

That's a good point, Catchfire.

I'm not sure whether Chaya was born into a Chasidic family, but I kinda doubt it. But either way, she is from Chabad, a relatively modern Chasidic group whereas Feldman is from Satmar, which is about as hardcore as it gets.

A lot of Satmar Chasidim can barely speak English. Yiddish is the preferred language and nobody outside of the community who isn't at least 80 years old speaks it, so pretty tough to find a job. Especially when your secular education is extremely limited. So, yes, if you don't have the language skills to really function outside of the community and your career prospects outside of it are pretty dismal and it's the only thing you've ever known, it's not exactly the same kind of "choice" as someone like Chaya who grew up more connected to the outside world, speaks perfect English and graduated summa cum laude from university.


Mr.Tea
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Well, this article is certainly getting a lot of discussion going out in the blogosphere.

Here's a new interview with the author, Chaya, on her motivations, the reactions, etc. Interesting read.

http://ladymamale.blogspot.ca/2012/05/interview-with-chaya-kurtz-of-xoja...


6079_Smith_W
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@ Timebandit

That would be the point, and I think there is no one good solution. Short of outright bans (which I don't think are a good idea) the best I think we can do is make sure the secular law is strong enough to trump the power of religions, communities, or organizations when people DO want to exercise that freedom.

I think it is also important to make at least some sort of outreach available to people in closed communities so they have some contact with the outside world, and to be vigilant about cases where these organizations overstep their powers. 

But clearly there are gong to be some people who have a different understanding of freedom than others, and some who really are trapped. It would be great if we oculd just drag anyone who is involved in a cult or coercive situation out by force. But as many of us know it is not so simple or easy.


lagatta
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It is typical of fundamentalist religious sects (and other weird sects, such as Scientology) to set up spokespersons to counter any apostates or those simply leaving the fold. Yes, mighty ignorant to call the Hassidic male enforcers of patriarchal rule "insects" or "vermin". But there are lots of apt terms that have nothing to do with Nazi or earlier anti-semitic epithets, and don't even relate to the fact that it is a sect of Judaism. Fundie patriarchal enforcers has a ring to it, and at certain points the more familiar "goons" might well be appropriate. These religions and other sects, though they have wildly diverse doctrines (though most, except for a couple of the more "modernist" ones, are very big on enslavement of women and hatred of LGBT people) all seem to share the practice of shunning and shaming. It makes it extremely hard for people questioning the sect in which they were born and raised to leave it, whether economically, socially or psychologically/in terms of affect. Fortunately, with Internet access, at least those sects that use electricity are exposed to other ways of living (not just secular ones but also far less stringent versions of their own religion). I've read reports that there has been a great increase in Hassidim leaving the fold, and now there are organizations to help them. There have been serious accusations of sexual abuse of minors by prominent members of the Satmar sect. Hell, as a lapsed Catholic, I don't find the idea of Men of God diddling children particularly novel. One of the key things to do to limit the damage sects can cause to the children of their members is ensure that the course of study and the human rights codes in a given jurisdiction must be respected by all schools. And certainly, no subsidies to any private religious schools that teach the inferiority of women or the perversity of LGBT people.

Mr.Tea
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Respectfully, lagatta, I think it's responses like yours that the article was written to address.

First, she isn't a "spokesperson" "set up" by the community. She's simply a person from a specific community writing her own thoughts to share her story and her feelings and provide some insight into a community that most people don't know much about.

Second, you're doing what she's trying to address: namely, making assumptions about people in the community and trying to speak on their behalf. You may feel that it's "patriarchical" and big on "enslavement of women" and that people are only there because of "enforcement" by "goons".

She's, evidently, quite happy in that community. Maybe you wouldn't be and I wouldn't be but some are and plenty of people wouldn't be interested in living the kind of lifestyles you and I live. I think the key is listening to the women, themselves, who are sharing their experiences and putting our biases and prejudices aside.

And while you're correct that there has been sexual abuse in some Chasidic Jewish comunities and this is certainly awful and needs to be addressed, using it as an indictment of a hole community is no more logical than indicting secular Canadian society in its entirety for the rape and murder of Tori Stafford.


6079_Smith_W
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@ lagatta

That reminds me of a friend of mine who experienced some severe culture shock when she started making contact with some other families in her area who were home schooling. Many of them were doing it in order to shut out contact with the outside world, and make sure that nothing but their dogma was taught to their kids. And of course, there are sects which still favour beating kids.

Again, it gets back to the point of how far can the state go. There are enough jurisdictions where homeschooling is forbidden, though I don't think that would be possible or even advisable here.

And while I think the question of whether one is born into a community or not is significant in some cases. In others, it is not, because negative groups  (not all communities, obviously) work by playing on weaknesses, self-image, and addictions. A family member of mine who got involved with the scientologists did it half as a lark. By the time they were bleeding him dry, and poisoning him with vitamin overdoses and saunas, and pressuring him every time he tried to leave, it was no joke at all.

 


kropotkin1951
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Mr.Tea wrote:

And while you're correct that there has been sexual abuse in some Chasidic Jewish comunities and this is certainly awful and needs to be addressed, using it as an indictment of a hole community is no more logical than indicting secular Canadian society in its entirety for the rape and murder of Tori Stafford.

There is logic to the idea that patriarchal power leads to increased rates of child abuse.  The abusers use their community power and authority to gain access to their victims and silence them. That was the case with the catholic church I grew up in and I presume would be similar in other religious communities.  Not all Catholics should be indicted with the crimes of the religious pedophiles only those who are either complicit in covering the abuse up or willfully blind to the abuse of others.  Unfortunately in the case of the Catholic church that means a significant part of its clergy.


Michelle
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Of course feminists indict Canadian society for the rape and murder of women and children within it.  We always have.  It's called patriarchy, and we live in it, and feminist analysis has always included an indictment of the rape culture we live in.


lagatta
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Deborah Feldman seems to think Chaya was put in that position by her community. So do other "ex-Hassidic" bloggers. I never said the entire Chassidic or Haredi community abused children! But there is a serious problem about "enabling" and covering-up. You'll find a lot about that in the New York Times and the Jewish Daily Forward. The Catholic Church hierarchy, or at least parts of it, did the same, and that was the "mainstream" religion, not some fundie sect like the Nazoid Fraternité Pie X (Monsignor Lefebvre). I don't know who you are but I've been a feminist and socialist activist for decades and have certainly not hesitated to criticise the patriarchal, oppressive, alienating and commodifying aspects of "mainstream" capitalist societies. But at the same time, I refuse such an utterly subjective outlook, refusing to recognise the very important victories women (and other human groups) have won over a very subaltern position in which they were really nothing but baby-making devices and providers of free household labour. I'm old enough to remember the huge families the Church coerced Québécoise women to churn out every year - and yes, I have heard direct testimony by older women (most of them have passed away by now) who talked about the threats and shaming they got from the parish priest if they went a year without a pregnancy, especially in rural areas. Fundamentalist religious sects ARE deeply patriarchal. There is no reason to put that in scare quotes. As for whether such severe social coercion is enslavement, we may disagree there, but it sure as hell isn't women's freedom. I'm a feminist, a socialist and a lifelong fighter against capitalism and patriarchy. That is not a bias or a prejudice, it is a commitment.

writer
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"Those who do not move, do not notice their chains." — Rosa Luxemburg


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