Earlier this year, news broke that a well-known and respected rabbi in the Orthodox Jewish community of New York was being investigated for sexual abuse. The story joined a trickle of others on the topic from a community that shuns lashon hora (gossip) and the involvement of outsiders in matters they believe are best handled in accordance with Jewish law. Like the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church a few years back — the reverberations of which are still being felt today — this exposure of sexual crimes occurring in the Jewish community, any segment thereof, challenged any notions that Jews experience less, or ‘milder’ forms (if there is such a thing), of domestic violence vis-à-vis other groups.
According to Cheryl Bruser, Project Sarah Coordinator in San Diego, the idea that abuse doesn’t occur in Jewish circles is a familiar and difficult hurdle she and others tasked to raise awareness must face.
“It is generally believed that domestic abuse does not occur in the Jewish community,” she explained. “The reality is that abuse in the Jewish community has no boundaries. It affects all types of relationships and at the same rates as in the non-Jewish community and across all Jewish denominations.
“The myth that the Jewish community is immune to physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse actually perpetuates the secrecy and inhibits Jewish women from seeking help because it means exposing the problem and possibly being stigmatized.” Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox women in particular are pressured to avoid bringing shandah (shame) to themselves or their community. Certainly and in all likelihood, some form of shandah must have worried the author of a recently published book, “Hush,” that is quietly telling a harrowing tale of abuse amongst tight-knit ultra-Orthodox Jews.
A Story Told Publicly for the First Time
“Hush” is the semi-autobiographical story set in an imaginary community, Borough Park, which strongly resembles the Chasidic neighborhoods of the metropolitan New York area. It’s the story of Gittel, who witnesses her best friend Devory’s sexual abuse at age 9 by Devory’s brother, a young yeshiva scholar. It’s told in two voices: that of Gittel as a child, and that of Gittel as a teenager on the eve of her marriage.
The author has remained anonymous, writing under the pen name Eishes Chayil, in reference to the term Woman of Valor, and she still lives near the community she grew up in. She started writing her story at the age of 23 and took five years to finish it, all with the support of her husband, according to reports. One can only imagine her genuine struggle — to come from a place that refused to acknowledge sex was happening out of the confines of marriage, let alone in a violating manner, under the noses and sometimes by the hand of those empowered to lead.
Every reviewer unanimously has said “Hush” is the kind of book you cannot put down until you’ve read every last word.
“Hush is a novel about an ancillary victim of sexual abuse in a Chasidic community,” writes Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, Calif. “But it’s not really a novel. Truthfully, the book is based on hundreds of stories, and not just stories from the Chasidic world.
“Victims of abuse say their lives can become frozen at the age of the abuse. The 9-year-old perspective is so innocent on the one hand, so damaged on the other hand, so naive on yet another hand and disturbing on all hands.”
What he doesn’t say, but that is pertinent to this discussion, is that Jewish women stay in abusive relationships an average of five to seven years longer than non-Jews.
To be clear, this isn’t finger-pointing at any particular Jewish sect. In the words of Rabbi Fink, “The same story, with a different backdrop, can be told by many victims of abuse from almost any insular culture. This includes inner-city communities, Catholics, Amish [fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints] and Ultra-Orthodox Jews,” among others.
Abuse in Tight-knit Communities
What is it about tight-knit communities that makes them vulnerable to sexual misconduct, and what is known about the occurrence of abuse of all forms in the Jewish world compared to the non-Jewish world?
Bruser of Project Sarah says ultra-Orthodox may be less likely to speak out because they fear the subsequent shame. According to Jewish Women International — a Web site and organization committed to eradicating domestic abuse and empowering women and girls in general — few shelters and facilities are geared to address the specific religious needs of this cohort; for example, a lack of kosher meals and finding a place to observe Shabbat.
Not to minimize the importance of maintaining a preferred religious lifestyle, the answer for why misconduct may fester, and its victims go unheard outside of their insulated societies, can also be attributed to non-practical forces; for example, sexual repression.
By teaching that natural urges are forbidden, sinful and wrong, and by demanding chastity, particularly of girls and women to ensure adherence to these social and sexual morays, the outcome is increased obsession and perversion, and ultimately abuse, suggests D.M. Murdoch, an expert in comparative and religious mythology. Author of the book “The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” Murdoch is a provocateur in her own right who has written about sexual abuse in insular religious and cultural sects.
The typical ‘religious’ pattern (regardless of religion), she argues, is this: “Teach that sex is dirty and to be avoided, except in terms of procreation, and segregate or hide away the women — who are traditionally the teachers of enlightened sexuality — in essence forcing the men and boys to have sex with each other. Then deny, deny, deny that you are ‘homosexual’ or the ‘funny uncle’ who is molesting his nieces and nephews.”
The author of Hush, Eishes Chayil, may agree with this latter bit. In an interview with Tablet Magazine, she explained that sexual abuse and molestation were words left unmentioned in her sphere. She also expressed concern that keeps lips sealed: fear of being banned for transgressions “more trivial than [writing about] sexual abuse.”
Penning her experience in Hush was very painful for her, she said, and she admitted that most in her community don’t know about the book’s existence. When they find out, she predicts they will assume “the story to be a lie, written by some self-hating Jew who just wants attention. This is not a society that accepts criticism. And for the element that will know it is true, and applaud it, they must stay silent.”
That the book, and the conversation, is being brought to light is an important step toward eradicating the social pressures that allow abusers to continue harming others, regardless of how Jewish they may consider themselves. Rabbi Fink, who admits he knows too little of the idiosyncrasies and nuances of the ultra-Orthodox world at the center of this book, nonetheless asks some pointed questions.
“Upon reflection, I wonder if these characteristics of the Chasidic community, real or imagined for the book, contributed the trauma of sex abuse,” writes Fink in his review. “Is abuse so horrible that the milieu plays a negligible role? Or perhaps is the abuse exacerbated when you have been trained to think your community is vastly superior to others in every possible way, that God prefers you over anyone else and misinformation is so prevalent that one has to wonder if it is a vast ignorance conspiracy to maintain allegiance?”
His questions have merit, if not any immediate and clear answers. Ultimately, religious observations notwithstanding, the ones who benefit most from maintaining the silent status quo are the sexual abusers. It will take more time for the outside world to find and prosecute them, but that’s already happening, at least in the metropolitan New York area. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported 25 cases were being investigated, up from zero just a few years ago.
As for “Hush” and its author, knowledge of its publication is gaining traction for one important reason beyond the fact that it is moving reviewers to tears. Not only does a book like this give voice to those within the Chasidic world, but it is relevant to victims of abuse from every walk of life.