By Eishes Chayil
New York, 2010
Reviewed by Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Eishes Chayil is a pseudonym for Judy Brown, the author of Hush, a book that has been described by some as a sensationalist exposé, and commended by others for its masterful suspenseful style. (Brown originally wrote the book anonymously but revealed her identity after the murder of eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky.)
There is no question that the book is well written and designed to hold the reader’s attention. A common reaction, by admirers and detractors alike, is that it is hard to put down.
There is also no question that the book is an exposé—a candid and detailed description of the life of a certain sector of the ultra-Orthodox world as experienced by a young female member of that world.
The tragic focus of the novel, in which the protagonist witnesses her best friend being raped by her older brother, is the nine-year-old victim, Devory, who ultimately commits suicide. Her signals of distress (“there is no room for me in my house”) are ignored, and the details of the incest are suppressed by her family and by the community at large.
The heroine, Gittel, speaks alternately in the voice of a nine-year-old and in the more mature and responsible voice of the eighteen-year-old bride who ultimately reveals the story.
In no way does the author claim that incest is rampant, or even prevalent, in the close-knit community she describes. Such tragedies can happen in families, and ultra-Orthodox families are no different than others. What she does claim—which some find to be “airing dirty laundry in public”—is that her community fails to disclose such behaviors to the civil authorities. More troublesome is her claim that the community denies, even to itself, that such abuse even exists.
I am one of those who believe that the public revelation of such details, however shameful, can help dispel the attitude of denial. Furthermore, telling the story can lead to the adoption of more effective methods of preventing these situations, and in dealing with them constructively when they do occur.
I also found that there is much more to this story than the incestuous event and its tragic consequences. For what we have here is a graphic glimpse into the family life of this particular community, as perceived by one of its members. This is a portrayal of the entire spiritual experience of a Chareidi girl, and especially of her attitude toward God. The heroine’s understanding of who God is and what He expects from her is the result of her clandestine relationship with an emotionally handicapped gentile neighbor. Her many years of intensive religious education fail to provide her with the image of a loving God who demands and encourages courageous, moral behavior. This is the ultimate exposé of this novel.
It should not be assumed that the book’s description of Chassidic society is totally negative. Quite the contrary, the reader witnesses warm familial interactions and an atmosphere that fosters compassion and charity.
The author’s positive portrayals of several of the prominent male figures in the book are also noteworthy. Gittel’s father has a loving relationship with her, takes her on long walks, plays and sings with her and tells her stories. When tragedy erupts, he finds her a female psychotherapist. He accompanies her to the sessions and encourages her to share her feelings openly.
Similarly, Gittel’s young husband, initially painfully naïve and awkward in the marital relationship, proves to be able to grow into a sensitive spouse who bravely supports her in her efforts to tell her story. He is the one who bestows upon her the title “Eishes Chayil.” Her husband’s rebbe educates his disciple in an exquisitely delicate manner as to the nature of femininity and marital intimacy, and proves to be both aware of, and pained by, the existence of abuse in his community.
On the other hand, it is troubling to read the author’s portrayal of the females in her life. They come across, at best, as empty-headed materialists and narrow-minded gossips who are obsessed with surface appearances, shidduchim and clothing.
The questions of whether the author’s descriptions can be applied to the entire Chareidi community and whether she exaggerates the extent of some of her observations are irrelevant. She has definitely been able to correctly identify some of the negative aspects of her community of origin. Hopefully, that community and similar ones will take her accusations seriously and respond appropriately.
A better question is what should be the reaction of those readers who are members of other, non-Chareidi communities? The honest reader of the novel will find that many of the behaviors described, negative and positive, are common to the broader Orthodox community as well. Certainly the preoccupation with surface appearances, yielding to the pressures of conformity, harboring condescending attitudes toward those who are different from us and adhering to distorted beliefs about the nature of God are phenomena with which even the more modern Orthodox sector is quite familiar.
If this book provokes awareness of these phenomena and results in constructive efforts to ameliorate them, the author will have achieved her goals.
The fact that the author had to resort to a pseudonym in the first place is telling.
Obviously Brown herself is intimidated by the shame and stigma, which she describes so well in her book.
Surely, this is not Brown’s first attempt at creative writing. And surely we can anticipate further works by this gifted and courageous young woman—on similar topics, but hopefully also on happier ones.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus, of the Orthodox Union.