Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ayala Fader's "Mitzvah Girls"

Ayala Fader is Associate Professor/Associate Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Fordham University, Lincoln Center.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn (2009), and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book, Mitzvah Girls, introduces what I call Hasidic Yiddish, the language, along with Hasidic English, spoken and written by contemporary Hasidic Jews in North America. Page 99 is specifically about the English words that are routinely integrated into Yiddish even though many have known Yiddish equivalents. From infancy on Hasidic children are addressed in Hasidic Yiddish. Examples of Hasidic Yiddish on Page 99 with the English words underlined and integrated into Yiddish grammar are:

a. Me ken jumpn (you can jump).

b. Zol ikh fixn de hur? (Should I fix your hair?)

c. Vilst dey paper tse coloren un? (Do you want this piece of paper to color on?)

However, in Mitzvah Girls I go beyond the linguistic analysis on Page 99; I aim to understand Hasidic women and girls’ language use as one way that a nonliberal (fundamentalist) Jewish community living in the heart of secular Brooklyn brings up the next generation of believers. Further on in the book, for example, I show that once Hasidic children begin school, language use is increasingly gendered: boys continue to speak Hasidic Yiddish, while girls speak more and more Hasidic English, primarily reserving Hasidic Yiddish for little children, religious learning, and their male relatives. Why would girls begin to speak English rather than Yiddish? Are they challenging this patriarchal society? Are they moving away from the strictures of Hasidic life?

In Mitzvah Girls, my answer to both is no. Instead, I argue that Hasidic women and girls’ fluency in secular modernity— their use of Hasidic English, along with contemporary secular education, fashion, literacy, and psychology (all of which I discuss in other chapters)— contributes to strengthening their ever-growing communities. In everyday talk, Hasidic mothers tell their daughters about a narrative of an alternative religious modernity where discipline, not freedom, will make all their wishes come true, in this life and the next.
Read an excerpt from Mitzvah Girls, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue