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Out of the Silence

A new young-adult novel tackles sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox world

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Hush, a young adult novel by the pseudonymous Eishes Chayil (the pen name is a Yiddish-inflected version of eishet chayil, which means “a woman of valor”), received starred reviews from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and the notoriously hard-to-please Kirkus Reviews. Booklist called it a “stunning debut” and “powerful stuff.” School Library Journal called it “thoughtful, disturbing and insightful.”

So, why hadn’t I heard of it?

A librarian who reads Tablet Magazine alerted me to its existence, saying she hadn’t seen anything about it in the Jewish press. Indeed, a Google search finds only a snotty thread (based on Amazon’s description rather than on the book itself) on an ultra-Orthodox-run discussion board called Hashkafah, and a rave review on the blog The Velveteen Rabbi (written by a female rabbinical student in the Jewish Renewal tradition). That’s it.

The book is certainly upsetting. But it’s also deeply readable and engaging. It’s the story of Gittel, a girl growing up in Hasidic Borough Park, Brooklyn, who witnesses her best friend’s Devory’s sexual abuse at age 9. The perpetrator is Devory’s brother, a promising scholar home from yeshiva. Horror ensues, but the entire community conspires to pretend nothing has happened. The novel ricochets in time between Gittel at 9 and Gittel at 17. Teenage Gittel should be happy as she prepares for her wedding, but thoughts of Devory haunt her. How will Gittel come to terms with the past? What does it mean to be a true eishes chayil? Who will support her if she refuses to keep quiet?

I expected Hush to be important and harrowing. I did not expect it to be warm and funny, too. The portrait of Gittel’s closed community is simultaneously affectionate and critical. There’s so much rich detail here about life in Borough Park, about growing up sheltered and naive. I laughed out loud at a scene in which little Gittel is confronted with a supermarket aisle of feminine-hygiene products. She initially thinks they’re adult diapers. But her mother gives her an extremely truncated “Eve’s sin” speech and tells her that one day she’ll be a woman and bleed. Gittel, terrified, ogles at all the choices: “Long Super Pads with Flexi-Wings and Long Super Pads with Flexier Wings and the Long Super Fresh Pads with the Flexiest-of-Wings. There were the Overnight Maxi and the All Day and Night Maxi and the Make Your Period Disappear Maxi, which wasn’t there but I kept searching for it anyway.” She then tries to make her mother buy every item in the aisle. “It was extremely important that I have all those wings, all of them,” she says. “What if I used the wrong pad? I needed all those maxis, because one could not know what unexpected circumstances might require the Extra Heavy pad or the Flexiest-of-Wings as I lay somewhere and died a sad and lonely death.”

There’s an equally funny scene involving a group of girls in a basement devouring an illicit copy of O, The Oprah Magazine, another about a young groom’s fervent belief that only goyish women have breasts, and a throwaway line that cracked me up, about someone seeing a specialist for secondary infertility after her fifth child.

Hush is clearly autobiographical. It’s also clearly written by someone who still feels a lot of love for a community that has repeatedly failed to protect its most vulnerable members. “In Bobov, in Satmar, everywhere—it’s a problem,” a sympathetic but powerless rebbe tells one of the characters. When this rebbe tries to take an abusive teacher out of a yeshiva, his own salary is docked for five months because “he could not destroy the income of a teacher, a father of six children, based on assumptions.” The rebbe says the only thing he can ever do is persuade the teacher to leave for another yeshiva, where, of course, he continues to teach. In another case the police try to get involved, but “there were never any witnesses; everybody was so fearful.” The consequences of lashon hara, having an evil tongue and speaking ill of others in the community, are dire. Gittel’s parents fear that the shadchan, the matchmaker, will never find their daughter a husband if she doesn’t shush, and the entire family will be shunned.

As in the novel, real-life ultra-Orthodox enclaves have discouraged families from going to the police after rapes and sexual abuse. The communities promise to resolve such problems internally, through rabbinical courts and counseling. But stories abound about victimizers who continue victimizing without consequence, and the social service agencies that are supposed to deal with sexual abuse have less-than-stellar historical records of punishing abusers and keeping them away from children. At the October 2009 sentencing of a bar mitzvah tutor and social worker who molested two boys, a New York State Supreme Court judge had bitter words for “a communal attitude that seems to impose greater opprobrium on the victims than the perpetrator.”

Increasingly, victims seem to be going to the police despite the dangers, because they don’t feel they can get justice otherwise. In 2009, 40 minors in Brooklyn Orthodox communities agreed to testify in court about their experiences. Maybe things are changing.

Hush doesn’t offer easy answers. The ending feels a bit pat, because the author clearly wants to end on a hopeful note. But I respect the feeling of authentic struggle.

I interviewed the author via email. (The book’s publicist ferried the messages). Fervent about retaining her anonymity, the author started writing the book at 23, then struggled with it for five years. As a child, she witnessed a friend’s molestation and grew up knowing of several other broken, victimized children in her community.

“It’s a book that came out of a need to tell a story that should have been told a long time ago,” she told me. As for the distinctive, childish, funny voice of Gittel, she said, “the voice was obvious to me and I never could have written it in any other way, because that was the experience. We were young girls when these things happened, and our world was processed through that mindset.” She seemed baffled by my questions about whether her use of humor was a strategy to make the story more bearable. “Humor is never a consideration; it’s an instinct,” she said.

“Eishes Chayil” worked as a journalist for several ultra-Orthodox newspapers; one such paper plays a role in the book. “The words ‘sexual abuse’ and ‘molestation’ did not exist” in the Ultra-Orthodox press, she said. “As for cherem [a ban by the community of a person, paper, or business], that happens for things far more trivial than [writing about] sexual abuse. When Mishpacha [an Orthodox magazine in Jerusalem] wrote about a modern Orthodox rabbi, there was an advertiser boycott until appropriate apologies were offered.” Sounds familiar.

“It’s been an extremely painful process for me, as the entire issue of abuse remains an open wound in the Orthodox community,” she continued. “Things are slowly opening up but will take a long time. Borough Park is not a democracy, and even when issues are finally acknowledged, they are done in a certain way, by certain people with the approval of certain authorities. An honest discussion about how this happened and why is not a possibility and is the reason so many victims leave the community entirely or break down.”

And does she still identify as Hasidic? “I currently identify as Extremely Confused Jewish Lady,” she said.

How does she think her former community will feel about Hush? “Obviously such a book is not ‘good for the Jews,’ but I don’t think the Orthodox community yet knows of its existence,” she replied. “It is very new, and I certainly did not announce its release at any wedding or bar mitzvah.” She predicted that the story will be “assumed 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.”

I hope that’s not so. I hope the book finds its way to wounded, fearful kids and their friends, of every faith and ethnicity. Girls who love stories about friendship, feeling isolated, coping with grief and finding the courage to speak out against injustice will particularly respond to Hush. Its heroine is actually far more brave and empowered than Twilight’s Bella Swan, and she even finds a man who is worthy of her love. This is a powerful and beautifully edited act of storytelling.

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shualah elisheva says:

just purchased this book for my kindle. thank you for alerting us to the presence of this important novel.

what a glorious breakthrough! Blessings, blessing, blessings… I applaud the author’s insight and her courage, and I pray that this book will be the key to opening that too-long-locked door.

Jonathan Silverman says:

Congratulations on writing this book, I hope it leads to justice and reform in the chassidic community in regards to child molestation.

Judy Jones says:

Thank you to this brave author of “Hush” for breaking the silence of sex abuse hiding within the Jewish religion.

We too, hope the book finds its way to wounded, fearful kids and their friends, of every faith and ethnicity.

Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director,
SNAP “Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests” and all clergy.

debby steinhorn says:

Are your readers familiar with “The Primrose Path” published 15-20 years ago? This ‘novel’ is a fictionalized account of a real case in Ottowa Canada, that resulted in the child’s suicide when noone would believe him. The tragedy is when the ‘assualt’ is not acknowledged thereby allowing the perpetrator to move from community to community ‘plying his trade’.

Tziporah says:

Incredible, incredible book. I am very familiar with the chassidish community through my cousins and the author’s portrayal of thier world is dead on. Her voice is uncanny and haunting; this book is absolutely unforgettable. My chassidic cousin read it and could not stop crying for days. But no- she does not dare tell anyone there that she read the book, because as she told me, she then must pretend to condem it.

Read the reviews on amazon- they show what an impact this book has on it’s readers. I accidentally bumped into this book; read the reviews and said- I must buy this. Did not regret it. Astounding and heartwrenchingly funny.

>Are your readers familiar with “The Primrose Path” published 15-20 years ago?
>This ‘novel’ is a fictionalized account of a real case in Ottowa Canada, that
>resulted in the child’s suicide when noone would believe him. The tragedy is when
>the ‘assualt’ is not acknowledged thereby allowing the perpetrator to move from
>community to community ‘plying his trade’.

Just to correct the comments.

The real case depicted in Primrose Path occured in Winnipeg, Canada, although the author publicly claims that the book is also based on research in other similar cases.

The Primrose Path depictes child sexual abuse related to survivors of the real case in Winnipeg but not the specific child sexual abuse in the same case that resulted in a child’s suicide, as publicized in the Canadian nationally broadcast CBC I-Team news documentary that was also rebroadcast in part on CNN Headline News.

The subject Rabbi of that CBC I-Team documentary remains a prominent dayan in Queens and also acts as a toen representing women in divorce proceedings before various beit dins. He was in recent months the focus of several news articles as:
1) the rabbi was allowed to quietly not renew his membership on the Queen’s Vaad admist calls to remove him publicly from the Vaad; and
2) plaques honoring the Reabbi were recently removed from the Rabbi’s former Winnipeg synagogue after a unanimous board decision some 20 years after the Rabbi left.

A review of HUSH was published in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of the Newsletter of the Association of Jewish Libraries. So why hasn’t Marjorie Ingalls heard of it? Apparently, she doesn’t read the AJL Newsletter, whose editors makes a concerted effort to review all – not some, but all – books of Jewish content published for children and teens in a given year. HUSH came to the editor’s attention several months ago and was read by the reviewer from an advance reading copy. Given copy deadlines and the AJL Newsletter’s publication schedule of 4 times a year, the Sept/Oct issue was the first issue in which the review could appear – right about the time that Booklist, SLJ, and Kirkus were publishing their reviews of it. There’s a lesson here for anyone who writes about Jewish children’s books: if you want to be well-informed, read the AJL Newsletter and Jewish Book World. Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist, etc. review some of them but far fewer than the two major Jewish book review journals and their reviews are never as reliable. The AJL Newsletter reviewer of HUSH is very familiar with the book’s ultra-Orthodox community so her (positive) review has an authenticity that the non-Jewish review media usually lack.

Sherry says:

I have never read a book about rape and suicide where somehow it is also funny. This is a book that you cannot put down. Period.

I just went out to Borders during lunchbreak and bought myself a copy of this book. Read 50 pages thus far and am finding it to be really well-done, on point, amusing and sad. Is there any way to get in touch with this author (perhaps an anonymous email address?) Alternatively, if Eishes Chayil could write to me at CHANAWIZ at gmail, that would be great. Thanks!

Lisa Silverman says:

Jewish Book World Magazine did not yet review this book. We are a quarterly magazine with early deadlines and hope to have the review in our February issue.
Lisa Silverman, Children’s Editor, Jewish Book World

Kathe Pinchuck says:

Hi Marjorie,

First, I concur with Linda Silver. The AJL Newsletter is one of the best sources of reviews of Juvenile (Children’s and YA) Jewish Literature. Soon it will be an online publication, and I encourage you to become an AJL member so you can get the benefits of this excellent publication.

I read the book and found it riveting. Two things really stood out: the irony that the naivete regarding anything to do with sexuality not only kept “molestation” and “sexual abuse” out of the vocabulary, but also made normal, healthy marital relations a challenge. I was also disappointed that there were many inaccuracies regarding non-Chassidic Jews. I thought about this and decided that the people who read secular books probably will not notice these mistakes, and the people for whom they are glaring errors probably will not pick up a secular book.

In my review, I noted that the strong points of the book are the authentic voices, the balance of good and bad things about the community, and the somewhat universal subject. Although definitely a Jewish book, this could be a story about a child molested by a priest or another insular community.

Hush was submitted to the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee for consideration. I am anxious to see the committee’s reaction to the book – I’ll let you know in January!

Kathe Pinchuck
Past Chair, Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee
Association of Jewish Libraries

Shades of Gray says:

“Two things really stood out: the irony that the naivete regarding anything to do with sexuality not only kept “molestation” and “sexual abuse” out of the vocabulary, but also made normal, healthy marital relations a challenge”

While I did not read the book other than skimming it on Amazon, I have mixed feelings about the subject of keeping sexuality out of the vocabulary, and about the book in general.

I live in the Haredi community and I agree with the author of “Hush” on page 343 about the “joy and warmth” in the Chasidic community. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee, was quoted in an article in the Jewish Week(6/16/10) about sexual abuse that “when you allow the pathologies to be the focus…you miss the forest for the trees”. I therefore agree with him that there is much positive in the fervently-Orthodox community to focus on besides negative topics such as abuse.

On the other hand, the topic of sexuality in developing children, besides sexual abuse, is sometimes treated as “hush”, and needs to be dealt with better, in my opinion. A quote from a 10/19/08 Jewish Star article about sexual abuse seems to support this:

“Norman Blumenthal, a psychologist affiliated with Chai Lifeline and North Shore-Long Island Jewish Medical Center, declined to comment on specific cases, but said: “I think we have to sit down with rabbis and educators and work this issue into the curriculum. We have to teach children to protect themselves. The corollary to that is that we also need to teach our children how to deal with their sexual urges and how to address them because we’re not really addressing that. We need to start talking to them about a Torah perspective on sexual urges and expressions.”

This is an excellent review, and I’m so glad you were able to connect with the author herself (even via a third party conduit.)

I’ve been surprised that the book hasn’t been more widely-discussed in the J-blogosphere, though my friends who are children’s and YA librarians tell me it’s getting a lot of attention in that corner of the intellectual world.

(Thanks, too, for linking to my review!)

Shades of Gray–we need to teach the children? We need to teach the victims to deal with their sexual urges and expressions? Why not teach the adults/perpetrators to control their perverted sexual urges and expressions?
Let’s be clear that young adults willingly participating with other willing young adults in sexual acts is not the issue here. That may be something that the Orthodox community needs to address but that suggests that you blame the children for their “participation”/victimization. After all why focus on abused children when you can sweep them under the proverbial rug and look only to the “forest” of blessings in this world?

Shades of Gray says:

“That may be something that the Orthodox community needs to address but that suggests that you blame the children…”

That wasn’t at all my intent or suggestion–I don’t believe in blaming the victims! My point was to look at sexuality in the Orthodox community from a broad perspective, as opposed only to abuse.

For example, I read that a rabbi at a recent convention at Agudath Israel of America said that it “would be a healthy thing to encourage, especially the diligent students, to get exercise”. Exercise is one part of it; providing an atmosphere where children and teenagers can have their questions and fears about sexuality discussed is another; internet issues are another issue. As Dr. Blumenthal, who I quoted above implied, abuse is only one part of sexuality in the Orthodox community.

“After all why focus on abused children when you can sweep them under the proverbial rug and look only to the “forest” of blessings in this world?”

The Haredi community often unfairly gets bad press, and is sensitive to having problems being addressed publicly, nonwithstading the need to have appropriate forums to have open discussion on issues. I understand that concern, and in that vein quoted Steven Bayme regarding the “forest and trees”. You can read Gary Rosenblatt’s article where he quotes Steven Bayme, in the link below, and writes about the positive, which would apply to the Haredi world as well:

“The tenth anniversary of the public exposure in these pages of the “Lanner scandal” provides an opportunity to reflect on, and appreciate, how much has changed for the better in the last decade in responding to rabbinic sexual abuse”

Shainy says:

Incredibly powerful book. The dedication says it all;

To those who said I couldn’t
To those who said I wouldn’t
To those who said I shouldn’t
And to the children who suffer

“The tenth anniversary of the public exposure in these pages of the “Lanner scandal” provides an opportunity to reflect on, and appreciate, how much has changed for the better in the last decade in responding to rabbinic sexual abuse”

i will tell this to Motty Borger who jumped off the 7th floor balcony in borough park two nights after his wedding after being molested as a teen. I will tell this to the tens of other victims I know who have suffered unimaginable hell in the last year.

Oh, they still have a long, long way to go. This book is 10 years overdue; has haunted me since i read it two weeks ago.

Fomerly a Chassid

Powerful, powerful book. Read it when you have all day- becuase it’s not a book you can easily close.

This sounds like an excellent and courageous book. It’s publication is timely. I am sure readers know that October 17th through the 24th was Jewish child abuse prevention week. I covered the Chicago kickoff meeting

Thank you to the author of “Hush”.

Alan D. Busch

shualah elisheva says:

the book is haunting. eishes chayil, indeed – kol hakavod to you, a thousand times over. a million.

Matt Zvi says:

My wife has read this book. She is a YA librarian, and was very excited to have a book in her collection that is targeted at teens, yet discusses Chassidim in such detail.
I, too, was surprised that we only found out about this book when seeing it displayed in our favorite local bookshop. (A goyish bookstore, in a small, western, decidedly not-Jewish town, no less!) Why haven’t Jewish press promoted it more? Thank you for this lovely start in recognition, Tablet.

In defense of the orthodox community, there is now a comprehensive anti abuse curriculum and hotlines for reporting molestation. While I applaud Aishes Chayil for telling her story, I’m afraid that the people who should read this story—parents, rabbis, teachers and yeshiva principals probably won’t because of its secular imprimateur
If our society could be as vigilant about weeding about abuse as we are about, say checking for bugs in vegetables, we might be onto something.

Hi this story Is a farce
The author is Judy brown lives in boro park
Probably divorced within a few months.
She is a known liar and hates the religious establishment
She never experienced anything in the book except for being
Alive and having a period. Do not take this book seriously

life long Boro Parker says:

The sad thing Joe is that even if what you say is correct, the story she tells still rings true. The Rabbis are still abusing, and still getting away with it.


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Out of the Silence

A new young-adult novel tackles sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox world

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