Coming of Age in Crown Heights
By ERICA BROWN
MYSTICS, MAVERICKS, AND MERRYMAKERS
An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls
By Stephanie Wellen Levine
254 pages. New York University Press. $26.95.
Contemporary Hasidism is a source of great fascination for the
non-Hasidic world, Jews and non-Jews alike. Stephanie Wellen Levine’s book Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers
provides one more portal into this relatively closed system. Levine’s portraits
show the struggles of young women in late adolescence adjusting to the
patriarchal construction and general demands of Lubavitch Judaism.
Carol Gilligan’s forward situates the book in the larger
framework of research on female development. The young women depicted in these
pages are spirited and lively, yet living in a conventional society with
well-articulated religious expectations about dress, conduct, education, and
family life. The contrast of individualism with religious dictates makes for a
potentially fascinating study. The portraits, for the most part, are deeply
touching and written with a fiction writer’s flair for the lyrical phrase.
One of the girls is torn between the milder seductions of
popular culture, such as music and fashion, and the religious guidelines set by
her parents. She keeps these conflicts secret from her family and feels intuitively
that she will outgrow her temptations. Leah Ratner, on the other hand, is a
deeply pious teenager who doesn’t understand the appeal of high top sneakers
and expensive clothes. She answers the phone, "Yehi HaMelech. Hello."
The expression means "Long live the king"—a reference to the late
Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who some Lubavitchers
believe is the messiah. Leah is not popular; she is holy.
On the other extreme, the bedroom of Rochel Lehrer is strewn
with books ranging from Neitzche to Philip Roth. Rochel comes from a
long-established Hasidic family but cannot tolerate the insularity of her
family’s way of life. She asks too many dangerous questions, and ends up at
880, an apartment for like-minded Lubavitcher drop-outs. 770 Eastern Parkway is
the famous address of the Crown Heights’ Lubavitch World Headquarters; 880 is
the affectionate name for an apartment where the girls slip off their long
skirts and don jeans, maybe have a smoke, and hang out with members of the
But Rochel’s movement between two worlds is not as carefree
as changing clothes. Her journal, Levine reports, contains "repeated
references to loneliness, emotional pain and hope that her troubles would end soon."
Rochel decides to attend a secular college, unlike most of her classmates and
against the communal norm. Her parents warn her that she will not be allowed
back home for visits, lest she contaminate her siblings with secularity.
Levine's readers will appreciate the appeal of secular culture for Rochel, but
also quietly root for her to make peace with the world she leaves behind.
Some of the girls show intense interest in Stephanie’s own teshuva (repentance). "When you get
back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and you see how empty life is over there,
you’ll be coming right back here. Crown Heights is your home." But
Stephanie—called by her Hebrew name, Sara, during the year she spends
researching Crown Heights—is not interested in making Hasidism her own. The set
of candlesticks given to her by one Lubavitch woman remain unlit. Levine
considers the possibility: "Perhaps some other Stephanie Levine. One who
was a bit more adept at housework, child care and swearing off nonkosher
restaurants, would have become observant." In considering its relevance to
her own life, Levine underestimates religion as little more than housewifery.
She misses the depth and conflict of the inner life and its nonmaterial
rewards. In trying to become an insider, she shows us, perhaps unintentionally,
what an outsider she is.
Another hitch in this otherwise interesting book is its
misleading title and subtitle. While the girls described are indeed Hasidic,
they are not just any Hasidic girls; they are all members of the Lubavitch sect.
Lubavitchers, compared to other Hasidic groups, are much more open to the world
at large because of their essentially proselytizing mission to bring Jews back
to Judaism. To write about Hasidic girls generally, Levine would have had to
gain access to those who don’t readily open their homes to strangers.
Additionally, the description of these young women as
"Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" in the book's title implies a
sophistication in the girls that isn't quite accurate. A pious, nerdy teenager
who articulates her movement’s convictions is not a mystic. A smart, tough
rebel is not necessarily a maverick. These girls exhibit no more or less than
the behaviors we would expect in any teenager—rebelliousness, neediness,
confusion—but engage in them through the unique lens of observant Judaism. A
more complete study would trace later adult developments to see if these
behaviors diminish or change with time as these girls make decisions about
higher education and marriage. Nevertheless, Levine speculates that Lubavitch life
does give these teenagers what society generally cannot, "a combination of
comfort, direction and sense of strength that eases their lives and cultivates
Levine admits that she escorts the reader "through
girls’ lives and minds more for the pure delight of knowing them than for any
lessons you might glean." She herself shares this pleasure. She cried when
she left Crown Heights, confirming the reader’s sense of Levine straddling the
fence between academic objectivity and personal subjectivity. If her goal was
to write an academic classic on female development, Levine may have been better
served by taking her own voice out of the book. Her own tentative foray into
Crown Heights is less interesting than the voice she gives to her subjects. The
reader can thank Levine, however, for giving voice to this group and for the
"pure delight" of meeting them.