Coming of Age in Crown Heights



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 opposite sex.

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 deep-seated confidence."

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.