Sometime in 2001, if you were a Chasidic woman in Borough Park, you would have noticed a teacher's assistant who looked out of place at your daughter's school. You would have been familiar with non-Jews and non-religious Jews from their stores and magazines. But you would never have expected someone not quite right to be in your daughter's classroom. She was nice enough, an intelligent woman with a shearling coat who spoke a good Yiddish. But it was clear what she was not: a haymishe fro, a Chasidic woman. You went to the principal to voice your concerns. Could it be that outside influences had invaded your daughter's school so easily?
The woman was politely asked to work somewhere else, and she did. Once in a while you saw her in the community, though never again at that school. But who was she?
You heard from your friends that she was a Jew from a non-religious home, studying in a university to be some kind of professor. She was Ayala Fader, an anthropologist - and her subject was not an obscure group of hunters near the Amazon, but the Chasidim, and how Chasidic girls are raised to a particular kind of devotion.
* * *
Perhaps you have thought of Chasidim as a pre-modern, separatist sect, with their own strange costumes, quaint language, and deliberately different, even contrarian customs. But - according to a nascent body of work by researchers interested in contemporary Chasidim - you would be wrong. It is not how Chasidim avoid modernity which enables them to survive as a self-defined group, but how they negotiate with, cleverly re-interpret, and, in the final analysis, appropriate modernity as their own.
Fader (an associate professor of anthropology at Fordham University and author of the new book "Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn" (2009: Princeton University Press) asks the same question about the Chasidim that you would: how can they participate only piecemeal in the surrounding world? Not, Fader says, because they are ignorant of its attractions or advantages, but out of religious and philosophical reasons: "they use the sense of their own authenticity, including a nostalgia for a lost, purer past in Eastern Europe, to make this historical moment just one more point in a redemptive narrative." Our superficially new modernity is just a repackaging of the same old Exile.
Many of the details of Fader's research have to do with raising Chasidic children, the "mitzvah girls" of her title. What is the special religious instruction tailored to Chasidic 5-year-olds? There is none: "these 'choices' [of daily life for children] are socialized in [Chasidic] kids through everyday interactions, not religious training." Fader spent hours and hours with her tape recorder, observing just what social interactions make up the Chasidic child: no, you can't draw a purple apple because apples aren't purple - even if the imagination would like to suggest it; no, you can't ask what the Mishnah is because girls don't learn about the Mishnah - even if you might be curious about it. When the proper choices are socialized by thousands of interactions with parents and teachers, they become second nature.
But conscious choices even in an area as rooted in the unconscious as language, also play a role in the self-definition of Chasidim. Sarah Benor, a sociolinguist at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, has written about the strategies used by Jews of different varieties to construct their version of Jewishness. Much as the Jewish English of American liberal Jews is not a distinct language, or dialect, but rather a repertoire of words and phrases consciously chosen for effect, Chasidic Jews flit between Englished Yiddish and Yiddished English to display their status to the outside world and mark their own status within their world.
Social interactions and language - somewhere on the border of conscious and unconscious activity - are important to the self-definition of Chasidim. But what about those elements of culture which people choose because they relieve the monotony? In other words: what about fun?
Asya Vaisman, a research fellow in Jewish studies at the University of Washington, recently defended her doctoral thesis at Harvard on the Yiddish songs and singing of Chasidic women. She tells a story from her research which shows that music, like language, helps define Chasidic separateness despite its porousness: "A Belz woman in London told me that her daughter was 'naughty' once and used songs by ABBA for the melodies in one Hasidic production." The headmistress had never heard ABBA, so she approved the songs. On its surface, the lesson of the story is clear: non-Chasidic culture (like ABBA) can only be allowed in if its provenance is hidden or denied. But the point might be even more subtle: as long as the maxims of cultural restriction are obeyed, the odd outside influence can slip through (and productively used) without undermining the foundations.
Today's researchers into Chasidic culture might thus be coming to a new consensus. Perhaps ten or twenty years ago, Chasidim were seen as a defiantly separatist sect, whose entire raison d'etre is a thoroughgoing opposition to modernity. Now Chasidim are seen (as Fader puts it) as creators of another, parallel modernity which communicates with our own. Only through understanding these dual modernities can we appreciate the importance of the niggun that comes from a secular Yiddish poem; the hairstyle which is "shtoddy" (fashionable) but not too much; the shifting from "Toyre" (with a Yiddish accent) to "Torah" and back again in order to "pass" as more or less modern.
Do Chasidim themselves see modernity as negotiable? R., a Yiddish journalist with a day job in finance, said via e-mail, "There are good and bad sides to modernity like anything else. I think a Chasid can extract the good elements from modernity: (relative) openness to other schools of thought and a readiness to change one's worldview, in the framework of traditional observance."
Katle Kanye is a Chasidic blogger. In contrast to R., he is skeptical about the modernity of Chasidim. "Modernity is fine. It keeps the house warm, you can use it to fly to see the rebbe a few times a year, view a menorah lighting from seven thousand miles away, visit the best doctors. If that's modernity, why not? But the fact that these discoveries didn't come about by themselves but are the fruit of free-thinkers including Darwin, Hume, Mill and other heretics - this the Chasidim don't understand and don't even recognize. When a Chasidic graphic designer sits with Coral or Photoshop and creats beautiful graphics, he might be so holy that he uses the Internet only for earning a livelihood. Then go explain to him that his art began with the painters of naked ladies in the Met, and he'll tell you that's not art, that's lust with a tie on."
Katle Kanye puts his finger on a weakness in Fader's depiction of Chasidic life as more in parallel with than in opposition to modernity. If we strip away everything that makes modernity a unique historical movement (the focus on the individual, the search for newness, the innovation in every sphere of life even to the extent of the abandonment of formerly universal truths), then what are we - or the putatively modern Chasidim - left with besides the name?
Nomi Stolzenberg, a professor of law at USC, is looking closely at these contradictions in the context of Kiryas Joel, New York - a town which has remained a predominantly Chasidic enclave through its inhabitants' creative, even contradictory, use of the principles of liberal democracy. How does a modern, liberal, secular political/legal regime enable Kiryas Joel to survive? It would not be a surprise if Stolzenberg's answer ends up having a lot in common with the findings of Fader, Vaisman, and Benor: Chasidim make use of modernity as they finesse its significance.
Recently I got a phone call from a Chasid, who asked, "Can you tell me what I should read to introduce myself to secular culture?" He was adamant that he did not want to leave his community, but only wanted to know what books to read to get exposure to "other ideas." After learning about Chasidim and modernity, I now want to know: is he seeking to become more modern, more Chasidic, or both?