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A window into Hasidic life

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The borough of Outremont in Montreal is home to thousands of Hasidic Jews. (File photo)

In places across North America and beyond, where there are insular Orthodox communities, there are frictions between those Orthodox communities and their neighbours. Some of these frictions seem to be the same the world over: there are bylaw battles over eruvim and over the erection and duration of sukkot. There are disputes about educational provision. There are concerns about gender segregation.

In Quebec, these tensions are both emblematic of the larger picture of Hasidic life in a secular society and also, as the only place in North America that has banned religious symbols on public employees, unique. And one of the things that makes Quebec’s tensions so unique is that they have led to the rise of the Hasidic woman’s voice in dialogue with her neighbours in an act of bridge building.

This act is not insignificant. If the Hasidic characters in francophone non-Jewish Quebecois writer Myriam Beaudoin’s 2006 novel Hadassa are curious about what a non-Jewish person in Quebec does, thinks and knows, the same sentiment could be said to exist tenfold in reverse, both within and outside of the book. Beaudoin’s French-language book purports to be about “un monde à part, enveloppé de mystère et d’interdits, mais séduisant et rassurant” (a world apart, shrouded in mystery and taboos, but seductive and reassuring). It was nominated in 2007 for the Prix des libraires du Québec and won, the same year, both the Prix littéraire des collégiens and the Prix littéraire France-Québec. In 2011, another non-Jewish francophone writer in Quebec named Abla Farhoud also took on the subject of local Hasidim with her book titled Le sourire de la petite juive (The Smile of the Little Jewess). And in 2014, non-Jewish Quebecois filmmaker Maxime Giroux directed Félix et Meira, a film about a married Hasidic mother and a single Quebecois man, star-crossed lovers of Montreal’s Mile End, which won “best Canadian film” at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and was submitted in 2015 to the Academy Awards as Canada’s foreign-language contender.

Félix et Meira won best Canadian film at the 2014 TIFF

By virtue of their chosen subject, these books and film appear to follow in the success of the short story collection Lekhaim!: Chroniques de la vie hassidique à Montréal (later published in English as Rather Laugh Than Cry), which was written by a Hasidic woman in Quebec in 2006. Yet in many ways, Beaudoin, Farhoud and Giroux’s tales more closely resemble the narratives of secular Jewish writers like Eve Harris and Julia Dahl that render Hasidic life exotic – and somewhat tragic. Beaudoin’s story includes a romance between a gentile and a Hasidic woman, Farhoud’s highlights the growing internal struggle of a Hasidic girl who feels confined by her religious identity and Giroux mixes the two scandalizing ingredients to produce his stirring drama. The author of Lekhaim!, on the other hand, writes her stories about and within the Hasidic community. The stories of the Hasidim she presents are the stuff of everyday, made interesting not through sensationalism but through humour and pathos.

Despite the quotidian subject matter, the book was met with much success in francophone Quebec. The writer, whose real name is known to many residents in Outremont, the Montreal borough in which she resides, calls herself “Malka Zipora” for her book, though she refers to herself throughout, more significantly, only as “a Hasidic mom,” making herself a representative of her community. In writing her stories for a general audience, Zipora “gingerly” draws “aside the shades to the window in (her) home,” to provide “glimpses of many universal emotions and stories,” which are essential to the Hasidic residents’ communication and coexistence with their neighbours. The language suggests hesitation and also a sense of modesty. Still, if Hasidic communities are known for their insularity and difference, Zipora is undermining both by drawing aside her metaphorical shades.

But she is also doing something else surprising, which she does not name. She is giving voice to a group that has often been spoken for (in the media and literature, by non-Jewish Quebecois and secular Jews), but has rarely spoken: Hasidic women. This speaking is a speaking back, for when they are spoken for, Hasidic women are doubly rendered silent through the erasure of their own voices and the voices that represent them.

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In Lekhaim!, Zipora shares intimate stories from her home – the carnivalesque nature of the “bedtime routine” with 12 children; the overwhelming expense of orthodontics (complicated by retainers that get tangled in payos); and her desperate attempts to control a bad temper through emulations of rabbis of old. She writes, in part, for her peers in Montreal, New York and London – the other Hasidic women who also, daily, have 12 piles of homework to oversee, 12 lunches to pack, 12 burgeoning individuals to foster. These other women follow the same rules, religious and cultural, in Outremont, Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood and Stamford Hill in London.

But even as Zipora reaffirms the Hasidic woman’s traditional primary obligation, she also shows Hasidim that they can do more, be more and act more. A Hasidic woman does not have to act immodestly to fulfill her ambition; neither does she have to dedicate her life and energies to a husband and children “at the expense of denying herself the things her heart may have liked to pursue.” In Zipora’s book, every page attests to her role as a woman of valour in her home, but the publication of the book attests to her role as a woman of valour in her community.

Yet Zipora is writing for more than Hasidic women across the globe; she is also writing for her non-Hasidic peers in Quebec. Throughout the book, Zipora intervenes in the conflict between Quebec’s Hasidim and their neighbours, carefully, tactfully. She gives voice to women whose voices have not been heard – for the sake of her fellow Hasidic women, to show that their voices can be heard, and for the sake of non-Hasidic readers, to help them come to know her, even if only in some small way.

(Shutterstock photo)

By distinguishing between Hasidim living in history and living through history, Zipora’s book forces readers to rethink their characterizations of Hasidim. Crucially, the characters are never, themselves, anachronisms. In her stories, the Hasidim speak on cell phones (in fact, phones loom large in the book, reminding us that communication and community share more than a common etymological ancestor). They visit physiotherapists. They use computers. This modernity is not depicted as antithetical to the fundamental belief in passing down historical values to children and “sing(ing) the same songs their grandparents sang” (she adds, in a Whitmanian vein, “as they (the children) sing the story of Hanukkah, they sing of themselves and their parents and great-grandparents from generations back”). The twin desires – to be a part of their living world and a part of history – appear thoroughly intertwined.

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In teaching awareness beyond her own community, Zipora entered the fraught discussions in Quebec that hit their peak in 2006–2007 with the reasonable accommodation commission. Quebecois were asking the question: are these people a part of us? Zipora entered these discussions as both a Hasidic woman and a Canadian.

READ: VALE: BAGELING AND THE SECRET SOCIETY OF ORTHODOX JEWS

In one of the best-known documentaries about Hasidic life, A Life Apart, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a great scholar of American Judaism, declares, “Hasidim don’t consider themselves American.” Zipora makes no such statement about her national identity. Her identification as a Canadian is deeply significant for a book that is both a series of personal anecdotes and a political intervention. And her Canadianness is established through everyday actions, similar to her Shabbat reliance on her feet to get her places.

“Winter is a unifying experience,” she begins one story. “We make up for the falling temperature by producing inner warmth, as we become one big family of fellow sufferers.” Continuing the familial metaphor, Zipora says of a neighbour who admonishes her for her lack of gloves, “She becomes my mother.” This neighbour is a fellow Hasidic woman, but Zipora makes clear that the “one big family of fellow sufferers” extends beyond the Hasidic community: “The below zero temperatures have made us Canadians a friendlier society … our main athletic pastime becomes pushing cars with revved up engines and spinning wheels out of snow banks.… When scientists threaten and warn us to change our lifestyles to avoid global warming, we Canadians dismiss them and advise them to address their concerns to the nomads in the Sahara desert.” Otherwise hostile neighbours find a point of common contention: “Instead of picking on each other, the weather becomes the punching bag.”

In her conclusion, she returns to the kinship theme: “Why feel handicapped when we know this is part of the ritual that leads into spring? We are all part of that plan, and we should celebrate and relate to one another like one big family.” Using the language of “ritual” and the idea that Canadians are “all part” of a (predestined, ordained) plan, Zipora suggests that the weather that encourages her to address her readers as “fellow brothers and sisters” is God’s intervention into Outremont’s hostilities.

Canadians, including Hasidim, have more uniting them than dividing them. Also, it’s too cold to fight, so everyone should just get along. It might not be the sharpest political tool, but in a Montreal winter, it makes sense.

 

Excerpted from Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture by Karen E.H. Skinazi. Reprinted with permission from Rutgers University Press. Karen E.H. Skinazi is a senior teaching fellow and director, Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol.

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