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For an alumna of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, inspiration for a dissertation topic came out of a surprising observation she made amidst a group of religious devotees.
Stephanie W. Levine ’00, who earned her Ph.D. in the field of American studies, recalls one of her many trips to the Hasidic community of Lubavitchers grouped in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Ardent followers of Orthodox Judaism, Lubavitchers form a sect of Hasidim especially known for their devoutness and desire to spread their doctrines to other Jews.As Levine sat in on a Hasidic synagogue on that trip, she says she noticed a young girl who prayed with particular fervor, and believed her to be “in the midst of a mystical experience.”
Once the girl finished praying, however, she turned to her friend and proceeded to ask her whether she looked fatter in the skirt she was wearing or the one she had worn the previous week.
Levine says this surreptitious glimpse into the Lubavitch girl’s thoughts, so much like that of any teenage girl in mainstream America, pierced through the stereotype of the meek Hasidic girl that prevails in many minds. How much of a personality can these girls develop within the confined roles that their religion structures for them? This sort of question—one that Levine herself heard many times from her own professors and colleagues—fuels the stereotype, and Levine says her observation led her to believe it was misconstrued.
Trading Harvard’s ivy-coated walls for Brooklyn graffiti, Levine spent a year living within the Crown Heights Lubavitch community, intent to familiarize herself with the girls’ thoughts, desires and aspirations. Her findings have now been amassed into her first book, Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls. Combining Levine’s personal thoughts and experiences with chapters that focus on the lives of seven particular girls, the book thrives on anecdotes, commentary, humor and drama.
“It was absolutely the most fascinating year of my life. I’ve always been simultaneously fascinated by and envious of religious faith,” says Levine, a self-described “lax Jew.”
The majority of the girls Levine studied were enrolled in the Lubavitch high school, Bais Rivka, and Levine says the school’s principal was initially wary of her presence, fearing it would influence the girls. Levine was, however, granted permission to attend seminary classes, which form part of a two-year educational program that follows after high school.
Levine says she soon snuck into the high school as well, and her petite, unassuming frame and upbeat attitude helped others to warm up to her.
Gaining the girls’ trust was essential if Levine was to learn anything meaningful about their lives. So she did what any girl wanting to befriend another would do: she shimmied alongside them at parties and joined them for kosher pizza, and was soon enough sitting beside the girls’ parents at the dining table as their dinner guest. The fact that the girls were enthralled with Levine’s secular life didn’t hurt, either.
“They became fascinated by me, and the only way they could get to know me was by talking to me, thus telling me about themselves in the process,” Levine says. “I was a window into another world for them just as they were to me.”
The girls that Levine profiles in the book are not at all meek or dull, qualities that Levine had thought would be fostered by the single-sex atmosphere in which Lubavitch girls live. Levine admits that she expected the this atmosphere to be a negative aspect of the girls’ lives, finding instead that it prevented them from falling into typical female sex role attitudes because there was no other sex role to compare theirs to.
“The girls really had a sort of impishness, and a lack of self-consciousness on the whole that is very rare in secular society,” Levine says. “There was not this sort of competition for the male affection. The girls would jump up and down, tease their teachers—an impishness I had never seen,” she says with an emphatic wave of her hand.
This impishness runs through many of the girls’ stories. There’s Estie, whose simultaneous piety and love of socializing leads her to go along reluctantly with her friends’ suggestion to catch a late-night ride back home with one of the girls’ male cousins, while Chaya’s story begins at a strip club reeking of debauchery, and ends with her return to religious observance.
Chaya’s trek to the strip club stemmed from of her doubts with her religion; Rochel, one of the other girls, experienced similar doubts.
“A rebel,” Levine says of Rochel. “But she would be offended by that. She would say she’s not a rebel, she’s a questioner.”
Rochel’s discontent with Lubavitch’s stringent customs led her to join other questioners at an infamous 888 Montgomery St. apartment, where poets would recite verses as a joint made its way around the room. Finding others who also questioned Lubavitch saved Rochel from a dangerous bout with depression that nearly ended in suicide, Levine says. The options for such questioners are not many.
“If you breached basic expectations...if you didn’t believe, if you lost faith and expressed it, forget it,” Levine says. “You’re out of there.”
The risqué nature of many of Levine’s findings would be enough to taint the girls’ reputations permanently. When writing the book she thus took on a precautionary approach, changing names, addresses and other small details to ensure that none of the girls’ true identities would be given away.
“It was a big challenge, because on the one hand, there’s a lot of juicy stuff in this book. On the other hand, the more juicy it is, the more dangerous it is for the girls,” Levine says. She boasts with a big smile on her face that someone has yet to guess any of the girls’ identities correctly.
Though previous books like Reviving Ophelia have worked at exploring female adolescence in all its messy glory, Levine’s is the first to focus specifically on the subculture of Hasidic girls. Like the Lubavitchers who believe that all thoughts and acts are worthy of attention due to its ability to bring the Messiah closer, Levine believes that cultures and people who are “different” from the mainstream of American life are worthy of study.
“We can all learn from the [Lubavitch] notion that we are very important; our thought, individual selves are very important,” Levine says. “We’re all worthy of scrutiny.”
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