Stephanie Wellen Levine recently spent a full year living with Hasidic girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She entered female lives rigidly circumscribed both by Jewish law and the social customs of a tightly knit movement; using the methods of Carol Gilligan and other gender experts, she observed their struggles and their strengths. The girls she interviewed, aged 13 to 23 (“in this community all single females are girls,” she notes) surprised her with their vibrancy and—despite the strictures—with their originality. Here we meet Malkie Belfer (not her real name), forthright and independent.
Mrs. Belfer looked exhausted. With it all, she seemed content and pleased with the results of her Passover preparations. Tonight’s work was her responsibility. Her oldest daughter, Malkie, would help.
Malkie shifted in her seat on the couch, and her knees peeked out from beneath her skirt. It was a holiday, so her skirt was a bit more conservative than usual. Normally, her knees were in full view, regardless of how she sat. To the casual Lubavitch observer, this scene would seem incongruous. Malkie was clearly devout, to the point where she kept her mother in line. She looked naughty, though. It’s nothing you or I would notice, but most Lubavitch girls just don’t wear snug skirts that leave their knees bare.
While Malkie shared her parents’ intense religious belief and craving for the Messianic age, she was a limit-pusher. Her passionately devout baal teshuvah parents abhorred the idea of college. They wanted to keep their children completely enmeshed in the Lubavitch system, with no potentially faith-damaging outside influences. But Malkie insisted upon enrolling at Touro, a college whose ultra-Orthodox auspices do not completely erase the taint of secular studies in a non- Lubavitch atmosphere. Like many of her peers, Malkie combined her mornings at the post-high school seminary with evening classes at Touro.
She adored her parents and admired the spiritual fortitude behind their decision to devote their lives to Hasidism shortly after graduating from college, inspired by years of intense friendship with Lubavitch mentors. Yet Malkie craved somewhat different circumstances for her future. “Financial security is very important to me,” she told me often, as one prime explanation for her desire for a high-powered career. But the problem goes far beyond money. Stifled by her peers’ “narrow view of everything, from their lack of interest in non- Jewish books to their afternoons spent gossiping about Crown Heights, Crown Heights, Crown Heights,” she hopes to raise her children away from a Lubavitch enclave.
Malkie had earned financial freedom from her parents; she was footing the entire bill for college and all of her living expenses from her earnings at various jobs, which ranged from a research assistantship at school to an administrative position at a Hasidic-owned jewelry store in Manhattan.
She dreamed of tackling the corporate world, or perhaps landing a tenured professorship, in a culture where both women and men typically lacked lofty career ambitions, seeing jobs as necessary but dreary tasks that should never consume much of a Hasid’s central thoughts or passions. She wore her slightly too short skirts with poise. She has also been known to go clubbing in Manhattan, a habit she recently discarded out of disgust that the Orthodox guys at these places took off their yarmulkes: “That just did it for me. They’re frum [religious] guys. Why should they want to hide that?” Malkie was a rebel, but one with exquisite pride in her culture and unshakable faith in the tenets of Orthodox Judaism.
In her second year of seminary, Malkie was hitting prime time for the dating game. She was hoping to stave the process off just a bit—she was 19, and anywhere up through 23 is an acceptable age for marriage. Her mother was eager, though.
But as Penina began mentioning her daughter to a few of the community matchmakers, she ran up against some disturbing roadblocks:
It’s like we’re in a caste or something. Whenever I mention someone from a “good” family, people with strong lineage or money, they immediately have a reason against it. They won’t even try. And if I insist, they come back with the message that the boy’s family is not interested….We just don’t rate over here, us baalei teshuvah with our cramped, rented apartment and our bills up to the sky.
Of course, the choosiness went both ways. One young man seemed compatible with Malkie, but Penina had heard that his mother had suffered a nervous breakdown. “That could be a genetic thing, and I’m very inclined just to reject him. Malkie doesn’t need that.”
“Mom,” Malkie finally groaned. “I guess I’m just a more carefree person. It doesn’t bother me as much. I see the humor in it, actually,” Malkie told me later.
Though she has never done anything explicitly condemned by Jewish law, she has pushed the limits about as far as possible within the technically legal but practically verboten range. She has never touched a man or had anything resembling a boyfriend, but she has flirted with an aggressiveness rare even among the more rebellious set.
On a ski trip that winter, Malkie recognized two Lubavitch boys about her age. They had not been on Malkie’s bus; they had decided on their own to try out this mysterious sport that so many in the secular world seemed to love. She approached them, and announced, giggling: “I know you guys! I’m gonna tell your principal I saw you here.”
They laughed and offered the very true response that Mrs. Gorowitz of Bais Rivka wouldn’t be too pleased to discover what Malkie was doing with her afternoon. Skiing is fine with an organized group of Lubavitch girls, but never under circumstances that could inspire mingling with boys.
“But you’ll never know who I am,” Malkie countered; she was wearing a ski mask that covered most of her face. She was grinning and shaking slightly; this was a thrill, but it was a bit nerve-racking.
Lubavitch bans mixed gender friendships, but manning the phones at work has presented Malkie with some intriguing dilemmas. Often she will strike up a bit of a relationship with one of the men she deals with over the phone. He’ll call back, continually, pretending to have work-related issues. He and Malkie will speak for hours, trading stories about their lives. This is a highlight of Malkie’s life; she anticipates these calls like a secular college student might anticipate a date. “Did I tell you the accountant called?” she’d ask me, dreamily, and she’d regale me with stories about him.
College provided its own questionable pleasures. Touro maintains separate classes for men and women, and their courses are scheduled on separate days to eliminate coeducational mingling in the halls. But male professors, graduate students, and staff can certainly be found on campus even during the women’s classes. Malkie will often spy someone out and cultivate a furtive little relationship involving nods, glances, occasional interchanges. Before long, she will know his story. She told me about a computer science graduate student: “He’s brilliant, and I just love that in men,” she gushed, her cheeks flushed from excitement and a bit of embarrassment.
I asked if she would ever consider marrying one of her phone buddies or school chums. She was horrified: “Oh no. I need a Lubavitcher. This is just harmless playing.”
Her behavior would probably shock many of her seminary classmates.
One spring morning I was observing Malkie’s seminary classes, as I often did during that year. Her skirts were just barely long enough to avoid censure, but long enough they were, for Malkie had no desire to make a spectacle of herself at school. Her makeup was on the eye-catching side, with bright blush and thick black eyeliner, but heavy makeup was common here, so she nearly blended in.
About 15 students were assembled, several in designer suits, others in casual sweaters. The majority wore makeup, often heavily applied, their thick foundation slathered generously and visibly. Many worked hard to give an impression of attractiveness; after all, matchmakers might ask their teachers about their physical appearance.
[One] teacher, Morah Firestone, was a fairly young, slender woman sporting a blonde wig; she looked both hip and unfailingly religious in her long straight skirt and yellow cardigan sweater. The topics were of unquestionable interest to everyone: dating, marriage, and love.
“Dating is the arena in which the most important decision in your life will be made,” Firestone said with calm decisiveness, and the girls listened attentively, for it was true; the husbands who emerged out of the dating process would be their partners in their major goal in life; raising a Jewish family.
“You shouldn’t be dating for romance,” Firestone continued, echoing a theme I heard over and over in discussions of Lubavitch marriage. “The love will grow as you start living with him.” This is a well-understood credo in Lubavitch: infatuation is ephemeral; the real test is the lifetime of caring and trust you will build.
Firestone quickly moved onto the actual married scene which will follow the dating game. “There is a big question here: how do you argue with your husband?”
An attractive young woman in a sleek navy blue suit was mystified: “What’s so hard? Just tell him you didn’t like what he said or how he acted or whatever.” Other girls nodded in agreement. Indeed, wives in this community do not tend to be wilting and meek; most of the girls’ mothers probably spoke their minds with ease to their fathers.
Firestone had another question that yielded an immediate response: “What if you come from a family where the men help and your husband doesn’t?”
“Train him!” a bunch of girls yelled out in chorus. Here, the task may be a bit harder than the young women anticipate; exoneration from household chores seemed ingrained in many males here.
Through all of this, Malkie listened attentively but offered no comment. At the “train him” comment, she glanced at me with a sly smile. She had told me many times how much she pitied women who were so swamped with housework that they lacked energy for an outside job. “Don’t they want their own money?” she’d ask, scornfully. She hopes for another job as well, to give her life balance, but she embraces with true passion the goal of teaching non-religious Jews about Hasidism.
Malkie’s relationship with me epitomized her seesawlike alternation between pushing boundaries and spiritual conviction. We met at a small birthday party for one of her friends. I noticed her immediately. At school she received little attention, but with her small circle of friends, she was a real character who reaped constant good natured teasing. “Hey, Malkie, where’s the flood?” a blonde young woman called out, eyeing Malkie’s green satiny skirt that left her knees bare. “Malkie, are you using that men’s deodorant today?” an olive skinned girl asked, giggling. A few weeks before, she had found the deodorant in Malkie’s room and was stunned and oddly delighted. It was a very Malkie-like form of rebellion—on the cusp of the unacceptable. I asked the group if Jewish law prohibited women from using men’s deodorant. “Oh, I knew you were going to ask that,” Malkie laughed. She never did answer the question. People are not supposed to wear clothes meant for the opposite gender, but deodorant, after all, is not clothes. As always, Malkie verged on the forbidden but didn’t quite cross over.
While Malkie found certain aspects of my life enthralling, she knew that, at bottom, I had it all wrong. She asked me when I planned to get married; marriage was not one of my plans. I looked at the floor. “I think it’s about time you found someone. Raising Jewish children is the most important thing you can do.”
Perhaps my behavior could spur the coming of the Messiah; Lubavitch teaches that every Jewish law followed, no matter how seemingly trivial, has profound mystical power One more Jewish wedding could catapult the universe into the Messianic age. Miniskirts and mysterious phone pals notwithstanding, this was Malkie’s most fundamental craving.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is a teaching fellow at Harvard University.
This is an adaptation of material from Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine. Copyright © November 2003 New York University Press. Used by arrangement with New York University Press. All rights reserved.