Eishes Chayil apparently means “Woman of Valor,” the ultra-Orthodox Jewish term for a woman who keeps the Law, raises a family, and sustains the Jewish community in a particularly noble and Godly manner. Eishes Chayil is also the pseudonym for the ultra-Orthodox, Chassidic Jewish Brooklynite who wrote this story of a community bound by laws and customs that ensure their survival and strengthen their commitment to one another and to God but also make them vulnerable to pressure from within that community to cover up the most damaging of secrets.
The book is most obviously comparable to Laurie Halse Anderson’s classic, Speak. Both books are about the difficulty of speaking out about rape and child abuse. But Hush goes one step further to immerse the reader in a Hassidic Jewish community in which no one even acknowledges the possibility of sexual abuse, a community which speaks a language in which there isn’t even a word for “rape” or “molestation.” The twenty-first century ultra-Orthodox community of the novel is set in the center of New York CIty, and yet the families there live in a different world, a world of no TV, no computer, separate schools, separate stores, and segregated lives. The goyim, Gentiles, are scary people who not chosen by God and not associated with by devout Chassidish (Hassidic Jews). Even other groups of Orthodox Jews are suspect and not assured of acceptance by God and by the Chassidish. To report a case of rape or molestation, a child would first have to find the words and the understanding to know and verbalize what was happening. Then, he would have to have the courage to step outside the community that had nurtured and formed him and to accept the accusations of betrayal and deception that would immediately follow.
Hush tells the story of two friends, Gittel and Devory, growing up in the Chassidic community in New York City. Gittel is a beloved daughter of a devout and Torah-loving family, and so is Devory. The two girls experience all sorts of adventures together: dressing up for Purim, befriending a goyim neighbor, watching the movie Cinderella at the home of a more modern Jewish friend. But when the two girls are ten years old, tragedy strikes, and Gittel is told repeatedly to forget, to pretend that nothing ever happened, to move on with her life, to hush.
There are couple of problems with the novel. The action moves back and forth from 2003, when Gittle and Devora are ten years old, to 2009-10 when a grown-up Gittel must decide whether to forget or to speak out. As a result, the timeline becomes a bit confusing at times. And a few scenes seemed unnecessary to me, as if they were stories that the author wanted to tell about the ultra-Orthodox community, but stories that didn’t really fit into the arc and purpose of the novel. All of the novel reads like a memoir at times, and the author herself says, “It is a story I wrote about life in the ultra-Orthodox Chassidic world–about our joy, about our warmth, and about our deep-seated denial of anything that did not follow tradition, law, or our deeply ingrained delusions.” The anonymous author is obviously writing from experience. And she gets a little preachy toward the end of the book.
To speak of minor problems, however, is to quibble. The book held me spellbound, and I finished it in a day. I love entering a foreign culture and learning to see my own cultural assumptions from a different perspective. I wondered how different this community and fierce self-protectiveness was from the ultra-conservative homeschool community, except that the homeschool community doesn’t have a tradition and a heritage that goes back hundreds of years. I can picture there being a homeschool community in which the pressure to keep silent about accusations of abuse was paralyzing. After all, we want to protect the innocent from false accusations. And we want to preserve the innocence of our children by not even speaking to them of the possibility of abuse. And we don’t want to believe it could possibly happen in our group, in our community. It’s a difficult subject, but one that many children and adults are forced to confront.
This book is being marketed as young adult fiction. I would recommend it for mature young adults and adults. The descriptions are not sexually graphic at all, but the content is by its very nature, mature. The publication date for this novel is today, September 14, 2010.