Former Hassidic Authors Break Down Insular Walls in Society-Probing Novels

Anouk Markovits and Judy Brown discuss their novels on Hassidic life with moderator Lili Kalish Gersh at the DCJCC Jewish Literary Festival /photo taken by Rachel Mauro

What is hidden, and particularly what is sexual, seem to be a common theme in two novels presented at the annual DCJCC Jewish Literary FestivalI Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits and Hush by Eishes Chayil/Judy Brown. Markovits and Brown presented in front of a packed audience at this Moment Magazine-sponsored panel on Monday, October 15.

Markowits’s novel recreates Satmar history, from its Transylvanian beginnings to its migration to Paris and New York in the wake of the Holocaust. While probing larger cultural history, she focuses specifically on two sisters: one who reads secret secular books and ultimately leaves Hassidm, the other who keeps the faith but struggles with infertility in her marriage. Brown’s novel deals with the oft-ignored problem of sexual abuse in these insular communities.

Both authors read segments from their novels and then gave statements as to their inspirations/opinions about the Hassidic world from their vantage point of leaving it. I was particularly drawn to Brown’s allegory about how in Hassidm, religious garb automatically equals “good,” and it is difficult to fathom such things as “a man wearing a Shtreimel,” aka a religious Jew, being capable of acts of violence. She also grew up thinking of the secular world as “just decoration,” which has changed over time. (Her secular editors also sat her down to write a multi-page glossary for the back of her book. :P)

A lot of the Q&A with the audience seemed to hang on smoothing out cultural differences. Markowits admitted that one of the stranger parts of leaving the Hassidic world was realizing that “secular Jews” (anyone outside of Orthodoxy, I presume,) felt Jewish as well, though we adhere to far less ritual, if any. Brown corrected the moderator when she mistakenly referred to her as part of the Satmar, and the authors tried to explain the subtle differences between ultra-Orthodox groups that are, in fact, very similar.

Identity and loyalty are tenuous, even when one chooses to leave her community, and I really appreciated these women coming to talk to us. On such a harrowing topic such as sexual abuse, the authors spoke of the Hassidic world needing to take down its insular walls, and recognize that not all societal problems come from the outside. Fiction has a unique and visceral way of exposing the underbelly of cultural issues, and it certainly leaves its mark, given the size of this audience.

The DCJCC Literary Festival continues until Wednesday.