Synopsis: Stephanie Levine, Harvard Ph.D student, spends one year with girls from the Lubavich branch of Judaism. She gets to know the girls, their hopes, dreams and worries. What comes out of this study is a thoughtful and thought provoking portrait not just of the girls, their religion but also of girlhood in general.
My Thoughts: This was a thoroughly engaging, interesting and informative read. Levine’s portraits of the young girls touches upon some of the central aspects of growing up, aspects that are similar to girls in most of the world, while at the same time showing the differences between the girls in this community and the secular world, AND the differences between the girls themselves. She manages to draw important conclusions and highlight aspects where those of us in the secular world can learn from these deeply religious girls.
The book is part of Levine’s graduate study in American studies and as such reads like an academic paper. It is essentially divided into three sections: what she hopes to achieve and her methods; an introduction to the community and then the girls themselves; and finally the lessons she feels that the secular world can learn from her study.
As a student of humanities I loved her method discussion. She discusses previous studies that has impacted on her choice of method. The method chosen for this study is in depth interviews that follow no previous script, but rather flow, dependent on a relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee. This caused Levine to live within the Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for a year. I loved both the discussion of the methodology chosen and the way it worked. I can definitely understand how and why she got such detailed portraits of each of the girls. You can tell from the way she writes about them that they became her friends, that she cared deeply about them and their lives. This came across in the writing and made me want to know more about the girls, what happened next, did they fulfil their dreams etc. I do hope that Levine follows up with the girls in ten years time.
Some of Levine’s discussion regarding her findings are highly relevant for me as a future teacher and they are definitely something I will take into consideration in my future career. She discusses creating spaces for girls to be themselves without the competition both with boys, and with other girls for the attention of the boys. Lubavitch girls live a life with strict gender segregation and although this partially offends my feminist sensibilities I can also see the advantages, especially amongst teenagers. Levine argues that many girls lose their authentic voice as teenagers due to the tensions that are created in mixed gender settings, as someone who has spent time with teenagers I can only agree. In Sweden we often end up with gender segregated classes in high school because of the track system we have. For example Barn & Fritid (the Child & Recreation) program attracts a lot more girls than boys, conversely at the school where I do my placement we have a class on the mechanic/trucker program with only boys. These classes often have very different dynamics to those classes that are more evenly matched. Levine goes to great length to point out that gender segregation isn’t for everyone, or something that should be ongoing, but rather argues that it could offer girls especially a way to find their own voice. Setting it up as something temporary with support once it changes. It is an idea I can buy.
For me it was interesting to learn about the Lubavitch because I had never before come across evangelical Jews. The Lubavitch work to increase the observance amongst Jews. Although a large concentration of Lubavitch Jews live in the Crown Heights area many also live in Chabad houses around the world. These outreach houses are there to help local Jews to become more observant. The Lubavitch believe that Jews following rituals will call forth the Messiah. The Lubavitch have in the past been lead by the Rebbe, a spiritual leader whom some believe was the Messiah or will return as the Messiah.
If I have one criticism of the book than it is the choice of girls. Levine does comment that it was often easier to get the girls on the extremes of religious acceptance to talk to her. The very religious girls were willing to talk to her in order to increase her faith whereas the “rebels” were willing to talk because they liked hearing from someone outside of their faith. Although she does include some “normal” (their own word) girls, I personally felt that the book could have benefited from more of them. From what Levine says in the opening chapters and what she alludes to throughout the book, these girls often shape the community, and I never felt that I got to really see one of them.
One of the aspects of the Lubavich culture that Levine found fascinating, as did I, was the emphasis put on self examination. Not navel gazing, but “how do I fit in in the bigger picture”, “how does my actions impact on the goal”. Levine rightly points out that in much of secular society this type of reflection does not exist, or is at least not encouraged. Part of the Lubavich faith is the belief that each holy action brings the Messiah closer. It could be an action as simple as lighting the Shabbos candles that brings him into the world. Because of this the girls are encouraged to examine their actions and their faith on a regular basis.
I found the book incredibly interesting. There were things in it that informed me about the religion that is at the centre of these girls. And there were other things that I felt I could use in my future profession. And further things that allow me to see humans in general in a different light. It is a book I highly recommend for anyone who is interested in different cultures and in what makes people who they are.