Archive for the ‘Eishes Chayil’ Category

ThisIsNotALoveStoryI will readily admit that I am confused about Judy Brown’s goal in writing This is Not a Love Story: A Memoir. Her novel, Hush, was a condemnation of the Chassidic sect when it came to dealing with sexual abuse. The book jacket of This is Not a Love Story says that Ms. Brown has left the Chassidic world. So, was this a vilification of the Chassidic treatment of autism in the late 1980s or a little girl’s self centered view of her world with a brother deemed “crazy” and a family deemed to be “cursed” or was it an acclamation of what the right therapist/teacher can do to assist someone with autism to function in the world?Hush JKT.indd

I imagine it is hard enough to deal with a sibling who is ‘different’ but when the elders you are supposed to respect say your family is cursed because they did something against God’s will, for an eight year old girl it becomes even worse. In the first half of This is Not a Love Story Judy Brown (aka Menuchah) lists some of the many reasons she’s been told by her friends, her teachers and other adults in the community why her family might have been cursed. My favorite (not really) is that marriage partners are ordained by God. The Rabbis (with assistance from matchmakers) decide who is right for whom. It is not rare that a Chassidic bride and groom will meet only once prior to their wedding. Yet, Manuchah’s parents had the audacity to fall in love prior to getting married. God was angry as was her maternal grandfather who died a year and a half before Menuchah was born and levied his curse upon the family. The curse manifested itself in the form of Nachum, Menuchah’s younger brother by a year and a half who exhibited all the signs we currently attribute to autism but went undiagnosed in the late 1980s.

Menuchah’s family dealt with Nachum’s differentness by (i) banishing him to Israel for a year, (ii) sending him to a special school that was supposed to ‘cure’ him, (iii) sending him back to Israel. But the stigma of having a ‘crazy’ brother carries big, long lasting scars. Family friends were not hesitant to say Nachum should be institutionalized. The prospects of a proper match when Menuchah and her siblings were of marriage age diminished with Nachum front and center in the family. Only the perseverence and belief by their mother, Esther, that something could be done saved Nachum from an institutionalized life.

It also seems to me that, at times, her parents (her mother, in particular) showed a lack of responsibility in (i) not confronting these ‘curses’ and explaining they are not true and (ii) sending an uncontrollable Nachum, Manuchah and her younger siblings out with a teenage babysitter so that she could get the house ready for Passover.

I found This is Not a Love Story to be a disturbing book in so many ways. The author comes out as a self centered eight year old (yes, I know, most eight year olds are self centered) with no compassion whatsoever for her brother or the agony that her parents were going through. The views of the Chassidic community were equally disturbing: it’s God’s will, it’s God’s curse, institutionalize the boy, the boy is crazy. I realize the 1980s may not have been the ‘age of enlightenment’ but was it really that bad? In the end Ms. Brown states that the Chassidic community is much more accepting of children with autism or Down’s Syndrome. And while she should know, I wonder because the community is so insular (their belief that non-Jews are evil and should be avoided and not befriended is apparent in the book) and their belief in the ‘will of God’ is so strong, that I do wonder whether they would be accepting of an autistic child in their midst.

This is Not a Love Story is a fast read (but not an easy read) and there are some touching moments, especially at the end. But as I said, it is very disturbing as well.

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In 2008, eighteen year old Gittel Klein is getting married. But her childhood best friend, Devory Goldblatt, are invading her thoughts and especially her dreams. Gittel witnesssed Devory’s sexual abuse by her brother, and at the tender age of 9, Devory hung herself in Gittel’s bathroom using Gittel’s favorite sparkly purple jump rope.

In any insular world, be it Gittel’s Brooklyn Chassidic world or the Church or another closed community, actions like these are swept under the rug, hushed up, never spoken of. And so it was with Devory. Gittel was afraid to say anything. Even at age eighteen, her fear of the devastation that confession would bring, stopped her from going to the police.

Devory’s parents had no idea how to control their ‘crazy’ child, a child who would go outside in her nightgown without shoes, who would show up at Gittel’s house and say she was sleeping over because there was no room in her house. The Kleins would call the Goldblatts and then drive Devory home, to certain abuse. And after Devory’s suicide, the Goldblatt’s relegated her body to a lonely corner of a far away cemetery and relocated to Israel–the shame being too much for them. When Gittel finally visits the grave several months before her own child’s birth, there is no pebble on the grave stone marking a visitor, as is the Jewish custom.

It took Gittel’s own pregnancy to empower her to speak out, take a stand, against the wishes of her family, her community and her friends.

Hush written by Eishes Chayil (meaning Woman of Valor in Hebrew) is based on incidents in the author’s life. Hush brings to light how amazing it is that in this enlightened era, the symptoms of abuse go unnoticed or unacknowledged. Rather, the victim is thought to be crazy or unbalanced and the perpetrator goes unpunished. The description of the abuse is probably about a page and is handled delicately. The remainder of the book goes back and forth between 1999 and 2008/2010, describing Gittel and Devory’s friendship in the early years and Gittel’s battle with herself and her family over her dilemma, her guilty conscience, her feeling that her inaction significantly contributed to Devory’s suicide..

Although Hush is not a riveting/can’t put it down book, it is worth reading because it highlights many culture’s reaction/inaction to sexual abuse. Definitely thought provoking.

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