Thursday, February 3, 2011
Hush by Eishes Chayil
2010, Walker Books for Young Readers
Inside the closed community of Borough Park, where most Chassidim live, the rules of life are very clear, determined by an ancient script written thousands of years before down to the last detail and abuse has never been a part of it. But when thirteen-year-old Gittel learns of the abuse her best friend has suffered at the hands of her own family member, the adults in her community try to persuade Gittel, and themselves, that nothing happened. Forced to remain silent, Gittel begins to question everything she was raised to believe.
A richly detailed and nuanced book, one of both humor and depth, understanding and horror, this story explains a complex world that remains an echo of its past, and illuminates the conflict between yesterday's traditions and today's reality.
Hush is a powerful book that you won't soon forget. Tons of books deal with child molestation and its painful aftermath, but Hush stands out. Gittel is growing up in the Chassidic Jewish community in New York City. Although she lives in the middle of the biggest, most sophisticated city in America, her world is incredibly small and sheltered. It's truly like going to a different country a hundred years ago.
When Gittel was 9 years old, she witness her friend Devory being molested. She didn't know what was happening, but she knew something was wrong. The book fluctuates between Gittel narrating the story as a 9 year old and as a 18 year old. We watch Devory as she slowly withers away from the trauma of her molestation until her death and then see Gittel as a new adult just starting to understand what really happened.
Chayil does a marvelous job showing how devastating the molestation is on Devory. She alternates between acting wild and crazy and then withdrawing completely. It's horrifying to see all the adults in Devory's life blame her - call her a horrible child - place all the blame on Devory. They don't know why Devory is acting this way, but never bother to think there might be a reason behind it.
Gittel observes all of this with concern and uneasiness, but is too young to have any conception of what's wrong. She is a confused bystander. Devory's awful death in some ways only makes things worse for Gittel. The community knows about the molestation but hushes it up. Even Gittel's family forbids her to speak of it, knowing that her awareness would destroy her chance of a successful marriage.
I think that the author chose to have Gittel narrate the book as an 18 year old newlywed because she doesn't understand what actually happened to Devory until she gets married. Gittel's life is incredibly sheltered. She's never been exposed to media or to the outside world. Until her wedding night, she doesn't know where babies come from. This new awareness brings Devory's molestation and death back to the forefront in her mind until the sadness and anger nearly destroys her.
The main focus of Hush is on the devastation of child molestation and the suppression of it by an entire community. But on a lighter note, the book is a fascinating cultural study. The author goes to great lengths to portray Chassidic culture. We learn about traditional family structure, schooling, religious practices, arranged marriages, and more. The book is filled with Yiddish phrases and has a large glossary at the end. I've been interested in Chassidic Jews ever since doing a paper about them in college, and I loved learning so much about their lives in Hush.
I liked how the portrayal of adults was both good and bad. You had Devory's parents who were just horrible. Gittel's mother was like a lot of mothers - in her zeal to see her daughter raised correctly, she came off as harsh and overbearing. But I felt she was only trying to help her daughter in her own way. Gittel's father was wonderful - funny, caring, and understanding. It was sad to see even him complicit in the cover-up of Devory's molestation and death. Kathy, Gittel's Gentile neighbor served as a mentor to her - a positive influence who never tired of telling Gittel that she was wonderful. I also grew to love Gittel's husband.
The effect of the Chassidim's self-imposed isolation is really fascinating. Given the history of persecution against the Jews, it's understandable why they want to keep to themselves. But it's not only that. Gittel goes to a school only with her specific sect of Chassidim - even other Jews are foreign. If it wasn't for Gittel's Gentile neighbor, she would never interact with any person who was not Jewish. This self-imposed segregation keeps the culture safe, but at a price. Anyone not like them - especially Gentiles but even other Jews - are scary and bad. They can't be trusted. This leads to situations where the community refuses to turn one of their own into the police, even if it means he is sure to commit more atrocities.
I highly recommend Hush for a book that is not only painful, intense, and beautiful, but also takes you to another world.
Rating: 4.5 / 5