Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Secret Lives of Hasidims

I'm straying away from politics today to offer another newspaper translation. I read the column a few days ago and promised myself to translate and post it, but the rare sight of a hasidim jew enjoying Monday Night Football in a sports bar on St.Laurent street convinced me to get on it ASAP.

Rima Elkouri is a La Presse reporter and columnist. She writes a lot about city life and the various cultural communities and minorities one will find in Montreal. I always loved her stories and topics.

I also have an insatiable curiosity for hasidic jews that goes back to my teenage years in the suburb of Boisbriand, where an important isolated community of hasidims live. I previously wrote a post referencing them.

Here's my translation of her very interesting paper on a "hasidic superwoman."

The Secret Lives of Hasidims

Rita is a woman as strong as she his private, who raises her seven children in the Mile-End. But we could have the impression that it's on another planet. Rita is a hasidic jew, and she respects to the letter the precepts of her religious movement. This does not stop her from having opinions on life, on the world. With one week to go before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, our journalist visited her on her balcony.

"It's okay with you if we sit on the balcony?"

"It's perfect."

Rita is my hasidic jew neighbour, well, almost. We are neighbours without actually be. Even if I see her almost every day on her balcony, even if we walk the same sidewalks, her universe is for the most part alien to mine. Our lives are skimming on each other without really touching.

On a summer night, while she was sitting on the balcony with her daughters, I introduced myself to my neighbour and asked if she would accept to open her door to me. Her immediate neighbour, who has known her for a long time, had already probed the terrain for me. Rita had a shy smile. I felt that she was too polite to say no, too modest to say yes. She first said she was not the kind to spread her life on the public place. But after a few hesitations, the mother of seven finally decided to meet me. "Come back in two weeks", she said, explaining that her daughter would be giving birth within the next few days and that she would be too busy to receive me during that period.

That's how I ended up in front of Rita's door on a Monday morning. I was a few steps away from my home. Yet, I felt like I was at a foreign country's border. In the land of "sirs with round hats", as observed on a saturday morning by my 4-years-old son while seeing a hasidic man wearing his traditional sabbath fur hat. A secret country that issues very few visas to foreign tourists.

I rang. It's the 7-years-old son that opened the door. In his "Sunday best", wearing the kippah, his payots neatly smoothed. I asked to speak with his mother. "One moment", he said. The house was busy. A teenager with long red hair came back to talk to me. "It's the baby's circumcision today, she said in a low voice, in english. Mom is asking if you can come back Tuesday or Wednesday."

I said I would come back. "I wish you a good day", politely said the young girl before closing the door.

The next day, I had an appointment with Rita at 2:30PM. She appeared on her balcony wearing a navy blue tunic with blue and pink stripes. She was wearing opaque stockings and a gray headband. A make-up free face, glasses sitting on the nose. She unfolded two chairs.

Inside the house, the newly circumcised newborn was crying. "Is it because of the circumcision?"

"No! said Rita with the reassuring tone of a grand-mother that has seen a lot. It's a baby that was already crying a lot before. But he has been affected for sure. He will get over it!"

An elderly man, black hat and white beard, exits the house while saluting Rita. "It's the rabbi that did the circumcision. He came to make sure everything was alright."

Hasidic Superwoman

I spent two afternoons on Rita's balcony talking circumcision and breastfeeding, man-woman relations and hasidic marriages, of the contrast between her community and the society surrounding it, the silence of the ones and the curiosity of the others, of good and less good neighbourood, of tensions and temptations.

While talking, Rita appeared as a pragmatic woman, a strong character, who is not afraid to voice her opinions. A mother hen and a watchful neighbour that knows all the neighbourhood gossip. A kind of superwoman as we see more and more in the hasidic community, reconciling work and big family. Conservative to the nails, yes, of course, but on many levels more open and respectful than I first thought. A secret woman, also. Rita's name is not Rita. It was out of question to talk about all these subjects while revealing her name to the public. I could have insisted. But I was afraid I would lose my visa.

Rita is 43-years-old. She is the mother of seven children, but in fact, she had eight. One of her firstborn twins died when she was 5 of a chronic lung disease. "She had her last sigh sitting on my knees, she says, the voice strangled by emotions. Sixteen years later, the wound still hurts. She suffered so much that I tell myself that she's better now. This is my consolation", she says in a low voice.

Children are Rita's whole life. Her firstborn, already married, is 21-years-old. The youngest one is 3-years-old. Between the two, there is a 20-years-old daughter, also married, 14-years-old twins (a boy and a girl) and two other sons, aged 11 and 7. "They bring me so much happiness. When I hold my 11-days-old grand-kid, it just makes me want more" she says, moved.

She recalls, laughing, that time when she was transporting her kids in her triple stroller that she called her "tchoo-tchoo-train", non-jewish neighbours stopped her to say: "You know we admire you?" Why? she wondered. For Rita, there's nothing more natural than having a children swarm around her. "Is there any other way to live?"

Respect the Other's Culture

Born in Israel, Rita landed in Montreal while she was very young. She always lived in the Mile-End. Her mother was from Romania, her father, from Poland, both were Holocaust survivors. She teaches yiddish and religion. Her husband too. "For me, the two only options were either to work as a secretary for a religious person or to teach. It was the only way to respect the Jewish calendar."

There was a time where it was almost impossible for a majority of hasidic jews to pursue college or university studies. Because in an inward-looking community where man and woman live parallel lives, mixing sexes is not encouraged. But since 1985, upon a request by the Ministry of Education, Marie-Victorin Cégep administers college level programs offered in Montreal jewish schools. That's how Rita's older daughters both got a college degree as youth education technicians without ever stepping in a real Cégep.

Even if non-jews always talk to her in english, Rita speaks french well. "Before, I was shy to speak french. I can't say that I master the past perfect! But I tell myself: 'We live in Quebec. We want to be respected. If I want my culture to be respected, I must respect the culture of others.'"

Love Behind Closed Doors

I talked for a while with Rita of what she refers as the "invisible border" between
her community and the rest of society. On both sides of this border, there is a lot of misunderstanding. She remembers a conversation she had with a man who addressed her in the bus. He started talking about the Outremont hasidims, about the fact that they buy more and more houses in the neighbourhood. Rita answered that houses were for sale for everybody and that, if people didn't want to sell them, they didn't have to. The man kept going, saying his hasidic neighbours were not saluting him, she tells. "Did you try to salute them? asked Rita, who has a personal rule to say hello to everyone that wants to salute her, jews or not

That said, it's important to know that, inside the community itself, there is strict rules regarding the conduct between men and women. You can't salute anybody, anywhere. "Men can't socialize with women that are not in their immediate families. Myself, if I meet my son-in-law, I can't say hello. It's a question of modesty.

Even between husband and wife, modesty is required. You can't show emotions. You can't hold hands on the sidewalk. Let's not talk about kissing in public. "Love is lived behind closed doors. There's even couples that won't sit on the same couch if their kids are there.

Keeping Children Away from Temptations

The cocoon voluntarily created by hasidic jews is linked to their need to perpetuate an heritage which rules are numerous and rigid, says Rita. "To keep children away from temptations, it must be that way. It has all to do with our beliefs. It's not because there is something negative with the others.

What are those "temptations" she refers to, by the way? It goes from consuming pork or non-kosher food to premarital sex. "It's so common that we have no choice but to protect our children, says Rita. My 11-years-old son saw his two sisters become pregnant. He doesn't know how they became pregnant, but he knows it happens right after being married."

Rita tells me how embarassed she was when her children heard a man on the street refer to the mother of his children as his girlfriend. "They asked me a ton of questions. I told them he just called her that way..."

At the same time, she makes sure to explain to her kids that rules that apply to hasidims do not apply to all. "When my children ask me why the neighbour drives his car on a Saturday, I explain that the neighbour was not born jewish and that he's allowed to drive his car on sabbath."

Despite everything, Rita has always allowed her children to play with the neighbours. The electric car that she won in a contest, every little kid that wanted, jewish or not, was allowed to try it and push the invisible border a little further.

The worst, according to Rita, would be to have a kid that would turn his back on the community. There's more and more, she says. "For their parents, it's worse than if they were dead."

TV Forbidden

To maintain the cocoon undisturbed, it's impossible for the majority of hasidim to be exposed to TV, radio or internet. You never listen to the news, then? "People that want to listen to the news do it in their car."

It's also out of question to risk eating non-kosher food at the neighbours' place, as sympathetic as they seem to be. "Even if we are served only fruits, if those fruits have been cut with a knife that was used to cut pork, we have a problem."

What kind of problem? What happens to someone that eats a non-kosher fruit? A rational question in an universe that is not. "We are born in this tradition and we believe it, simply. If it happens, there is a terrible feeling of guilt. We tell ourselves that we were not cautious enough. We feel that our soul has been spoiled and that we will need to atone our fault. If not, we'll be punished. And if you sin voluntarily, there is hell."

How does Rita see the future of her expanding community in a society that looks so different? Even if she is conscious that tensions exist, Rita believes in peaceful cohabitation. Live and let live. It's out of question to impose hasidic rules to society, she says. But it's out of question to abandon her heritage. Hence the invisible border, that intrigue some and irritate others. It doesn't mean that we can't talk. "I wish that people would ask me more questions!"

We can talk. We must talk. But we can't be friends? I asked Rita, while guessing the answer. She looked puzzled. Then, philosophically, she answered while looking in my eyes: "If there is 26 rocks in front of us and that there is 25 on which we can't walk, how can we do it? There is too many differences in our respective lifestyles. And who can say: I am strong enough to resist temptations?"

I left Rita with her cauldrons and her kids protected against "temptations". I went back on the other side of the border, a little less ignorant but as curious. I will need more than one visa to discover the secret of my hasidic neighbours.

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At 6:34 PM, Blogger TLC Tugger rants...

Interesting article. I feel so bad for the kids in that situation.

They're not old enough to know where babies come from at 11, but at birth they're old enough to have the best part of their genitals amputated?

I'm stunned Rita would lie to her child. How they claim to be so righteous when the truth means nothing?

It should be illegal to tell kids that fairy tales are true.


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