Eye-opening journey into Lubavitch womens world

Growing up in the highly Jewish, mostly secular suburbs of Detroit, my best friend was an Orthodox girl — modern Lubavitcher. Really modern.

Every Friday night I’d go to her house and we’d watch the movie “Meatballs” on the VCR. Her parents reasoned that though we were using electricity, at least we were in the house on Shabbat. I’d usually spend the night and we’d go to shul the next day. Later we’d go for a walk — which usually involved buying and smoking cigarettes and perhaps a pit stop at McDonald’s for a cheeseburger.

With this history in mind, I was only too excited to read Stephanie Wellen Levine’s “mystics, mavericks, and merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls.” Levine, a secular Jew and now a professor at Tufts University, chose to live among the Chassidic Lubavitchers in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights for one year. Her hope was to glean an understanding of the voices and experiences of young women raised in modern times in what some argue is an unabashedly patriarchal culture.

I was just looking to read more tales like the ones I had lived with my best friend.

What I found was something quite different: women who struggled with rebellion, and took it quite seriously. Women who understood what it meant to step outside of the clearly drawn lines, and occasionally risked it anyway. I also encountered women so fully supported by their community that their sense of self was strong, their resolve unshakable.

“Mystics, mavericks and merrymakers” is a journey into a world that many of us are invited into, but never enter.

Stepping into this close-knit community, Levine begins to unravel the sometimes conflicting, sometimes subtle mores for Chassidic girls: Understand, but don’t embrace for yourself the secular Jewish world; be religious, but not too holy; have a little fun, but not so much that you might ruin the family name and your chances of marrying into a proper family.

“Tension emerges,” Levine explains, “as Lubavitch culture lovingly nurtures each girl’s developing persona but keeps many domains under careful surveillance. This conflict is the centerpiece of my project; every one of the girls I profile offers a variation on the theme of selfhood in the context of tight conformity.”

Consider the cast of characters:

There’s Chaya, an innocent who wants to know more of the world. She and Levine visit a strip club where a friend — yes, raised Lubavitch — works as a waitress and spends the night trying to delve into the souls of the strippers.

Gittel, brilliant and headed for medical school, chose her husband with romance in mind. Her mother is a career woman.

Malka is neither too rebellious nor too sacrosanct, but somewhere in the middle. And yet the miniskirts she wears rest right on the border of scandalous, among observant sectors.

Rochel belongs to an underground group of Lubavitchers who get together to read secular poetry, smoke cigarettes and pot, go to lesbian bars and also kiss their boyfriends. The two who established this group of truth-seekers were forced to leave their families, and opened their home to friends and others.

It would be easy for Levine to exploit the women, to dive into the controversy, the certain scandalousness of their lives within Chassidic confines. Instead, in true journalistic fashion, she shows balance.

She also uncovers the commonalties among these girls, and shows what their community has and has not provided for them.

At core, she meets individuals raised in a culture that celebrates women. No meek, subservient bunch of babymakers, these young women have been raised on a book of Lubavitch philosophy called the Tanya, which teaches girls to tend to and cultivate their souls. Encouraged to develop self-awareness and self-exploration, they are given a spiritual guide or confidante with whom to discuss the issues of life.

On a secular level, Levine notes that Lubavitch girls tend to hold onto the childhood voice and spirit that many young American girls seem to lose too early. She believes Lubavitch women have less trouble within their friendships than mainstream young women. Lubavitch girls, she discovers, tend to be boisterous and direct, more so than their nonreligious counterparts. Quite simply, they don’t feel the need to change their voice or sense of self in order to find a place within their community.

In an era seemingly plagued with sex, anorexia and depression among our nation’s girls, a page from “mystics, mavericks and merrymakers” is a refreshing peek into the possibilities for growth, strength and self.

“mystics, mavericks, and merrymakers:An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls” by Stephanie Wellen Levine. (255 pages, New York University Press. $26.95).