Writing Hasidic Gender

Glenn Dynner on Hasidism: A New History

Few movements in modern Judaism have attracted as much interest among outsiders as Hasidism. Perhaps it is the movement’s colorful, charismatic leaders (tsaddikim or rebbes), flamboyant piety, or sheer spiritual intensity, i.e., the very things that secularist contexts often lack. Simon Dubnow (1860–1941) was the first to attempt a full history of Hasidism, single-handedly collecting and analyzing documents in multiple languages to chart Hasidism’s spectacular rise in the eighteenth century and alleged stultification and corruption by the late nineteenth century, his own day. Current-day scholars of Hasidism, indebted as they are to Dubnow’s pioneering work, tend to reject the latter, negative judgments and simply accept Hasidism as a part of modernity.

The authors of Hasidism: A New History, led by David Biale, have pooled their linguistic resources to produce an account of Hasidism within, not apart from, modernity from its onset in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe through its reconstruction in the United States, the setting of the final chapter. Their book is a montage of colorful testimony and freely-translated homiletics framed by good historical context and set within a narrative that demythologizes aspects of Hasidic history without reproducing secularist mythologies like the inexorable decline of religion. Yet the colossal book has drawn criticism for its relatively narrow field of vision and, especially, its all-male authorship. Some critics have wittily and wearily designated the book another “manthology,” composed as it was by eight male co-authors.

Hasidism: A New History. David Biale, et al. Princeton University Press, 2017.

If the authors of Hasidism: A New History did not do gender well, however, we might still ask how they wrote gender. Here, there is improvement over Dubnow’s exclusively male-orientation, since Biale and his co-authors do address the issue of women in Hasidic society. Yet they mainly address the issue through negation. Hasidism was “a men’s club,” they explain: the Hasidic prayer house (shtibl) usually lacked a women’s section, and the pilgrimage to the tsaddik’s court was “a male-only affair.” Apart from certain exceptional female figures, they explain, women’s roles were merely contingent —as petitioners escorted by men, as storytellers, or as economic managers of the court since “in traditional Jewish society in Eastern Europe, women were often the primary breadwinners.”

The authors conclude, jarringly, that “female members of Hasidic households did not historically define themselves as Hasidim nor were they defined as such by others,” and that women were “excluded from the rituals constitutive of Hasidic identity.” Such pronouncements appear to free the authors from any further inquiry into women’s experiences. Yet they fail to take into account recent advances in contemporary gender and religion theory. Newer studies like the late anthropologist Saba Mahmoud’s highly influential Piety and Politics (2005) analyze women’s piety as complex, meaningful, and potentially empowering even within the more patriarchal religious traditions, and offer new ways of thinking about women’s religious experience and agency within male-dominated contexts. For Hasidic women, religious identity did not necessarily entail improved ritual or legal status. Nevertheless, following Mahmoud, we can explore how their identity formation seems to have actually intensified in the crucible of marginalization, and how they often carved out modes of collective expression within private or semi-private spheres.

Rather than denying women a Hasidic identity, which would constitute a kind of erasure, we should be attuned to the ways that women understood themselves to be Hasidic, i.e., followers of a tsaddik, Hasidic religious customs, and Hasidic social mores. Many Hasidic women cultivated (and still do cultivate) a distinctive lifestyle and worldview: their household customs and foodways differ; their celebration of certain Jewish holidays are affected by the absence of their husbands; they follow Hasidic liturgical changes; their clothing is distinctive; and their marriages and wedding ceremonies hold special meanings.

Since the early nineteenth century, Hasidic women have made pilgrimages to tsaddikim during times of crisis, with or without male accompaniment (see, e.g., Megilat Seterim; Ets Avot; Ma’asyot nora’im of Radzymin), bearing petitions (kvitlekh) that requested the tsaddik’s blessing, advice, and divine intercession. Early tsaddikim like Israel of Kozienice (d. 1815) were attacked by non-Hasidic opponents for their popularity among women and their willingness to grant “a hundred blessings” for fertility. Indeed, the Belzer Rebbe’s reception room was “always crowded—with scores of suppliants, mostly women,” according Jiri Langer, his devotee.

While few petitions to tsaddikim are extant, I have examined a trove of petitions to the anomalous non-Hasidic miracle-worker R. Elijah Guttmacher (d. 1874) for insights into the petitioning experience for women. Hayya Breindel bat Shifra from Bialystok, referring to herself in the third person, as was the norm, confides to Rabbi Guttmacher that:

She has a mental illness and has gone to many doctors. And now God has let her improve, but not all the time, for one day she is in her right mind and another day she is not, God forbid. And she needs three things: to have a son, to be saved from depression [“the black bile”], and to be saved from the doctors. And she is convinced that [her depression] is either caused by sorcery, God forbid, or is hereditary. For two of her father’s sisters were lost because of it. And the doctors say that she should go to the spas, but her husband does not want to let her make the journey.

Hayya Breindel may have been operating fully within a patriarchal system. But her pilgrimage offered both therapeutic benefits and a means of circumventing the authority of her doctors and husband—things which the more typical, Hasidic pilgrimages would have similarly offered.

Certain Hasidic women emerged as activists and major patrons of the movement, influencing its very course. Part of my research has focused on Temerel Sonenberg-Bergson, a major nineteenth-century patron of Hasidism whose spectacular financial successes during the Kingdom of Poland’s incipient industrial revolution enabled her to groom, promote, and support tsaddikim, finance Hasidic institutions, and intervene with officials on behalf of the movement. Not surprisingly, Hasidic sources refer to Temerel as a “Hasidah.”

In the twentieth century, Polish Hasidism was virtually transformed by Sarah Schenirer, founder of the expansive Beis Yaakov school system for girls. According to Naomi Seidman’s recent biography, Schenirer bristled at being called “Little Miss Hasid” as a child (in 1910), but later allegedly proclaimed that she was a Hasid “in the full sense of the word.” Her female students treated her as a kind of tsaddik, and she presided over a “pan-Hasidic” movement for women that included outings, retreats, and other communal activities, Seidman shows. During the same period, the Hasidic-sponsored Agudat Yisrael helped organize women’s groups, including the activist women’s youth movement Bnos, while Chabad women in Poland and worldwide mobilized to help realize the movement’s mission.

Diaries and memoir accounts authored by less activist Hasidic women provide crucial insights about everyday female Hasidic lives. A Hasidic tavern-keeper’s daughter named Jula Wald, in her unpublished diary from 1918-1924, referred to herself repeatedly as “Hasidah.” What could she have meant by the term? Wald bemoaned the constraints of living as a “Hasidah,” which complicated her friendships with men. Yet she also gained inspiration: according to one entry she began to “tremble involuntarily” while observing a tsaddik’s soulful blessing over the wine, and asked herself how she could have ever considered depriving herself of such experiences. Moreover, Jula insisted on marrying only a Hasid, albeit one who was “cultured.” In the end, Hasidism and the Hasidic community remained her priority.

The memoirist Golda Finkler would similarly only consider a groom who was Hasidic, though “a bit worldly.” She was “brought up in the spirit of Lublin [Hasidism], which emphasized learning and scholarship,” and which even inspired her to attend university (with her parents’ assent!). Yet Finkler maintained her allegiance to the Hasidic court, which was warm and beautiful. She recalls a picturesque Seder led by her grandmother, separate from the men’s. “My grandmother (Bubbe Hana) wore a haybl or habu; it was a tall scarf, or bonnet, with points on the top. Bubbe Basia wore what was called a kapturek, tight around the head and tied with bands in the back of the head and tied with bands in the back of the neck.”

The memoirist Joseph Margoshes describes similarly distinctive dress among Belzer Hasidic women, who wore “clothing from their grandmother’s era: full, long, grey jubkas [triangular jackets], gowns like shrouds, and caps on their heads” as well as the “Belz veil.” According to Langer, the predominant colors were green, yellow, and white. In contrast, Oskar Kofler describes Chortkover Hasidic women as dressed more in accordance with European fashions, with collars to the chin, jointed sleeves, and long dresses. Distinctive clothing for women, as for men, remain markers of adherence to a particular Hasidic rebbe to this day. Differences over the practice of female head-shaving endure, as well.

Malkah Shapiro recalls that women at the Kozienice court, in addition to leading all-women ceremonies, were court storytellers and guardians of collective memory who exulted in recounting tales about exemplary wives of tsaddikim. Younger women were encouraged to engage in crafts like making wax fruits in order to “come to the realization that there is no Craftsman like the blessed Creator.” Further research could uncover manifold Hasidic women’s customs and folkways and their dynastic and regional variations, helping us to understand better how gender was practiced and performed across Hasidic society’s private and semi-private female spheres.

There were of course ostensibly negative female Hasidic markers, as well, such as exclusion from public rituals, stricter sartorial norms, and gender segregation and disparities. Hasidic women in late 1930s Poland, moreover, had to confront unique dangers like assaults by Polish “hooligans.” According to Eva Libitzky, “we Hasidim were particularly vulnerable … even females could be targets; we’d cover ourselves with shawls so as not to attract attention.” However, such negative experiences could be formative in their own way.

Hasidism: A New History does reflect some of the increased interest in women’s perspectives since Dubnow’s pioneering history appeared. But its attempts to deny women a Hasidic identity inadvertently threaten to write women out of Hasidic history, which is not new. As the book’s first, pre-Hasidism chapter notes, women were historically consigned to an “ancillary” role in pre-modern East European Jewish religious culture and were for centuries excluded from public worship altogether. Should we then declare pre-modern East European Judaism, too, a men’s club, and attempt to deny those women a Jewish identity?

It is hard to resist the observation that the authors have unconsciously recreated the very androcentricism they implicitly condemn. One hopes that they will rejoin the ongoing project of locating, analyzing, and integrating sources on Hasidic women, which enable a much fuller sense of Hasidic society. We cannot hope to comprehend Hasidic society solely through its men.

Glenn Dynner is Professor and Chair of Religion at Sarah Lawrence College and a 2019-20 Guggenheim Fellow. He is author of Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewry (Oxford, 2006); and Yankel’s Tavern: Jews, Liquor & Life in the Kingdom of Poland(Oxford, 2014). He is currently working on a monograph entitled Godfearers: Hasidism in Interwar & Nazi-occupied Poland.