Friday, January 28, 2011

Lifting the Veil

As an Upper West Sider in Manhattan, I live among Orthodox Jewish families. Parents drop off their children at the school on my block. I see the men in hats and women with their heads covered and wearing long skirts as they walk to services on Friday nights and stroll along the Hudson River with their children during the High Holy Days. Hush, by Eishes Chayil, took me inside this insular world and offered me a deeper understanding of its culture and customs. The novel’s narrator, Gittel Klein, lives just two blocks outside of the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park, but that’s enough to give her a rare arm’s-length perspective of her community.

The goyishe (non-Jewish) family that rents an apartment from Gittel’s father may be off-limits, but Gittel and her best friend, Devory, form a friendship with Kathy, Gittel’s upstairs neighbor, and realize that she is not the devil she’s painted to be. This raises other questions for Gittel. That exposure to outside values factors into her contemplation of whether or not to confide what she comes to realize about Devory’s suicide at age 10. While Gittel spends the night at Devory’s house, she witnesses something she doesn’t quite understand but that fills Gittel with fear. Devory’s 15-year-old brother, who is home from yeshiva, comes to Devory’s room in the dark and goes under his sister’s blanket: “I saw the blanket, how it moved back and forth and back and forth so fast I thought they were playing tug-of-war.” Those are the only details the author gives, but they are the only details she needs to give. Gittel never discusses this with Devory, but she knows something is terribly wrong. Only as she prepares for her marriage does Gittel realize what happened to Devory, and she must either betray her community by telling the truth, or betray herself.

There has been some debate about whether Hush would have been better served if it had been published as an adult book rather than as a book for teens. But I believe it is solidly young adult. The author clearly traces Gittel’s coming of age, and the way that the gradual realization of what happened to Devory shapes the person Gittel becomes. The chapters in which the 12-year-old Gittel narrates perfectly capture that young, trusting mind attempting to make sense of her world and testing her theories. It’s a book filled with warmth, humor and respect for family and tradition. So when Gittel begins to question the dark side of tradition and absolute loyalty, we feel the devastating consequences as acutely as Gittel does.

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