Books: Silenced Witness

A semi-fictional book set in the insular hassidic world asks ‘What happens when you are betrayed by those you trust the most?’

hassidic hat 311 (photo credit: Illustrative photo)
hassidic hat 311
(photo credit: Illustrative photo)
Despite its title, Hush is beginning to make a lot of noise. It cannot make enough. The sound is like a long, agonized scream and there are still too many people who prefer to block it out than ask who is suffering and why.
This debut work – part-fiction, partmemoir – stands out for its topic and setting: the cloistered hassidic world in New York’s Boro Park. Here, the heroine, Gittel, as a young girl, witnesses an act of incest carried out on her best friend, Devory. The perpetrator is Devory’s brilliant yeshiva student brother.
Gittel’s silence stems partly from the fact that she lacks the worldly knowledge to understand what she has seen; does not have the words, such as “rape,” to describe it; and cannot ask the right questions in a society so closed that nothing exists beyond its own religious rules and conventions – the biggest secret of young Gittel’s life is that she has a gentile neighbor (with a pet cat, no less), with whom she dares to be friendly.
Early on we discover that Devory has killed herself. As if this is the ultimate sin, all traces of her are erased from communal memory: Photographs are destroyed; neither she nor her name exist any more. The brother, meanwhile, is shipped off to Israel with the rest of the family to avoid police investigation.
It is not surprising that the writer chose a pseudonym rather than revealing her own identity. This is still a society in which such matters are hushed. Eishes Chayil, the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the phrase meaning a woman of valor, is both fitting and ironic. We are told in the jacket information that she was raised in the hassidic community (and certainly has a feel for both its joys and its constraints) and that she has a master’s degree in creative writing and a background in journalism.
Stylistically, the work is jumpy. The novelist skips forward and back in time and much of the story takes the form of letters that Gittel writes to her dead friend.
Writing in a child’s voice is always hazardous and she doesn’t quite pull it off. It isn’t until Gittel is an adult – a newlywed 18-year-old – that the novelist shows that she has her own, talented, voice.
Gittel’s marriage indeed is the turning point. She is betrothed in a shidduch to a groom whose name she barely knows (but who has the necessary yichus, family relations and background).
Only on her wedding night does Gittel finally understand what Devory’s brother had been doing to her best friend under the covers, triggering tremendous trauma and guilt.
I learned of the book from a school psychologist with extensive experience working in the society portrayed here.
She begged me to review it saying: “Nothing I have ever read describes like this what hundreds – yes, hundreds – of children suffer today in the haredi community because, as one mother once wept to me: Maybe we live in New York, but we don’t live in America.”
This was after the mother had been threatened that if she reported a pedophile, child welfare services would be told she was abusing her children and they would be taken away from her.
As the book makes clear, crimes like incest and pedophilia are not restricted to hassidic society. Neither is the silence.
But although Gittel’s father turns out to be the warmest character in the book, he sums up the situation when he tells her mother: “Sometimes we build such high walls for protection that we forget that our greatest enemy can grow from within. My daughter’s soul will stay pure...
She will speak to no one.”
Some of the details are poignantly revealing. For example, the newlyweds have difficulty finding something to talk about, knowing almost nothing of each other and excruciatingly unused to speaking to the opposite sex.
There is both humor and pathos in the descriptions but the use of Yiddishisms throughout, while authentic, is off-putting even with a provided glossary.
The message is a haunting one – that silence can be imposed for the sake of conformity, for fear of ruining the chances of a good arranged marriage and out of concern for what others will think: of an individual, a family, a community.
And the silence can cost lives.
I found the book disturbing, not only for the story it tells, but because of the untold stories (was the yeshiva bocher brother himself, perhaps, the victim of secret abuse?).
Hush is intended for young adults but should be read by anyone who cares. It is better that the silence be broken than that even one young soul be destroyed.