17 Nov 2012

"Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" by Stephanie Wellen Levine

Ever read a book that had you gripping it tightly with anticipation? That was so full of emotions, actions, excitement that whenever you weren't reading the book, you were thinking about the book? A book that left you wanting more and made you yearn for a sequel? 

I read a book like that recently and much to your surprise, it was a non-fiction book. Probably the most gripping non-fiction I have ever read and definitely one of the best books I have read in 2012. "Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: A Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls" by Stephanie Wellen Levine is a master piece in its genre. Having studied psychology, I have read a good number of similar books and this one stands out because it is written with passion, with a true interest and love by an author who can write. Levine is more than just a researcher, writing an academic text, she is an author chronicling lives. 

The lives she chronicles are those of Hasidic, Lubavitch teenage girls who live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a tight-knit, highly orthodox Jewish community. Everything in their lives is centered around the Jewish, Hasidic faith. They go to the Bais Rivka high school, a girls only school where they are required to very kosher clothes - no pants but long skirts and shirts covering their elbows. They obey the kosher food rules and have pizza at a local Hasidic pizzeria, where although both girls and boys come there, they talk only to other girls. A good Hasidic girl does not interact with males outside of her immediate family. 
They have hopes and dreams, the listen to music and watch movies (albeit only approved, Jewish music and movies) and they love shopping. However, in all of this their focus is on their God and while other, "normal" teenage girls might discuss hot boys and dating, these girls are more likely to discuss whether the Rebbe, a central religious leader, is the Messiah. Dating is not an issue for these girls because a majority of them will meet their future husband through a matchmaker and will marry him in a traditional, gender-segregated Lubavitch ceremony after as little as three dates. Falling in love is not a goal, growing to love your spouse is. 

This might make it sound like all of these girls are alike but nothing could be further from the truth. In this book, Levine introduces her reader to the a group of girls as individual as they come. There is the rebel who reads Satre and Freud, a rebel who works as a waitress in a strip club to fund her rent and college tuition. There's the academic, high-achieving golden girl who wants to train as a doctor and raise a traditional Lubavitch family at the same time. There's the normal girl whose frustrated mother sometimes takes her anger out in violence against her children. There's the highly religious girl who sometimes, secretly wishes she was a boy so that she could study the Torah instead of doing womanly chores such as cooking and cleaning. There's the girl whose faith is so unwavering that she wants to leave the safety of the community to spread the word about Lubavitch in faraway places where she and her husband will be the only Lubavitchers. 
It is a stunning insight into their lives. A fascinating, easily readable, tale of the strength of young women. Of their resourcefulness and intelligence and big hearts. Reading this inspired me and left me full of hope and love for the young women of today who have so many expectations forced upon them from media and society and yet manage to emerge as strong women. 

Read it if: You find teenage girls and their hopes and dream interesting. You want insight into a very different culture, thriving in the midst of New York. You want something to juxtapose the vacuousness of shows such as Gossip Girl and 90210, something with a bit more bite and a bit more value. 

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