There was a time when I had a prejudice against Chassids and the Amish. I know this is not nice to admit, but I saw them as both unfriendly and anti-intellectual. However, this changed in my taking a class Religion in America. The teacher wanted each of us to study a religion in America outside of the one we grew up in. So I told him that I was raised Protestant; took some of my undergraduate education at the Catholic school; and converted to Judaism. Anyway, the teacher recommended to me that I study Chassidism. It was for a 40 page paper.
For the purpose I went to Chabad’s website. I was surprised how friendly and accepting they were: they were perfectly open to my being a Conservative Jewish convert. I was surprised because I had the impression that Chabad did not take converts from non-Jewish backgrounds. However, quickly I met Bronya, and we would discuss things like the religion but also my workplace, where I celebrated Jewish holidays on the grounds that if I celebrated the Christian holidays with the members and staff, they ought to have the opportunity to share my faith, too. Bronya was very supportive about my mental illness (Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder); my work with other mental patients; my cooking; my Judaism; my problems with my father; and my writing. I would even cut and paste both recipes (like how to make a pumpkin pie using a real pumpkin) and my poem written below.
Anyway, I was having a dark night of the soul a few nights back and wrote this poem—which I sent to Bronya:
Forever they elude me.
There is always a Mountain Peak
Higher than the one I am on.
And though my arms reach out
I cannot fly like the eagle in the wind.
Artist, Novelist, Poet, Historian—
Oh, the things I would be,
If I could do it all—
Yet my arms fall by my side
And they cannot fly like the eagle.
My dreams are forever beyond my reach.
And Bronya sent this Robert Browning quote back:
“…Ah, but a man’s reach
should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?…”
Bronya has always understood my dreams of being a writer. This was initially surprising to me because on the outside Chassidism is so confining to women. Yet I did write in my paper that the problem with feminists who spoke of Chassids is that they spoke for Chassidic women: they never bother ask the women what they wanted for themselves. Feminism, though right that Chassidic men are the ones who traditionally spoke for Chassidism, assumed that Chassidic women must necessarily see their religion as oppression based on this fact. I felt that this was misguided. I felt that it was possible that what feminists ought to do is ask Chassidic women what they wanted—inside their community or outside it—based on the recognition that Chassidic women might get something positive out of their faith, conservative though it is.
My own idea for such a project—which I hope to pick up someday—is the idea that the folk stories and traditions of Chassidic women could be written down. The Grimm Brothers pioneered interviewing mostly women for their tales: 2/3 of their stories were told to them by women. This means that for their own age, the Grimm brothers might even be considered feminists. More, two women in their interviewee group went on to write books in German which they published. Alas, I do not recall the names of these two women and am too lazy to look it up. However, the book this information is in is Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. I recommend it to any person interested in the Grimm Brothers; folklore; women; or German literature. However, it strikes me though books in Jewish folklore exist, they are not read enough… and also though there are many books of Chassidic folktales, they are mostly books of men only, with Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust written with a mixture of the male and feminine perspective.
Yet knowing Bronya personally has proved to me that Hassidism has made positive contributions to Judaism, and will continue to do so. I will probably never be a Chabadnik but I appreciate them as friends. And—believe it or not—while eating at Yoder, Kansas I met my first Amish person with a similar experience. He was such a sweet person! And he was selling antiques, one of which I bought—a model ship cast in iron.