Hush, Eishet Chayil

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An Eishet Chayil is, in Jewish religious terms, a Woman of Valour. It is a phrase used to connote the biblical mothers who characterise the ultimate in all facets of Jewish female life. The phrase Eishet Chayil refers to a poem or song which is said to be Abraham’s eulogy to his wife Sarah, the iconical (Jewish) woman.

The fact that this book is authored by the pseudonymic ‘Eishet Chayil’ speaks volumes about the author’s message, her intent and the challenge of her subject matter.

Hush is set in an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. It is a neighbourhood that I have visited, a place where I know people. The protagonist is a young girl who attends a seminary, is very innocent (some might say naive), one of many children, a young girl who believes that all people who are not Jewish are evil. In many ways, the world that this girl inhabits is one made up of black and white. There are no shades of grey, no room for possibilities or multiple interpretations and no option to deviate from the path that has been set – marriage.

In short, the story is narrated across two time periods, 8 or 9 years apart. As a young girl, aged 9, our hero, Gittel, was friend with a girl called Devory. Devory was abused and ultimately committed suicide. Gittel blamed herself for not standing up for her friend. The narrative of the past is juxtaposed with Gittel’s life in the present, on the cusp of an arranged marriage to a man she has never met, about to embark on the rest of her life, but unable to let go of Devory who haunts her dreams.

The story itself is not what is important. What this novel – and it is a work of fiction – is really discussing is the trauma of hidden abuse and the vast and dramatic impact that this has on many people. Gittel is unable to let Devory rest because she cannot overcome the sense that the people around Devory let her down. This is definitely not an uncommon sentiment and while there are many elements of this text which I found shallow and over-simplified, I think that as a whole, the message is a valuable one.

I read this book very quickly. Partly this was because I felt a keen need to know what was going to happen and partly because, as an Orthodox Jew, this is speaking to ‘my’ people. I couldn’t help but feel a level of responsibility. There were attitudes here that offended my Western sensibilities, and attitudes which confronted my feminist leanings. But overall, what I read was a sorrowful tale of fear and anxiety, twisted up in the cloak of religiosity and judgementalism.

I am not sure that this book will appeal to everyone and I am certain that many will say it is sensationalised. However, if there is one iota of truth to this tale then it is worth telling and worth hearing.

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