Author: Eishes Chayil
Source: Local Library
Gittel is seventeen, approaching high school graduation and hoping to be married soon after, like all the other girls in her small Hassidic sect. But as adulthood looms, she starts dreaming of her best friend, Devory, who killed herself at the age of nine.
Gittel knew something terrible was happening to Devory, something she could only escape through suicide, but she wasn’t able to understand or confront it, until now. Now, she knows that Devory was being sexually abused by a family member. But this abuse isn’t the only reason she killed herself. Because what happened to Devory is not nearly so bad as what happened when she tried to tell.
Okay, I’m a latecomer to this book. A couple of years ago, it was all anybody was talking about. I dutifully added it to my list and went about my business. When it turned up as my next read, I picked it up and was absolutely floored by the power and sadness in this story.
Like the adults and teens reading, Gittel is looking at a defenseless child, being victimized and then being told that she is a terrible person for trying to speak out about it. Those kinds of things don’t happen here, people say to Devory, and then later to Gittel. Those are things the goyim (non-Jews) do. You are making it up. You are trying to cause trouble for a good person.
Written by a Hassidic Jewish woman and based on something that happened in her real life, the book doesn’t attempt to demonise or defend Gittel's world. It simply is. She is surrounded by a loving community, but one blind to its own faults. Chayil portrays both the love and the faults honestly, and that makes the story more powerful. It’s one thing to be a repressive cult that systematically abuses certain members. This gets portrayed quite a lot in fiction. It’s quite another to be a group of honest, faithful, imperfect human beings who are too afraid to look at the darkness in their protected bubble, who strap on their blinders and say, “This doesn’t happen here, so that means it didn’t happen.”
It’s not an easy process for Gittel to speak out. It almost destroys her own fledgling marriage. Yet all her life, she has been held to the standard of an Eishes Chayil, a Woman of Valor, who is devout and strong. Now, she knows that to be a true Eishes Chayil, she must rise and speak.
P.S. And then, right after I finished writing this review, this came out in the paper.