Ten-year-olds Gittel and Devory are best friends. Like many children, their lives seem a bit sheltered. Unlike many other kids, they are Chassidic Jews, members of a sect of Orthodox Judaism with conservative rules of dress, conduct and religious practice. The girls speak Yiddish, attend a Jewish school, and barely associate with goys --- Gentiles --- aside from the goy couple who lives upstairs from Gittel. Gittel keeps this a secret, because the other children at school would torment her for associating with someone unholy and un-Jewish.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Even Gittel can’t ignore Devory’s erratic behavior, depressive moods, and his penchant for running away. But while Devory’s and Gittel’s parents just call Devory a problem child, Gittel desperately wants to understand why Devory is so troubled. One night, she witnesses the violence that makes Devory afraid of being at home, but because she’s young and comes from such a sheltered community, Gittel is unable to understand what it means or what she can do to help. It’s not until Devory makes a big statement that Gittel tries to speak out, and she’s quickly silenced.
HUSH follows two strains of Gittel’s story: the 10-year-old girl dealing with Devory’s depression, and the 17-year-old who is graduating from high school, preparing to become engaged, and just beginning to understand the gravity of what was done to Devory. It’s a long process, especially when coupled with adolescence and very young married life.
I couldn’t put HUSH down. Gripping, fascinating and poignant, the book is bravely written by a pseudonymous author who comes from the same conservative Jewish community she portrays in the novel. It’s serious stuff, but it’s also an extremely well-crafted story that keeps you turning pages. The author’s pen name, Eishes Chayil, translates to “woman of valor,” a title given to those who are considered upstanding in Jewish tradition. This describes not only the writer, but also Gittel, who fights to right a seven-year-old wrong in a community that won’t even acknowledge that a wrong was committed.
Non-Jewish readers need not worry that the cultural traditions or Yiddish phrases in the book will alienate them. Chayil illustrates a rich Chassidic world complete with linguistic cues, holiday traditions and prayers, and does it in a way that explains it to those who don’t understand without beating it over the head of a reader who might already be familiar with Jewish customs. With its unique theme, subject matter and excellent writing, HUSH will be an eye-opener to a number of people in many ways.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on September 14, 2010