On a cold spring evening last year, my Jewish literature professor took his Sarah Lawrence College class to a klezmer performance by the band Zion80, a mash-up inspired by the music of Shlomo Carlebach and Fela Kuti.
Inside the small, stuffy room at The Stone, a music venue in New York City, I watched students tap their fingers to the klezmer afrobeat. One fan shook his head violently in what I can describe only as a seizure. Talk about a performance.
Afterward, we stood outside in groups, chatting about Sarah Lawrence-y stuff: art, feminism, piercings. The conversation turned to a guy named Shylock. I do not recall the exact question my professor posed while pointing a finger toward me, but I remember my peers’ horrified faces when I responded with, “What is ‘The Merchant of Venice’?”
An awkward silence followed. I could practically see the thought bubbles above everyone’s heads: “How the heck did this woman get into Sarah Lawrence College?”
Indeed, how did I — a Satmar woman with a nonaccredited high school diploma whose proud achievement in life, aside from producing and raising two beautiful children, was being a great balebuste, or housewife — land at artsy-fartsy Sarah Lawrence?
I was born in Kiryas Joel, the exponentially growing epicenter for Satmar Hasidim in upstate New York. I attended the village’s only girls school through 11th grade, which is when Satmar girls graduate and begin preparations for their betrothal. Even before I pulled on my first pair of thick blue tights at the age of 3, I knew that a woman’s role is tending to her husband and children at home. Most women who worked were either supporting the family while their husbands studied in the kollel, the yeshiva for married men; some provided a supplementary income for their growing families. These latter women were the exception, not the rule.
The lives of Satmar women weren’t always so cloistered. My mother was among the first generation of Satmar-educated girls in America. She grew up in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, in those early years when the Satmar community was finding its footing. Her academic and cultural experiences were radically different from mine: New York City public school teachers staffed the English department of Bais Rochel, the Satmar girls school. My mother spoke English with her siblings and peers, read secular literature, visited the library regularly, attended movies occasionally, listened to the radio and dressed fashionably.
As the Hasidic community shifted rapidly toward extremism, so did the curriculum in Satmar schools. Gone were the qualified public school teachers, replaced by recent Satmar graduates. Yiddish replaced English as the language spoken in school. My classmates and I were taught Judaic studies, starting with the aleph-bet in kindergarten and continuing with the weekly parsha, or Torah portion, stories in Yiddish. In maintaining the traditional ban on substantive Torah lessons for girls, biblical studies in Hebrew were forbidden, and knowledge of Hebrew texts was restricted to prayers.