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Review: Hush

Hush by Eishes Chayil. Walker, a division of Bloomsbury. 2010. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Gittel is a teenager, preparing to graduate High School, get married, get a job. She is haunted by memories of her childhood friend, Devory.

When they were both nine, Devory hanged herself in the bathroom of Gittel’s house.

Now an adult, Gittel realizes that there was something terribly wrong. As a child, she had seen something, before Devory died. She told Devory’s mother: “I told her that Shmuli [, Devory’s older brother,] came into the room,  how he went under her blanket in the middle of the night.” Devory’s mother is all anger and denials and saying Devory is a troubled liar: “You must never tell this to anyone.. . . . You must not tell this to the police.”

After Devory is found dead, Gittel’s father hears Gittel tell the police: “she just didn’t want to sleep with her brother.” Gittel later hears her parents argue. Her mother says, “They’ve been our neighbors forever! They are an important family, … No one will believe it anyway. . . .It’s too late.” Our children will be kicked out of school, no one will talk to them, she warns. There are no more interviews with the police.  The teachers at school tell her “not to talk to anyone in the class about what happened.” To do so would be a big sin. Devory’s family moves away. Gittel’s mother throws away the photographs of Devory. Her father tells her to forget.

Gittel tries to do as she is told. Forget Devory, forget what happened. Her life in Borough Park continues, time goes by, she goes to high school, there is an engagement and marriage plans, but all along, Gittel is haunted by Devory and why she died, and why her community, the loving, warm, close-knit, nurturing, protective Yushive Chassidim Jewish community, acts as if nothing happened and as if Devory never existed. As Gittel becomes an adult within her community — marrying and becoming a mother — she realizes she can be hushed no longer.

The Good: Gittel will haunt you, as Devory haunts her.

Hush is a fascinating and brutally honest examination of what happens to a family and community that believes that if they think child sexual abuse doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen, and anything — or anyone — that says otherwise should be quieted, excluded, shunned, hushed. Best to act as if nothing ever happened. I could not read this book in one sitting. I had to put it down, take deep breaths, literally walk away.

Hush uses a fictional name for the main ultra-Orthodox Chassidic sect (Yushive), because the author refuses “to point a finger at one group, when the crime was endemic to all.” Chayil paints a community that is warm and loving. The relationship between Gittel and her father is tender; this man loves his child. Unfortunately, because he is a product of this community, the best her father could do to help Gittel as a child was to protect her by keeping the secret and insisting she do the same.

Gittel is a woman who values her world and wants to be a part of it — Gittel marries, has a child, has no desire to leave — while realizing that there is something wrong with the community that needs to be fixed. What is wrong is how the community handles the sexual abuse of children by its own members.

For most readers, the lives and customs of the ultra-Orthodox depicted in Hush will be a window into another world. A world of men studying in kollel, a world where marriage and children are valued above everything else with young brides hoping for to be pregnant by their first day of marriage, a world with arranged marriages, where the young men and women getting married are not told the facts of life until days (or hours) before the wedding. A world where the goyim and their customs are strange and at laughable. Chayil’s insider view of this community is full of warmth; the reader understands why Gittel stays.

The treatment of child sexual abuse victims by the community is even more horrible, in light of how much children are valued. Gittel eventually realizes what so many do not: pretending something doesn’t exist, not giving it words, does not prevent it from existing. When walls are built as a protection to keep danger out, they can turn into a prison.

Hush is not a condemnation of a community. This is a condmenation of how a community reacts to something tragic and horrible. In Hush, the abuse and failure to deal with it happens in a community that is a closed religous one. As shown by the scandals of the Catholic Church, it can happen in communities that are less isolated. The failure is not about religion or lack of religion. The failure is what happens when a group of people decide that they are “good” and “evil” can only come from outside the group. When that evil comes from within, the group has no knowledge, skills, or ability to deal with it except to ignore it because to admit to it would negate the firm belief that “we” are good and that goodness can be protected only be guarding from threats from the outside. As Chayil says in her Author’s Note, “We forgot that the greatest enemies always come from within.”

Add to that the belief that keeping a child from knowledge preserves that child’s innocence. Gittel’s husband is so sheltered that he is shocked and disgusted when he realizes his wife has breasts. He had been led to believe “that” was something only goyishe women had “to make men look at them,” and no self respecting Jewish woman would have them. Laugh, smile, or cry at the image of such an argument happening between a married couple — but at some point, “protecting” a child from the outside world stops being protection and becomes injurious to the adult the child becomes.

Gittel knows she saw Shmuli crawl into his sister’s bed, but she does not know what it is until, years later, a police officer calls it “rape.” When Gittel uses that word to explain to her new husband what happened to Devory, he is as innocent as she is. “What does ‘rape’ mean?” Not knowing what “rape” meant does not stop Shmuli from raping his younger sister. It does not prevent her mother from labeling Devory, not Shmuli, as the troublemaker. It does not stop Devory from hanging herself using a jump-rope because her family won’t keep her brother away from her. Ignorance is not innocence; and ignorance does not protect the innocent.

Eishes Chayil is a pseudonym. An Author’s Note, as well as the jacket copy, explains that Chayil was raised Chassidic. It doesn’t explain why she uses a pseudonym. Maybe, like Gittel’s family, she is concerned that her extended family will suffer if she spoke publicly. Maybe the concern is not being associated with one particular sect; if she is part of x, people may say, “oh, it only happens in x, not in y.” It’s sad, though, because Hush is about Gittel finding her voice to speak up for Devory. Chayil is speaking up, is not hushed, but she cannot publicly own it the way Gittel can.

As an Irish Catholic, I’m hardly the person to judge the accuracy or authenticity of Hush. So, instead, check out the review at Tablet Magazine, part of Nextbook which includes an interview with the author. In addition, comments point out that the American Jewish Libraries Newsletter (not online, member only) reviewed this title and that the Jewish Book World Magazine, which comes out quarterly, will have a review in its February issue. Also see the Velveteen Rabbi’s review.

Kirkus Review has an interview with Chayil.

Edited to add 11/26/10: Book Review of Hush at Fink or Swim; with a follow up message posted both at that blog and Dov Bear.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. This book is haunting. It does not leave your mind. I read it weeks ago, and I still think of it. It’s interesting to see the non-reaction of the ultra-orthodox community. Then again- they dont’ read secualr books, which is I suppose why the author had to go to the ‘goyim.’ Her powerful writing, that uncanny child’s voice, makes you really feel the agony she’s been through- and probably still goes through. I hope it recieves a wide audiance.

  2. This was an incredibly painful book for me to read; especailly that somehow it made me laugh. As a witness to abused children myself, this book really took me back there. It is such a fasxinating and important book, it should recieve more coverage. So little books out there that can portray this subject in a way that really makes the reader understand. And of course the portrayl into this strange world located in New York city is really a first. Brave author. Hope she loses her fear one day ande reveals herself.

  3. Tziporah, this book really stays with you. Given the blog response, I think it will get an audience!

    Mary, part of what I like about HUSH is it really captures *why* nothing is done about abuse within a family — the odd dynamics, the silence, the warped relationships that then develop, the impact, that it cannot just be forgotten. Which is true in any community.

  4. I haven’t read the book (yet) but, based on the summary above, it sounds like several aspects of the chassidic community have been exaggerated, for salacious reasons…while the children are insulated and sheltered, their teenagers/young adults would certainly know what rape is, or that *all* women have breasts….

  5. Julie, let me know what you think after you’ve read HUSH. The author is careful to point out the differences in the different communities — Gittel has a conversation with her cousin from Lakewood who is getting married that reflect two very different attitudes towards what marriage is, because those are two different communities. Some would no doubt be more wordly, but the world Chayil has created isn’t that wordly. Chayil states that they have no word for rape — she handles the multilingual aspect of the society (English/Yiddish/Hebrew) pretty well. As she describes it, sex wasn’t something that young people are told until they are actually getting married (and then only in the days before), so why would rape be a word they heard? It’s not to be salacious; it’s to make a point about the difference between innocence and ignorance. The points you make are part of the reason I’m keeping an eye on the orthodox sites to see the reaction.

  6. They might be different communities, but the Judaic studies at home/school would be similar, and there are certainly enough incidents/stories dealing with rape in the Bible/Talmud so that I really, really question that a young male adult would not be familiar with the term.

    (Although it isn’t a part of her book, I question the veracity of some of her statements she is quoted as saying in one of the articles you linked to…I can definitely say that at least one of those is false…so it makes me wonder about how honest she is in regard to other things.) However, like you suggest, I will reserve further judgement until I have read the book.

  7. Julie, let us know what you think about the book, including whether it’s accurate & authentic.

  8. Former Chassid says


    No, many, many chassidim do not know that women have breasts. And no- they absolutely do not learn the word rape from the bible. The focus for boys from 3rd grade is on Mishnayis and Gemara- laws, laws, laws. Very little bible precisesly this reason.

    For girls the bible is taught in a very specific and very censured way. The word rape is never explained, defined or used. Dinah was kidnapped by Shechem becuase he wanted her as a ‘wife’. He forced her to live in his house.

    When it comes to David Hamelech, King David or any other stories either they are not taught at all or the approach is, “we can not hope ot understand them. They are on a much higher spiritual level then us and had an understnading we don’t- we cannot question thier ways. They knew what they were doing.” Again teh word Rape NEVER, NEVER being used, defined or explained. The bible is the word fo God and it is our job to memorize it. That’s all.

    Thier is an obsessive concentration on the technicalities; why is there an extra letter in this word. Why is the emphasis on this part of the sentense? The rythemn and beat in the chanting of the Parsha on Shabbos. If a word is chanted the wrong way it must be repeated or it is void. Even if one knows that women have breasts- they do not know the actual word breasts. Sexulaity is suppressed out of existance. It is not good or bad. It simply isn’t. Which of course ulitimately makes it bad. Sex is somethign that is not supposed to BE. You can imagine the results. I can. I remember them well. Now I just need enough m oney to pay for the therapy for the rest of my life.

    The book wasn’t exaggerated. There were no lies. There was so much she didn’t tell.

  9. Former Chassid, thank you for sharing about the education system, and what is (and isn’t) taught or emphasized.

  10. Sorry, FC, I still don’t agree with all you are saying. I went to an Orthodox day school for girls and, yes, the stories you mentioned were not explicitly explained in third or fourth grade (which I *do* think is age appropriate). By high school, though, or even middle school, these same stories are learned in greater detail with all the accompanying commentaries. And, btw, the commentaries DO question the reason/motivation for Biblical figures’ actions and do sometimes conclude that they acted wrongly and the lessons one can therefore learn from those mistakes. I can think of several examples. Even the Patriarchs. Even King David.

    There are certainly references to female anatomy in the Bible, also….

    I admit I did not grow up in a chassidic community, and I can appreciate that it would be too insular for some people (I know I would be one of those people) and of course, it has failings (like any other society) but, on the whole, I don’t accept that it is so repressed to the state of it being unhealthy. To me, it smacks of an Eric Segal book I remember reading years ago where the author put in a lot of salacious, sexual details about the Orthodox world that simply aren’t true or are extremely twisted out of context.

    Not to get off-topic though (though I am defensive about so-called true to life Jewish novels): I still haven’t read Hush but do plan to do so when I locate a copy.

  11. Former Chassid says

    Julie, this is not an arguement or a debate. It’s simply a fact. This is the way we learn things. I know the bible is filled iwht references- it’s all a matter of interpretation, the way it is given over. This is not a matter of your agreeeing or not. It’s simply away of life, the way of the very chassidish live and teach thier children, the way i grew up. I udnerstand this embarreses and perhaps appalls Jews who feel they must get defensive but it still remains true: That i did not know women had breasts until an embarressingly late age, and that sexuality is suppressed basically out of existance.

    To say the book is salacious is appalling. Hush is heartbreaking, loving, haunting, sad, tragic and funny. It is not salacious. I suggest you read Hush before giving a very hurtful and ignorant opinion. As someone who has witnessed the abuse in the community- i feel this book is too important to be judged this way, by someone who hasn’t read a word of it. It is a story that should have been pubilshed a long time ago.

    Please refrain from responnding until you have read the book.

  12. FC and Julie, thank you for your contributions to this discussion. I really appreciate it!

  13. Thanks for linking my review and I enjoyed reading your review.

    Liz B. – surely you realize the difference between an Orthodox education and a Chassidish education. I have confirmed as Former Chassid has corroborated that the system is just the way the book describes it.

    As FC suggested, read the book and ask some Chassidic Jews if they agree with its portrayal of their community.

  14. E. Fink: Yes, you are right, and I did not mean to be unclear in the review or my responses in the comments. Thank you for taking the time to make sure readers of the blog realize that there is a difference.

  15. There is a great range in Orthodox Jewish education. On the more liberal end they will study the stories of rape, in the middle they will gloss through them quickly, never using the word “rape”, and on the extreme end, it is very likely they would skip them altogether. The author is careful to point out that her story is relevant only to the Chassidish community. Even within the chassidish community there would be variation. Not every boy would be unaware of breasts, but the ones who knew probably wouldn’t be set up with the protagonist, as they’d be considered bums.

    All this is totally beside the point. As an Orthodox Jew, I approached the story warily, afraid this was going to be a bitter diatribe. It was not.

    Some complain about lack of response in the orthodox community: we’re working to publicize it. It’s going to be slow, but we’ll get it out there. And people will read it, even if they won’t admit to reading it. Usually public excoriation is enough to make a book an orthodox bestseller. Hush just hasn’t had enough time yet.

  16. Litvak, thanks for providing more information about the diveristy of experience and education. One of the many things that impressed me about HUSH was how easily it could have been a bitter diatribe but it wasn’t.

    HUSH belongs in the hands of many readers; I hope it gets to the people who need it. Since it was only just published in September, there is time for it to get out there and for people to find it.


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