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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927

Author: Eishes Chayil (pseudonym of Judy Brown, b. ca. 1980)

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First published: 2010

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realism

Time of plot: 1999–2000 and 2008–10

Locale: Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York

Principal characters

Gittel, a young woman growing up in a cloistered Hasidic community in Brooklyn

Devory, her best friend

Kathy, her gentile neighbor

Shmuli, Devory's brother

Yankel, her husband

The Story

The novel Hush, first published under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil, is set in a cloistered Hasidic Jewish community in Borough Park, Brooklyn. The narrator, Gittel, is a young woman recalling the experiences of her childhood. The book moves between 1999, when Gittel is about nine, and 2008. Teenage Gittel is just about to finish high school and, like all young women in her community, consult a matchmaker to find a husband. But Gittel is plagued by memories of the death of her childhood friend, Devory. Throughout the first half of the book, Gittel writes Devory letters and has dreams that Devory, still nine, is knocking tearfully on her bedroom window. In the dream, Devory always disappears when Gittel reaches to let her in. At first, it is unclear what happened to Devory. Gittel recalls their happy and mischievous childhood, including their semi-secret friendship with Kathy, a boisterous, mentally handicapped gentile girl who lives in the apartment above Gittel's family. Both Devory and Gittel gently chafe against the restrictions of the Hasidic community. Devory is always reading secular books, and Gittel covets her neighbor's modern clothes. They engage in funny and tender exploits. They delight in holiday celebrations and love their families. The narrator paints a vibrant picture of life in Borough Park before suggesting that not everything in Devory's life is so carefree. Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA

Devory begins to show up at Gittel's house at odd hours, insisting that she must sleep there. Gittel and both sets of parents are confused—why is Devory so strange? One night, Gittel spends the night at Devory's house and see Shmuli, Devory's adult older brother, rape Devory. Gittel has no understanding of what she is seeing at the time. She feels a vague wrong feeling but says nothing. Devory continues to act out, trying to run away from home and writing notes about dying. Devory's mother asks Gittel why Devory is so upset, and Gittel tells her about Shmuli. Devory's mother is enraged. As Gittel is sent home, Devory's mother berates Devory for making up such horrible stories and accuses her of trying to ruin the family's reputation.

A few weeks later, during Passover, and after another foiled attempt to escape her own house, Devory arrives at Gittel's house. She trudges up to the bathroom and hangs herself with Gittel's sparkly purple jump rope. Gittel finds her. Gittel is traumatized. When a hospital psychologist asks her about Devory, Gittel tells her about Shmuli but does not say she witnessed the abuse. Gittel's father is compassionate and concerned. He wants to go to the police, but Gittel's mother forbids it for fear it will ruin the family's reputation.

Years later, Gittel tries to go to the police herself, but she is too afraid to go on the record. The second half of the book is primarily concerned with Gittel's engagement and wedding arrangements. She marries a quiet Israeli boy named Yankel. It is only then—when, at seventeen, she is first told about intercourse and has sex with Yankel—that she begins to truly understand what happened to Devory. A month or so into her marriage, Gittel has a mental breakdown. She starts speaking up about Devory, finding an unlikely ally in Yankel. She convinces a Hasidic newspaper to publish one of her letters to Devory, confessing her guilt and grief. She gives birth to a daughter and names her Devory.

Critical Evaluation

Eishes Chayil, which means "woman of valor," is the pen name of author Judy Brown. Hush is her debut novel. It was based on Brown's own childhood growing up in the Hasidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Brown revealed her identity in 2011, after the murder of a Hasidic child named Leiby Kletzky, and later left the Hasidic community altogether. Her memoir, called This Is Not a Love Story (2015), is about growing up with a brother on the autism spectrum.

Hush was well received outside of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community when it was published in 2010. A reviewer for Kirkus described it as a "painful, respectful story of redemption." Marjorie Ingall, for the Jewish magazine Tablet, called the book "upsetting" and "harrowing" but also "deeply readable and engaging." She added "I did not expect it to be warm and funny, too." The book offers a rich and complex portrait of Hasidic life—it even includes a detailed glossary for non-Jewish readers—but it also demonstrates a deep understanding of how children see and learn about the world. It explores themes of friendship, grief, and atonement, but more importantly, how secrecy and ignorance breed violence. As Brown notes, there is no word in the community for rape or sexual abuse, as if by not naming these acts, the elders could prevent them from happening. As Gittel realizes, this desire to preserve appearances can only result in pain. Hush is an emotionally challenging but ultimately satisfying read.

Further Reading

  • Ingall, Marjorie. "Out of the Silence." Review of Hush, by Eishes Chayil. Tablet, 8 Nov. 2010, www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/49697/out-of-the-silence. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.
  • Review of Hush, by Eishes Chayil. Kirkus Reviews, vol. 78, no. 15, 1 Aug. 2010, p. 724. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=53129014&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 23 Mar. 2018.

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