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Introduction: an anthropological approach to Jews and Judaism.

I am a cultural and linguistic anthropologist who studies contemporary Jewish life in New York City. As a cultural anthropologist, my approach is an ethnographic one, which is distinguished by its emphasis on participant observation--that is, participating in and observing the everyday lives of those with whom I work. The majority of my research has been with ultra-Orthodox Jewish women and girls in Brooklyn, or, as I call them, "nonliberal" Jews. (1) This has meant, for example, that I spent two years in a Hasidic girls' school observing kindergarteners and first-graders. I visited with Hasidic women and children in their homes as they ate supper, played and did homework, and I attended a class for Hasidic brides, among many other activities. As I participated and observed, I also took field notes on these experiences, which created one body of data.

I am also a linguistic anthropologist, which has shaped both my methodology and my analytic focus on language. In my research, I regularly record, transcribe and then analyze naturally occurring talk, creating another body of data. For example, in my book, Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn (2009), I not only included transcripts of interactions in homes, schools and other neighborhood contexts in Yiddish and English, but I also analyzed the distinctive languages that Hasidic men and women speak: Hasidic Yiddish and Hasidic English (called "Yinglish" by many in the community). In Mitzvah Girls, I used this focus on talk to theorize about nonliberal religions more generally: I argued that women and girls use language and other embodied practices (such as modest comportment or modest fashions) to create an alternative religious modernity. This religious modernity includes an explicit critique of secular modernity--specifically, the notions of freedom, autonomy, pluralism and tolerance.

I have also used the approaches of cultural and linguistic anthropology to study Jewish prayer, institution building and education in a synagogue study that I, together with ethnomusicologist Mark Kligman, conducted in New York City. Drawing on this research, I have written about Jewish spirituality--the emotional, individualized experience of God--and its relationship to ongoing neoliberal processes of gentrification in a Manhattan neighborhood (2007).

Currently, I am working on two different projects--projects connected by their attention to digital media--that emerge out of my commitment to including Jews and Judaism in anthropological conversations about religion, politics and social change. The first, conducted with Owen Gottlieb, is an ethnographic study of Occupy Judaism, the Jewish inflection of Occupy Wall Street. We are exploring Occupy Judaism's relationship to Occupy Faith and Occupy Wall Street; the ways in which social media, religious practice and political activism interact; and what all of this may tell us about religion and the public sphere in 21st-century urban America (nd. Fader and Gottlieb).

The second, longer-term project involves a return to the world of nonliberal Judaism. My focus this time is the moral panic that indicates a moment of transition: many community members claim that the Internet is leading nonliberal Jews to stray off the derech (path, meaning to leave orthodoxy). This panic became very public in 2012, when some rabbinic authorities held an asifa (gathering) in the Citi Field baseball stadium in New York to warn of the dangers the Internet posed. Forty thousand attended and the event was covered in the Jewish and more mainstream media. Digital media, with its private access to knowledge is creating spaces to challenge to the moral authority of the leadership. In response, there has been increasing communal concern with "strengthening emune (faith), which has included changing cultural beliefs about media altogether (Fader 2013)

I locate this moral panic in a broader historical context in order to understand processes of change in a nonliberal religious community. Increasing religious stringencies and political infighting among the leadership over the past fifteen years has led to a critical backlash among nonliberal Jews in their twenties and thirties. These Jews, men and women, are creating new forms of social life and community, facilitated by digital media. For example, I am finding that there are increasingly nonliberal Jews who lose their faith but continue to live in their communities. Calling themselves "Reverse Marranos," ("RMs")or "double lifers," these are skeptics and heretics who nonetheless will not leave their families. Blogging and now Facebook groups have created opportunities for meeting and socializing in person and online. I am currently investigating, for example, friendships across sectarian and gender lines for double-lifers, child custody cases for those who do leave, and the growing "Torah therapy" business for rebellious teens.

The Practicalities and Politics of Historical Consciousness

In my work in Hasidic Brooklyn, I have faced a constant dilemma over how to reconcile the vast historical literature on Hasidism in prewar Europe with my own longitudinal ethnography--that is, ethnography conducted over a period of years. Obviously, anthropology and history can and must inform each other. The work of Johannes Fabian (2002), among many others, warned anthropologists that their ethnographic writing too often overlooked the historical forces that created the present. Fabian warned that this kind of writing could misrepresent the communities in which anthropologists worked as timeless, primitive and outside of history.

I am well aware of the rich and deep body of scholarship on Hasidic movements. However, during my ethnographic research, which included learning Yiddish and studying Hebrew, just trying to figure out the present was no easy task. It was a challenge to integrate the historical scholarship into what I was experiencing during fieldwork, especially as so much of the historical record was in other languages. As a graduate student, I was even advised by my committee to nod at the historical sources, but not to engage with them too deeply, because it was impossible to do everything.

Despite these methodological challenges for the lone researcher, I developed a fruitful strategy that drew ethnography and historical memory. On the advice of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, I gathered family histories from the key families I worked with in Brooklyn. I was then able to show how much historical discontinuity occurred after the Holocaust among Hasidism in New York. For example, after the war many families who immigrated to New York became Hasidic or switched their allegiance to a different rebbe in a distinct break from their own family histories in prewar Europe. Other anthropologists, such as Jerome Mintz (1968, 1998) have documented similar postwar histories. Today, before a match is made, a family's reputation before the war, how they fared during the war and after, is regularly considered along with all the other information gathered by the potential bride and groom's families.

Further, this discontinuity in postwar North America highlighted a contrast between the way families had actually changed and the way the community represented itself--as simply reproducing authentic Judaism, just as they had done since the Exodus from Egypt. I was reminded of the cultural and political interpretations of history when I observed little girls doing arts-and-crafts projects in which the biblical figure of Jacob was drawn as a Hasidic man with a long beard and payes and wearing a high hat and a long black jacket. The nostalgia many community members expressed for prewar Europe (e.g., horse and buggy rides on "alte haym (old home) day") as a simpler and better time, similarly required that I analyze contemporary ideologies about a lost past. Being able to juxtapose the historical memory of community members with my observations of contemporary narratives of the past led to a deeper understanding of how this community justified a narrative in which they were the only authentic Jews.

A focus on historical memory is especially helpful in reconstructing what are often untold histories, especially of the less powerful, such as women and children. Another strategy I used was to talk to older, native speakers of Yiddish. I was lucky to have had Mordkhe Schaechter as a Yiddish teacher at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. As I began to gather data from Hasidic families on Hasidic Yiddish baby talk, Schaechter was graciously able to help me figure out which aspects of this syncretic variety of "Yinglish" were Yiddish and which were English.

Research that integrates ethnography and history, especially with women and children, reminds us that Judaism is not just prayers or texts or struggles over political leadership. The everyday life of Judaism and how it changes over time asks new questions both of the present and of the past.

Which Histories Do We Choose and How Do They Shape Our Ethnography?

One of my scholarly concerns has been to integrate social theory and the study of Jews, making each relevant to broader conversations in both anthropology and Jewish studies. Integrating multiple histories--Jewish histories, histories of Jews in both non-Jewish prewar Europe and postwar North America and North American histories--involves making political choices about which interlocutors we engage and why. These choices shape ethnography.

In my work with Hasidic women and children, for example, I felt it was equally important to engage not only with the history of European Hasidism, but also with the rise of religious pluralism in North America, which has also supported the rise of the religious right--e.g., evangelical Christians. This led me to make decisions about prioritizing and balancing both historical literatures and comparative theoretical perspectives. I have found recent work on Islamist women in Egypt (e.g., Mahmood 2005) and evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States (e.g., Griffith 1997, Harding 2000) very helpful, theoretically, in my own analyses of Hasidic women's agency and embodied modesty.

Multiple historical accounts can help ethnographers to recognize cultural patterns and change. In my work on Jewish spirituality in a New York conservative synagogue, for example, I have found scholarship on New Age religions useful for contextualizing this particular congregation within the wider North American religious life. However, given Jews' more recent embrace of New Age religion and their very different histories of belonging as United States citizens, I cannot engage exclusively with important histories on American spirituality--for example, the work of historian Leigh Schmidt (2002) or sociologist Courtney Bender (2010).

I have had to consider how the history of North American Protestant spirituality informs Jews' religious practice today and to try to reconcile Jews' differences from non-Jews and their similarities to them as well. Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna's diverse body of work has been helpful for me as a model of how to think about Jews in a broader historical context, because he is able to capture differences among Jews, as well as the historical place of Jews in the United States (e.g., Sarna 2005).

At the same time, my own approach to Jewish spirituality has been deeply influenced by the theoretical concerns of historians and sociologists of American spirituality, especially in their interest in the senses, or what many increasingly refer to as "lived religion" or the everyday life of religion (e.g., Orsi 2004). Focusing on the senses--on affect and embodiment--pushed me to explore the processes by which religious subjectivities are formed in particular cultural and historical contexts.

Further, those who study New Age religion have addressed the relationship between changing economies--in this case, neoliberalism--and New Age religion. I drew on these different bodies of scholarship in my study of members of a Jewish congregation who had, as one member described it, become "corporate lawyers and hedge-fund managers" rather than "social workers and teachers'--a process that was a microcosm of the growing inequality between rich and poor in New York City at the turn of the millennium. Congregants at this synagogue were increasingly committed to "spirituality" in their prayer services, and to emotional and physical expressions of their relationship to God. At the same time, congregants began to require that the synagogue leadership and the institution itself become more "professional" when responding to congregants' needs.

Similarly, in my work on Occupy Judaism, I have drawn on multiple histories. Histories of the Jewish left (particularly youth culture) in the 1960S in North America have had a direct influence on current activists through personal networks. I am finding it also critical, though, to look at processes of neoliberalism at work from the 1970s on in North America that have created increasing inequity, as well as at work on religion in the public sphere and direct democracy movements (e.g., Habermas 2011;Juris 2008). For the individual researcher, these multiple stories and histories make the work richer, but they also make ethnography a time-intensive occupation with so many angles that choosing one angle or another is to position oneself in academic and political circles.

Despite the challenges, multiple histories integrated with ethnography broaden our appeal to other audiences, rather than remaining Jewish history or ethnography written by and for Jews. I am convinced that the Jewish experience, historically and ethnographically, has much to offer broader social theorizing in anthropology in ethnicity, race, religion, gender and language. One way to highlight these contributions is to be more explicit about our choices and to integrate distinctive historical perspectives into our ethnographies.

Recognizing Social Change During Ethnographic Fieldwork

In some ethnographic field sites, change is difficult to recognize because the present moment is so complicated. In others, the changes themselves can be the impetus for research. Historical accounts can help anthropologists to locate change by highlighting similar historical moments. For example, in my work on Hasidic girls' schooling, I read a historical account of the Bais Yaakov movement in Poland (Weissman 1987). The issue of girls' schooling, in fact, turned out to be a key site in which educational trends and ideas from the non-Jewish world have been integrated in novel ways. This, in turn, led me to begin to think about Hasidic women as having a particularly complex relationship to the secular world, both historically and today, which, in turn, legitimized men as the bearers of tradition. Similarly, reading about prewar European rabbis' rulings on allowing women to wear wigs helped me to make sense of the changes happening to Brooklyn Hasidic women, who, in contrast to their mothers, wore wigs with hats on top, rather than just wigs.

The longitudinal nature of ethnography further creates its own historical record--a record that can highlight change. For example, I have been working on and off with nonliberal Jewish women since the mid-1990s. When I began again in 2008 to write about nonliberal women's inspirational lectures, I realized that the content of the lectures had changed, as had the audience: The women were much older (as was I, of course) and many of the lectures were concerned with strengthening women's faith (emune).

Recognizing this change piqued my interest and required that I formulate new questions. These included investigating changing notions of piety, along with changing negotiations around technology and secular knowledge. I also began to think about historical comparisons. For example, are the challenges that the Internet brings to nonliberal Jews actually new or are they similar to the threat of television in the 1950s and '60s or, further back, to secular Yiddish literature? Nonliberal Jewish leadership has mostly succeeded in forbidding television and movies and, for some, even the public library, though of course there are always those who secretly indulge. What is different among the dangers of television, the Internet, or secular books? What can the historical context shaping these nonliberal struggles against media tell us about bigger issues, such as cultural beliefs about media and how these beliefs change over time?

The personal history of the ethnographer can also become a resource for recognizing social change in the messy moments of ethnography. When I conducted the research on spirituality in a New York City synagogue, it was my own history of growing up in the same neighborhood that made me acutely aware of the processes of gentrification. In another example, my participation in an Occupy Judaism ritual as a Jewish New Yorker made me realize I was witnessing a moment of change. As I was sitting at the Kol Nidre service across from Zuccotti Park in New York, I began to recognize that I was witnessing a ritual that was creating a new conversation about religiosity and politics in the public sphere. Later, as I began to read and write about Occupy Judaism, the history of Jewish radicals in the 1960s, as well as the place of religion in the North American public sphere contextualized the current moment, highlighting what is particular to the Occupy Judaism protestors in the present.


The ways in which I have engaged with history in my ethnographic work have been varied, complicated, and, at times, frustratingly limited. These days, my research focuses explicitly on changes in nonliberal Jewish communities, and I aim to continue to engage with the historical processes, which shape the ethnographic moment in which I am conducting fieldwork. Histories--the unwritten, the remembered and the more authoritative--are critical for understanding the dynamics of social reproduction and change.

Works Cited

Asad, Talal. 1993, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

--. 2003, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bender, Courtney. 2010, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 2002, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Fader, Ayala. 2013, "Nonliberal Jewish women's audiocassette lectures in Brooklyn: A Crisis of Faith and the Morality of Media," American Anthropologist 115(i)72-84.

--. 2009, Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

--. 2008, "Jewish Spirituality and Late Capitalism," Jewish Culture and History 8(3): 39-58.

Fader, Ayala and Owen Gottlieb Nd, @Occupy Judaism: Religion, Digital Media, and the Public Sphere at Occupy Wall Street.

Griffith, R. Marie. 1997, God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Habermas, Jurgen. 2011, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Boston, Mass.: MIT Press.

Harding, Susan Friend. 2000, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008, Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press

Mahmood, Saba. 2005, The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Mintz, Jerome. 1968, Legends of the Hasidim: An Introduction to Hasidic Culture and Oral Tradition in the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

--. 1999, Hasidic Peoples: A Place in the New World. Boston, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Orsi, Robert A. 2004, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Sarna, Jonathan D. 2005, American Judaism: A History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2002, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion and the American Enlightenment. Boston, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Weissman, Deborah. 1987, "Bais Yaacov: A Historical Model for Jewish Feminists," in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, E. Koltun. New York: Schocken Books.

(1.) I use the term "nonliberal" rather than the common Hebrew term "haredi" or the English "fundamentalist" for a few reasons. First, the term haredi, while accurate, is used more in Israel by both scholars and those within the communities. More important, I feel that the use of a Hebrew term discourages comparison with other nonliberal religious movements, such as nonliberal Islam and nonliberal Christianity. Second, the term "fundamentalist," since 9/11 especially, is often tinged with racism, implying a backward or somehow less than modern community, which is simply not accurate.
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Title Annotation:Anthropology and History
Author:Fader, Ayala
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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