Hush, a wrenching first novel inspired by real events, takes readers deep inside Brooklyn’s insular Hasidic community. As Gittel Klein prepares for marriage, she begins to make sense of the disturbing events she witnessed at age 11, which resulted in her best friend’s suicide. Here the author, writing under a pseudonym, talks about the significance of her book’s publication.
Why was the shtreimel, the traditional hat worn by Hasidic men, the logical place to begin as a way into the community?
The shtreimel wasn’t the logical place to begin, it was the instinctive place to begin. For a child in any such world, it is “the Hat” of whatever religion or tribe that deceptively reassures, providing a false sense of security. It is what tells them: You know everything there is to know about this person, his beliefs, his lifestyle, his morality, versus the rest of the world, which you don’t.
The shtreimel plays an important part both in a scene in which Gittel’s father’s is destroyed and also as a gift to Gittel’s groom. Why did you want to attach that significance to these two scenes?
The upsetting scene in which the hat is destroyed was simply a very tangible symbol of Gittel’s world being destroyed. This is followed immediately by her marriage and the buying of another hat. To survive, Gittel must learn to forget.
If the victim reminds the community of the crime, then the victim must be forgotten, so that the disapproved-of crime can be denied.
There is a great deal of humor in the book, especially as Gittel tries to make sense of the contradictions she comes across. One standout is when she eats the “just-in-case-not-kosher-enough candy.”
I only discovered that it was all very funny after I wrote the story down quite sincerely and realized how utterly ridiculous it was. Writing itself gives one a distance. This story of course happened, and my fear of God and utter certainty that he could not see me behind the shower curtain is such a vivid memory. It is another incident that underscores the innocence and naïveté of a world that looks at God as one who would disapprove of a 9-year-old eating a just-in-case-not-kosher-enough candy, but not one who molests—if he wears the right hat.
For your character Reb Ehrlich, the situation is very complicated. As a trusted leader, he must hold the community together. Yet does his confidentiality at some level betray the trust of the victims?
It is the reality of such a world, one that happens all the time. Dov Hikind, [New York State Assemblyman for] Borough Park [in Brooklyn], had information about many pedophiles after he began Kol Tzedek [a Jewish hotline] to help victims and was [served with a subpoena] because he refused to divulge the information and betray the trust of the victims. We all know names. We also know that the victims and innocent people associated with them will suffer so much more than the criminal should anyone find out what happened to them and that they spoke about it. Many of the victims end up leaving the community knowing justice is not an option. They mostly land in the streets and on drugs.
You make a compelling case for the Hasidic community’s wish to build “walls [that] would keep the gentiles and their terrifying world far away.” What is the danger of not holding ourselves to the same standards we hold for others?
Many societies build walls. That is fine and can be beautiful. It is when the exterior walls themselves became the basis for morality that you have lost all morality. Walls may keep other ideas out, but corruption and perversion are an innate part of our dual nature, and exposure is not what brings it in.
Does your community know that you have published Hush?
The community does not know of the book and as of yet there has been no reaction. In the beginning, the fear was worse. Then I realized that the only thing I feared more than publishing the book was not publishing the book. I am very much at peace with what I had written. It is they who have to apologize, not I.
For a complete list of contemporary novels for teens featured in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
Bloomsbury / September / 9780802720887 / $16.99