If you had looked at Nechumi Yaffe say 10 years ago, you’d think you’d know pretty much all there is to know about her past and her future. (She’ll be speaking at Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck next Sunday — see the box.)
She was a charedi woman, then in her early 30s, married, with children, the child of “very sheltered family in Yerushalayim, right next to Mea Shearim,” probably the most famous of Jerusalem’s historically charedi neighborhoods. Her grandparents had escaped eastern Europe right after the war, going to Israel from Romania, Lithuania, and Poland.
She taught history a Beis Yakov school, an all-girls institution. It was all entirely traditional.
But if you ever think you can look at somebody and know all about her, you’d be wrong.
Her family, to begin with, was not ordinary. It was a “very rabbinic family,” she said. Her father, Chaim Malowicki, comes from a prominent line of rebbes on both sides; his mother’s family were the Halberstams. These are all potent names. “I had great yichus,” she said. “It did help me, and I am very grateful for it. But don’t worry, it also has its costs.”
She always loved to study; learning was all around her, and it was in her. So after high school, she went to Gateshead Jewish Academy for Girls in England for two years. “That is a long time, and I loved it,” she said. “It was two years of intensive Torah learning.” The school’s language of instruction is Hebrew, but outside the school she was faced with English, and she learned it. Now, she’s fluent.
So, back in the Beis Yakov system, “I initiated a change in the curriculum, and through building the new curriculum, I was exposed to academia,” she said. “That’s when I realized that it was my place. My place should be in academia.”
She was 35. That was seven years ago.
“When I realized that this was my natural habitat, that this was where I belong, I decided to really go for an academic career,” she said.
That started with college. “I took a class in politics and religion,” she said. “I really wanted to understand my community. That class would cover a lot. And one of the guys studying with me told me that there is a whole field called political psychology, that studies group relations, power, money, and authority.”
That made sense to her.
So Nechumi Yaffe earned a doctorate in political science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; her dissertation is on “power and authority in charedi communities,” with a focus on how those forces, as well as identity and social norms, play in creating and maintaining poverty in those communities, and how what role poverty plays in Israel’s charedi-secular divide, she said. Now she’s finishing post-doctoral work at Princeton.
Her move from being a full-on member of the community to someone who at least in part examines it dispassionately was “a major life change, with a lot of ramifications,” Dr. Yaffe said. “It did change a lot of the way I think and feel and want, and I am still figuring it out. When you go out of the community you understand things from a different perspective. You see the world in a different way. You have a love/hate relationship with it.”
Dr. Yaffe also looks at the role of gender in the charedi community. “Women are the ones supporting the men there,” she said. “And there also is such a non-egalitarian hierarchy — it’s a very sophisticated way of doing it. Sophisticated in the way that culture interacts with traditional and natural structures.
“Women have more freedom, they get a fuller education, and they have more opportunities. It is a very traditional community, but it has some very weird nontraditional ideas within it. Women are the main breadwinners; they get a secular education.” That’s unusual for traditional communities around the world, she said. “The community devalues paying work and secular wisdom, so it provides women with real opportunities, better life skills, better social skills, better work skills. Women earn money, and that gives women a lot of power.
“The rebbes did not intent that. They did not have it in mind.”
Dr. Yaffe and her family live in Borough Park, in Brooklyn; her husband commutes to Israel frequently, their children are in chasidic schools there, and she drives to Princeton. It’s a lot to take on. She’s basically unaffiliated with any community now, she said; “It’s very complicated. I don’t have the time or the mental energy to make new relationships.” But she does have family here. “I have three first cousins running Satmar high schools,” she said.
“I don’t feel totally comfortable — but no one does. I think I am in transition, but, you know, that’s life. That’s part of living.”
Dr. Yaffe and her family will go back to Israel soon; she has been given a tenure-track position at Tel Aviv University. She is the first charedi scholar to have attained such a position. “It’s a big deal,” she understated. “I have been very lucky. And I’m sure moving back will be a big transition too.
“My father always said that it was a shame that I was not a boy,” she said. “I could have been a rabbi. But I thank God that I’m not a boy. I’m not a rabbi. I can be a professor!”
Who: Dr. Nechumi Malowicki Yaffe
What: Will talk about “Haredi women navigating modernity — a personal and scholarly perspective
When: On Sunday, September 8, at 7 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Avenue in Teaneck
How much: Free to shul members and affiliates, $10 for everyone else
For more information: Go to rinat.org or call (201) 837-2795