Libby Pollak: A Star is Born — And With It A Revival of Hasidic Yiddish
Libby Pollak is no ordinary woman. Three years ago she was a newly hitched young veibele in Williamsburg, lost in the shuffle of thousands of Ultra-hasidic couples who get married and settle there annually. Now her star is rapidly rising with hordes of followers from the Hasidic community devouring with relish every word she utters on her various online forums, including her flagship self-titled Facebook Page .
Her string of media exposure culminated several weeks ago with a return to the non-judgemental all-accepting Chulent that incubated her and set her out on a course of liberty and exploration several years prior. She lectured on the topic of obscure Yiddish idioms and witticisms. See video of the after-event.
In a typical Facebook Post last month, she posted a photo of herself wearing a beaver hat and quipped (in Yiddish): For those who wonder what hat the Rebbe wears on the holy head, here you have the tall beaver hat; and from this hat of sorcery I draw forth my sophisms. A familiarity with Hasidic Yiddish culture is necessary in order to get the humor, as evidenced by her fans and followers who gave her 21 “likes” for the post.
In another recent post, Libby shows off her variegated fingernails and remarks: Every color, after every son of the evil Haman.
Libby’s allure lies in her knack for weaving in Yiddish aphorisms and lore into workaday life. She always has some witty Yiddish idiom or Talmudic adage to share. The fact that she’s a single woman and of diminutive stature only adds to the bemusing quaintness of it all. Is it possible that such a young, ostensibly docile girl would be so conversant in Rabbinic sayings? Is it conceivable that she has actually pulled herself up by her boots, outfoxed her detractors and trailblazed a new path in her life and in the lives of everyone on the Hasidic fringe — all in the course of a year or two?
Her journey started at the ripe young age of six when she one day “discovered poetry”. Her mother encouraged her to cultivate her flair for poetry, bragged about her to her sisters and extended family members who then commissioned the young girl to write poetry for them. In later years the school recruited her for all sorts of writing projects: creative writing, yearbook editor, weekly newspaper and lyrics for camp songs. She was even elected GO president and color war captain, at different points in time. “I was known as the poet”, she recalls.
In her Vizhnitz elementary school in Williamsburg she had relative freedom to pursue her talents, directing skits and plays and helping out with choirs. For high school, however, Libby wanted a better school and so she was sent to the Belz girl school in Borough Park, then under the principalship of the wife of Rabbi Hayyim Leib Katz, Satmar-Zalman Dayyan in Borough Park. “Vien [in Williamsburg] was considered too modern to my mom.”
But as fate would have it, the Borough Park school wasn’t at all liberating. The principal attempted to establish new strictures such as the requirement that pupils wear stockings WITH seams as prevalent in Satmar. Singing was banned, there were no extracurricular activities and the distance between pupil and staff widened. Libby was taught that wearing a heart necklace is equivalent to giluy arayoth (incest) and any form of sheitel (wig) –even the shpitzel– is a grave transgression. Only complete removal of anything that even looks like hair is acceptable apparel for a married Jewish woman, she was taught.
To Libby Pollak’s creative and free-ranging mind, conditions at the school were stifling. “I hated school; it felt like a prison to me. I used to get heart palpitations. My stomach was literally turning once when I went back to retrieve something years after graduation.” It’s not that her academic credentials and artistic talent went unnoticed; they, rather, refused as a matter of principle to allow her an expressive outlet.
After high school, about half of Libby’s class took on elementary school teaching jobs in the community. The pay was a meager $125 per week (hours were about 3.5 per day for 4.5 days) which was sometimes paid partially in the form of food vouchers, and the job grueling. Why do it then? “They teach only for the shidduch (match)”, Libby explains.
Eager to chart out an alternative course Libby opted for an office job with the newly emerging Satmar-Aaron bureaucracy at 76 Rutledge St. It was a 9-5 job for which she was paid $265 per week, half of it in food vouchers (USDA food stamps?). But she did not find her place there. Girls were admonishing her not to utter even a single word –such as imma (mom)– of the unclean language “Ivrit”. Their ameratzus (ignorance) was revoltingly glaring, such as misquoting the verse in Proverbs 9:1 “the wisdom of a woman builds a house”, as hokhmas binah banethah (wisdom of understanding builds…).
One year after graduating from school, Libby was pushed into an engagement she detested. “He was an exceptional loser, chain-smoking, very controlling –he demanded I cut off contact with my family. He called me all day that he was depressed”. When she complained to her family about it, they advised her that “love follows” and that “only a blind or lame person would marry you if you break the engagement.”
Libby then managed to enlist the sympathy and support of Rabbi Benjamin Zeev Fleisher, a Vizhnitz dayyan and activist in the community, and the green light was given to break the engagement, preferring that to one of the alternatives that were bandied about by friends: why don’t you get married and get divorced?
At this time the possibility of leaving the system altogether had yet to cross her mind. “I wanted to have 20 children”, she recalls. A new match was thus promptly arranged for her with a boy who had likewise a broken an engagement. Family and friends rejoiced in it being a true inve hagefen be-inve hagefen –grapes of the vine intertwined with grapes of the vine, love has met andy hardy.
But the match proved foreboding once again. Her fiancee showed signs of mental instability. He would bounce around strange suggestions regarding his desired venue for the wedding, ranging from a boat to a restaurant to “not being sure he wants to get married at all.”
Activists once again intervened and explained to her that it’s “completely normal” for Hasidic grooms to be nervous. He was put on psychotic meds and she was urged to proceed with the marriage. Even her backer on her previous marital mismatch, Rabbi Fleisher, wouldn’t support her quest to bail out this time.
It quickly turned out, however, that the boy had zero interest in an amorous relationship. During the height of her wedding celebrations, the sheva brakhot (seven blessings on seven days), the groom was still preoccupied with chasing prurient material online, even taunting his bride that “she would die to look like Bar Rafaeli”. Libby realized that she had been duped once more. Even though she had conducted her own investigation prior to her engagement to him, trusting the reports of mutual friends who knew them personally, it turns out that they had deceived her concealing things from her out of pity. It became apparent that the boy, an Israeli, married her merely for the green card.
After enduring “four months of hell” they finally separated. At first her husband took off with all her personal documents and withheld granting a get until a ransom of $30,000 was paid. After some haggling back and forth, a price tag of $15,00 in cash was reached as the price of the divorce.
Those were harrowing days for Libby. She still “didn’t even talk to men” and wouldn’t dare entertain the possibility of violating Jewish law to remarry without a religious divorce. She was forced to collect money from friends and acquaintances in the community who would sympathize with her, a poor agunah (bound woman), leashed to her husband who would not surrender his property without due remuneration. “The agunah concept was the first thing that made me realize that the system is rishus (evil) and bullshit; very sexist and very open to abuse”, she recollects.
In the meantime, Libby kept herself busy holding down respectable jobs in the community. When she first got married she was a hair stylist. But then, For the Pesach 2009 season she began working at a local Matzah bakery under the management of one Naftali Schwimmer, 50.
After all the agony surrounding the attainment of her freedom from a husband whose only exercised marital function was his extortion of her for the right to be free of him, Libby needed a break. In May 2009 she went on a short vacation to Miron, Israel to partake in the renown international celebration at the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai on Lag Baomer. A new job prospect, offered by her previous boss Mr. Schwimmer, was waiting for her upon return to the states: working as an assistant at a communal summer camp office.
One day her supervisor approached her with an earnest plea: his doctor “instructed him that it’s very good for women to play with him 4 to 5 times per week.” Upon her retort “why me?” he responded: veil di bist aleins (you are alone, a.k.a. single). Libby declined.
With sexual harassment in her workplace, Libby wasn’t going to take it lying down. Activists, including such members of the KJ “modesty committee” as Yaakov Kelner, got involved, ostensibly to help her. Mr. Kelner chatted with her hours upon hours over the phone, spilling all the dirty secrets of intra-communal disreputable escapades in the process, seemingly in a bid to get close to her. Mr. Kelner encouraged her to report the harassment to secular governmental authorities but he wouldn’t promise to back her up publicly or provide testimony in court if needed. With the threat of being left holding the bag in such a fraught situation, Libby chose NOT to report it to authorities. “He (Mr. Kelner) acted creepy. He wanted to stay in touch with me. I was very vulnerable.” Mr. Kelner did, however, get Mr. Schwimmer to quit phoning her and begging her to “come back to talk to him” after she had quit the matzah bakery job.
Her next gig, seemingly an outgrowth of her sexual harassment ordeal, was manning a sexual abuse hotline in the community, called SOVRI, in preparation of which she underwent a rigorous 45-hour training course. Additional exposure to more modern cultural paradigms was gained through a stint working in “Pesach hotels”.
By 2010, Libby was no longer married to a man, had relocated to the more modern Borough Park, was free to dress as she pleased, read whatever she wanted and pursue a career of her choice; but she did –for the meantime– remain married to her wig as customary in the community, notwithstanding that halakhically she is not required to cover her hair now that she was no longer married.
It was the 2011 Birthright Israel trip that finally jolted her from her stupor. When she arrived for the trip she assumed that she looked fashionably modern. “I was MO-dressed, with leggings (as opposed to stockings) and a short skirt. I was still wearing the sheitel, [albeit] with hair underneath. I took off the wig at the airport and never put it on again in my life. That was a critical point. I felt like a free bird; I felt five years younger.”
The BRI folks were very sensitive and supportive of her evident transformation unfolding in front of them as the trip progressed. “My mind burst open. I suddenly allowed myself to think. I had a million questions. I realized that I’d been living my whole life by default. There’s shomer shabbas, shomer negiah, so many different types of Judaism; and who said Judaism is the answer?”
With spring 2011 came a renewal of sorts on a personal and communal level when she first encountered the Thursday Night Chulent community, a ragtag confederation of intellectuals, artists, yuppies, hasids, atheists and misfits. Through her new acquaintances at Chulent she was referred to the modern secular Yiddishisten such as Alec Burko and Yankel Peretz who work at the Forverts and preside over a “Yiddish House” on he edge of Williamsburg wherein only Yiddish may be spoken by resident and visitor alike.
Another community and resource, one that she initially met with tepid success is Footsteps, whose stated mission it is to ease a transition to the mainstream for haredi individuals who choose to leave their communities. When employing her Yiddish humor in among Footsteps participants she was greeted with sneers and derision by some individuals, to the point of bringing her to tears. “The staff is extremely cordial and I have many friends at Footsteps, but it’s not made for everyone”, she reflects, adding that “most of my fans are within the system. I’m all for art, language, culture, zemiros (songs), delicious food and tradition; I am NOT for organized religion.”
Libby first started posting her humorous musings, typically drawing on Rabbinic or Yiddish maxims and lores, on her personal Facebook wall about a year ago; and the Hasidim instantly went gaga over her. At one point, when she was first “discovered” by the plugged-in Hasidim, they reportedly spent five hours straight on their blackberries discussing the newly minted Yiddish literary genius. Who was she? Was she really a woman? how can she possibly know so much?
The key to Libby’s phenomenal mastery of Rabbinic and Yiddish literature and the very Yiddish language itself is no secret, however. As she explained on Yiddish Voice, a Yiddish radio program from Boston, she avidly perused Yiddish books in her youth, nothing else being available or permissible to her. By reading anything and everything that came her way –which in the Hasidic community is bound to be religiously-themed– Libby not only became keenly proficient in fields typically limited to men but she also developed a literary Yiddish, one that comprises words that are virtually never used in the colloquial Hasidic Yiddish, known derisively as “Yinglish” — an adulterated argot containing many English and onomatopoeic words.
What she triggered in the Hasidic community as evinced by the overwhelming acclaim and interaction with her FB posts was nothing short of a new renaissance-like epoch in the community’s attitude towards Yiddish. Whereas secular, unadulterated Yiddish used to be regarded –even among those with deep roots in the community– with disdain, Libby showed her followers that Secular Yiddish need not be devoid of any Rabbinic or religious references or vice versa. By inventing a whole new genre of literature whose aim it is to couple a pure Yiddish with Hasidic mores and references, Libby has fueled a new interest in studying and using the language correctly. It suddenly “became cool to speak Yiddish”.
In December 2011 a small cadre of die-hard New York secular Yiddishist survivors took note. Desperate for some fresh blood and eager to bridge the gap between the dying breed that is Secular Yiddish and the thriving Hasidic Yiddish, they welcomed her with open arms as the missing link in the continuity of the Yiddish language. She was interviewed by Rachel Schechter from the Forverts and featured in a subsequent article.
From her Chassidish Yiddish (201 members) Facebook page which she helped build along with its founder, Frieda, she moved on to the Kava Shtiebel (210 members). The idea was to keep the discussion in the former focused squarely on the topic of exploring the etymology and meaning of Hasidic Yiddish expressions and allow all sorts of cultural dialogue and gossip in the latter. Then, in a quest to consolidate all her precious wisdom into a single place, the self-titled Libby Pollak Facebook Page was created. She scored 100 followers overnight (twice as many as HN currently has!) and is currently “liked” by an impressive 434 persons, with “121 talking about this” (whatever that means — ask facebook).
Now, with a degree in Psychology in the pipeline, Ms. Pollak’s future looks bright. Independent and appreciated, soft-spoken and confident, she is poised to take on whatever life throws at her and is determined to shape her future in accordance with HER values and her unique talents. We wish her good luck and thank her for sharing with us her frank, heartfelt story, which we are confident will inspire many within the community and without for years to come.