Review of Making Bodies Kosher: The Politics of Reproduction among Haredi Jews in England. Ben Kasstan, New York: Berghahn, 2019, 272 pp.

Reviewed Book

Making Bodies Kosher: The Politics of Reproduction among Haredi Jews in England. Ben Kasstan, New York: Berghahn, 2019, 272 pp.

I read Kasstan’s Making Bodies Kosher during the months of April and May 2020 as newspaper headlines from New York to Tel Aviv decried the ultra-orthodox Jewish community’s response to social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic. This book, which explores Haredi Jews’ contested negotiations with the public health system in Manchester, England, is a bit like looking into a crystal ball. It is in some ways predictive of the response of the Haredi population to governmental public health interventions in the wake of Covid-19, as well as of the public critique of the community’s response.

In New York, Israel, and the United Kingdom, the Haredi communities have been hit hard by the coronavirus, reaching alarmingly high infection rates as well as, in New York especially, making up a large number of Covid deaths. The community has been widely criticized for defying governmental orders, holding funerals attended by hundreds, and refusing to close synagogues, yeshivas [Torah learning institutes], and mikvehs [ritual baths]. As I opened Chapter Four of Kasstan’s book on why Haredi mothers selectively comply with childhood vaccination campaigns, an email popped up from a N.Y.-based relative with an attached article from the New York Post entitled “Just hours after NYC crackdown, Borough Park businesses are packed again” (Nolan Hicks, May 27, 2020). My concerned relative’s message in bold—“What the heck are they thinking!!!!!”—alongside Kasstan’s work made me appreciate Kasstan’s careful use of the anthropologist’s sacred tenet to suspend ethnocentric judgment to understand another culture.

Kasstan’s case study focuses on the Haredi ultra-orthodox community in Manchester, England, which shares important commonalities with those in Israel and the United States, including early marriage, an exceptionally high fertility rate, and strict adherence to Jewish law. Kasstan challenges the stereotypical portraits of this insular population popularized by shows such as the Netflix hit “Unorthodox,” arguing that such monolithic representations of Haredi society erase the complexity within this diverse population.

As a medical anthropologist, Kasstan explores how this insular community understands immunity, safety, and protection. Drawing on ethnographic research he conducted among community members including rabbis and doulas, interspersed with archival material on the history of Manchester’s Haredi community, Kasstan explores how historical patterns inform this community’s current response to reproductive medicine and childhood vaccine campaigns.

The main thrust of the book explores the standoff between the Haredi community in Manchester and the English Public Health System, which frames them as a “hard to reach” (p. 129) community that is non-compliant. But the Haredi Jews want the same thing as the health system—to protect the health of their people. The Haredi community is guided by Judaic cosmology, which demands guarding one’s health from danger and self-protection of the body, including going to doctors and taking medicine. Yet Haredi ideas about bodily protection and safety do not always coincide with those of the health system, which is guided by the biomedical paradigm and understood by the Haredi social body as a political vehicle of possibly dangerous interventions by the state.

When these two authoritative knowledge systems face off—the rabbinical and biomedical—it can lead to misunderstandings and resistance. Chapter 2 highlights how culture-brokers (rabbis and religious arbiters of health care) and organizations negotiate Haredi interactions with the health system. Chapter 3 explores sites of these contestations in maternity care and infant care, in areas such as contraception use, prenatal screening, and cesarean birth, and Chapter 4 examines the ways that mothers negotiate their children’s vaccination schedules because of folk interpretations of what it means to protect one’s children’s health.

Kasstan makes excellent analytic use of Esposito’s (2015) paradigm of immunity to decipher how the Haredi community seeks to protect itself from the dangers of the outside world. Exposure to non-Haredi influences, including some biomedical knowledge, is considered dangerous and must be mediated through religious authorities, such as rabbis and culture-brokers, or through the intervention of orthodox doulas, “tasked with making biomedicine kosher” (p. 129) (i.e., considered safe for Haredi bodies). Kasstan warns that in some cases, the filtering of external knowledge as part of this collective immunity response does not protect the community against the outside world but instead presents “an internal and partially grave danger to the persistence of Haredi world within” (p. 110), such as in the case of domestic abuse.

A few small caveats: Throughout the book, I could not help but wonder how Kasstan gained such in-depth access to these Haredi groups, as a young single man interviewing married women about reproduction in a highly gender-separated society and as a patrilineal Jew who is not recognized by Orthodox Jews as Jewish. On his positionality he writes, “it frequently seemed as if I embodied the threats which Haredi Jews seek to protect themselves from—integration, assimilation and most grievous of all—intermarriage” (p. 25). Having encountered many complexities myself as a Jewish woman interviewing Haredi women in the United States and Israel about pregnancy, I was curious about his challenges entering the field and if he, too, had to go through several gatekeepers for each group within Haredi society he wished to reach. Kasstan alludes briefly to concerns and comments posed to him during fieldwork and regarding his representation of the community in his writing. But describing his access to the field and fieldwork experiences in regard to his positionality more fully would help the reader understand the possible limitations and vantage points of his research.  

I also found it interesting that he refers to his interviewees throughout the text as Mrs., so that instead of first or whole name pseudonyms, as is the usual ethnographic convention, he writes of “Mrs. Miller” and “Mrs. Levy.” It is also ironic that even though a central argument in the book is that Haredi society should not be flattened into one entity, the author repeatedly used the words “Jewish Manchester” to describe what is, actually, only a small fraction of the Jewish social body. Finally, while the historical contextualization of Manchester Haredi society was excellent, I kept wanting more comparative remarks in relation to the practices of U.S. and Israeli Haredim, especially because studies on Haredi Jews in Israel and in the United States document so many similarities.

Nevertheless, this somewhat prophetic text is timely for the various online syllabi medical anthropologists are preparing for teaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be used in introductory courses for its explanation of how stereotypes of a group shape public health interventions into that group and how groups respond to public health interventions drawing on local, cultural systems of knowledge. It should surely be taught in conjunction with Mary Douglas’s work (2002) on purity and danger, risk, contagion and the social body, both because Kasstan applies Douglas throughout his book and because this is exactly the kind of case study that shows how relevant Douglas’s work is half a century since it was written. A perfect paper assignment would be to have students apply Douglas’s work and Kasstan’s ethnography to the analysis of coronavirus media coverage. Making Bodies Kosher is an important contribution to the Berghahn series on Fertility, Reproduction and Sexuality and should be essential reading for medical anthropologists in the wake of the pandemic.

References Cited

Douglas, M. 2002. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge Classics Edition. London: Routledge.

Esposito, R. 2015. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, translated by Z. Hanafi, reprinted. Cambridge: Polity Press.