Haredi adventure stories are a curious but popular genre. There is the 2005
Yiddish-language film A gesheft (“A Deal”), the story of a Hassidgone- bad out
for revenge on the pious man he wrongly blames for his childhood
If you find A gesheft aesthetically unsatisfying – it’s
filled with low-budget cinematic anachronisms, and the moviemakers refused to
film women – you may prefer Yair Weinstock’s 1998 novel Blackout, an adventure
story set in Israel that nearly fulfills the promises of its ambitious subtitle,
“A Riveting Novel of Suspense, Conspiracy, Mystery and Revelation” (you are
right to recall the long titles of many 19th-century novels).
government, fearing the threat to secularism posed by the growing religious
Right, creates a popular “Manchurian candidate” religious leader who is primed
to destroy the community. A newly-religious reporter, plumbing his family’s
secrets, discovers the conspiracy and saves the day.
What are we to make
of such haredi adventure stories? This is the question that Yoel Finkelman asks
in his new book, Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition
of Contemporary Orthodoxy.
Finkelman argues that ultra-Orthodox Jews,
though they regularly borrow from secular society, are determined to maintain
their separateness from it. To do so, they create “symbolic boundaries” between
themselves and the general culture. Haredi popular literature is a lens through
which we can examine those boundaries.
One strategy haredi popular works
use to negotiate with secular society is what Finkelman calls “coalescence”;
that is, a merger of Jewish tradition with American norms. For example, Yaakov
Levinson’s Jewish Guide to Natural Nutrition draws on Maimonidean and kabbalistic
principles – to support standard nutritional advice. “Nutrients,” Levinson says,
produce holy “sparks”; so you should eat a sensible meal.
Yet it is hard
to know whether this actually constitutes “coalescence” or whether, in this
area, the “symbolic boundary” has simply disappeared. With a little re-branding,
the Jewish Guide could transcend the haredi niche and find a place on Amazon’s
self-help best-seller lists.
IN OTHER areas, haredi literature struggles
to maintain the boundaries and determine what can and cannot be “filtered” into
haredi texts. Haredi books – even if they are marriage manuals – often leave out
sex. As one guide explains, “problems related to the intimate aspects of
marriage... have been deliberately omitted here in deference to the tenets of
Indeed, much of what Finkleman calls haredi “boundary
maintenance” may not be haredi-specific; it may just be an example of the
increased “narrowcasting” in American culture. Instead of trying to reach a
broad audience, culture purveyors have realized that there is money to be made
in splitting the audience into ever-smaller demographic groups and targeting
them individually. Removing sex in order to reach the haredi demographic is no
different from removing sex to reach a “family” demographic.
argues that the haredim have created a popular culture industry to parallel the
general one – that is to say, something separate – but what he really shows is
the fundamental integration of haredim into the American cultural industry, and
possibly American culture.
The “Slifkin case” shows this integration in
Rabbi Natan Slifkin wrote a book that reinterpreted biblical
passages about the world’s age so that they harmonized with the scientific
evidence about the age of the universe. The haredi establishment banned the
book, but a non-haredi Orthodox publisher distributed it. Copies eventually went
for multiple times their list price on eBay.
In the Slifkin case we see
both the limits that the haredi establishment sought to establish and the
popular pressures to exceed those limits. We also see the absence of a firm
boundary between the haredi and non-haredi publishing industries: When no haredi
publisher would distribute Slifkin, a slightly-less-religious publisher stepped
“To a great degree,” Finkelman allows, “general popular culture
dictates to the haredi enclave what it must produce, even when that undermines
things that haredi Judaism holds dear.”
IF “SYMBOLIC boundaries” are hard
to enforce on the production side, they are also difficult to maintain when it
comes to content.
In Finkelman’s view, one way in which haredi popular
literature exercises social control over its readers is “monopolizing”: The
haredi literature takes a problematic entertainment form – like adventure
fiction – and adapts it, in novels like Blackout, to entertain readers while
keeping them away from more secular versions.
In another Weinstock novel,
Calculated Risk, Finkelman notes that the once-secular hero must return to the
secular world of action to solve a crime. Similarly, the haredi reader “can
vicariously live a life of adventure despite the fact that the novel itself...
presented this as a secular value.”
Yet the differing value systems
cannot be fully reconciled. The adventure fiction form is in some ways
inherently critical of haredism: As Fineklman notes, Blackout, in telling a
story of active heroism, presents a model that runs directly counter to haredi
Conversely, the specifically haredi aspects of Blackout cannot be
translated into general cultural terms. If you wanted to make a Hollywood movie
of Blackout, you could adapt some features: For instance, you could make it a
story of Evangelical Christians being subverted by the US government. But you
could not adapt its ending or the way in which it resolves moral
If Hollywood were making A gesheft
, we would expect
retribution – the villain would go to prison for his crimes. But actually, in A
as in Blackout
, justice consists of repentance. It begins with studying
Torah and ends with faithful observance. Haredi popular culture does not demand
an eye for an eye; Torah study will do.
Haredi popular literature may be
most interesting not for the ways in which it “coalesces,” “filters,” or
“monopolizes” secular culture but for the access it gives us to the morals and
values – what Lionel Trilling called the “manners” – of a Jewry that sometimes
seems foreign. This book almost explodes with fascinating information about
haredi authors, critics and debates in the pages of magazines unknown to
Finkelman may have set out to describe the contribution of
haredi popular culture to the propagation of haredism, but what he’s done is to
write an approachable, responsible introduction to haredi life that demystifies
many of its aspects.The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish studies
at Harvard University, focusing on Jewish American literature and culture. (This
article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with