Jewish Ideas Daily: Kosher fiction

Ultra-Orthodox films and fiction mimic popular culture – but only up to a point.

November 20, 2011 22:54
Cinematographer Ori Gruder

Ori Gruder 311. (photo credit: Courtesy of Hagai Sharara)


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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 misfortunes.

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).

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The Israeli 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 tznius [modesty].”

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.

Finkelman 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 operation.

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 right in.

“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 norms.

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 ambiguity.

If Hollywood were making A gesheft, we would expect retribution – the villain would go to prison for his crimes. But actually, in A gesheft 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 outsiders.

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 permission.)

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