A room of their own

Haredi women writers are finding their voice within their insular community.

haredi girls backs 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi girls backs 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It may not be apparent to the outside world but haredi society is changing. Over the past three decades, aspects of the general culture once considered foreign and treif (unkosher) are infiltrating and being redesigned to suit the special needs of this distinct group, especially in Israel. Haredi pop music, computer games, movies, recreational camps, travel agents, newspapers, self-help books and children's magazines are all examples of the acculturation of a seemingly isolated community that has learned to take these cultural modes and adapt them to its own genres, language, style and values. "The haredi community... remains in a constant and tension-filled dialogue with modernity and is changing dramatically over time," says Yoel Finkelman, author of a doctorate on religion and public life in twentieth-century Jewish thought, and of an upcoming paper on haredi popular literature. This is especially evident in leisure-time reading material, primarily fiction, which has enjoyed a renaissance in the haredi community. The near explosion of haredi literature over the last 30 years is particularly striking. Growth in numbers and in self-confidence, and the expanded presence of haredim in communal and commercial ventures, provide some of the explanation for this phenomenon. Yet ironically, this growth can also be attributed to the desire to remain isolated and to become self-sufficient in every field, so that there will be no need to venture "out of the enclave," where haredim may be forced to encounter material and ideas that run counter to their values. Books and literature written and printed by the haredi community, for example, avoid conspicuous references to sex and other incompatible social codes and moral values. Haredi writers can continue to cater to their own community, since technological advances make it profitable to publish even for a small market. In past generations most writers wrote shallow, preachy works, giving the impression that haredi literature was monolithic and simplistic. The belief that literature should inculcate values and promote proper behavior, especially in children's books, may have been the reason for the relatively poor literary quality. The purported "inspirational message" squelched expression and censored creativity. And haredi readers, who do not usually watch television or browse the web, were so hungry for reading material that they uncritically accepted the good, the bad and everything in between. This is no longer the situation since there is a much wider haredi writer base, now catering to all age groups. Wendy Shalit, whose article "The Observant Reader" appeared in the New York Times book review section several months ago, believes that ba'alei teshuva (newly observant) writers are raising the standard of literature produced by religious writers. She contends that the newly religious, who have had more exposure to the "outside" world than those who were born into the haredi world, are ideally positioned to bridge the secular literary world and the religious public hankering for books to read. In a parallel fashion, in contrast to veteran Israeli haredim, haredi immigrants to Israel, and especially those from the English-speaking countries, have generally been exposed to world literature, even if they were educated in ultra-Orthodox school systems. Both haredi men and women are now writing fiction, so is there a difference between men and women writers in the haredi community? Finkelman believes that both men and women are moved by a quest for self- expression, publicity, acknowledgement and money and by their desire to communicate about issues that concern them. But he believes that self-expression and self-exploration are more important for ultra-Orthodox women writers than for ultra-Orthodox male writers and says that difference is reflected in their writing. Sarah Shapiro, who has written three books of personal essays and edited four anthologies of Jewish women's writing, points out that women writers have a greater need to communicate with others. Writing, she says, "is a continuous way of communicating, without being interrupted." Shapiro has been offering writing workshops for nearly 15 years. She observes that while the basic impulse to create drives most writers, ultra-Orthodox women usually view their writing as an integral part of their spiritual lives, using it as an opportunity to increase their understanding of themselves and their world. Some ultra-Orthodox rabbinic authorities have questioned and even attacked fiction-writing, viewing it as frivolous, untrue and responsible for taking children's minds off "important" matters. Other halachic (religious law) legislators such as the late Rabbi Natan Bulman and the Bostoner Rebbe, who cater primarily to the English-speaking community, have been more supportive. One head of a yeshiva encouraged his student to pursue his religious studies for half the day and to write in the other half - but instructed him to write well. Shapiro contends that haredi writers of both sexes are like all writers: They have to contend with the sore disappointment of rejection slips, and balance between the need to make a living and the impulse to develop one's art. A writer, she believes, wants to catch the fleeting moment, to hold on to an impression, to describe a quickly passing incident and thereby grab on to a piece of life and give it meaning. "Writing is a form of art. Words are like music." She notes that in Hebrew, the word for art and the word for faith are very similar. "If you have faith in your own nature, then the process of creating will bring you closer to the One who created you. When you're doing what you love ... there's always a potential there for getting closer to God." Several of the writers interviewed indicated that while ultra-Orthodox women writers share much with other female writers, differences do exist. The religious writer is more restrained and the prohibition against gossip and slander, usually interpreted very broadly, can be particularly limiting. Moreover, for ultra-Orthodox women, the family is always supposed to come first. Shapiro recalls her own difficulties as she grappled with the conflict between her writing and her family while she was raising her own six children. It took her many years to learn to structure her hours and to fulfill her responsibilities both to her family and herself. Esther Susan Heller, founder of the Jewish Writing Institute of Safed, has organized writers' groups for ultra-Orthodox women intended to guide and support them in their quest to write better and integrate their identities as "good Jews" at the same time. Her workshops focus on the "how" of writing. The Safed group also produces a newsletter, Soferet, which now comes out four times a year and has a circulation of 300. Twelve issues have already appeared. The newsletter contains articles on writing, lists job opportunities, discusses common issues and provides perky comments. In contrast, Shapiro, whose writers' workshops for ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem have also been running for 15 years, concentrates on both technique and creativity. "We've become extremely close," she commented on the relationship between women in the workshop. "The bonding between women who write together is unlike any other friendship. It touches a certain deep part within us. Each of us is searching for her own truth, yet we merge so beautifully." When starting the workshops, she acknowledges that, "in the back of my head I also wanted to prove to my non-Orthodox sisters back in the States that haredi women could be as creative as secular women." Aside from groups, newsletters and conferences - the most recent of which drew over 70 participants - on-line courses for Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox women writers are the newest addition to the writing trend. Heller, for example, provides an on-line course at www.jewishwriting.com. "On-line courses are ideal for our population," says Heller. "They can connect at home, at their leisure, when the children are in school or asleep, and inbetween their other responsibilities."