Haredi Women’s Lit Explodes
The writers and editors behind the astonishing rise of Orthodox magazines and fiction
But some suggest other factors. Shoshana Lepon, a 55-year-old children’s author and anthologist in the religious Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh who calls herself an “open-minded Charedi,” attributes women’s achievements in the publishing world to a lack of other acceptable artistic outlets. “We’re not going to act, not going to do drama, not going to sing,” she explained. “Writing is one of the kosher arts.”
Though writing may be kosher, the community has exposed itself to outside influences with its openness to BTs, many of whom entered the Haredi world with training or experience in the craft of writing. Astaire (the “Jewish Jane Austen”) studied poetry in her 20s at the New School in New York; Branfman was a director of a Maine poets-in-schools program; and then there are the “crossover” writers like Ruchama King, who is a card-carrying MFA.
This diversity among the writers is reflected in their very different views of the role of the Haredi female writer and of frum literature in general. “The responsibility of a [Haredi woman] writer,” said Menucha Levin, is to “counteract the negative things that come out” about the community. Ami, for example, is occasionally strident in its stance toward the non-Orthodox world. The magazine made an unfortunate name for itself with a photoshopped cover of the White House draped with Nazi flags, and publisher Rechy Frankfurter’s husband, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, caused another stir when he wrote in an editorial, “[R]eligious vigilantism over Jewish history was not an altogether negative phenomenon.” Would the outspoken tone of the publication apply to the inside workings of the community as well? Rechy Frankfurter said, “We don’t see ourselves as a vehicle [within our community] for preaching or exposés … [but] as advocates and ambassadors for the Orthodox Jewish world.”
I might have gotten a similar view from Ruth Lichtenstein, a woman many see as dean of the Haredi press, scion of an eminent rabbinic family, author of books in English and Hebrew, and editor of the English-language edition of the Hamodia daily newspaper. However, Mrs. Levy, Lichtenstein’s secretary, told me in no uncertain terms and a formidable Yiddish accent that “Mrs. Lichtenstein does not grant interviews.”
In contrast to Rechy Frankfurter, some Haredi journalists and authors see themselves as writers first and Haredim second, a view, they say, made possible by the community’s increased confidence and openness. “I don’t write for anybody. When I do, that’s when my stories are in trouble. My words are my words, my life is my life,” said Ruchama King, whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Tablet, and the Jewish Week, as well as the “hemishe” magazines from Ami to Aish HaTorah. “We can be a little more confident with ourselves at this point,” agreed Lepon. “The frum community is very strong. We should allow women to express their experiences.”
In this spirit of openness some writers normalize what other Haredim find shameful—the fact that some leave the community; Ruth Lichtenstein, the editor of Hamodia, had a daughter who left ultra-Orthodoxy and wrote a book under an assumed name about sexual abuse in the community, about which Menucha Levin said, “Every family has one kid [who’s] going off the derech. It’s not such a big deal.” Shoshana Lepon said that child-rearing style and the approach to writing are mutually reinforcing. “The whole community needs to have more self confidence. That applies to the writing as well. We can share problems without it meaning that there’s something terrible happening.”
Yet even Haredi women who feel free to express their experiences still run up against the bounds of ultra-Orthodox internal censorship. All the writers I talked to acknowledged limits on what magazines or book publishers would allow in print, but few wanted to talk about them on the record. For example, pregnancy and childbirth are off limits if a teenage girl is a character, said Menucha Levin, adding, like any good writer would, “there are ways of alluding to things without telling them explicitly.”
A different kind of writing is being curated by Shoshana Lepon, called “Just Between Us—Jewish Women Get Personal.” Lepon said, “It will provide a platform for Jewish women to write about personal topics: birth, marriage, widowhood, breast cancer, mikvah, divorce. We’re trying to aim for the gut. [Writers] can’t send this stuff anywhere,” because “there’s a very strong censorship” currently in Haredi publications. Lepon conceded, however, that Mishpacha magazine has recently opened itself to such topics, and that “Binah is showing life like it is.”
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