Hasidic Writers, Plugged In
For some ultra-Orthodox writers, the tension between obedience and skepticism in their community fuels a unique art
If you want something to read in Yiddish you can stop by any Brooklyn seforim store, where there are fat Satmar newspapers running to hundreds of pages. Their content is always the same: eulogies, wedding reportage, news digests, economic reports, sermons, serial novels meant to stoke the fires of Eastern European nostalgia, and condemnations of Zionism. Their sameness is part of a holy mission: These publications are not just reporting, but creating and reinforcing their world. Women and girls are left on the cutting room floor, as are Jews from other denominations and non-Jews in general. I try to read them every once in a while out of a sense of duty to contemporary Yiddish literature, but I find them boring, and I stop.
But there are other periodicals, a kind of parallel literature, which you can buy in the same stores and at the newspaper kiosks in the Borough Park or Williamsburg neighborhoods of New York—or which you can easily get for free as PDFs that get emailed around or posted on Facebook. Such a magazine can occasionally spring up as an alternative to Der Yid, the great gray official organ of Satmar Hasidim. For a while, Der Shtern (The Star) was one of these. Full-colored, trim, an attractive package, it included articles on topics from the wider world (science, nature, crime, war, espionage), not the usual empty rabbinic encomia—but in Yiddish, of course, and with the seal of approval that marked it safe for Hasidic consumption. It walked the line between crowd-pleasing and kosher.
In March of this year, however, something unforeseen happened as the outcome of internal Satmar political struggles: In posters plastered over Hasidic Brooklyn, rabbis declared these magazines unsuitable for the Jewish soul. Kiosk owners were ordered not to carry them. The editors of Der Shtern recruited rabbis to represent their side in a rabbinic court, and disseminated a desperate letter asking the censors to hear them out. However, despite a public campaign to reinstate the publication, they were unsuccessful, and as of this writing, the magazine has closed down.
Isaiah (not his real name) was a writer for that magazine. He has a day job, a wife, and six kids, but his true passion is the search for some truth amid his doubts. He is a Hasidic writer creating from inside with all his objections, confusions, and contortions, whose style has been shaped by the same communal constraints that he chafes under.
Isaiah and I were together recently in the Bronx at the home of a grand-dame of Yiddish letters, where we talked about his writing. He has something of a reading public, probably due to his involvement with Der Shtern, but more practically because of his blogging. He told me that recently, a popular badchan (Hasidic entertainer) who goes by the stage name “The Pester Rebbe” asked Isaiah if he could use one of his posts for an upcoming album—but with modifications.
“He wants to edit it from my ‘literary’ style into something more accessible,” Isaiah told me, looking piqued. “My friends don’t understand what I write either. They say it’s too abstract. What do you think?”
“Sometimes,” I agreed. I thought of his poem “Details”—“A world of details is tangled up in me/ Details that can’t conceive themselves”—yes, that kind of abstraction requires a literary culture that the Hasidim are just now developing.
“Can you try writing more concretely?” I suggested.
“If I did that, people would know who I was.” I didn’t try to convince him otherwise. Writing verses such as “The surprised sun/ With its face to the temporary mirror/ Pleasantly laps/ The echo of its absence”—maybe those things are enough to reveal his identity, because how many Hasidim write that way?
Ex-Hasidim are popular, or at least the books they write are. Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox is a New York Times best-seller. Shulem Deen, the founder of Unpious.com (“Voices on the Hasidic Fringe”), now has a book contract. The first English-language novel of Anouk Markovits, a French-born woman who left the fold, is out this month under the title I Am Forbidden. Ex-Hasidic writers have told the world about the painful moral compromises, and in some cases abject failures, of the society they left and the wrenching transformations they have had to undergo.
By necessity, these writers can show us only one side of the community: the side they see when they turn and look back. William James wrote about transformations like these in his Varieties of Religious Experience: “Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order-making and struggle.” They saw a light on the road to Damascus—or the light of the public library across the street—and found their way to a place where their doubts were valued and their questions welcomed. Although they converted from fervent religiosity into (in some cases) an equally fervent secularism and worldliness, they are converts nonetheless. As such, they must talk about how their lives have changed for the better once they leapt over the walls of Williamsburg.
But there are also those who have decidedly not converted, who have not fled their communities. They hew to ideals they do not support because they are not yet ready to leave, or because they never will. Such a life can be exquisitely painful, but the writing that comes out of it can also be enlightening—or at the very least, can reveal a different view of the world within the Hasidic walls. Over the past few years, I have met some of the writers who are creating literature from within. I’ve come to believe that their personal struggles help us—and them—to see their surroundings in a new light.
Though Isaiah and I had known each other for years on the Internet, our first long chat in person happened only recently. I had to get back to Baltimore from the literary event we had both attended in the Bronx, and he gave me a ride to the train station in his boat-sized Hasidic van. On the way downtown, Isaiah recounted his multiple crises of faith. His first doubts came from reading science and modern Yiddish literature: Certain things he thought were simple he found out aren’t true at all. His faith in science was undermined by doubts about the age of the universe. The portraits of long-ago religious Jewish life in the works of Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, and other Yiddish-language writers contradicted the beliefs he had been raised with.
“Once the worm of doubt began to gnaw,” he emailed me later, “I didn’t exactly know where to stop. What else was ‘not exactly’ what I thought before?”
Michael Willens, the grandson of Yiddish theater greats, conducts the Kölner Akademie in piano concertos