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Hasidic Writers, Plugged In

For some ultra-Orthodox writers, the tension between obedience and skepticism in their community fuels a unique art

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

While choosing to remain within Hasidic society, he believes that the ultra-Orthodox world is undergoing a transformation. “Now Hasidim are in certain things more liberal than others, mainly in overlooking or bending Jewish laws and customs which keep society from continuing. Every group in Judaism bends the halacha from its original meaning. Who is good? Who is right? Who can say ‘Thou hast chosen us’ without guilt?”

The best-known Hasidic writer creating on the inside is someone who Isaiah reads and admires. This writer, too, is someone I’ve known for years: first on one email list, then another—now we email nearly every week. I’ve seen him in person a handful of times, but few know his true identity. He goes by the name of Katle Kanye—a Talmudic term literally meaning “reed chopper” but by connotation more on the order of “thick-headed oaf,” and thus in the direct line of self-effacing Jewish pseudonyms like “Hi There” (Sholem Aleichem) or Mendy the Bookseller (Mendele Mocher Seforim). An article in the Forward recently compared Katle Kanye to Sholem Aleichem, which like all comparisons is both enlightening and deceptive. Like the great master, Katle Kanye wields folk idiom like a spear—piercing the heart of rabbinical corruption and Hasidic machers’ self-satisfaction. He slides easily from the most learned of registers to the most vulgar—and the society he chronicles is not a frum fantasy preserved in amber, but a crucible of transformation, insecurity, and fear.

One of his stories is about a groom called up for his aufruf, who (spoiler alert) never comes up to the bimah at all. The suspense comes not so much with the absence of the groom himself but with the reaction from his father, and the shul. Katle Kanye points to all the simchas that are incomplete, all the Deborah Feldmans who will not be at this year’s Rosh Hashanah meals. A subtler strength of this story, though, is that the narrator is clearly ambivalent about the community he is a part of. On the edge, cognizant of the deficits and failures, he tells us about coming back into its midst to tell about a celebration gone wrong. Arriving at shul for the aufruf, he finds a seat among the other members, and his mixed relief and alienation is tenderly depicted. “I came in but they were saying the Shema, when they couldn’t greet me, so they gave a little nod, like they were saying—Hey, that’s nice, he’s come to daven with his friend. Some moved over a bit—‘over here, there’s room next to me!’ ”

Sholem Aleichem made a living as a Yiddish writer, selling thousands of books and leaving behind collected works that run to many volumes in a multiplicity of genres. On the other hand, Katle Kanye has not yet published a book, though he’s been writing and publishing regularly online for years. “I can’t reveal who I am,” he has said to me any number of times, “because I still have daughters to marry off.” If he revealed his identity, those girls would not be able to find a shidduch. If he published a book, he thinks, he might be discovered.

Thus, all Katle Kanye has is his blog. There he writes about the entire spectrum of Hasidic life, from finding a shidduch for his 18-year-old—“this is the first time,” he says after espying a woman in a bakery, “that I am not fantasizing about a woman for myself but sizing her up for my son”—to his crises of faith that are just as substantive as Isaiah’s if no more decisive:

Since the beginning of Elul, my heart’s been boiling. I try to look away, to get out of it all, to pretend I don’t have anything to do with this—but it doesn’t work. The shofar speaks to me but I don’t want to hear it. It’s not telling me to repent, but it’s reminding me that last year it also blew, and next year it will blow again, and besides getting on my nerves it won’t really accomplish much. It trumpets that you must return, but also that you won’t return. It exclaims—how capricious is the human heart.

Because I am obsessed with contemporary Yiddish literature, no matter who writes it, I have become fascinated by these Hasidic writers even though our worlds are often poles apart. I think Katle Kanye should write more, and I’ve told him so—though I feel guilty for saying it; it’s a lot harder for him to write from behind the Shtreimel Curtain. In response, I often get emails from KK where he says he is not writing enough, he worries he will never write again, he doesn’t know if he can go on doing this. Why is the writing worthwhile? Who is reading him? He thinks he might be close to revealing himself but is still not sure. Meanwhile, those who can read Katle Kanye in Yiddish are precisely those who are not supposed to be reading him. It’s as if he were a Soviet refusenik writing samizdat, in a language spoken only by the KGB.

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StefanoNBelinda says:

The difference between those who have left (Deen, Feldman, et al.) and those who have not left the Hassidic community often has very little to do with the Hassidic community, and more to do with those individuals’ having grown up in totally dysfunctional families. 

RuthFeder says:

Excellent piece! Very well done. I’m curious about this particular line:
 If you are a woman, you might not be able to continue, even under a pseudonym.
Why specifically “woman”?

The woman-pseudonym connection is not meant to be particular to women. But women, in that paragraph, were mentioned specifically because I take it that it’s particularly difficult for women writers in the Chasidic community. That is, there are fewer chassidic women writers than men writers because they have more familial and livelihood responsibilities, making it more difficult to get the writing in. The same “room of their own” problem that women writers have anywhere. 

RuthFeder says:

Oh, I see. I thought you were referring to a chassidic-specific problem, and I couldn’t understand what you were saying. Though since chassidic woman have more kids, you could claim that there’s an element of specificity there.

It’s not a problem unique to chassidim, but it might be exacerbated there. Women writers in the secular world are still lagging behind men in pay & recognition (maybe you heard about the scandals regarding the relative counts of M and F in NYT articles etc.), but less so than among chassidim, I bet.

RuthFeder says:

Not sure about the “less so than among chassidim.” I have to think about that. I agree with the rest of what you’re saying. Though I do have to say that there are a considerable number of female authors in Binah, Ami, Mishpacha, etc., most of whom probably have large families. They may not be apikorsim, which is why they only write for these magazines, but the fact is they write. A lot! Their output is amazing, actually.

gwhepner says:

GIFT OF GAB-SENSE

 

 

Longingly
she laps

the
echoes of his absence,

hoping
that perhaps

his gilded
gift of gab-sense

might knock
sense into her,

but
since he is not present,

his
absence is a burr

which
she now finds unpleasant.

 

He’s
climbed a wall that she

believes
she cannot climb:

no
chance of liberty

from
gift of gab-sense rhyme,

and so,
while looking in

a glass,
she sees herself

as lost
soul who can’t win,

absent,
on a shelf.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

danpot says:

Just like in the rest of the world, “familial and livelihood responsibilities” don’t keep ultra-Orthodox women from producing far more literary output than men. As RuthFeder pointed out, existing ultra-Orthodox publications are dominated by women writers.

The suggestion that women have greater “familial and livelihood responsibilities” than men is probably incorrect. It is also borderline offensive to the thousands of men who have little time to think of anything but how to make a living so they can feed their 8+ children and to pay for their exorbitant yeshiva tuition costs.

Pinchus Glauber says:

“having grown up in totally dysfunctional families.”Which of the 2 groups are you referring to: the ones who left or the ones who chose to stay?

danpot says:

Just like in the rest of the world, “familial and livelihood responsibilities” don’t keep ultra-Orthodox women from producing far more literary output than men. As RuthFeder pointed out, existing ultra-Orthodox publications are dominated by women writers.
The suggestion that women have greater “familial and livelihood responsibilities” than men is probably incorrect. It is also borderline offensive to the thousands of men who have little time to think of anything but how to make a living so they can feed their 8+ children and to pay for their exorbitant yeshiva tuition costs.

Point well taken. I certainly don’t mean to be borderline offensive to anyone.

I have been told by numerous people that Der Shtern is still alive and kicking, or as Isaiah told me, “sweated through” the attacks on it. My mistake. 

philipmann says:

  Just a thought here ,connecting to a previous article .  With that major asifah scheduled for NYC on Sunday, the rabonim are once again trying to trying to pry people away from the net.

    What are the odds of them succeeding ? People go to the net because they want to ,just as the subjects in this article want to express themselves,but are deeply afraid of being discovered  and cast out of the community. The net is a meeting place for many of us. simply banning its use doesn`t negate the driving demand for it. 

    The ideas,the discussions,will not go away.

RuthFeder says:

Danpot, I’ve always found it interesting that people keep talking about how chassidic women are restricted from experiencing this or that because they have so many kids, but nobody seems to mention that large families are equally restrictive to chassidic men. In a traditional setup like the chassidic community, men are expected to financially support their families. Of course, women may work if they *wish* to do so, but it’s not expected or demanded of them. This construct, as you’ve rightfully pointed out, leaves men with little time or opportunity or energy to enjoy extracurricular activities, too.
I suspect that the omission of the male side of this equation isn’t meant to be offensive to men at all, but is simply convenient to those–and there are many–who want to criticize the ultra-orthodox lifestyle. The more you can show that women are discriminated against, the easier it is to rally people around your cause. Crying over the rights of chassidic women is, quite simply, the politically correct thing to do at this point in time. 

First it was assimilation and the Zionists who took Hebrew instead of Yiddish as the language.  As if we would all speak Hebrew to one another around the world.  With characteristic foolishness they stamped out Yiddish as a Jewish tongue and so now when I meet another MOT abroad we speak English together.  
Now the male Haradi who are amongst the least sensible people on the planet want to destroy what is left of written Yiddish.  Thanks brothers for destroying mein Mamaloshen one more time. Stamp it out in your hubris.  And while you’re at it join the Chinese in making the world all male.  Then try to reproduce.
Why do you think so many women drop out of the Haradi lifestyle.  It’s you…men who think you know the voice of Hashem but are only hearing the echo of your own ego.

thank you.
these writers, participating in the recesses of doubt while engaging in observance offer an alternative to jumping into the secular world and its disavowal of faith. This is an alternative to ‘that world’ as something ‘freeing from confines’. This space to inhabit provides real glimpses into a powerful life and it’s dilemmas. One’s we cant ignore. I’d like to find more of their work in english.
Again, thanks.

I wanted to clarify Isaiah’s remarks at his request. He says that he is not a kofer [heretic]. Rather, he has  worked very hard to reconcile his faith, which he has truly never lost, with    contradictions that are taught in the Chasidic world. Additionally, he says that he has never wanted to change Chasidic society. Rather, it is changing, because that is the way of the world. It is not becoming better or worse; rather, it is transforming, like all societies have done and always will do until the end of time. This, again, to quote Isaiah.  

Zackary Sholem Berger says:

A Yiddish version of the article, with quotes in the original language, is here: 
http://yiddish.forward.com/node/4452

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Hasidic Writers, Plugged In

For some ultra-Orthodox writers, the tension between obedience and skepticism in their community fuels a unique art