Hasidic Writers, Plugged In
For some ultra-Orthodox writers, the tension between obedience and skepticism in their community fuels a unique art
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.
Michael Willens, the grandson of Yiddish theater greats, conducts the Kölner Akademie in piano concertos