Hasidic Writers, Plugged In
For some ultra-Orthodox writers, the tension between obedience and skepticism in their community fuels a unique art
There are other “writers on the inside” I haven’t mentioned here, who mostly publish essays (reminiscences of their life or their going “off the derech”) and short stories. The best are to be found on Deen’s website “Unpious” and are of quite high quality—like the story “Heat of the Moment,” in which, as the author “Shtreimel” has it, “A small act of mindless cruelty leads to reflection, kindness, and redemption.” He used to blog fairly often but has not done so recently, concentrating his writing on Deen’s site.
Other writers are found most often in online forums such as “Atzor Kan Choshvim” (“Caution People Thinking,” from Israel) or “Kave Shtiebel” (“Coffee Room,” mostly frequented by Americans), trading witty repartee about the parsha of the week, the Talmud daf of the day, or the Hasidic scandal of the moment. (The closing of Isaiah’s Der Shtern was written about, as it was happening, only on Kave Shtiebel. The English press didn’t know about it, and the official Yiddish press was either censored or censoring.) However, while some of these forums are intellectually on a high level and sometimes quite well-written, their writers are not producing what the ordinary reader would call creative literature, fashioned by individual, deliberate personalities.
The case of Haredi writers in Israel, or the lack thereof, is particularly interesting. Partially because there is not a thriving Haredi, Yiddish-language press in Israel like in Brooklyn, and partially because Modern Hebrew has made its way into Haredi circles as a kissing cousin of the holy rabbinic tongue, there is little space for Haredi popular literature outside of Torah scholarship, says Katle Kanye, who acknowledges that his theories are tinged by a general ambivalence toward the State of Israel in general. “Jewish [religious] culture in Israel is mostly dead. From Mordechai Ben David, Carlebach, Avrom Fried, Yankl Miller, Yoel Lebovitch, and all the Hasidic magazines, to everyone writing on the ‘outside’ like the bloggers and Unpious—everything is outside Israel, and specifically in the U.S.”
Similarly, I don’t know of many ultra-Orthodox women writers who write about their doubts from the inside—probably because there are added difficulties with being a woman writer from within that community. The writer “Shpitzle Shtrimpkind” wrote a blog in 2006-2007 that got, she says, “hundreds of visitors a day,” and published a well-received short story on Deen’s site called “The Get” which Katle Kanye translated into Yiddish for his thousands of readers. Since then, however, she left the community for good and is known on Facebook under her real name, Frieda Vizel. Vizel runs a Facebook group called “Chassidish Yiddish,” among whose frequent posters is one Libby Pollack, a former Hasid whose jokes are as inside-Talmudic as any yeshiva bocher and who engages in a form of blogging herself through frequent, lengthy Facebook status updates.
Indeed, women Hasidic writers certainly do exist, I was told by my friend “Miriam” in response to my queries—but even she wouldn’t answer any of my questions because she is “paranoid” of being outed as one of these writers. She seems to be of two minds about the place of such writers in the Haredi world. “In the Hassidic community there are a number of female writers, but they write only as a means of making money,” she said, meaning they write boilerplate text for family magazines for pay. To discuss her writing—which I like but she doesn’t want me to speak about—would “basically be identifying myself,” she said. On the other hand, she bristles at the common assumption that Hasidic women cannot be creative writers. “The Footsteps/Unpious contingent, along with all those Forward and Tablet magazine articles, have made people believe that it’s impossible to do anything offbeat or intellectual if you’re part of the Hasidic community.”
It’s not easy for anybody. If you write in Yiddish, you’re read but not widely. If you choose to write in English, you’re running the risk of discovery. If you leave, you risk everything and might forever look over your shoulder even if you become a big success with your tales of escape. If you stay, you wrestle with doubts for which there are no solutions. If you are a woman, you might not be able to continue, even under a pseudonym.
None of these writers I mention here are in an enviable position. I doubt they will ever get the attention they deserve, simply because they have chosen to stay. But they should be read now. Not because they illuminate the underbelly of Hasidic society and urge its reform—there are many who do that—nor because they talk about the manifold attractions, to those confused and alienated by modernity, of the ultra-Orthodox life. As William James might have it, their “unhappy and divided” souls might never become “right and unified” through conversion. They might never become all one thing—free of doubts or free of Hasidic strictures. The best of the “writers from inside,” rather, can depict a complex world in all its light and shadow while being true to the experiences of those who remain.
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Michael Willens, the grandson of Yiddish theater greats, conducts the Kölner Akademie in piano concertos