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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)

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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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

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