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?”
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.
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