Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Haredi Women’s Lit Explodes

The writers and editors behind the astonishing rise of Orthodox magazines and fiction

Zackary Sholem Berger
August 08, 2012

Libi Astaire, who has written three mystery novels, faces a set of challenges quite unlike any other writer in her genre. Here are her ground rules: 1. No murders or gratuitous violence. 2. No unredeemable characters. 3. No inappropriate language or sexual immortality. Of course, she doesn’t write for the same audience that reads Laura Lippman or John Grisham. Astaire writes mysteries for Haredi women.

“Can this be good literature?” she asked during a recent interview. “I personally think so. Because I can’t rely upon sex and violence to sell my books, I have to do old-fashioned things like create vivid characters, insert humor, recreate historical periods in a convincing way.”

Astaire, 57, who has been called (by herself, and also by others) “a Jewish Jane Austen,” is a prominent contributor to the Haredi literary scene. She grew up in Prairie Village, Kan., and now lives in Jerusalem. She is also a frequent contributor to Mishpacha, one of a slew of ultra-Orthodox publications that has found an ever-growing readership over the past 15 or 20 years. Indeed, the three major Haredi magazines are among the most canny negotiators between the requirements of Jewish law and the imperatives of literature. They are all based in New York and are favored reading material for many Sabbath-observant families. There is Binah, “the weekly magazine for the Jewish woman”; Ami, which declares itself the “premier Jewish magazine”; and Mishpacha, which bills itself as a “Jewish family magazine.” All three are glossy publications with high production values, run by professional writers and editors who occasionally solicit advice from rabbis about what they should or should not publish.

“They set the tone for current culture,” said Esther Heller, head of the Jewish Writing Institute and a present or former editor at several magazines and publishing houses and also the editor of Soferet, a 500-member email list of Haredi women writers.

“I don’t write for anybody. When I do, that’s when my stories are in trouble. My words are my words, my life is my life.”

Knowing the ultra-Orthodox community’s defined gender roles, we may find it surprising to learn that many magazine editors and publishers are women. Some attribute this to a difference in education. “Girls are raised with more naïveté, and they’re fed pabulum, as opposed to boys who learn Talmud,” said Katle Kanye, a popular Hasidic writer in Yiddish, who sees the community’s definitions of worthy and unworthy intellectual activities as giving girls a decided edge when it comes to literary pursuits. “The girls are also taught hashkofeh”—religious thought—“which boys don’t get so much of. On the other hand, they have art class and they learn writing too—so a creative side is developed in the case of girls which stays dead for boys. Boys do have study halls too, but they can’t sit still. So, apikorsim and know-it-alls come from the boys, while girls have the upper hand in creativity and reading.”

Others note that many of the writers and editors are BTs, short for baalei-teshuvah, those who entered the Haredi community later in life. But there may be other factors, too—including the intersection of complementary historical forces: the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy on the one hand and the decentralization of publishing on the other. Acting in concert, both trends have helped to increase the number of readers and the need for new, frum content. But without BTs and their secular education in creative writing programs, there might not be enough frum writers to meet the new demand.

The current explosion of literary and lifestyle writing within the Haredi community began in 1999 with the creation of Horizons magazine, which bills itself as “the first quarterly magazine for the religious Jewish market.” The magazine still exists, though it now seems to have been eclipsed by the glossy newcomers. “If you wanted just to stick to Jewish content, there was hardly anything available [before then],” said Menucha Levin, a 63-year-old novelist and journalist who lives in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. In turn, Horizons helped spawn an entire industry of Haredi book publishing, including novels, self-help books, poetry, and children’s books—all written, and often published, by women, as well as a wealth of writers’ support groups both online and in person, in the United States and Israel.

The women who have created the Haredi culture industry are diverse in their literary styles and subject matter. After Varda Branfman, 61, now living in Jerusalem, became religious, she stopped writing for a while until she learned from her husband’s rabbi “that not only should I keep on, but I had an obligation to use my gift.” In 2002 she self-published an anthology of poems, essays, and short fiction. She never felt right about going off to a room of her own and writing while her children needed her, so she sat with her laptop near the kitchen so she could prepare meals and be on call. “Maybe that’s what makes a Jewish woman writer,” she mused. “The fact that she most likely values her family and community life above the accolades, perks, and satisfactions of her profession.”

When you ask these editors and writers why women enjoy more equal representation in the ultra-Orthodox literary community than in the secular world, some are dismissive of the question. “I don’t believe there are particular reasons,” said Rechy Frankfurter, the publisher of Ami, by email. “The best man gets the job regardless if you are male or female.”

But some suggest other factors. Shoshana Lepon, a 55-year-old children’s author and anthologist in the religious Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh who calls herself an “open-minded Charedi,” attributes women’s achievements in the publishing world to a lack of other acceptable artistic outlets. “We’re not going to act, not going to do drama, not going to sing,” she explained. “Writing is one of the kosher arts.”

Though writing may be kosher, the community has exposed itself to outside influences with its openness to BTs, many of whom entered the Haredi world with training or experience in the craft of writing. Astaire (the “Jewish Jane Austen”) studied poetry in her 20s at the New School in New York; Branfman was a director of a Maine poets-in-schools program; and then there are the “crossover” writers like Ruchama King, who is a card-carrying MFA.

This diversity among the writers is reflected in their very different views of the role of the Haredi female writer and of frum literature in general. “The responsibility of a [Haredi woman] writer,” said Menucha Levin, is to “counteract the negative things that come out” about the community. Ami, for example, is occasionally strident in its stance toward the non-Orthodox world. The magazine made an unfortunate name for itself with a photoshopped cover of the White House draped with Nazi flags, and publisher Rechy Frankfurter’s husband, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, caused another stir when he wrote in an editorial, “[R]eligious vigilantism over Jewish history was not an altogether negative phenomenon.” Would the outspoken tone of the publication apply to the inside workings of the community as well? Rechy Frankfurter said, “We don’t see ourselves as a vehicle [within our community] for preaching or exposés … [but] as advocates and ambassadors for the Orthodox Jewish world.”

I might have gotten a similar view from Ruth Lichtenstein, a woman many see as dean of the Haredi press, scion of an eminent rabbinic family, author of books in English and Hebrew, and editor of the English-language edition of the Hamodia daily newspaper. However, Mrs. Levy, Lichtenstein’s secretary, told me in no uncertain terms and a formidable Yiddish accent that “Mrs. Lichtenstein does not grant interviews.”

In contrast to Rechy Frankfurter, some Haredi journalists and authors see themselves as writers first and Haredim second, a view, they say, made possible by the community’s increased confidence and openness. “I don’t write for anybody. When I do, that’s when my stories are in trouble. My words are my words, my life is my life,” said Ruchama King, whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Tablet, and the Jewish Week, as well as the “hemishe” magazines from Ami to Aish HaTorah. “We can be a little more confident with ourselves at this point,” agreed Lepon. “The frum community is very strong. We should allow women to express their experiences.”

In this spirit of openness some writers normalize what other Haredim find shameful—the fact that some leave the community; Ruth Lichtenstein, the editor of Hamodia, had a daughter who left ultra-Orthodoxy and wrote a book under an assumed name about sexual abuse in the community, about which Menucha Levin said, “Every family has one kid [who’s] going off the derech. It’s not such a big deal.” Shoshana Lepon said that child-rearing style and the approach to writing are mutually reinforcing. “The whole community needs to have more self confidence. That applies to the writing as well. We can share problems without it meaning that there’s something terrible happening.”

Yet even Haredi women who feel free to express their experiences still run up against the bounds of ultra-Orthodox internal censorship. All the writers I talked to acknowledged limits on what magazines or book publishers would allow in print, but few wanted to talk about them on the record. For example, pregnancy and childbirth are off limits if a teenage girl is a character, said Menucha Levin, adding, like any good writer would, “there are ways of alluding to things without telling them explicitly.”

A different kind of writing is being curated by Shoshana Lepon, called “Just Between Us—Jewish Women Get Personal.” Lepon said, “It will provide a platform for Jewish women to write about personal topics: birth, marriage, widowhood, breast cancer, mikvah, divorce. We’re trying to aim for the gut. [Writers] can’t send this stuff anywhere,” because “there’s a very strong censorship” currently in Haredi publications. Lepon conceded, however, that Mishpacha magazine has recently opened itself to such topics, and that “Binah is showing life like it is.”

Zackary Sholem Berger is a Yiddish- and English-language poet and translator living in Baltimore.