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In the Fold

Flipping through the world of ultra-Orthodox women’s magazines

Zackary Sholem Berger
January 28, 2009

A gardening column in a glossy magazine is talking about fall, accompanied by pictures of foliage. “The air is sharp and sweet and the scent is unmistakable . . . a surprisingly pleasant aroma which I enjoy on every sunny autumn morning.” In the same issue is a story about postpartum depression, an advice column, and a full-color kids’ section. All unremarkable except that two-thirds of the women on the advisory board are titled “Reb.” (for Rebbetzin), and the name mentioned most often in this November’s issue was not “Obama” but “Hashem.”

This is Binah, “the weekly magazine for the Jewish woman,” published in Brooklyn since 2006. “Jewish” here means “ultra-Orthodox,” and there are now a number of magazines that cater to women from this community. Browsing through such magazines offers a telling glimpse into the ultra-Orthodox world.

Besides Binah, there’s Mishpacha (“Jewish Family Weekly,” published in Brooklyn since 2004), and the Yiddish-reading world has its own women’s magazines: one is called Maalos (“Steps”); another is a women’s supplement to the popular weekly Tzeitshrift (“Journal”), which is read mostly by men.

The magazines differ in emphasis. Binah is glossiest, while Mishpacha

has a harder edge and can be overtly political; the editorial in the issue of October 29 was titled “Barack Obama the Pagan.” Maalos is the most intellectual of the Yiddish publications; its language column, “Mame-Loshn,” encourages readers to enrich their vocabularies with Yiddish words for things like “reputation,” “pigment,” and “diploma.”

But they all share a basic format: stories of triumph over adversity (with the help of faith, a spiritual adviser, or the Sabbath), an advice column, recipes, novels in installments, and letters to the editor. Their ads are for Hasidic headgear, benefit dinners, Torah camps for kids, and healthcare providers (often of alternative medicine). In none of the journals will you see pictures of women.

Chaim Weinberger, editor of Tzeitshrift‘s family supplement, said his goal is “to provide interesting, educational—and quite often, morally and ethically instructive—articles for heimishe [ultra-Orthodox] women.” His circulation, he said, is “about 7,000, which has kept going up, thank God.” By comparison, Der Yid, the organ of Satmar Hasidim, has a paid circulation of 20,000. Maalos has a circulation of about four or five thousand. The true distribution of such publications, which are passed from hand to hand, belie their official circulation reports.

One Brooklyn wife and mother, who asked to be identified only as Mrs. G., said she does the bulk of her magazine reading on the Sabbath. “I used to buy Binah; now I read Mishpachah,” she said. “I also read Vogue, Good Housekeping, Women’s Day, Readers Digest, Family Circle. I like their advice, sometimes it’s very good. I like their suggestions about the house, how to decorate.”

What’s the difference between the “heimish” and secular magazines she reads? “Readers Digest has real stories and real facts,” she said. But when it comes to the matters addressed by Jewish magazines, “you can do something about it.” Philosophically, she has no problem with secular magazines. “They might have comments that aren’t totally kosher. A lot of people would read the heimishe magazines but not Good Housekeeping. It depends on your level [of strictness],” she said.

Tzeitshrift editor Weinberger took a less permissive view. “Why read something from the non-Jewish world when we have such abundance?” he said. “Not only that, the ideas and writing of religious, heimish women are more appropriate, and clearer, since they’re appropriate for our spirit.”

That’s the problem, though, says Katle Kanye, a widely read Yiddish

blogger who criticizes the Hasidic community of Brooklyn from the inside (using a Talmudic pseudonym). “The people who read Maalos swear by it,” he wrote in an email. “They have the idea that everything there is Holy Writ. The very openness of the magazine—that it’s concerned with more than just narrow Haredi matters—is a symptom of even greater isolation. The readers can imagine that by reading it they’ve somehow digested all the problems of science and the news, without the ‘filth’ and ‘heresy’ of the goyish newspapers. This is a kind of Haredi talent, to convince their audience that they’ve reinvented the wheel, while the non-Jews are staring in awe.”

Alyssa Masor, a graduate student in Yiddish literature at Columbia who has moved to the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park and become part of the Hasidic community there, doesn’t like the Yiddish language journals like Tseitshrift and Maalos for somewhat different reasons: “They take 10 pages just to get to the point,” she said. “The Haredi style of Yiddish writing is too melodramatic. I read Binah and Mishpachah because a lot of the articles are interesting and not so badly written.”

Mrs. G.’s approach is more practical.

“Every woman and every man is different: they like something else. Women like women’s things. Every woman enjoys talking about kids, and recipes, and advice. That’s it.”

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

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