I wrote my book Mekimi with the hope that no Charedi reader would pick it up. I did all I could. From choosing a secular publisher, through putting a woman on the cover (no tzaddik could possible mistake it for Torah material), to arguing with Charedim at stands at Israel’s book fair, explaining the book was not for them under any circumstances. I honestly thought it wasn’t: the novel deals with the process of repentance through secular eyes and of course fails the censorship standards of any spiritual council. Thinking back, if I had known just how breached the Charedi fence was, I may have done things differently. But what has been done cannot be undone.
I heard things like “there’s nothing for us to read.” This was not a literal statement. There is Charedi literature, in spades. But it lacks the rough truths which are the lot of real people in our confused generation.
Behold the innocence of a baalas teshuvah. I thought Charedim only read books with rabbinic approbations on the opening pages. I was wrong, big time. My book reached tens of thousands of Charedim. It was carried around in black bags, hidden in sock drawers in the homes of Rebbes. Thousands of readers wrote to me with confessions of distress and of cultural loneliness, of feeling a ghetto-like restriction whose confining boundaries cannot be accepted with equanimity. I heard things like “there’s nothing for us to read.” This was not a literal statement. There is Charedi literature, in spades. But it lacks the rough truths which are the lot of real people in our confused generation.
It took me fifteen years to understand that I failed at being Charedi. Fifteen years of attempts upon attempts to be something I wasn’t. Fifteen years of innocent dreams of belonging, of acquiring the needed skills, meeting the highest standards, dressing more modestly even than the required level, living deep within the right neighborhoods, minimizing relations with my secular family to laboratory-like conditions—conditions in which the eyes are always cautiously open and the imposition of sanctions a matter of course.
It took my husband and I fifteen years to breathe deeply and dare to say the words aloud: We are failing in the mission we embarked upon; we have remained who we are inwardly, and are merely wrapping ourselves superficially in layer upon layer of a fear of God that is entirely imitation.
When the crisis came, when I understood that I aimed at a place to which I have no chance of belonging, I was left in a quandary. Living according to the stringent Charedi approach was the only interpretation I was familiar with for a life of faith. This was true not only for myself, but even for the overwhelming majority of baalei teshuvah twenty years ago. The thicker the gauge of my stockings, the greater the Divine blessing; the more restrictions and fences I accepted upon myself – the more I “died in the tent of Torah” – the more points I would earn for the World to Come. The message taught in programs for baalei teshuva was clear: come to us, where you will find absolute truth. When faced with a critical moment of affiliation, remember the Torah’s exhortation: “You shall choose life.” Choose true righteousness, do not compromise.
The message taught in programs for baalei teshuva was clear: come to us, where you will find absolute truth. When faced with a critical moment of affiliation, remember the Torah’s exhortation: “You shall choose life.”
Today I know I was playing checkers. But God was playing chess. He sees moves forwards and backwards and deep into time. His plan for redemption may be a little more complex than what my small human mind can comprehend. The only way to ensure failure does not become downfall is to close your eyes and believe that “everything that God does is for the good.” Though we remain in the midst of a dynamic process, I am privileged today to catch a glimpse of the truth, to see every so often that the Divine plan is indeed more successful and encompassing than that of any kiruv organization.
But I remember well my feeling of failure. My rage. My helplessness. My fear to start over from the beginning, to throw down the cards like Rabbi Akiva after the demise of his thousands of his students. To take the courageous step of “change your location, and thereby change your fortune.” To try and do what Rabbi Nachman of Breslav calls “repentance of returning.” To start again from zero and understand that our lack of success is certainly also for the good, is also the will of God.
Already some fifteen years back, when we didn’t find an appropriate institution for our son, my husband was pushed into the corner that ostensibly “forced” him to establish a new Talmud Torah institution. This would be an institution that would accept us as every bit as worthy as anyone else, simply because we would be part of the administration. Today, my children no longer study there, but hundreds of children of baalei teshuva still do. The decision to establish a Charedi Talmud Torah seems in retrospect tentative, hesitant. We didn’t really take upon ourselves the freedom to create an educational platform suitable to us; instead, we established a decent imitation that our children could be comfortably accepted into. On the foundation of our terrified decision dozens of semi-alternative educational institutions have since emerged, taking the freedom to make choices for our children a few steps beyond. There was no choice. Complexity leads to complex needs, and necessity is the mother of all invention.
My personal failure led to an insight which began with despair and ended with a strengthening of faith. I realized that if I can’t find life within the narrow “camp” of the Charedi world, I will have to expand its boundaries until I find a place where I can live at peace with myself and my God, without one denying the other.
How did we realize we failed? Through the ever so painful mirror, the most painful mirror of all: our children. We perhaps believed. We even managed to fool the neighbors here and there. But our children never believed us.
How did we realize we failed? Through the ever so painful mirror, the most painful mirror of all: our children. We perhaps believed. We even managed to fool the neighbors here and there. But our children never believed us. They never bought the world we arranged for them. They didn’t integrate, and beyond that, they insisted on not integrating. Through them I understood that the umbrella provided by Charedi society for its adherents could not protect myself or my children. Ultimately, I came to know this as fact. I thus gained the strangest status in the world. I fell between sectorial cracks. I didn’t belong anywhere.
I have no anger at Charedi society. It is what it is. An established reality. It has its problems, and they will need to be solved en route to redemption. The evolving of faith, so I hope and trust, will not skip over Bnei Brak. My criticism is directed at myself. How did I believe that it is possible to completely belong, to truly integrate, in the space of just a single generation. After all, every successful immigration takes at least three generations, and subjects all three to a painful process of change. Only over time did I absorb just how much we were immigrants, and how difficult the Charedi language is to master.
This realization mobilized a plethora of actions in all areas of our family life, and especially in the education of the children. It also led me to writing. Equipped with my new insight concerning my place (or lack thereof) in society, I turned outward, to the world of general literature. I took liberties for myself that are beyond the pale for Charedi writers. The two novels I wrote did not fit the criteria of “spiritual councils” that pass judgment on new books. Not by any means. They were both published by Am Oved, way outside the pale of Charedi publishing. I defined them as books not meant for the inside, but for the outside. Their place was in the world I came from, not the one I had entered.
But this was not to be their fate. Over time, I learned that the thirst for a book like Mekimi within the Charedi world was apparently greater than that of secular society. And I discovered a major insight about Charedi literature.
Charedi literature does not answer the internal need of the reader to hear truth. My Charedi readers exposed me to to a profound yearning to hear the unreconstructed, uncensored truth, without hiding its inherent flaws. The responses to Mekimi, and later to my second book Shirah Ge’ulah (published a year ago), were surprising in their power. Both books, the one dealing with love and faith and the other with dropout youth and faith, are far from political correctness. They give a voice to that which so many people are waiting to hear: the voice of those who chase His laws on the one hand, and that of those who flee them on the other. These are problems that exist in every Charedi home, and which remain largely unattended to.
If Charedi literature does not succeed in meeting the needs of its readers, it will lose them to other writers who will bring with them depth and complexity, at the cost of importing foreign currents of thought
If Charedi literature does not succeed in meeting the needs of its readers, it will lose them to other writers who will bring with them depth and complexity, at the cost of importing foreign currents of thought. For the same reason, Charedi society has in recent years lost its monopoly on the world of the baalei teshuva. Its inability and unwillingness to deal with complexities, with a reality that is not black and white, with broken worlds looking to repair themselves and causing much collateral damage along the way—is exacting a high price.
I am not worried, however, about the baalei teshuva. They are paving a path for themselves. I think rather of how difficult it must be for the religious Jew from birth. I cannot but ask myself: What will be the fate of all those who fail within the borders of Charedi society? Who will be their voice? Who will write their story, the story of a Charedi repentance, of those who traverse the corridor of this world and do not emerge unscathed? This voice, a voice of pain and hope, also needs to be out there.
I have no solution. But the first step is to place the critical analysis firmly on the table. The time for restrictive boundaries imposed from without has passed. It is time to think deeply, to find the boundaries from within and to get ourselves and our children to cope with reality rather than to turn a blind eye.
I have no solution. But the first step is to place the critical analysis firmly on the table. The time for restrictive boundaries imposed from without has passed. They cannot alone assure continuity of the community. It is time to think deeply, to find the boundaries from within and to get ourselves and our children to cope with reality rather than to turn a blind eye. Reality is changing. Social media has brought down governments in Egypt and Libya. Is it logical to think that Bnei Brak is immune to their influence? Is it reasonable to assume that they will not penetrate the invisible and refined fence which surrounds what is permitted, separating us from what is forbidden? Do we not know that the fence is already breached? Those who are thirsty focus less on what is kosher and slake their thirst from other wells. There is no fence today that can stop them.
The role of literature is great and double. As Ruthi Kepler began her article, it is on the one hand a mirror to reality, while on the other hand it creates reality. At its best, it can bring the struggle we fight in the darkness into the light. But good literature is not a propaganda weapon. It is the faithful messenger of the right to bravely choose your life without hiding. It cannot be tamed for long. Not those who write the literature, and not those who read it. It’s not possible. Block here, it will break through there. Fence below, it will send branches from above. The voice of truth is worthy of being heard within the Charedi camp itself. The criticism that will come from outside is just not relevant. The Charedi authors will have to run the gauntlet and rise to the challenge. Some of them have already begun.
This challenge, the challenge of telling the truth without destroying the world, stands before me when I write. I pray that I can know, with my own understanding, where to draw the limits. I pray to know the difference between good and evil. I pray for a sense of refined communal and social responsibility to emerge from my own soul, and not from the committee of censors. And I pray not to err in my writing when it comes to describing the complexity of the world God created. And He created it complex. Very, very, very complex. It is complex to live in this world without destroying it, and it is complex to write about it without destroying it. The urge to write it “as is” is a temptation no writer, especially masters of their craft, can withstand forever.