Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Iyun”: Deliberations > A Faithful Mirror? On Charedi Literature

A Faithful Mirror? On Charedi Literature

Ruthy Kepler
Ruthy Kepler Author

Good literature functions as a mirror for a given society, without educating and without passing judgment. Charedi literature depends to a large degree on early publication in newspapers and magazines, which tend to limit its scope to a narrow range. Overly heavy censorship distorts the mirror that Charedi literature is able to provide, and creates a severe shortage of quality literature prepared to tackle the sort of dilemmas that mature adults wish to read about.

Elul 5778, August 2018

Good literature is like a security camera. It can’t stop drivers from ignoring traffic controls, and it won’t prevent a robbery by shouting “Thief! Thief!” Its effectiveness depends on what the viewer can to do with the recorded image.

Good literature is also like a mirror. A mirror does not lie or distort, but presents an image of the reader himself, including parts he may not usually examine. Seeing that image will uncover parts of his exterior and inner self – warts, flaws, and all – but will never shout out at him to correct his posture or fix his hair. The book merely presents the reflection; it is up to the reader to respond as he wishes and to move on. A piercing mirror image, a candid reflection of our personal and social lives, our hidden desires and white lies, can be more powerful than a thousand remarks.

Literature, in creating such images, is enormously important in bringing about social change. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did not have to command her readers to free their slaves. Her book simply mirrored the ugly reality of slavery back at them: their own tyrannical behavior, the suffering of the slaves and the cruelty of the law itself. With great effect, Stowe captured a single cry of an elderly woman whose world was destroyed, an open wound on the back of an uncle, a stifled cry and the large, hungry eyes of a little girl. The public was intelligent enough to understand the message.

***

Some mirrors fail to tell the whole truth. At the Madatech, Israel’s National Museum of Science, Technology and Space, one exhibit presents a “delayed mirror.” When you look into the mirror you see the previous group to have crossed its path, which is of course quite amusing, presenting the next group with a new group of giggling adults and children. It is of course always convenient to look at mirror images of others.

The bookshelves of Charedi society are getting crowded with books. Some are thrillers, a handful are fantasy books, and most are dramas, replete with plot and emotion. Often, however, the shelves lead to a feeling that the story is not ours. The camera has captured an alternative world of streets and people, resembling ours but not our own. In too many of the books everything is good and wonderful, smiles and treacle all round. The good hero always wins. Evil will always be appropriately punished, if only in the form of living out an empty and meaningless life. Stains and flaws – those we are (or ought to be) eager to reach some insight about – are nowhere to be seen.

In too many of the books everything is good and wonderful. The good hero always wins. Evil will always be appropriately punished. Stains and flaws – those we are (or ought to be) eager to reach some insight about – are nowhere to be seen.

Thus, a plot can center around a marriage couple, without telling us a single word about what the woman feels when her husband comes home. A long story about a residential neighborhood will not dare mention a single word on the dangers lurking in its darker corners. Educators are usually depicted as perfect. Still better, their imperfections are there to allow them to work on perfecting themselves.

Why are broad swaths of Charedi literature so one-dimensional and didactic? One important factor is the dependence of most potential authors on the Charedi press. This dependence limits authors’ ability to present a more complex picture of reality.

In the present article I will survey the results of journalistic censorship, for better or worse, and ask if it might be possible to walk between the raindrops: To preserve the societal role of literature without deviating from Charedi constraints. In other words, can we create quality Charedi literature, or does commitment to Charedi norms imply an inherent restraint on artistic and literary quality?

Censorship in the Charedi Press

A secular author seeks a publisher. If she finds one, her book is published. Charedi authors almost never go straight to the book publisher. The author most often must find a paper, preferably a popular weekly, to serialize his or her work.

The basic reason for this phenomenon is economic. In Charedi society everybody reads books – Charedi society reads endlessly – but few actually buy them. Rather, books are passed round, borrowed rather than bought. Neighbors and friends even turn to me, as an author, with requests that I lend them one of my own books. Not that books prices are particularly high – but why buy when you can borrow? Yes, as Charedim we devour the written word – it substitutes for television, movies, the internet – but paying for it is a different matter. A Charedi book whose sales surpass 1,500 copies is considered a major success. If it sells more than 3,000, it becomes a best seller. Given such figures, there is of course scant opportunity for a Charedi author to make a living from book royalties. The level of sales leaves the author with an all-too-poor return on her creative investment.

Yet, Charedi bookshelves continue to expand, mainly because stories are first published in the newspapers. As of 2017, every self-respecting Charedi newspaper publishes a story or two in segments on a weekly basis. The stories in the Charedi press fill the hole left by the absent column space for gossip, sports, criminal stories, and fashion. With four dailies and a variety of weeklies and community bulletins, the number of new books per season is far into double-digits.

But this dependence has a cost. Everything published in the Charedi press undergoes strict spiritual review, meticulously undertaken by “spiritual councils” and their agents

Once published in a paper, the hard work has been done. The greater part of the material has been written, editors have made their corrections, and the street has already offered its feedback. At that point, what is there to lose when I send the completed manuscript to one of several Charedi publishers? I have already been compensated for my labor by the newspaper; whatever I earn from the book is pure profit.

But this dependence has a cost. Everything published in the Charedi press undergoes strict spiritual review, meticulously undertaken by “spiritual councils” and their agents. Even exceptional works that bypass magazines and go straight to book form tend to adapt themselves to the same stringent standards of spiritual review, because the public become has become comfortable with them, and does not always tolerate anything different.

We pay a stiff price for this.

Editorial Requirements — What Can’t You Say in the Paper

In a letter from 1935, the Rabbis of the Council of Gedolei Torah wrote to the newspaper Darkenu that “every editorial board must have a unique person who has the sensitivity and feeling to critique everything ready for printing, and to remove anything that does not fit the outlook of Charedi Jewry.”1  That person – the critic – wields huge influence on all literary expression.

Two main areas are adjudged by the critics as taboo. In the first are subjects which are not talked about in any Charedi sector, such as matters of intimacy or social criticism. The second varies by the different subgroups of the Charedi community: Different groups want life depicted close to their own norms.

The first area of banned subjects is anchored in halacha, and common to the entire Charedi press. Even so, the level of stringency, or the kind of interpretation of what is considered to run against halacha, changes from paper to paper and from critic to critic. In addition, one can discern changes over the years in where critics set the bar of acceptability.

Anything to do with intimate relations between men and women will of course be censored in any story. To distance us from lightheadedness, no affectionate nicknames will be mentioned, even for married couples, and the customary prohibition of displaying marital fondness in public carries over to fictional characters whose behavior is on display to the reading public.

The following is an example of the extent to which this censorship approach reaches.

 This is a passage in a story, after editing; among other things, the word “sweetness” is replaced with the word “niceness”

 

Moreover, due to considerations of modesty, feminine issues cannot be articulated, even in magazines meant for women. Beauty, cosmetics, personal women’s issues – all these are included in the traditional taboo. In certain papers it is even forbidden to mention a pregnant woman, and the paper will rather engage in complex verbal acrobatics to make subtle allusions to her “special condition.” The logic behind this severity is that men and boys often read those portions meant for women, and it is immodest to expose them to women’s affairs.

In addition, discussions of the foundations of Judaism will be censored in any story published in the Charedi press. No fundamental discussion on faith or thought can appear. Period. This holds true even in describing someone who experiences a crisis of faith. Even discussions of the foundations of Charedism on the ideological or sociological level, and certainly the expression of criticism or questioning of Rabbis and Rebbes, will all be erased, even as part of a dialogue among characters.

Charedi newspapers abhor violence. Scenes of wounding or death, even those important to the plot, will be polished and softened as much as possible. Authors who publish their stories directly in book form will give themselves some license in this area, but those whose works first appear in papers will not have the same privilege.

Critics are also wary of granting legitimacy to figures who do not fit Charedi norms. Secular, or even Orthodox but non-Charedi Jews will never be presented as figures worthy of acceptance or respect. A secular Jew must ultimately repent, consider repenting, or at the very least come to some nasty end, such as premature death, alienation from his children, loneliness, or leading a sad and empty life.

Secular, or even Orthodox but non-Charedi Jews will never be presented as figures worthy of acceptance or respect. A secular Jew must ultimately repent, consider repenting, or at the very least come to some nasty end.

These rules are common to all, even those journalistic outlets regarded as more open. I do not mean to judge the censorship norms of this or that publication; every paper has its rabbis and its spiritual committee, which caters to its target audience, and there is nothing illegitimate about censorship. I am merely describing how these considerations shape the character of Charedi literature in our day. We will return to this point later with some concrete proposals.

Sectorial Censorship

The second area of banned topics reflects the preferences of different sub-communities. The Lithuanian Yated Neeman allows a description of an encounter between a young man and woman at length, in accordance with dating norms of the Lithuanian community. By contrast, the spiritual critic of a Chassidic paper will not even allow the author to write that a boy got engaged to a “girl.” An acceptable expression for the process of engagement could be “so-and-so took our child for a groom,” or “our child entered into into a shidduch with an excellent family.”

The Chassidic press may contain stories whose main or secondary protagonists are spiritually elevated men of work. A working man can be presented as an admired figure, the hero of the tale. This is far from the case for a Lithuanian newspaper.

On the other hand, the Chassidic press — the veteran Hamodia and the newer Hamevaser — contain stories whose main or secondary protagonists are spiritually elevated men of work. A working man can be presented as an admired figure, the hero of the tale. This is far from the case for a Lithuanian newspaper. Kollel students, and only kollel students, will receive the highest esteem. Don’t expect a hero who is a man of high spiritual caliber, works for a living, and sets aside regular time for Torah study.

There are also more esoteric limitations. In Mishpacha, for instance, smoking cannot be mentioned. Even a sentence about a neighbor who goes out at night with a cigarette and burns down the neighborhood will not make it into print.

Then there is the question of what is deemed appropriate for younger readers. Stories of domestic discord, stories whose complexity of thought is too great, abuse (even verbal) inside the family, and, as goes without saying, criticism of the educational system, will not be published by the Charedi press. These subjects are recognized as being worthy for older readers, but the spiritual critic argues that special caution must be taken so that “young men do not read on the subject,” or to ensure that “young girls do not become aware of sensitive issues.”

The Artistic Effects of Spiritual Critique

Censorship should not be simplistically dismissed as suffocating our creativity. After many years of writing for Charedi platforms, I can say unequivocally that there is spiritual critique that actually improves the quality of writing. First, Charedi literature will never see entire pages full of long, drawn out scenes of ugliness or violence, added to satisfy the reader’s voyeuristic instincts. Beyond this, the spiritual critique softens, moderates, and calms the writer and this often has a beneficial effect on the plot, imparting a kind of gentleness to the prose. And being forced to stay within strict boundaries of acceptability can increase, rather than stifle, creativity.

For instance, in my book The Last of the Normal, I described a recently married couple: He was an old and bitter single man, she was a former burqa lady. I needed to describe the beauty and depth of their connection. This would not have been a major challenge to a writer operating outside of Charedi sensitivities: hugs, kisses, looks, thinking about each other. The reader would quickly understand exactly what is going on. A Charedi author, however, must write without writing. We describe the trip together, the walk to the market. How much he cares about her. How much she cares about him. How good they both feel. The result amazed even me. Censorship only improved the scenes and deepened their literary quality. Between the lines a mutual feeling of “couplehood” blossomed, like a picture, telling its story without a single word. The effect of the modest, hinted-at love was stronger and more authentic than any explicit description. It goes without saying that the actual word “love” went entirely unmentioned.

The result amazed even me. Censorship only improved the scenes and deepened their literary quality.

In other cases, censorship has no artistic effect, but the author nevertheless manages to meet the requirements of the spiritual critic without harming her literary message. The master of the pen and emotion Baruch Lev achieves this in his book And His Wonders to People. He tells of a young man who comes to a shidduch encounter, sees immediately that he doesn’t like the woman in question, and no conversation develops at all. The girl — orphaned from both parents — is deeply hurt by the rejection. With amazing verbal artistry, Lev manages to tell his tale without violating the rules. Publishing in Hamodia, he describes the encounter as a “meeting with a particular person, to see and be seen,” and delivers a sharp message of refraining from harming others, without trampling on the sensitivities of those who find dating stories offensive.

Far too often, however, the process mentioned above does not come to pass, and the unfortunate effect of restrictions on authors is failure to deliver their literary message. Stringent literary critique may clip the wings of artistic literature, driving the level to down to a common denominator where everyone is good and cute, and nobody entertains thoughts beyond the permitted.

In children’s literature, a happy end, in which the wicked are always punished and a clear and superficial lesson is always learned, is somehow justifiable. I remember reading as a child a book from the immortal series Children of Sha. The wicked informer, who had been hounding the “good” characters of the series through several books, ratted on the Torah students to the KGB, and stole all their art works. In one scene he finally gets his just deserts. Lying paralyzed in Beit Levinstein after a serious accident, bandaged up as an Egyptian mummy with his face barely peeking out, he makes it quite clear to child-heroes of the tale he received his recompense for his wicked acts.

Even today, my young daughters take delight in reading books where heroes are good and villains bad. But when it comes to adult literature flat plots are simply hard to swallow, especially when mired in boring descriptions. In many cases it seems to be just “more of the same” – books in which the wicked character repents or is severely punished, while the hero passes his test, asks the rabbi what to do, and learns for next time. This is not literature but mere kitsch.

The themes in Charedi literature repeat themselves endlessly. “Eighty percent of what’s really interesting cannot be written in Charedi stories,” a friend told me. She is right. Look at the “prohibited list” of the censor and you’ll understand why. The remaining 20%, which include finding a mate, adoption, education, passing religious tests, leaving work, and economic struggle, have they’ve been examined to death. Large segments of the Charedi public want a literature that will delve deeper, raise sensitive and important subjects, and open windows of thought into new directions. Certainly, there are authors out there, male and female, who can supply the goods. But books that touch on “borderline” issues will draw criticism, and for many potential authors the risk – a risk that can find expression in terms of income, certainly in the conventional track of publishing in weekly papers – is not worth taking.

Looking to the Future: Adult Charedi Literature?

Some authors have gone straight to book publishing and succeeded in pushing the envelope. By circumventing the magazine censor, they were able to publish books on sensitive issues that would not have been approved for publication, but which the public received with enthusiasm. One such author is Libby Klein, whose trilogy revolved around a Charedi bride badly injured in a car accident, and the test of fidelity her groom faced when she became paralyzed. Another example is Hasia Brettler’s Night and Not Silence, which tackles the issues of abusive husbands.

While widely and positively received by the public, the latter book was angrily rejected by others, who found the public airing of a subject such as husbands with personality disorders (in a Charedi context) unpalatable. The warning on the cover that the book was for married persons only was insufficient to counter the basic argument against the book: what if unmarried girls get their hands on it? According to the book’s opponents, works inappropriate for a 15-year-old girl should not see the light at all. Unfortunately, this is also the approach adopted by many censors.

I wish to raise two questions here: Firstly, is the excessive protection of youth from any complexity or difficulty existing in the world of “adults” really an effective method of education? Does sheltering young people from all complexity, conflict and diversity of opinion not deny them the opportunity to develop their personalities and deal with challenges?

Yet furthermore, even granted that some Charedi books might be inappropriate and potentially harmful for certain boys or girls, is entirely avoiding important issues, rather than personal responsibility of parents, really the right approach? It seems that the social harm in repressing interest “in anything we’re really interested in,” as one colleague succinctly put it, is greater than the benefit of helping parents protect their children.

 

Levels of Maturity: To Read or to Marry?

In the process of writing this article I discussed the matter with my father, a known rabbi and educator, and raised various issues deemed appropriate for an adult audience but not for youth. My father noted several subjects he would not want a seventeen-and-a-half-year-old girl to read about. Gently, I observed that he had introduced me to my husband to be at that age.

Could it really be the case that our young girls are sufficiently mature to marry a man and bring children into the world but not to read about problems at home or be exposed to moderate criticism of the establishment? Is a girl who is betrothed one evening incapable of reading, the next morning, about issues concerning marital communication or spousal tension? She can experience marriage itself, be thrown into the sea of life, but not read about it?

Could it really be the case that our young girls are sufficiently mature to marry a man and bring children into the world but not to read about problems at home or be exposed to moderate criticism of the establishment?

For purposes of continuing the argumentative threat, let’s assume that the answer is positive: yes, an almost eighteen-year-old Chassidic girl, on the very day of her engagement, might be harmed by reading books on sensitive subjects. It may be that stories that speak of domestic violence will increase her anxiety and make her see married life in a harsh light. Plots which discuss the incompatibility of couples might lead her to pick needless fights during the shidduchim period. But why is this sufficient cause to deny an entire society excellent literature, our of conviction that only material fit for seventeen-year-old consumption can be published? Why should we not expect parents to supervise their children’s reading material? Maybe there is even room for some faith in young people themselves, and that efforts should be made to educate them to be more discerning?

I participated some time ago in a discussion panel before an audience of female educators. An educator who also participated in the panel spewed fire on Charedi literature: “Charedi literature,” she said to me and the editor of a popular newspaper, “is destroying our youth. It leads to fallout from Charedi society, because you” – the writers – “raise issues are inappropriate for girls.”

Shocked at the standing ovation this educator received for her words, I tried to propose that ultra-conservative families, those who tend to wrap their children in layers of cotton wool – with all respect to their educational approach – have a range of options. They can refrain from buying certain books and publications, or place them in a locked drawer in their bedrooms.

“The girls of today open all the drawers and reach every hole,” the educator shot back. “It won’t help to hide the book from them; they will rummage and find it when you’re not at home. And the damage – who can tell?”

I thought then and think now that a mother whose daughter breaks open locked drawers in the bedroom and reads material her parents forbid has more serious problems than thoughts of troubled domestic harmony she may find in some story.

I thought then and think now that a mother whose daughter breaks open locked drawers in the bedroom and reads material her parents forbid has more serious problems than thoughts of troubled domestic harmony she may find in some story.

Must it be the case that plots and stories are chopped up and skewed because a seventeen-year-old boy might read them? Of course, I am not referring to immodest material, which in Charedi prose cannot appear even for adults. Maybe it’s time for some parental oversight, for some personal responsibility. Instead of demanding that authors “not write such books,” parents will demand that their children “not read such books”?

Charedi newspapers today make a clear division between the magazine section for adults, the women’s section for women, a section on current affairs, and a section for children. If a story appears in the magazine for adults or for women, children can certainly be taught that “this part of the paper is only for Daddy and Mommy.” Is this too much to expect?

Adopting this educational approach could promote excellence in adult literature, allowing a richer development of thought and emotion, while meeting all standards of halacha. A better, more piercing and more accurate literary mirror will surely be to the great benefit of Charedi society.


[1]  The letter was signed by Rabbi Yaakov Meir of Warsaw, Rabbi Meir Hacohen, and Rabbi Menachem Zemba. The Rebbe of Gur, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, added his approbation to the letter, and also noted “And I demand and ask of all writers that they surrender themselves…”


photo: Bigstock

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