Text size

Rebbetzin Sheindel Bulman has finished reading a letter that she wrote to her cousin in the United States, and Malka Adler, whose turn it is, begins to read a piece, in a strong Brooklyn accent, about the trials of packing before her immigration to Israel. At about the part where she is standing in front of a drawer in her kitchen in Jerusalem, wondering what to do with the unnecessary items that she sent from the United States, someone in the room starts humming a song from the opera "Porgy and Bess" by George Gershwin. The elderly rebbetzin looks up from the written page, amused. A sweet moment of nostalgia.

For several years Bulman, whose husband is a mashgiah (rabbinic inspector) in the Or Sameach Yeshiva for newly religious Jews, and Adler, a well-known name in the world of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) literature, have participated in the writing workshop led by Sarah Shapiro in Ma'alot Dafna, a Jerusalem neighborhood with a high concentration of Haredi residents from English-speaking countries. "But," says Bulman, "I've been writing for 50 years."

About 20 women participated in the workshop held a few weeks ago - some of them newly religious (hozrot b'tshuva), others born into Haredi families. Most of the participants are in their forties and fifties.

"It took time until I allowed myself the pleasure of reading to an audience," Shapiro explains. The women who meet in her house never criticize one another harshly. Indeed, if they dared express an opinion at the gathering in Shapiro's house, their somewhat maternal criticism was directed at a woman much younger than they. But in spite of the absence of criticism, the legitimate topics within the context of social codes are well defined, thanks to the presence of senior women, such as rebbetzins (rabbis' wives) and the newly religious. The latter play a dual role: On the one hand, they are the ones who pave the way for self-expression to an entire world of feelings and thoughts that is liable to be dangerous when it is set down in writing, but on the other hand, their exciting stories excel in religious fervor.

It is no coincidence that some people call these encounters between Haredi women who write in English "support workshops." One of the participants arrived very late - to tell her friends that her second daughter was getting engaged that evening. She and the mother of the groom, who also attends the workshops, got up and embraced. The mother removed a faded note from her pocket, and read a song of praise to God.

"I wrote often, and a great deal, but I felt lonely when I wrote alone," says Sarah, a woman in her fifties with a sad expression. Asked why so many Haredi women write, she hesitates a little. "I think that we are looking for a way to express ourselves."

The high priestess

Shapiro - to whom many women relate as the founder and the mother of this movement of Haredi women who write - has a large library of sacred Jewish texts in her living room. Only when the white curtain blows in the breeze can one see several low shelves below, full of books written by Shapiro, or anthologies of literature by Haredi women that she edited. "Most of my books," she apologizes, "are upstairs, in my study." This tells a great deal about the marginal place of secular literature, and particularly women's literature, in Haredi society.

But it is no longer possible to hide the tremendous urge to write. "Writing is life for me," explains Shapiro, who is one of a few women who dared to write confessional literature, when she told of her odyssey of motherhood in the first person. She frankly explains the guilt she feels about her illegitimate need to write. "I'm supposed to be a Jewish mother," she says, "but I was a terrible mother." Shapiro began to write only after beginning to participate in a parents' group, when the moderator asked her to record what was happening at home. "Only when I made the connection between motherhood and writing, did I manage to become liberated."

Her book, "Growing With My Children," was published about 10 years ago by the Haredi Targum Press, and became a best-seller. "The book caused a revolution," says Mimi Zakon, the English editor of the publishing house. "Before that, Haredi women were not used to talking about their difficulties."

"On the day the book came out, I went outside and met a neighbor," recalls Shapiro. "I couldn't restrain myself, and asked her if she knew that a book of mine had been published. `Yes,' she said to me, not particularly enthusiastic. `How did you agree to expose yourself so much?'"

Shapiro grew up in the United States and became religiously pious as a young woman. She is a mother of six and is involved in writing, editing and giving workshops. Her father, Norman Cousins, was a famous journalist. "Anyone who grew up in a home like that can't help being involved in writing," she explains.

Shapiro has a great deal of self-discipline. Every morning she writes for five hours. She is also a "cafe addict," and can be found every morning in the same corner of Cafe Hillel. "Before I go there I pray that nobody will take the table near the electrical outlet," she says.

Leah Kotkes, who participated in Shapiro's workshop for two years, identifies with her feelings. "I'm happy when I'm writing," she says. "Everyone has to find the language of her soul. There are women who give lessons in Jewish studies. Others write."

Kotkes, 41, who also became religious in later years, says that others like her "want to share their feelings, and through the story of their journey, to heal themselves."

A mother of four sons and a journalist who writes in the English edition of the Haredi newspaper Mishpaha (Family), Kotkes dedicates her time to encouraging women to write. She sees this as a spiritual mission. She gives a writing workshop in her home, and about a month ago, initiated a writing conference in Jerusalem, in which Haredi women from all over the country participated: "To get up and read in front of more than 70 women requires courage. I cried when I understood that the women feel safe here." Kotkes called the conference "Journey of a writer." Her personal journey began with the writing of profiles of rebbetzins and continued with social articles, on subjects such as drugs or anorexia in Haredi society. She says that she does so with the encouragement of rabbis.

Nocturnal activity

In recent years there has been widespread and energetic writing activity in English, in which hundreds of Haredi women participate, and information about it is passed on through word of mouth. Aside from the workshops in women's homes, there are also conferences and seminars about writing. Esther Susan Heller, who became religious and joined the Amshinov Hasidic sect in Safed, is the guiding spirit behind most of these gatherings. For example, about 300 women subscribe to the newsletter, Soferet (Writer), that she edits, which is sent via e-mail and fax. Heller also founded and heads a virtual school for writing: jewishwriting.com. The school has a spiritual advisory committee that includes many important rabbis.

The writing sessions for women are characteristic of the strong social networks of the English-speaking Haredi communities in Jerusalem, Betar Illit and Ramat Beit Shemesh. What do they write? Mainly poems, short stories, anecdotes. Since they have large families, writing novels is a privilege for them. The genre that is popular and unique to Haredi women takes the form of articles describing their lives, often with a moral. This writing, often lacking depth, reflects an existential need for self-expression in a society where there is close religious supervision, a phenomenon that is familiar in other religious societies - for example, among Puritans in the United States. It reflects the concrete concerns of the women, and perhaps is also a mirror image of the favorite genre of male Haredi writers: detective stories. The women in Shapiro's workshop said that they write mainly at night, sometimes early in the morning.

Many of the women are preoccupied in their writing with clarifying to themselves why they write, and are searching for approval that it's all right, that this is God's work. "Many women ask me why they are limited in the subjects they can write about," writes Heller in one of the editions of Soferet. She compares writing to a diet undertaken for health reasons: You may give up the fat, but you profit on the spiritual side, she says.

In her book "Educated and Ignorant: Ultra-Orthodox Women and Their World," Tamar Elor demonstrates how many of the religious lessons in which Haredi women participate in the evenings are a means of social education concerning what is permitted and prohibited in their society. The writing workshops serve a similar function. Publication in the English editions of the Haredi newspapers Hamodia, Yated Ne'eman and Mishpaha reinforce the legitimacy of writing. Most of the participants in the workshops became journalists or columnists in the Haredi press, or publish at Haredi publishing houses, mainly Feldheim and Targum.

Malka Schaps is one of the first Haredi woman writers who also wrote novels in English aimed at a Haredi readership. She published five books that became best-sellers in this community; three of them have even been translated into Hebrew. Schaps is a phenomenon: She is a convert and a professor of mathematics at Bar-Ilan University, who writes under the penname Rachel Pomerantz. When she began to publish, about 10 years ago, she says, "it was less common" in her circles. She explains that she started to write as part of a healing process, after a child whom she raised as a foster mother was suddenly taken away from her by his parents. "For a year I was devastated by his loss," recalls Schaps, who lives in Bnei Brak. "Writing helped me to recover."

Based on that incident, her book "Wildflower" flows, but the writing suffers from being overly didactic. The division into the good guys (Haredim) and the bad guys (secular people and non-Jews) is sharp and, as could be expected, many characters become newly religious. Schaps, a soft-spoken woman, accepts the criticism patiently, saying "that's what's `in' in our community." She believes that the flourishing of writing workshops for Haredi women is a response to the interest in books about themselves.

Is it literature?

The Haredi women writers are not known in the academic world. "The literature of Haredi women is not `high' literature," agrees Aviva Roller, who in 1999 published a book called "Literary Imagination of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Women," based on her master's thesis in English literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She classifies the books that are written for Haredim as popular literature, and believes that its importance lies in the fact that it provides an unending source for understanding Haredi woman, as "no outside researcher has been able to do." Roller, who is herself newly pious and a mother of eight, and lives in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, is also a voice from inside and is convinced that the flourishing of writing is a sign of "the excess of creativity of the Jews."

"They don't let the women study like the men, so they write other books for themselves. It's definitely a fascinating phenomenon," believes Ellen Spolsky of Bar-Ilan University. Spolsky, a professor of English literature, was exposed to the writing of English-speaking Haredi women only thanks to her sister-in-law, Malka Schaps. She says that the newly religious have an important role as agents of this writing trend.

"In the 14th century women began to tell about their visions as a way of preserving their status," Spolsky explains. "If you don't have a halakhic or social status, if you have to find your place in the world, that's your way of doing it. They (the newly religious women) came from a culture in which they had a channel for self-expression. But those who are Haredi from birth have no such outlet. Because the Haredi woman has been told what to think."

Spolsky thinks, however, that the literature of Haredi women is disappointing. "This is literature that is not good, not only because of its didactic tone, or its moral lessons. `Robinson Crusoe' is a religious book, and Daniel Defoe wrote about a man who rebelled against his society. But in the middle of the book, he finds a Bible and returns to religion. But it's still a wonderful classic. In the final analysis, every writer tries to convert you."

Heller is bothered by criticism concerning the quality of the writing. "The didactic tone reflects the taste of the readers," she notes. "It's easy to attack or to ridicule this writing, but that's our way." However, she is convinced that Haredi women's literature will improve with time and that genuine talents will emerge.

"It's not a problem of censorship," she says, "but a lack of proper education. That's why judging Haredi literature is not fair."