Not many Israelis have had dozens of papers published in international mathematics journals and then written best-selling novels for the ultra-Orthodox community.

Perhaps Prof. Malka Schaps of Bnei Brak is the only one. She is certainly aware of the gulf between the two worlds.

Born in Ohio and raised in Washington D.C., the daughter of two professors, Schaps describes "trying to live in the Jewish world and the academic world" as the "basic conflict" which has dominated her life.

A professor of mathematics at Bar Ilan University, Schaps says that the novels she writes offer her some form of catharsis for dealing with this conflict and other difficulties she has faced.

Several of the six books she has published draw directly from her own experiences. The two heroines in her first novel, "A Time To Rend, A Time To Sew," which has sold more than a total of 10,000 copies in English and Hebrew, are sisters from the United States. The pair, a doctor and a lawyer, study at a seminary in Jerusalem.

Schaps explains that in her story, while one sister fights to achieve her secular ambitions despite the frequent prejudice she faces as a woman and as an Orthodox Jew, the other surrenders her secular ambitions completely. "Both of them are part of me," says Schaps, adding that she also strongly identifies with another character in the book - the husband of one of the sisters, who is involved in a painful struggle to get tenure at the university where he teaches.

Her second novel - although it was the first to be published in 1989 - "Wildflower," is the story of a newly religious American college graduate who comes to Israel and marries a young man of similar background. The couple foster a baby boy, who is then reclaimed by his natural family - just as Schaps and her husband had a foster child snatched from them some 18 years ago, a trauma that still brings Schaps to tears.

Court battle

"In the book, they get him back and in real life we didn't," says Schaps. "I wrote it the way it should have been. It helps." Its sequel, "Cactus Blossoms" - Schaps says the title refers to "the difficulties of American immigrants raising their sabra [native Israeli] children" - deals with the court case for custody of the boy at the time of his bar mitzva.

A decade ago, the Schaps fought and won a two-year court battle to keep custody of two other foster children. Schaps and her husband, David Schaps, a classics professor whom she met at Harvard University, have fostered four children in addition to their own two, now-adult children.

The experience of fostering seems to provide ample material for Schaps' tales, although she laments that the "most exciting bits" had to be left out, so as not to offend her foster children's biological families.

In her fourth novel, "Mountains Around Jerusalem," published in 1999, Schaps portrays two converts from very different backgrounds, whose paths cross when they are both drawn to Orthodox Judaism. Schaps herself is a convert and says again that she is "part of both" characters. Her husband is "ba'al tshuva," or as Schaps puts it, "a latecomer to Judaism," another theme she explores in her books.

It was in fact a non-fiction book by Schaps which first reached the shelves back in 1985. "Wings Above Flames," which sold 10,000 copies in English and 2,000 in Hebrew, is a book of personal stories of Holocaust survivors who live in Bnei Brak, where the Schaps have lived since moving to Israel in 1972.

The novels, she says, were a harder sell to publishers than the non-fiction; She reports that when she first began touting her novels to both mainstream and religious publishers 20 years ago, she was rejected because they saw no market in fiction for adult ultra-Orthodox Jews.

In the last decade, however, Schaps says the landscape for Orthodox fiction has shifted dramatically - first with novels for women about relationships and role conflicts becoming acceptable, and more recently crime novels.

Though now among the top five selling English language ultra-Orthodox women writers, the name Malka Schaps will not be familiar to those who read Haredi novels, as she writes under the pen name, Rachel Pomeranz. Schaps says she chose Rachel "because it is the same in Hebrew and English" and Pomeranz simply because she "likes the name."

Schaps was originally inspired to use a pseudonym after learning that American author Eric Segal's smash hit novel "Love Story" probably cost him tenure at Yale University, where he was a junior professor of classics.

Math first

Schaps, who is adamant that "mathematics comes first," wanted nothing to jeopardize her efforts to gain tenure at Bar Ilan University and feared her novels would prevent her from "being taken seriously."

But since being made an associate professor in 1991, Schaps makes no secret of the identity of Rachel Pomeranz and has become active in trying to encourage other ultra-Orthodox women to write. She has lectured and written papers charting the development of ultra-Orthodox fiction; for example, in a paper entitled "The One-Way Mirror," she analyzes the attitudes toward Israel and the Diaspora in contemporary Orthodox fiction.

It was after reading a novel by the Haredi author David Zaretsky in order to improve her Hebrew that Schaps first began writing in 1981. To her surprise, Schaps read a scene in his book, "Beyond the Sun," where a young couple interacted during a shidduch [matchmaking] meeting - something she had previously thought would be unacceptable to an Orthodox publisher.

She says there is a tendency in Haredi novels to jump from "arranging the first date straight to the engagement party."

Spurred on by this, she concluded that she "could do a better job" and set to work. Though Schaps believes the main market for her novels is young Haredi women, she says her books are rarely found on the shelves at seminary libraries.

Not, she thinks, because of the feminist ideas or university life she sometimes portrays, but rather because her books include interactions between young men and women, which are not accepted by all, even though the context is usually "totally proper."

Schaps' initial fears, however, that her books would be totally rejected by the Haredi community were not realized. For her next novel, which is still in manuscript form, Schaps is seeking to widen her audience beyond the Haredi community.

"Till then," deals with political and cultural conflicts in Israel - between religious and secular, right and left, and Jews and Arabs. She wrote it over a three-year period during her now-established hourly slots between 20:30 and 21:30 each evening, while her husband is out teaching a daily Talmud class.

"Compartmentalization," she says, is the key to having a demanding career, a full family life and fulfilling religious duties. Now the grandmother of six, Schaps uses her 25-minute walk home from university to switch from mathematics into family and novel-writing mode. Anyway, she adds, she cannot apply herself to mathematics very well after 20:30. Her new book, she hopes, will encourage readers to "listen to the other side."

"Even if you don't agree," she says, "at least listen and know what the other person's position is. I think we need more of that in Israel right now. And if it is only published in the Haredi market, it's a message we need too."