"Achot ktana" ("Little Sister") by Ram Oren, Keshet Publishing, 352 pages, NIS 89

A student from a respected seminar for ultra-Orthodox girls is raped by a gang of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) boys in the heart of Bnei Brak, and almost no one notices. Her brother, a gifted scholar at a prestigious yeshiva, plots his revenge against the rapists. He ambushes them one at a time, beats them up, strips off their clothes and inflicts damage on their private parts, severe enough to require long-term hospital care.

The dead bodies of a Haredi man and woman are found in their bed, a suicide note lying nearby. A yeshiva student falls for a female undercover agent, who sings songs by the poet Rachel under his window. A young Haredi man, enlisted by the police, escapes from drug dealers who want to murder him at sea. He manages to jump off their boat, to swim, although he has never learned to, and to be rescued by a passing ferry. On the deck he meets his would-be seductress, the biblical Potiphar's wife reincarnated as a Dutch mother nursing her son in plain sight. At the last moment he manages to flee from her, too.

These are only some of the plot twists encountered by the Haredi characters of Ram Oren's new book.

The suspense is heart-stopping. Whizzing bullets and fistfights, planes boarded in secrecy, disguises, globe-spanning business, incredible coincidences and many split-second escapes. And at the end of all this drama, a Haredi girl from Bnei Brak discovers that her mother is not really her mother; she was born out of wedlock to another woman. This knowledge, amazingly enough, brings great calm and hope for the future.

These dramas, these characters, and mainly the sudden discovery of identity, invite a comparison between Oren's novel and other books that share its setting. In the last years, "popular literature" for an adult readership has been written and published within the Haredi community, in the very heart of Israel's most Orthodox neighborhoods, in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Naturally, these novels are peopled mainly by ultra-Orthodox Jews. In the course of reading, the "native" Haredi texts and Oren's book about the Haredi community grow similar to each other. Their resemblance perhaps attests to Oren's skillful invention of a Haredi world. More than that, however, it demonstrates the way in which a dream always attests to the nature of the dreamer. Oren's book is a reverse mirror-image of the ultra-Orthodox fiction.

"Ahot ktana" ("Little Sister") ends in a moment of revelation. Such moments, in which a real mother is discovered, can also be found in several Haredi novels. For example, the heroine of Hava Rosenberg's "Kav hashever" ("Fault Line") is a secular Jewish girl who inadvertently learns that she has been raised by adoptive parents. Her Haredi mother, it turns out, was newly widowed when she had her. A childless secular couple took advantage of the mother's predicament, and in some shady way "bought" the baby from her. The secular identity with which the girl has grown up is therefore a false one. She barely hesitates before choosing the biological mother and her Orthodox family.

In another book, by Menucha Beckerman, "Bemota natna li et chayay,"a Haredi girl stumbles onto the discovery that her birth mother is a non-Jewish woman, a Londoner who became pregnant while young and unmarried. After giving birth, she chose to pass the baby on to a Haredi couple, whose stillborn daughter was delivered at the same hospital. The couple had no idea that their baby was born dead, and they certainly did not know of the switch, arranged with the help of the midwife. When the truth comes out, the family finds itself in a profound crisis. Ultimately the daughter chooses to convert to Judaism and re-embrace her Haredi identity, this time fully and out of choice.

Choice of identity

Discoveries of this kind are the bread-and-butter of soap operas. Someone belongs to someone else, someone's lost child has been repressed and now comes to claim his childhood, someone was switched, someone was snatched, someone must choose where to belong. This choice, the acquisition of this knowledge, is condensed within the sentimental genre into one intense, tear-inducing moment.

But the choice, the self-discovery that dates back to King Oedipus, is above all a choice of identity, of a proper identity. The popular genre sometimes offers the "right answers" for "big political questions." The identity you choose, or the identity you were born into, is in many ways the heart of the answer. Often, the popular text explains what is the right kind of belonging.

Ram Oren has written a novel whose core is the glimpse into the world of the "Haredi other." The books written by Haredi women authors are likewise set within the Orthodox community. But they, too, within certain limitations, need that same "glimpse" into the world of "the other." In that sense, Haredi popular fiction is often a mirror-image of Oren's popular novel. In the Haredi literature, however, "the others" are the secular parents who buy children, or the non-Jewish woman who has a baby out of wedlock and then gets rid of it.

Not coincidentally, in both Oren's book and the Haredi novels the narrator's authoritative voice is often there to interpret the depicted reality for the reader. Openly, without resorting to "literary devices" of any kind, the author explains the world for the benefit of outsiders. There is a mediator to oversee one's entry into this world, and there is a "right" interpretation of it. Just like Oren's Haredi rapists, who prey on innocent girls in the middle of Bnei Brak, the secular characters in the Haredi fiction provide a safe literary way of "peeking at the other." The reader is allowed, even invited, to notice the other's eroticism, while at the same time turning this eroticism into the boundary that marks off his own safe world. The stereotypical nature of the characters is important for this mechanism, both in Oren's case and in the Haredi fiction. Voyeurism performs its function, the desire is satisfied - and "the other" is laid bare.

And so, anyone tempted by the idyllic family life of Oren's "Haredi world" will soon notice that this idyll conceals something else; that the delicate, hidden eroticism of the young Haredi seminary girl necessarily awakens dark, repressed urges. These dark drives are present not only in the yeshiva dropouts, but in the girl's own brother, the brilliant student who never looks at women and has never had any sexual experiences. He, after all, chooses to strip his sister's assailants, to study them - and then to shatter their genitals.

Likewise, a Haredi reader seduced by the eroticism of the secular, bohemian men and woman described by Rosenberg, Beckerman and others will soon realize that this "imagined eroticism" conceals a decaying family life; that financial prosperity is a source of moral corruption; that they, the secular Israelis, are not happy. The abundant income, large houses, open relationships between the sexes, and love, lots of love, that the Haredi authors attribute to the secular families are only a facade. Behind it the writers expose another world, false and corrupt, a world that the Haredi reader would do well not to choose. A world in which parents get rid of their children, while others purchase parenthood with money and fraud.

Reader's return home

The reader who is peeking into the world of "the other," whether in Oren's book or in the Haredi novels, is required to make a choice. These texts offer him the chance to "return home." The weakness of "the other" is always exposed. The authors, however, do not consider this weakness a sufficient warning sign, and so the reader's choice to "return home" often finds its parallel in a choice made by one of the characters. Someone else needs to choose in order for the reader to return, to understand that "the other" in fact belongs to him, chooses him, would rather be like him. That is why, for example, the ultra-Orthodox characters born to the wrong parents or raised by the wrong family suddenly discover their true identity. This soap-opera choice, which reveals what was always meant to be, is in both cases a political choice of the "right" identity.

This may also be why Oren's book must reveal at the end that the true mother is not the Haredi one. It may be why this knowledge brings some relief. And maybe it doesn't. Might Oren's heroine choose to live an Orthodox life, with a suitable marriage arranged for her and a "new mother" to accompany her? Hard to tell. The book, which ends in a conversation between the "new mother" and her daughter, reveals only that they both believe in the healing powers of time.

What does Oren hint about this future choice? About what time will bring? This may be guessed, perhaps, by looking at the choice made by another character in the book. The girl's brother (the biological son of the Haredi family that raised her), a dyed-in-the-wool Haredi who has dreamed all his life of being a great Torah scholar, chooses, after much turmoil, the "national masculine role" of an Israeli police officer. Not to worry; he will still study at night at a prestigious Bnei Brak yeshiva. And yes, the head of the yeshiva accepts this part-time student happily. And no, the violent, sexual act of "stripping" that he inflicted on his sister's Haredi rapists will no longer be held against him.

Whom will he marry? That we shall not reveal. Let us say only that the Haredi matchmaker once again suggests the kind of girls reserved for the most illustrious of religious scholars. And we may also hint that the power of Rachel's poetry, when it comes to matters of the heart, is proved once again, even within the Haredi public. Perhaps that is what the caption on the book's cover means when it declares that "There, too, within the walls that close in on them, live flesh-and-blood human beings." To this perhaps should be added: "A man in our image, after our likeness," "the image of ourselves, the secular readers."

Yael Shenker is writing a doctorate, on popular fiction written by Haredi authors, in the department of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.