The Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community is often accused by outsiders of discriminating against women. There’s one area, however, in which discrimination doesn’t exist, and in fact where the men constitute a small minority: the world of Haredi literature. Some 80 percent of the community’s novelists are women.
In the lobby of the Ramada Jerusalem, which is packed with Haredi families during the late-summer vacation period, I meet two writers, Sarah Fechter and Mali Avraham. Outside the hotel, children with earlocks are scampering around a sculpture of the Binding of Isaac, hugging the figure of Abraham who is on the verge of slitting his son’s throat with a knife. Fechter, who is willing to admit that she’s between 35 and 40 years old, is a walking empire. The mother of 11 children, she finds the time to turn out two or three books – novels or self-help – a year, 17 so far, either in her own name or under the pen name Mali Green. On top of that, she writes weekly columns for several newspaper and website columns, most of them Haredi outlets, but also for the secular Ynet, and owns an advertising agency.
It’s hard to slow down her torrent of speech. When I manage to ask the other interviewee, Avraham, a couple of questions, Fechter unabashedly takes advantage of the few minutes to work on her next book on her laptop. “Writing is a profession that’s suitable for a woman. You can raise children and also write from home,” she observes.
“I was born a writer,” Fechter continues. “As soon as I learned how to write, I began writing poems and stories.” She recalls a formative moment from childhood: “There was a poetry exhibition in the second grade. What did the young Sarah do, so narcissistically? All night I wrote poems, and by 6 A.M., to my shame, I had covered the whole wall with my poems.”
Her debut novel, “Lightly Wounded,” was prompted by the first intifada, in the late 1980s. When she was 14, she was living at Ma’aleh Amos, a Haredi settlement in the southern West Bank. One day, a neighbor drove her to the regional library to return a book and their car was pelted with stones. “The driver was bleeding like water,” she recalls. “I realized that if didn’t climb over him and slam on the brakes, we were done for. So, covered with blood, with bits of broken glass in my ear and shaking, I climbed over and pressed the pedal. There were no cellphones at the time to call for help, but eventually a military jeep showed up. I was scared to death.”
For a time she was afraid to ride in cars, and she didn’t go to school. “These days I would be taken for psychological treatment, but not back then. For a month I lay under the blanket. And then I met a neighbor, a former soldier in the U.S. Army who suffered trauma from the Vietnam War. I sat with him every day until he spilled it all, 10 hours a day. Dad bought me a computer and I wrote my first book, which has gone through six editions of 2,000 copies each. I was 16, and my luck was that I was called a writer at a time when there were hardly any Haredi writers. I was an ‘attraction.’
“It used to be that you could make a living as a writer,” says Fechter. “These days, it helps out when I get a check, but there’s no way to make do only on that. The [ultra-Orthodox] market is saturated – every month at least 50 books are published.”
In some cases, Fechter’s books are published in editions aimed at the Haredi community and afterward in a different version for secular readers; sometimes, it’s vice versa. For example, her book “ima.com” (“mom.com”) became “Mom is No Kid’s Game” for Haredi readers. “The picture of the mother was erased from the cover. I ‘convert’ the books to Judaism,” she says, amused, adding that she’s pleased to get royalties from each book separately.
Based on her proven experience, Fechter, writing as Mali Green, published a pregnancy manual under the imprint of a secular giant, Yedioth Books. (“It did well,” she says.) For the Haredi version she waged a successful battle to be allowed to mention on the cover that the book’s subject was pregnancy – a word whose usage is avoided in public, for reasons of modesty. That edition, which was vetted by a rabbinical board (as are all books for the Haredi market), was titled “Gift from Heaven.”
“In the secular version, the cover shows the wife sitting with her husband in a café; in the Haredi version she’s sitting with her husband at home, over a cup of coffee.” The secular version’s cover shows a pregnant woman – God have mercy – while the Haredi cover features an image of two chicks hatching from eggs. In religious bookstores, says Fechter, the book was sold in the “for married women only” section.
To read Mark Twain, or not?
Jerusalemite Mali Avraham, the mother of four (“that’s hardly any”), has published only one novel. “I don’t spew out books, I get so emotional over every word,” she explains. “I envy writers like Enid Blyton or Sarah Fechter, who hatch books one after the other, like chickens.” She is currently adapting a series of stories called “Zero Plus One,” which she published in the Haredi press, into a book. According to Avraham, among the ultra-Orthodox public, female writers are more respected than male writers, both in literature and in the press. “The male journalists are considered part of the industry, they are more modern and mingle more. The female writers are the cream of the crop.”
In general, though, Haredi literature has a long way to go, Avraham says, adding: “Many books are published, but no classic has yet appeared. I haven’t yet met the Haredi Mark Twain, male or female. Our writers have a hard time, because they haven’t read secular literature. Reading Mark Twain as a child is a must to understand how to write, even though parents are right not to allow children to read ‘outside’ literature – they are being protective.”
Fechter, on the other hand, believes ultra-Orthodox literature can compete with secular works: “Go to Haredi bookstores and you will discover a whole world. We have amazing children’s literature that a secular parent would be happy to buy for his children.”
The decline in sales for individual writers owing to the glut of new books, and the ensuing competition, has led many Orthodox female writers to abandon the field, Avraham notes, and admits that this may be the reason for the long time it’s taking her to publish a second one. “Many female writers don’t have time to waste on writing when they have to feed the family,” she explains. “Sarah is different. She’s a mutation. I have no idea how she manages to do all that. I envy her.”
Fechter points out that rentals from libraries accounts for a large part of her revenues. “One day a check arrives from the libraries. My husband looks at it and says, ‘We received a nice sum.’ I look at it and say he missed a zero. It covered the overdraft.”
Still, Fechter’s literary endeavors can’t provide for the family: “I would close the ad agency yesterday if I could make a living from writing. I get depressed if a week goes by during which I didn’t write. In the maternity ward, I sat next to the crib with a laptop. I can’t write when it’s quiet. I need to work on a book with noise around me. My good fortune is that my husband admires my writing. If I want two hours to write, he’ll look after the children even if he’s dead tired.”
Proud that her children are avid readers, she has also spotted talent among them for the next generation of authors.
“If there’s one thing the nonreligious public can envy us for, it’s that our children read a lot more,” says Fechter, adding that she herself used to read three books every weekend, she relates, until one of her children protested; she then reached an understanding with him to read only one book.
“I spend 500 shekels [$135] a month on books,” she says. “My boys are in the library, but it’s important for me to get the books themselves, and first. I forgo clothes and shoes in favor of books.” (Says Avraham: “I don’t forgo clothes.”)
I quote to Fechter what MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) wrote about her a few years ago in her blog: “The presentation of a Haredi mother of 10 as a role model not only misses the mark but achieves the opposite. The truth is that Green [Fechter] is no more than a curiosity.”
Fechter: “I didn’t see it that way. In any event, I am a devoted mother.” Of the six employees in her agency, she notes, three are mothers. “I especially want to employ mothers. They can work from home. They are tremendously productive from home.”
When I wonder aloud whether they define themselves as feminists, Avraham responds, “I don’t use definitions. The path of the Torah is the most feminist there is.”
After the High Holy Days, Fechter says she will be publishing a novel for a general readership: “If only it becomes a best seller! It’s not a novel that could be published in the ultra-Orthodox community, even though it wouldn’t be a problem for a Haredi to read it. I upheld the rules of modesty, and the language is clean, thanks to my inner values. But it’s a love story, and I wrote things I couldn’t have written before.”
Working on the novel with trade-book editor Noa Manheim was an unexpected adventure for Fechter. “With Haredi publishers, the book comes out two months after you finish writing. But I’ve been working with Noa for a year already. With the ultra-Orthodox, it’s, ‘Presto – we publish.’ but with her there is no presto. She takes the work with profound seriousness. I want to be a best seller. I am begging for my book to be a best seller. I want to be invited to give talks as a writer, not because I am the mother of 11 children.”
With her first books, she says, she didn’t make a big deal out of the parenthood thing. But afterward she bowed to success, and being a supermom became her trademark and also the main theme of several of her books: “I understood that this is what the audience wants to hear. Mali Green’s column, which was originally supposed to be a one-time episode, was a hit. I went with the flow. It was a livelihood.”
Fechter has already fulfilled some of her dreams, though they would perhaps sound nave if she were a nonreligious writer. Last year, she left the country for the first time since arriving in Israel as a 2-year-old immigrant from the United States – to go on a lecture tour for Jewish audiences. “I autographed books, it was like in the movies,” she says. “Many writers complain about having to make tours, but it was great fun.”
Autographing books in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv during Hebrew Book Week was also a moving occasion for her. “Being at the Yedioth Books booth was a dream come true,” she relates. “During Haredi Book Week, there are no booths for female writers.”
Fechter has fought more than her share of battles, both within the Haredi world and outside it. When writing for an Orthodox magazine, for example, she insisted on receiving a regular monthly salary, rather than being paid piecemeal for each item, as was customary with the female staff. She brought about the introduction of a new norm in the profession. “I fought tooth and nail to get a regular salary. I came to meetings in tears and in the end I was successful.”
Fechter’s current battle, and undoubtedly not her last, is a demand that the National Lottery establish a prize for Haredi literature comparable to its Sapir Prize for Literature (which has been called Israel’s equivalent of the Man Booker prize). “I asked them why there is no such prize. It’s hypocrisy. They [the lottery] have a competition for best religious essay, but that’s only for men. Check it out.”
Check it out I did. The competition’s charter states that both women and men can participate. However, the dozens of winners to date have all been men – as have all the judges.
As for the Sapir Prize, the National Lottery, responding to a query from Haaretz, gave this response: “The Sapir Prize is open to all writers, irrespective of gender or ethnic affiliation. Given that the existing prize does not exclude anyone, there is no justification for a [separate] Sapir Prize for the Haredi public.”
Fechter: “We are frustrated because the literature of Haredi female writers is not recognized. It’s rare for a Haredi woman to be invited to panel discussions of female writers. I feel that I am not appreciated as a true writer. But I am also not willing to badmouth Haredim so as to win recognition. I live harmoniously as a Haredi. Obviously there is also criticism, just as a secular woman can be critical of her society. But I have no inner conflicts about it.”
Still, she did participate in one panel discussion, on women’s literature, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “As a girl, I told my grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Halevi Zimmerman, that I wanted to be a writer. ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘only don’t write lashon hara’” – disparaging or derogatory speech. “When I was at the university, I looked at the audience and looked up to the sky, and I said to myself, ‘You didn’t go to university, but now you are lecturing at the university about your literature. You always upheld what Grandpa requested.’ And they even paid me for it.”
When we are alone, Fechter urges me to get married, and then reflects on the mystery of how she manages to do so much and what she sacrifices for it. “I don’t have many friends,” she admits, “but on the other hand, I reply to everyone who emails me.”
‘Pioneer in the field’
Contrary to what her name suggests, Menucha (which means “rest” in Hebrew) Fuchs, 54, is an extraordinarily prolific author. In the past 30 years she has published almost 400 children’s books. She and Galila Ron-Feder Amit, who also writes children’s books, are the most productive female writers in Israel in general; there is some disagreement, however, over which of them has more titles to her name. But they are both always at the top in the National Library’s annual book list, in terms of productivity.
“I was a pioneer in the field when I started,” Fuchs says. “There was nothing [in our community]: We grew up with [Jewish] secular and gentile books. Hardly any books were written for Haredim. There was no one to learn from. A writer imitates others, looks to someone. We had no one to look to. The first Haredi writers ‘invented the wheel.’”
I ask what sets ultra-Orthodox writing apart. Her reply: “Most Haredi literature looks at the positive side, less at the bad. Whereas general literature comes from the negative, from what is less good. That ‘grabs the ear’ better. Like the secular press, which points to what is terrible and horrific. That contributes more to the plot and to tension. Haredi literature is very pure and positive. I have no problem with ‘Heart’ [by Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis, 1886] or with ‘The Secret Seven’ [by Enid Blyton]. I found no flaw in them. But we would not write even ‘The Secret Seven.’”
There will be no murder in your works.
“Of course not. There will be tension, but minor.”
How hard is it to be a female Haredi writer?
“The Haredi public has changed a little in the years since I started writing, but there hasn’t been an upheaval. Thirty-five years ago, when I was writing in the press, I was never known as Menucha Fuchs, but as M. Fuchs. You never had a woman’s first name. Nowadays the full name appears. My books were always written under my real name. Whoever wants, can buy. But if they’d used my full name in the ultra-Orthodox press, no one would have bought the paper. I remember once writing a children’s story about a mother who drives a car, and sending it to a newspaper. The editor returned it. ‘Women do not drive!!!’ he wrote. These days, in my community, women do drive.”
You opened the way for new Haredi female writers?
“Without a doubt. There is a major boom.”
Fuchs’ books appear through her own publishing house, Kav Lekav, in which she is the only author (“It’s enough”). There have been years in which she published a dozen books. I ask her if that meant a book a month. “There’s no real structure to it,” she replies.
Why are there so few male writers in the community?
“The men sit and study. A writer is ‘formed’ around the age of 20, and at that age the men are studying and don’t have time for fiction. There aren’t many 20-year-old men who write.”
Fuchs has six children and 20 grandchildren. “I wish I had more children,” she says. “If you know how to share things with the children, you can also blossom in professional life. You have to know how to do things so the children become a blessing – you learn to do this. It’s not true that because there are many children, we don’t manage to educate them. They contribute to the life of the whole family. The women who think that we sit wretchedly at home and the husband does nothing, are mistaken. They don’t understand the joy that women have in our community. This week I sat with 15 grandchildren around me and wrote a story. Can a secular woman understand how it’s possible to sit with 15 children and work? That’s part of our way of life, not a nuisance. It’s a help.”
Still, being an ultra-Orthodox writer is not an idyll. While working on this article, I spoke with women who have a less forgiving view of rabbinical censorship than Fechter or Fuchs, but they are afraid to be quoted by name. One of them told me sadly that her daughters had trouble getting admitted to a certain high school because she was a writer, even though her books are quite modest in both plot and characters.
“It’s a frozen, frightened society,” this woman said. “Everyone asks what will happen when it’s time to make a match for their daughters. Will they not be admitted to school just because I am a writer? That’s a form of terror. I want to give my daughters a proper and worthy education. I hope there will be some sort of change in the society.”
In addition to its female writers and editors, the world of Haredi literature is populated by publisher Avigail Myzlik, from the Bratslav Hasidic community in Beit Shemesh, outside Jerusalem. She opened the door for many writers.
“Myzlik gave many female writers an opportunity and also paid well, and that was an incentive for women to write. She fomented a revolution,” says Fechter, who published most of her books through Myzlik.
However, the collapse four years ago of the ultra-Orthodox Feldheim publisher and bookstore chain, which had been a leading player in the Haredi world, generated an earthquake that toppled many publishers, who had worked on a low profit margin. Myzlik was forced to sell her eponymous publishing house.
In the past Myzlik was not religious and worked as a cook in leading local restaurants, such as Haim Cohen’s Keren. She and her husband became religious about 20 years ago. “Initially a religious penitent becomes extreme, drops everything, studies and does nothing,” she relates. “I went on writing recipes, and we thought about putting out a book with a major publisher. Then our rabbi said, ‘Why not publish it yourselves?’ So we decided to establish a publishing house.
“We had an empty storeroom,” she continues. “We brought in a computer and became publishers. But obviously my cookbooks were not enough. We racked our brains trying to figure out where to find writers. We thought of putting an ad in the paper that we were a new publishing house, but my husband laughed and said that no writer would come from an ad like that, and if anyone did come we wouldn’t want him. In the end we decided to ‘advertise’ with the Lord. We would pray and he would send us writers.”
Did it work?
Myzlik: “Two days go by, and we get a call from someone named Ronen [Dvash] who says he heard we’d opened a publishing house. We were stunned. He says he’d been in jail in India and since then had become religious. Yedioth Books wants to publish him, but he feels they are too secular. Feldheim likes the idea but he’s afraid they are too religious and won’t understand. The only feasible publishers are newly religious people, he tells us; he says he had heard about us from a friend. He recorded the story of his amazing life and I wrote the book, ‘Escape From India’ [in 2007]. It sold 20,000 copies and made a lot of noise, which brought more writers – men and women – to the publishing house.”
Myzlik rode the momentum. “We have published the books of at least 100 women,” she relates. “We didn’t look for ‘names,’ because there were no names then. I did a kind of literary editing, which wasn’t conventional then in Haredi publishing houses. The publishers only wanted to make money, but I worked with the writers on the texts.”
But a publisher’s life is not an easy one. According to Myzlik, the charity-related system, which is one of the impressive features of the Haredi economy, adversely affects publishers. “Charity is very developed in ultra-Orthodox society,” she notes. “There are many charities that lend books, so that not everyone has to buy a title. True, there is no internet, and [reading] a book is the preferred legitimate leisure activity, but there aren’t many buyers. Publishers are going out of business. But what shall we say: ‘Don’t give charity’? If you burn a [music] disk, it’s considered to be theft, but we don’t have a case against book charity. There used to be print runs of 3,000 books, but now it’s 1,000. Supply is high and the economic situation is worse.”
I saw that some of your books are published in cooperation with food manufacturers. Do you inject marketing content into the cookbooks?
“There is a great deal of cooperation with a large number of companies.”
A distinctive feature of the world of ultra-Orthodox women writers is their mutual support. Myzlik, Fechter and others are part of a forum, the Haredi Writer’s House – all of whose members are women – established by writer Leah Fried. “We meet once a month and exchange information,” Myzlik says. “If a writer is stuck on a sentence, we immediately help her. There is amazing reciprocity. . I will get an answer to every question immediately.”
One of the leading writers among Haredi women, and certainly one of the most intriguing, is Maya Kenan, 34, from Beit Shemesh, the daughter of parents who became religiously observant as adults. In 2014, writing as M. Kenan, she published a futuristic novel that draws on the science-fiction tradition, with robots, an Iranian empire, men of capital and so on. Describing herself as a “full-time writer,” she is the closest to being the Haredi equivalent of a J.K. Rowling. As I was working on this article, she published “Yuzbad”, the third novel in her glatt-fantasy trilogy about the medieval Khazar kingdom. According to the publisher, Dani Fahima (Dani Books), 10,000 copies were sold even before the official publication date, and another 10,000 by the time this article appeared in the Haaretz Hebrew edition.
Kenan hesitated for several weeks about being interviewed, and then agreed to do so via email, with her publisher’s mediation. She declined to be photographed. Playing down the fantasy and sci-fi elements in her work, she prefers to concentrate on the moral message: “What is distinctive about my books is not only the background, but primarily that the plot has an additional, allegorical, dimension. It is neither the ‘science fiction’ nor the ‘Khazar kingdom’ that fascinates and attracts the readers to the books, but rather the processes undergone by the characters.”
She explains the success of her work by observing that most Haredi literature “today focuses mainly on stories with a psychological orientation that take place here and now. The niche in my case is distinctive and different. I think it is the combination between colorful worlds and the fact that, on the one hand the occupation with emotions and thoughts is secondary to the adventure and the tension, while, on the other, there is allegorical content that people enjoy deciphering.”
Another name mentioned by everyone I spoke to is Havah Rosenberg. She is 56, lives in Jerusalem and has been writing for 30 years. Considered one of the veterans in the realm of Haredi female writers, she is also an editor for the newspaper Hamodia. Rosenberg has published 32 books to date, all of which originally appeared in serial form in the ultra-Orthodox press.
Says Rosenberg, “Unfortunately, I haven’t written a book that didn’t appear previously as a serial. Maybe there’s something good about writing for or with yourself, but there are also advantages to prior publication in a newspaper. We get used to writing for people and not for ourselves. Today I don’t think I would have the self-discipline to write a book from start to finish. I’ve become used to writing with a weekly deadline.”
She’s encouraged when I tell her that “Crime and Punishment” also originally appeared in serial form. “That form hasn’t yet disappeared among the ultra-Orthodox. Serial publication means that the stories are talked about in the teachers’ rooms, in the high schools,” explains Rosenberg. “There is also opposition to the stories, and I find that, too, wonderful. But getting good ratings isn’t the main thing. What’s important is the discussion of the content.”
On the difference between secular and Haredi literature, she says: “The basis is different. Haredi literature is tendentious. Even when it’s artistic, the aim is to serve the supreme goal. In secular literature, tendentiousness can be considered a shortcoming. But with us, you need not only a subject but also a good message.”
Rosenberg is right. It’s hard for a nonreligious person to read ultra-Orthodox literature: the stories are inundated with morals.
Rosenberg will soon publish her 33rd book, “Soloist,” which derives from a serial that appeared in a Haredi youth magazine. “It’s about a girl who is on the sidelines, who is different, and how she’s accepted in school. It’s a subject that’s close to my heart.”
Are you also an outsider?
Is it an individualistic message?
“She toes the line, but it’s a broad line. The soul has needs, and they have to be provided for – even in a world of worshiping Hashem [God].”
Do you feel a change in the attitude toward female ultra-Orthodox women writers over the years?
“In the past, each writer would sell on her own, today we are a large group. The Haredi Writer’s House has about 100 members. When I started, there were fewer people to learn from. There are a few excellent male Haredi writers, but among our public literature belongs more to women than to men.”
So this is a sphere that has somehow become feminist?
“You could say that. [Haredi] women have a big platform in literature. As in teaching.”
In the secular world, people will look askance at a writer who publishes a book a year, not to say several a year.
“I would say in jest that maybe we are more industrious. We raise more children. I invest a lot. It’s important to point out that I underwent a personal change during my writing career, one that I feel is being experienced by Haredi literature as a whole. From critical and judgmental writing, from being a watchdog of people, I moved to writing that is filled with compassion and sees the positive side of life. All along, I’ve wanted to stress goodness, but now it’s important for me to find love in writing.”
Books by Menucha Fuchs, Avigail Myzlik, Maya Kenan and Havah Rosenberg have been published in English translation.