Post office box No. 211 is one of the most famous addresses in Bnei Brak. To this box, which belongs to ultra-Orthodox children's writer Chaim Walder, hundreds of children, religious boys and girls, send letters. They have read his books, which appear in the four volumes of "Kids Speak: Children Talk About Themselves" (published by Sifriati), and they respond with their own personal stories, their problems and their secret dreams.
Walder, who is swept up in the current tide of original ultra-Orthodox literature, is a rising star. He has written 10 books - he describes them as "best-sellers" - which have been translated into six languages, including English (by Feldheim publishers). His secular equivalent in terms of the admiration and the letters he receives from readers is children's television star Michal Yanai at her peak. Though his readers do not have televisions - in any case, he does not appear on talk shows to promote his books - children recognize him. This week, for example, when he was being photographed for this article, children flocked to him from all directions, surrounded him and asked for his autograph.
Walder's collections of stories, to which a lengthy volume entitled "That's Me, Tzviki Green!" has recently been added, hold pride of place on the shelf of ultra-Orthodox children's books that has been filling up in recent years (see box below). And they are also being sold at an impressive rate, especially as he has managed to create a consensus around himself, which is quite unusual in this faction-ridden religious society, and has gained the confidence of the rabbis. Today, his books can be found in the libraries of religious families of all streams, from Hasidic groups to those affiliated with the national-religious Zionism sector.
To these promising facts must be added the fact that children simply love his writing. What is the secret of the huge attraction to his books?
"An ultra-Orthodox child does not have a television, he does not have a computer and he does not have a Game-Boy," explains Walder. "All he has is books. He does not need `Harry Potter' to go back to reading."
In other words, books are in his opinion the almost only (kosher) link that ultra-Orthodox children have to the world of fantasy and imagination. But this is only partially true. Even ultra-Orthodox children have only recently discovered reading. Up until a few years ago, this channel was also closed to them, because there were no ultra-Orthodox writers who wrote real books for children.
Same problems everywhere
Walder's fan club has an important social aspect, and if this is understood, it is also possible to unravel the secret of the attractiveness of his books: Ultra-Orthodox children suddenly have an address to which they can turn, someone who will listen to and understand them. The significance of this is the legitimization of talking about painful or difficult things. And thus Walder writes in the introduction to parents in his first book in the series "Kids Speak": "It is not by chance that I have given this book the strange name `Kids Speak.' This book deals with children's emotions. In reality, most children `keep quiet about themselves.'"
What bothers an ultra-Orthodox child? Apparently the basic problems are the same everywhere. One of the stories describes a fat boy whose friends laugh at him. In another story, a girl suffers because of the "queen" of the classroom. There are short children and weak children, children who have been accused of something they have not done, children who have left home. The book "That's Me, Tzviki Green!", of which Walder is especially proud, tells of a boy called Tzviki (the name of Walder's son) who, against his will, goes to live with his parents in the United States, does not fit into society and feels strange and alienated.
There is something winning about the direct and grown-up style of the books, which was not evident before in books offered to ultra-Orthodox children. The books of yesteryear were programmatic and bowed under the weight of religious indoctrination. Therefore, children did not read them very much. Here, however, the language is simple, and the attitude toward emotions and interpersonal relations, and especially to the things that distress children and to their problems - obvious subjects in modern societies that have been exposed for a hundred years now to the influence of psychology - is direct. In the closed ultra-Orthodox society, this is equivalent to a revolution, and Chaim Walder is a sign of it, if not its leader.
He does what he does with his eyes wide open, with acceptance of full responsibility. Thus, even if people comment that from a literary point of view, the stories are sometimes excessively didactic (a disease to which, in any case, many children's books are prone), and that they always move toward the most appropriate solution within the accepted framework - Walder takes this as a compliment. Apparently, his motivation is first and foremost social and educational and only afterward, literary.
Zviki, for example, strays from the straight and narrow. He disappoints his parents and only in the end, just before his bar mitzvah, will he straighten out and be the good boy again.
"My message, that it is necessary to talk about feelings and problems, has managed to trickle through the children to their parents and to the society as a whole," says Walder.
In a slightly pompous and somewhat elderly but touching style, the children write to Walder about everything, even suicide. "It is not within my powers to go on," writes an adolescent girl at the end of a letter. "If you could give me some advice as to how to get out of this maze. For my part, I do not mind speaking to his honor, but if it were possible, I would prefer that his wife call and ask for me, for otherwise it will be odd when they hear a man's voice. Thank you in advance and may you be blessed with good deeds."
Even a reader who is not a professional can understand from the archaic description of this girl's problems that she suffers from anorexia.
Another girl of 17 writes with pain that her parents are looking for a match for her, but she does not know whether "they love me. My mother has never kissed me and my father has never said a kind word to me."
One teenage boy writes about "a very painful problem I have been having in recent years." He goes on to say "no one in my family or among my acquaintance knows about it. The matter is one that I will call social anxiety. At some point in my life, I changed from an exuberant, fresh and happy boy into a closed, quiet and introspective fellow and all because of imaginings I developed at the yeshiva, that I am not accepted by society. I would wish that you could advise me if possible about what to do concerning the yeshiva."
New therapeutic approach
Chaim Walder's office in the depths of the Center for the Child and the Family, an organization run under the auspices of the municipality of Bnei Brak, is bursting with colored folders in which these letters are carefully filed. Most of them get an answer. They are silent testimony to overflowing emotions that had nowhere to go until now. Every cry for help is referred to treatment.
In recent years Walder, who is completing a degree in educational counseling at Jerusalem College, is spearheading a new therapeutic approach to children in Bnei Brak. In the spirit of his book, he has established summer camps that operate in that city, as well as in Haifa and Jerusalem. Under the heading "Children Talk About Themselves," participants learn to express themselves in new channels, especially through the arts. Thus, for example, children can write stories, dramatize them and even film them.
Walder began to write for children by chance. Several years ago, when he completed his military service as a soldier-teacher, he began to teach in an ultra-Orthodox school for boys in Bnei Brak. There, for the first time, he began to write stories for his students, which were definitely educational.
"I had a disturbed child who got in trouble with all the children," relates Walder. "After a particularly difficult incident with him, I took him aside for a talk and asked him what he was feeling. He began to complain about the other boys, to say that they were to blame, to look for excuses for his behavior. It took me 10 minutes to explain that all I wanted was for him to tell me what he was feeling. And when he understood, he went silent."
Walder explained that "the penny dropped" and he realized that ultra-Orthodox children do not know what they feel, "because they were never encouraged to think that way."
Walder, 33, followed the usual route of every ultra-Orthodox boy, but in Haifa, he hastens to say. "The fact that I did not grow up in Bnei Brak contributed to my outlook on ultra-Orthodox society with different eyes." He describes life in Haifa as a different planet for an ultra-Orthodox child. On the one hand, being ultra-Orthodox was not taken for granted, he said. "We got beaten up because we were religious." He rolls up his sleeve and with a gesture that he has doubtless repeated dozens of times before, he displays a faded scar on his arm, a kind of mark of heroism he got from "the secular kids." On the other hand, "We played with secular boys and did not feel the difference." This complexity, he explains, caused him to be proudly ultra-Orthodox, but open, in his definition.
As a boy he read Jules Verne, Enid Blyton's "The Famous Five" and "The Secret Seven" series, and "The Heart of a Boy" by Edmondo de Amicis; he fondly remembers the old library on Pevsner Street in the Hadar in Haifa. Isn't he sorry that his own children will not be reading these classic books? Walder suppresses a smile and says that his children are no criterion. They read more than other children are allowed. And what about the other children? He understands the need of ultra-Orthodox society to create a literature of its own. He understands its essential need, from which it has not yet weaned itself, to shut itself in and to seal itself off from all external influence. Today, he says, there is the possibility of a revolution, because this society is stronger than it has ever been before, and does not need to be wary of the secular world.
Walder, who throughout the interview takes care to stress repeatedly the positive aspects of the ultra-Orthodox world, finally acknowledges that in that society, which has been repressing its problems for years, it is essential to relate to neglected and abandoned children. For several years now, he says, the rabbis have not been able to ignore the problems that have been crossing their thresholds, such as those of delinquent youth on the verge of criminal behavior, called "shababniks" in ultra-Orthodox parlance, who drop out of the yeshivas. This is the reason they are cooperating with him and allowing the new language, the language of emotions, to enter their world.
In Walder's books, a new voice is heard that had been silenced for many years. This is the voice of the children and the adolescents. It is fascinating to think what might happen to this new voice. Will a society that tramples and represses every splinter of individuality give rise to a new, individualist force? What will happen to the children who grow up on Walder's books? To the children who write stories inspired by his, which tell their own stories?
Cognizant of the power his books have to influence youngsters, Walder insists that he is "establishment." He is knowledgeable about the rule book of ultra-Orthodox society and he will always act in accordance with it.
Not long ago, in the fourth collection of "Kids Speak," he published a story that the rabbis did not like, and immediately posters went up throughout Bnei Brak prohibiting the purchase of the books. He immediately withdrew them and printed a new edition. "However," he said with a meaningful smile, "within a few days, the entire forbidden edition had sold out and had disappeared from the stores."
A publishing phenomenon
"Kids Speak: Children Talk About Themselves" has been reprinted 20 times since it first came out about 10 years ago. At first the stories were passed from hand to hand, and a few of them were published in the ultra-Orthodox press. Issuing the book with a publisher that specializes in religious books involved a certain risk. The style sounded strange to the ultra-Orthodox ear. But the books were snatched up.
When Chaim Walder began to publish his books he was the only writer in the field, but the real flourishing of ultra-Orthodox children's literature only began during the past five years. The moment the dam burst, fiction for adults also began to appear. Now, two or three such books are published every week. In a society where there is no leisure culture, this is a veritable revolution. Publishers that specialized in religious books began to change direction and enter an area that was totally alien to them, which quickly became their most profitable market. The books, with colorful and tempting jackets, are being sold in shops that previously sold only books in dark covers with gold lettering.
"To this day it amazes me," said the owner of an ultra-Orthodox publishing house, "how the rabbis tried to forbid this."
This is a new channel of expression that has suddenly received rabbinical approval. In the nature of things, women feel much more at home in it and therefore most books for children, and then the books for adults, have been written by women. The books for adults are for the most part collections of "true stories from life" that have a message. The children's books are for the most part adventure stories. One very successful series that children love is "The Children from the Shai Neighborhood," by Jerusalem schoolteacher Menucha Beckerman. One of these new authors, Hava Rosenberg, has even started a creative writing course.
Recently, more and more books have been coming out, "but there is nothing comparable to the Walder phenomenon," says the ultra-Orthodox publisher. "In terms of sales he leaves all the other authors far behind."
The first volume of "Kids Speak" has sold about 40,000 copies, and a similar number in English translation. (For the sake of comparison, the first Harry Potter book has come out in 180,000 copies in Hebrew since it was first published two years ago.) The publisher adds that in ultra-Orthodox society the numbers are misleading. "You have to think about distribution in terms of the number of readers. When one of Walder's books is purchased by a family it goes from hand to hand and is read by at least 10 people - all seven children in the family, neighbors and friends."