Chaim Walder and the Haredi #MeToo Moment

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Chaim Walder at work with one of his best-selling children's books on his desk, before his fall in the wake of a Haaretz investigation exposing years of his alleged sexual abuse.

I first encountered Chaim Walder’s books in my grandparents’ home. Like all the children in our large family, growing up with no TV, I was drawn to every book like a magnet, and Walder’s books were addictive. I remember raising my head from one and realizing that several hours had gone by.

When you grow up without television or movies, the genre of “life stories” is not a substitute, it reflects life itself. The narrators tell their stories in the first person. Sometimes their gender is unknown, since their names are made up. That way, they have the freedom to switch between characters. They write in the name of male or female children, youths, adults or elderly people.

The sexual abuse scandal blowing up the Haredi world. LISTEN

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It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t grow up in a national-religious or ultra-Orthodox home what Walder’s books are about. Along with books about feminism and liberalism, a large number of books of children telling about themselves stands proudly on my bookshelves. They are there alongside Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, with “Little Women” and popular Hebrew authors Dvora Omer and Esther Streit-Wurzel, as well as with De Amicis’ “The Heart,” “Pollyanna” and the books of Erich Kastner.

I liked reading my little ones “Stories from Uri’s Heart [in Hebrew].” I recommended them to friends and colleagues as a tool that can be used for emotional therapy. They contain beautiful illustrations of the different faces of a child, expressing different emotions, with an accompanying story for each emotion. The range is huge, from jealousy to disappointment, to expectation and loss, fear and concern, and endless others. Uri isn’t going to the zoo despite his mother’s promise (because it’s raining); Uri is worried that his mother will forget to pick him up from kindergarten (I always teared up here); Uri is excited on his birthday; Uri is jealous of his little sister.

When I saw my children absorbed in these books, I always asked myself how it could be. How can a person who grew up in a “typical” Haredi home (many Haredi artists were once secular) know how to write like this? I was impressed by the author’s deep and developed emotional world. I knew another side of him through his incisive political columns in the English-language Orthodox weekly Yated Ne’eman, but these columns never contradicted the image of the “sensitive Haredi” I held in my mind.

Last Friday, when Haaretz’s investigative report about him was published, I closed my eyes. I prefer political analyst Yossi Verter with my breakfast. I didn’t want to go through another two weeks with sleeplessness and nausea, as I had gone through after the disclosures about alleged ultra-Orthodox sex offender Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.

But I couldn’t keep my eyes shut. I breathed in deeply and started reading. I muttered to myself: “I believe you, my dear victim. And you, and you, too. I believe you. I know deep in my heart that there are many more women who were not interviewed. It’s a pattern. It couldn’t be a one-off incident.” And I broke into tears. Not because of the story but because of the truth. I cried because it wasn’t Meshi-Zahav, who was an outsider in many Haredi communities. Chaim Walder is mainstream. He is an author, a journalist, a broadcaster. He is the composer of the Haredi Harry Potter. But the pattern is similar: a well-connected, powerful and famous personality, who exploits his power in order to hurt others.

And then I remembered how in every course I teach about ultra-Orthodox society: In reply to the perennial question about sexual assaults in this community, I tell one of Walder’s stories. I read this story as a young mother and didn’t understand it. Only on the third reading did I get it that he was trying to gently say something to children in a society in which sexuality is a total taboo. In this story, a child relates in the first person that something terrible happened to him. Something so terrible that he doesn’t quite understand. Over a few pages, hundreds of words, the child is relating to a story without telling it outright.

The lesson (it’s an ultra-Orthodox book, after all) is that if something terrible that you don’t understand happens to you, tell your mother or father, or some other responsible adult. I admired Walder for writing that. I knew that he had to correct and refine this text dozens of times before receiving rabbinical approval. I thought this was an amazing therapeutic tool that could be read together with an ultra-Orthodox child (as with a non-Haredi one). Anyone who had experienced it would know. Anyone who hadn’t would think that perhaps the child had been insulted by a teacher.

On Friday morning, the memory of that story struck me like a sword. Like a punch in the belly. It’s one thing to write such a wonderful story and another to see with your own eyes a damaged girl and continue being a responsible adult, but this time the one causing the harm. It’s one thing to describe such a huge emotional range, and a horrific thing to use it in order to hurt someone.

It appears that there is one good ending to this story. With all the possible range of emotions, with all the anger and fear, the pain and disappointment, #MeToo has arrived in ultra-Orthodox society, and faster than what could have been expected. Welcome, dear #MeToo. We’ve been waiting.

The writer is a senior lecturer, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in communications at Sapir College, and a guest researcher at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

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