Book Week, With a Haredi Twist

Hebrew Book Week, very much a secular event, has been enthusiastically adopted in recent years by the ultra-Orthodox.

Hannaleh is the daughter of ultra-Orthodox parents who decided to divorce. One Friday evening, she finds herself with just her mother around the set Sabbath table. After the mother sings the hymn "Shalom Aleichem," in "a thin, high voice that trembled sometimes and sounded peculiar, not at all like Father's rich voice," the mother says to her perplexed and perturbed daughter: "Kiddush" - the blessing over the wine.

"Hannaleh trembled as her mother poured the grape juice into the silver-plated goblet. 'Do mothers recite Kiddush?' she asked in a small voice.

"Why not?" asks her mother. "A women is allowed to bless; it says so in rabbinical law."

In another chapter in "The Doll House," a novel for adults by M. Sonnenfeld, Hannaleh's father tries to persuade her that she is "the richest girl in the world. You have two wonderful homes, in both of which they love you and wait for you to come."

"The Doll House," comes the report from the book stalls, is one of the hits from the ultra-Orthodox Feldheim publishing house during Book Week. Alongside religious texts and a respectable number of self-help books dealing with how to achieve shlom bayit (domestic tranquillity) lies this book, which is about an ultra-Orthodox home that no self-help book will ever be able to rescue. In this, it joins other novels published in recent years by ultra-Orthodox presses that deal with sensitive topics, like the home that falls apart, the apostate son and more.

There usually is a happy ending but clearly ultra-Orthodox publishers are printing more and more books dealing with the distress of the individual and the ultra-Orthodox family, along with various books of advice - from traditional morality to New Age books adapted for the ultra-Orthodox. These are on sale alongside new editions of religious texts, which always have buyers - the Bible, the Babylonian Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh - and biographies of spiritual leaders and rabbis, such as the new one about Rabbi Shlomo Eiger, "As Tall as the Cedars."

Honor thy wife

The secular Hebrew Book Week has been adopted by the ultra-Orthodox, hand over fist. Under the auspices of the Hamodia newspaper, the fourth Jewish Book Week opened this week at an events hall in Jerusalem, where separate hours have been arranged for women and men, in addition to more veteran book fairs operating at shopping centers in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

Jewish Book Week is a good opportunity to browse through the new crop from the ultra-Orthodox book publishers. Had Hannaleh's father read the book by Rabbi Shalom Arosh, "In the Garden of Peace: A Guide to Domestic Tranquillity for Men Only," it is possible that what she experienced would not have happened. Rabbi Arosh is one of the most esteemed rabbis among Breslav Hasidim, who heads the Hout Shel Hessed Yeshiva and is known as someone who preaches honoring one's wife as a religious obligation. "The basis of domestic tranquillity," says his book, is that "the husband should know that his wife is the most important thing," even above the study of Torah and the children, "and it is necessary to think about all kinds of ideas as to how to compliment her and to shower her with respect and love."

Among the leading books of advice this year is the book by psychologist Dr. Oz Martin, aimed at parents, educators and mashgihim (supervisors) at yeshivas. This book, which begins with letters of "agreement" from rabbis, holds that society has created that imaginary creature called "everyone," and calls upon ultra-Orthodox educators "to cultivate the individuality of each and every one of us."

The most heavily laden stalls are the ones for children's books, piled with encyclopedias, comics whose heroes are biblical and rabbinical figures and interactive books. Here, too, there is scope for the things that distress children. "Tales of the Redeeming Angel" is aimed at relieving this sort of distress, using the imagination, and, as noted in the Preface for Parents, it helps the child "to enter a state of calm and relaxation that will enable him to fall asleep."

For the child who is afraid to fall asleep in the dark all by himself, the book suggests he imagine that his bed is surrounded by the 60 heroes who surrounded King Solomon's bed (according to the "Song of Songs"), whereas it is suggested to the little girl who feels that her mother discriminates against her that she fly in a spaceship to the future, to an imaginary conversation with her mother in which the daughter feels the mother's concerns.

This year Feldheim has published a new encyclopedia for children, Ofakim, which is intended for ultra-Orthodox children and aims at "satisfying natural curiosity, while establishing clear boundaries," as the preface states. Here general knowledge can be found alongside basic concepts in religious observance, from the redemption of prisoners through the polygraph and Portugal. In the entry on Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the first chief rabbi and the founding father of religious Zionism, it states that "the people of the old Yishuv [the prestate Jewish community in Palestine], headed by Rabbi Haim Sonnenfeld, May his Righteous Memory be Blessed, objected to him and established the Ultra-Orthodox Community Committee with a separate kashrut system, and saw the Chief Rabbinate as a danger to the independence of rabbinical law," whereas in the entry for the Israel Defense Forces, it states that by law it is compulsory to serve from the age of 18 but "the sages of Israel have forbidden military and national service for girls and for yeshiva students, whose "Torah is their craft," and their service is deferred."