Yoel Finkelman. Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2011. 255 pp. $49.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-936235-37-7.
Reviewed by Moshe Sherman (Touro College)
Published on H-Judaic (March, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Haredi Popular Literature and the Limits of Cultural Separation
The growing presence of Orthodox Jews and institutions in both the United States and Israel, over the past several decades, has gained the attention of popular writers and has led sociologists and historians to study the development and transformation of this community. A mounting divide has been observed within Orthodoxy, as different subcommunities have emerged, commonly termed modern Orthodox, haredi, and hasidic. Considerable critique concerning the character of modern Orthodox Jews has led sociologists to describe changes in that community as "sliding to the right," "sliding to the left," or "flipping out." With Yoel Finkelman's Strictly Kosher Reading, we have an important study of haredi Jews in America.
The noteworthy technique of this work is its analysis of trendy haredi literature, including self-help books; parenting guides; marriage manuals; child and adult fiction; and popular works of Jewish law, thought, and history. Unlike the rigorous demand of Talmud study and traditional religious text, widely held popular literature has gained enormous appeal, as it is more easily understood by a large number of people. The rising population of Orthodox Jews has stimulated a market for such popular literature. Finkelman correctly observes that while observant Jews are acculturated in different ways, the same forces that make popular literature successful in the general marketplace apply to haredi Jews as well. More important, since the fashionable writing of Western culture is inconsistent with the religious values of haredi Jews, a literature has emerged written by and published for this community, reflecting their values and seeking to promote their worldview. This is the central focus of Finkelman's insightful book, which examines how haredi Jews understand themselves; how and why they strive to be distinct; and, ironically, how they are deeply influenced by the society from which they struggle so hard to be detached.
Central to the haredi perspective is the need for a distinct and separate community. They seek to remove themselves from a Western culture they regard as corrupting and antithetical to traditional Jewish values. They live in their own neighborhoods, send children to their own schools, pray at their own synagogues, and dress in a distinct manner. It should be said that this is largely true for many modern Orthodox enclaves, which are also distinct in much the same way. Haredi music, computer games, film, summer camps, toys, clothing, and decorative arts are promoted to reinforce not only a distinct haredi culture but also one with superior values. In matters of theology and practice, the haredi perspective underscores that their belief is true, while others are false. Religious observance, it is claimed, is healthy, while nonobservance is not; haredi ideas lead to happiness, while secular ideas do not.
There has been, for example, considerable discussion of late about so-called children at risk, who reject their religious upbringing and become involved in substance abuse or criminal behavior. Yet, in the haredi literature, there is little discussion of teenagers who reject Orthodoxy because observance is experienced as perfunctory and meaningless, or because they wish to pursue higher general education which they are encouraged to eschew. In other words, the haredi perspective of "children at risk" paints religious observance as normal and healthy and nonobservance as a kind of pathological behavior. For haredi Jews, there is a tacit assumption that well-adjusted people do not give up religious observance.
This study argues that while haredi Jews passionately pursue their differences and call for boundaries between themselves and others, the divide is, in fact, quite porous. The haredi community is, in some important ways, quite Americanized. For example, haredi books on marriage, child rearing, and self-development claim to reflect pure Torah values in contrast to modern, secular ideas. In fact, popular haredi books reiterate many of the same ideas and attitudes found in secular literature.
The attraction to certain aspects of Western culture results in some measure of tension between the need for isolation and the reality of acculturation. Finkelman suggests that the haredi community negotiates this tension, in a couple of ways. First, they use "coalescence," by which he means, merging aspects of Jewish tradition with contemporary culture and values. Second, they negotiate it by "filtering" out ideas that are regarded as problematic. For example, popular guides on good parenting or enhancing a marriage include many recommendations that are found in modern studies, but ideas that are deemed objectionable are ignored. Finkelstein suggests that by "monopolizing" or offering a filtered alternative to the general, secular culture, the readers of this popular haredi literature can now avoid reading works of modern culture.
With regard to the presentation of Jewish history, Finkelman argues that popular haredi literature links its origins to a nostalgic, romantic image of pre-World War II Eastern European Jewish life, where Jews are depicted as overwhelmingly observant and devout. While every community, he states, has its "founding myths" that define and distinguish it from others, this simplistic view of the past provides a model for haredim to achieve.
Finkelman's study is an important contribution to our understanding of one segment of Orthodox Jewish life in America. He has presented an innovative work, with important insights into the character of a religious group that continues to grow in number and power.
. See, for example, Samuel C. Heilman, "How Did Fundamentalism Manage to Infiltrate Modern Orthodoxy?" (Marshall Sklare Memorial Lecture, 35th Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, Boston, December 21, 2003); William B. Helmreich and Reuel Shinnar, "Modern Orthodoxy in America: Possibilities for a Movement under Siege," Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, no. 383, June 1, 1998; Chaim I. Waxman, "The Haredization of American Orthodox Jewry," Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, no. 376, February 15, 1998; Samuel C. Heilman, Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson, and Chaim I. Waxman, Flipping Out? Myth or Fact: The Impact of the "Year in Israel" (New York: Yashar Press, 2007); Yehuda Turetsky and Chaim I. Waxman, "Sliding to the Left? Contemporary American Modern Orthodoxy," Modern Judaism 31, no. 2 (May 2011): 119-141, http://mj.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/05/25/mj.kjr010.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr (May 25, 2011); and Jeffrey S. Gurock, "Twentieth-Century American Orthodoxy's Era of Non-Observance 1900-1960," Torah U-Madda Journal 9 (2000): 87-107.
:Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy
also published online, May 25, 2011,
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Moshe Sherman. Review of Finkelman, Yoel, Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.
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