Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Not My Real Name

A guest post by Ploni Almoni

I first met Dvora at a Shabbat dinner on the Upper West Side. My former employers considered the UWS to be the epitome of off-the-derech Judaism, a bastion of liberal thinking, a place swarming with apicorsus and lies. If you used Dvorah as your sample, you would realize that they were not that far-off in their categorization.

Dvora took even the most upright, heimeishe topic of conversation and managed to turn it into something lewd, offensive or (I have to admit) thought provoking. Unafraid to speak her mind, Dvora conversed with gusto about her blog articles and upcoming book Eager to fit in, I mentioned that I, too, was a published writer.

Dvora looked at me from across the table and simply asked, “What did you write?”

“A review I wrote was published in a newspaper,” I ventured, hoping to end there.

Always inquisitive, Dvora pushed on. “Which one?”

Self-mockingly I answered, “It was published in ‘the’ daily newspaper of Torah Jewry.” We spent the next few minutes clarifying which publication I was talking about. No, not the magazine which reported that the sun revolves around the earth (really, it said so in the science section for kids) or the one which refused to publish an advertisement for a queen bed because of the connotations it evoked (only twin permitted).

I was talking about the daily newspaper which never publishes pictures of women. I once spotted a rare article on a woman’s study group. The accompanying article featured a cluster of long bearded, black hatted, slightly bent over men. Pictures of women weren’t the only taboo in this newspaper. Woman’s first names were prohibited because, G-d forbid, it might breed a sense of familiarity. ‘H. Clinton’ and ‘T. Livni’, while very active in politics, were faceless, nameless personalities.

And my name in the newspaper? I don’t remember exactly, I think it was something like “Yaacov Freedburg.” My husband thought it was a creative choice.

“What was your article about?”

“It was a book review,” I explained. “About a book. A Jewish one.” As the truth was a bit messy, I was hesitant to provide more details. Working for a small Jewish publishing company, I often wrote book reviews of our own books. (FYI, they were always “excellent,” “gripping,” and “meaningful.”) If you ever take the time to read book reviews in lower-budget magazines and newspapers you will realize that many of them are written by biased writers who are well compensated for their opinions.

My conflict of interest was one of the reasons I used an alias. The other was my gender—designated ‘inappropriate’. As an editorial assistant at this ‘yeshivish’ publishing company I had to search for inappropriate situations in the novels. While you and I might apply the term “inappropriate” to some of Dvora’s dinner conversation choices, the publishing company had a much stricter definition. A girl talking to a boy? We rewrote the story so that the girl spoke to her brother who spoke to the boy. A divorced woman as a protagonist? Adeptly, we inserted a caveat—“She was divorced, a rare and unfortunate occurrence in our community.” Even a child’s rude remark was downplayed and softened.

Tirelessly, I made every character free-of-flaw, removed from real conflict, and untarnished by any misdeed. That’s Kosher publishing.

The publishing company’s priorities were clear. When my boss read over a manuscript for a novel set in ancient, Biblical Egypt he complained “the book is fraught with theological problems and anachronisms.” “Yes,” a coworker responded. “We’ll have to do something about those theological conflicts.” Not a word was spoken about the blatant historical inaccuracies.

Once upon a time, many Jews were forced by the sword to convert. But if what T. Roosevelt said was correct, my publishing company had found a far mightier form of indoctrination. At the publishing company we wielded the pen. What is appropriate, what is ‘Jewish’ enough? (Hint: Zionism didn’t make the cut, but reincarnated figures from the Torah did.)

As editors, we never left in anything that was controversial or unsettling to the Ultra-Orthodox Jew. Even our book reviews about our own books were pleasant. Story after story, everyone ultimately loved keeping kosher, embraced their gender roles, and were happy with their lives. Is it appropriate to shelter readers? To gloss over faults? Even without photograph evidence, woman (and the ability to co-habit with them) still exists.

Dvora, uncensored in her views, asked me to write about censorship. Judaism is messy, uncomfortable and somewhat scandalous. Should we hide this reality, celebrate it? I choose to confront it, albeit, under an alias.


Marc said...

I have long been conflicted about those book reviews in Jewish Weeklies/Dailies (The Forwards and kin excluded). "Loshan Hara" (lit. evil talk) issues would most certainly prevent any honest assessments, excluding the rare instances a critic felt the work was perfect. So perhaps it is a given that the writer is not being impartial, and the reader knows the article is akin to the psuedo-reporting that fills the free circulars distributed in so many Kosher markets and restaurants.

I'm overwhelmed thinking about the issue of Orthodoxy and literature.
For instance I often wonder whether those light novels so popular in the Orthodox community are a positive or a negative. On the one hand people are reading a book, which is a pretty big deal. Yet the standards sketched in Ploni's article, combined with the (usually) horrendous lack of style, originality, and meaningful content, makes such work difficult to consider worthwhile.
I wonder too if it is legitimate to restrict confronting the boilerplate themes of literature (read: life) because the structure is not essentially Jewish?
Then I must question whether that question is legitimate, or am I simply and unfairly indicting an entire worldview, part of which calls for the avoidance of secular culture. You will not catch me writing screeds against the Amish, and I don't feel comfortable criticizing devout Muslims or Hindus for their beliefs, so is it fair to question the fervently Orthodox?

But then why wipe the cannon clean? What about the myriad short stories and novels that even a sage couldn't object too? There must be sufficient Mark Twain to go around.
Also, has this attack on literature (likely an unfair term) grown out of the alleged increasing conservatism of the Orthodox community? Or have those who don't read anything not published by Feldheim always avoided secular literature? I always thought there was a very wide spectrum of tolerance on the issue, as evidenced by the varying texts in Yeshiva English classes, but are positions consolidating towards the restrictive end of the band?

Marc said...

Or maybe it is legitimate to question the bounds of Orthodoxy as practiced by others? I wonder. Sophisticated Modern Orthodox scholars make convincing cases for their attempts at synthesizing Judiasm with modernity. Still, YU doesn't proselytize to the Brooklyn crowd, although their philosophy by definition rejects much of the communities intellectual philosophy.

kaenahora said...

As a student in orthodox day schools, I was often told, "Judaism isn't like Christianity. Jews ask questions and every question is permissible." It really wasn't true and I learned it the hard way.

My parents raised us to be critical, inquisitive thinkers. They believe, as I still do, that the truth will stand for itself; if Torah is worthwhile, it will hold it's own.

I am no longer religious.

Sometimes I wonder if it is possible to be confronted with the truth and remain religious. I think if you do, you have to accept that you are religious for other reasons, such as community, history, tradition, or faith.

The answer to me, is not obfuscation, but I wonder if they were less protective, their way of life would disappear.

Dvora Meyers said...

I agree. My participation in the Jewish community has less to do with halacha, which no longer feels binding, but with tradition, family and community.