Thursday, August 18, 2011

How Orthodox Jews are covered: the Yaldah edition

In another episode of “Let’s see what the Orthodox Jews are up to,” yesterday in Tablet, Irin Carmon writes about Yaldah, a wholesome magazine for young Jewish girls and adolescents that was started by Leah Caras when she was just 13 years old. Caras, now 20 and married, talks about the reasons she created the magazine and the appeal it holds for more traditionally observant young Jewish women.

It is mostly a profile piece about Caras and the magazine, and despite the author’s journalistic experience (she’s a writer for Jezebel), she fails to ask any major critical questions of Caras or Yaldah.

This uncritical stance is not particular to Carmon. She is not at all singular in this regard. I find that most of the writing that is done about the Orthodox across the entire religious spectrum tends to fetishize the group in one of two ways: either it presents them as backward and corrupt or glorifies them as more quaint and wholesome than the rest of us. The reporting rarely falls in the middle where the reality tends to exist. Either way, reading many of these pieces feels akin to staring at the animals in a zoo, whether one is “oohing” and “aahing” over the adorable polar bears or recoiling from snakes in the reptile house.

This article is an example of the former “aren’t they quaint” subgenre. It simply lays out Caras’ and the viewpoint of Yaldah, barely challenging either in any way. While there are a few observations that this particular magazine is skirting tricky issues of adolescence (“Puberty, with its attendant joys and discontents, is delicately avoided,” Carmon writes), there is no questioning the results of this avoidance, namely this: what does it mean to be a yeshiva girl who doesn’t receive sex education at school and gleans most of what she knows about the topic from magazines (as I did with Sassy) and television?

What also seem to be missing from this account are reactions from readers who are not involved in the magazine’s production. In addition, this sounds like a magazine that a mother would buy for her daughter instead of one that the girls’ themselves choose to subscribe to. I suppose there is no way to know who is filling out the slips and mailing in the checks but given how unified parents and teens seem to be during what is typically a fractious time for the two groups (“Sometimes parents and children seem so united in the pages of the magazine that it’s hard to tell the difference between them,” Carmon notes), it is least worthwhile to ask the question.

And finally, is Yaldah being read as part of a much larger magazine and media diet? I’d venture to say that it is. After all, at the same time that I was reading Seventeen during my own Orthodox girlhood, I was also checking out The B.Y. Times from my yeshiva’s library. (For those of you not acquainted with the wonders of this fiction series, it was about young yeshiva girls who run their school newspaper. Tribulations and Torah lessons ensue.)

Obviously, it is a lot to expect a secular journalist to delve into the particulars of Jewish law and culture in order to present a more complicated, nuanced picture of the lifestyle and community, but I would argue that it should be the task of any Jewish publication that regularly writes about this population to go beyond fetishizing it, whether for good or for bad. Just as the tension free picture of adolescence painted in Yaldah is highly improbable, so too is the veracity of an article that explores only the Little House on the Prairie-esque side of Orthodox Jewish girlhood.


marjorie said...

have you written about the BY Times for Tablet? I'd love to learn more about the series.

Dvora Meyers said...

I have not written about it for anyone ever but I'd like to say that it inspired my interest in journalism because it sounds funny. (But in reality I was inspired to become a writer by Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

I tried googling BY Times yesterday as I was writing the piece but came up empty handed.

Evelyn Krieger said...

Your blog post is very well-written and thoughtful. Funny, I didn't think the Tablet article was so positive. In fact, I think it was rather skewed.
As far as who is buying the magazine, well, Yaldah has readers as young as 8 and they don't usually have credit cards. We receive fan mail every day from girls all over the world, not their parents. We also receive emails and letters from girls about family and religious issues, some which we publish and others we answer personally.
Yaldah shouldn't have to apologize about not covering lots of controversial topics. Our readers are modern girls with access to the internet, books, and other magazines. Yes, they run the gamut on religious observance--but we have never received any letters begging for more articles on puberty.
What seems to be left out here is that Yaldah is the ONLY magazine for Jewish girls, by Jewish girls. Sure it would be easier to have adults completely running the show and writing the articles, but we don't. The girls write the content, submit their art work,poetry, and stories. We sponsor fiction and art contests, retreats, leadership workshops,and unity clubs. Recently, Leah added an online forum for subscribers where girls can discuss various topics. The forum is directed by a sixteen-year-old girl.
Please check out our website to learn mere.

Dvora Meyers said...

The post was not about Yaldah per se but about the journalistic approach that was taken in covering the magazine (and by extension, the Orthodox community). Aside from a couple of moments of critical thinking, most of the article seems to read like a press release. I have no problem with a wholesome magazine existing for young Jewish girls -- I probably would've subscribed when I was a kid -- but I thought the writer didn't do her due diligence in writing this story.

But as I noted, this is not particular to this writer or publication. It has been something of a pet peeve of mine, the result of reading years of covering the Orthodox community. It either seems to fall into one of two camps -- aren't they backward or aren't they adorable and quaint -- and no one attempts to create a more nuanced picture.

Like you said, Yaldah is more complicated and reflective of the diversity of its readers than this account indicates but the way it was covered falls under the "aren't they quaint" heading so all of that interesting and contextual information wasn't included. It's a shame since not only would it have made for a better story but it also would've made Yaldah seem more compelling.

One Heart Being said...

Thanks for the sweet blessings of your words--your honesty, uniqueness and wisdom are refreshing.

Dvora Meyers said...