Friday, May 18, 2012

Hasidic Writers, Plugged In 

If you want something to read in Yiddish you can stop by any Brooklyn seforim store, where there are fat Satmar newspapers running to hundreds of pages. Their content is always the same: eulogies, wedding reportage, news digests, economic reports, sermons, serial novels meant to stoke the fires of Eastern European nostalgia, and condemnations of Zionism. Their sameness is part of a holy mission: These publications are not just reporting, but creating and reinforcing their world. Women and girls are left on the cutting room floor, as are Jews from other denominations and non-Jews in general. I try to read them every once in a while out of a sense of duty to contemporary Yiddish literature, but I find them boring, and I stop.

But there are other periodicals, a kind of parallel literature, which you can buy in the same stores and at the newspaper kiosks in the Borough Park or Williamsburg neighborhoods of New York—or which you can easily get for free as PDFs that get emailed around or posted on Facebook. Such a magazine can occasionally spring up as an alternative to Der Yid, the great gray official organ of Satmar Hasidim. For a while, Der Shtern (The Star) was one of these. Full-colored, trim, an attractive package, it included articles on topics from the wider world (science, nature, crime, war, espionage), not the usual empty rabbinic encomia—but in Yiddish, of course, and with the seal of approval that marked it safe for Hasidic consumption. It walked the line between crowd-pleasing and kosher.

In March of this year, however, something unforeseen happened as the outcome of internal Satmar political struggles: In posters plastered over Hasidic Brooklyn, rabbis declared these magazines unsuitable for the Jewish soul. Kiosk owners were ordered not to carry them. The editors of Der Shtern recruited rabbis to represent their side in a rabbinic court, and disseminated a desperate letter asking the censors to hear them out. However, despite a public campaign to reinstate the publication, they were unsuccessful, and as of this writing, the magazine has closed down.

Isaiah (not his real name) was a writer for that magazine. He has a day job, a wife, and six kids, but his true passion is the search for some truth amid his doubts. He is a Hasidic writer creating from inside with all his objections, confusions, and contortions, whose style has been shaped by the same communal constraints that he chafes under.

Isaiah and I were together recently in the Bronx at the home of a grand-dame of Yiddish letters, where we talked about his writing. He has something of a reading public, probably due to his involvement with Der Shtern, but more practically because of his blogging. He told me that recently, a popular badchan (Hasidic entertainer) who goes by the stage name "The Pester Rebbe" asked Isaiah if he could use one of his posts for an upcoming album—but with modifications.

"He wants to edit it from my 'literary' style into something more accessible," Isaiah told me, looking piqued. "My friends don't understand what I write either. They say it's too abstract.


Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Chaptzem! Blog