Religion & Beliefs

Written Revolution? The Accidental Discovery of an Ultra-Orthodox Women’s Writing Group

I recently read a posting about a Creative Writing Seminar for Jewish women in Jerusalem; I love to write…I'm a Jewish woman…why not? I took a vacation day, showed up with my notebook and several deliciously colorful pens, and walked … Read More

By / June 10, 2008

I recently read a posting about a Creative Writing Seminar for Jewish women in Jerusalem; I love to write…I'm a Jewish woman…why not? I took a vacation day, showed up with my notebook and several deliciously colorful pens, and walked in the door of a Beit HaKerem hotel that I'd never heard of. What did I see? A combination of things, really. Long skirts, sheitels, head coverings, tanakhs, babies and closed-toe shoes. My tight, green army pants didn't quite match the chosen attire of these Jewish women, and judging by the stares—not unfriendly stares, mind you—I'm guessing that I wasn't the only one cognizant of my misunderstanding about what defines a Jewish Woman—in this case, at least. I'd stumbled upon a large group of ultra-Orthodox, English-speaking female writers in Jerusalem. They're a larger community than I would have imagined and they write short stories, memoirs, novels, articles and poems that are mostly related to Orthodoxy and/or Torah. Everyone was friendly, especially when I changed into a long-sleeved shirt and pants that could be confused for a skirt. Still, the woman next to me whispered (out of concern) during a session, "Do you know what Tisha B'Av is?" The content of the workshop was mostly irrelevant to me—however, what was interesting about this seminar was beyond the Creative Writing content. I wondered, what had compelled these women to write in the first place? My preconceived notions about this group of ultra-Orthodox women had rendered me shocked that they were seeking to express themselves and that it wasn't causing a stir within the community. These women had stories to tell. I spent much of my day listening to them. Why did they write? How did this fit into their busy schedule of being a wife, child-rearing, Shabbat dinners, etc.? One woman, we'll call her Rachel*, told me that writing was a way for her to maintain modesty, but to simultaneously prove to the world that she had something to contribute beyond washing her floors. She explained that she lives a beautiful life of Torah and family, but that it was nearly impossible for her to incorporate her own voice into these dear passions of hers; she feels like a robot. She describes her writing as an attempt to express the male crafted, text defined role of a woman with a woman's voice. She tries to highlight the tenderness, compassion, and strength that is required of the women in her community, because as she sees it, their G-d given blessings are too often generalized. Another woman, Miriam, has already published three books and is working on her fourth. Her third book, she says, will enable her be financially independent to the extent that she and her newborn baby can leave her abusive husband and start anew. At the outset, she saw writing as employment that was easy to hide from her husband. Now, she sees it as a vehicle for expression. She never publishes her real name or the location of her religious community in Jerusalem, and so she speaks liberally (given the parameters of the publishers) about the physical violence in her home. Her strong belief in G-d and living a "Torah life" help her articulate her struggle in terms that other religious women can understand and empathize with. She feels that the secular writing about abuse fails to help ultra-Orthodox women that suffer from similar issues, because they feel as though they need advice and solace from within their uniquely religious communities.
Chava has been trying to get a book published for four years. Several manuscripts later, she's attending the seminar hoping to get some advice that she hasn't heard before. The problem with her previous manuscripts? Apparently, they don't speak of Torah strongly enough to be considered relevant to religious publishing companies and their clients. She explains that she is a woman of Torah, but that she is disgusted by the forced ignorance of the Orthodox regarding issues that they define as secular, such as eating disorders, sexual orientation and financial strife. She says that she'll continue to fight the publishing companies, but that if need be, she'll ultimately attempt to appeal to secular publishers (which the organizers of the seminar had referred to several times as "inappropriate for the frum world") at the risk of being the object of contempt in her community. I spoke to almost half of the 120 participants, and not one of them told me that they were at the seminar simply because they loved to write. Given their stories, I'd venture to call them activists and feminists within a community that lives in the past, which seems to make them even more exceptional. They've found each other, and they've found a way to be ideologically innovative and creative within the bounds of a society that prefers their voices to be meek and modest. Had they not been confused about the definition of a "Jewish woman," I may never have stumbled upon such an empowering group of women.

*All of the names in this article have been changed.

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