Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Writers’ Café: Creative Voices from the Frum Community

During Pesach I received a copy of a new magazine called “The Writers’ Café: Creative Voices from the Frum Community.”

An introductory “Letter from the Editor” describes the goal of the publication: “Our aim is to bring you the best in creative, imaginative writing for and about the frum world. In doing so, we hope to promote the growth of such writing, benefiting readers and writers alike.”

My first reaction, even before opening it: "Cool." Like many rabbis, I have a side career as a frustrated fiction writer.

Having read it, my second reaction is that this magazine is definitely “for and about the frum world.” A serial story ends with “To be continued, b’li neder.” Pieces focus on observant life, both day-to-day (clothes shopping, baseball, sibling relationships) and spiritual (davening, weddings, rebbe-talmid relationships, Rosh haShanah, tefillin).

A third reaction: Leaving aside the quality of the production values and writing (and the definition of “frum”), I think the idea of encouraging Torah-observant Jews to look at their own community and describe their lives is positive.

And a fourth reaction: I think this could lead to an answer to a question I’ve been pondering: Is the observant community capable of addressing criticism from within?

The question has come up in recent years over issues ranging from abuse in yeshivot to unethical businessmen to out-of-control bansmanship to relationships between our community and politicians of dubious morality. Are we able to criticize ourselves, and listen to that criticism?

One thing is certain: Observant Jews tend to dislike secular critical portrayals of our community. We react to such a perspective much as we would react to a mirror that highlighted our pimples. Reactions like, “She doesn’t really understand us,” “He’s got a vendetta,” and “That’s just lashon hara,” are the equivalent of the acned teenager’s, “Must be the lighting."

Our excuses for the way we appear to others come easily; it’s simpler to condemn the messenger than to consider the message. Think of the recent reactions to Shalom Auslander and Noah Feldman. I’m not agreeing with either of them, just highlighting our knee-jerk response to their criticism.

In fact, I wonder if this isn't one motivation for literary contributors to “The Writers’ Café.” Uncomfortable with the way others describe us, we will describe ourselves.

But what will happen when the “frum” writer in the “frum” magazine offers reasonable criticism? Serious writing encourages an objective point of view, which should lead to some highlighting of faults...

Hypothetical examples:
-In one story, a character says regarding Judaism, “I believe in it. I think it’s the best way to keep people…good.” What if another speaker in the story points out that not all ritually observant Jews are good in all of their behaviors, and that many the lives of many non-Jews fit the Jewish defintion of good?
-In another story, a rebbe brings great compassion to bear in dealing with a rude student. But what of a story depicting the rebbes who, whether due to defects in character or training, don’t employ proper methods in addressing rudeness?

Would The Writers’ Café be ostracized as another outsider publication with a bone to pick? Or might readers allow themselves enlightenment if the criticism were to come from within?

[Side note: The local distributor wished to have copies out in our shul lobby for people to take, but I oppose having non-dvar torah literature out in the lobby. I recognize the need for dvar torah sheets for people who become distracted, or need distraction, during davening, but I can’t see offering additional material, above and beyond the myriad dvar torah papers. This aside from the question of reading fiction on Shabbos, which I do not wish to touch no matter how long the pole…]


  1. Surely many Jews survived horrible circumstances, traumatic times, by settling back and telling stories to the children. Distraction, we call it. If fiction (our imagination) is bad, we're all in serious trouble.

    We could add this one to The Greatest Danger to Judaism Today.

  2. I imagine the quetion re: your hypotheticals is whether the magazine would publish such a story, or whether it wants to create a utopic vision of frum life via literature.

    I think it sounds fabulous, as a "non-frum" Jew, to find out how that life looks from the inside.

    You know, aside from hanging out on orthodox blogs. :)

  3. Tzipporah-
    I'm not sure how they view their goal. Turns out this edition was published Succos-time, though, and #2 has yet to appear, so this may be moot.
    Want a copy of this one? We've got spares.