Sharing Spaces, Shaping Identities: American Haredi Children’s Literature

On Friday, March 6, 2020, I presented a paper at NeMLA in Boston. It was a fantastic experience. This was the first time I talked about my work on Haredi children’s literature in a professional context outside of my own institution. It was the first time I presented a formal argument and cohesive narrative. I always knew I had a lot to say on the subject.

But for a while, I’d been feeling like I hadn’t made any progress – like I was basically just saying some obvious things, making observations about the texts that anyone could see just by looking at them. I felt like I hadn’t written anything, because I have not yet finished any single chapter. Of course, I had been writing, but I work best by moving around in my writing – which means I have multiple half-finished chapters. It’s hard to feel a sense of accomplishment like that.

Now, having presented a paper that essentially took bits and pieces from a few chapters which I had already written and having gotten incredible feedback from the audience, I am newly invigorated and ready to keep going – I can acknowledge the huge amount of work I have already done (I wrote a single new paragraph for this paper, and the rest was literally copied and pasted and moved around from documents in my drafts folder) and I can use the palpable enthusiasm from audience members to fuel my ongoing writing.

It was also a good reminder that writing can be lonely, that writing a long project like a dissertation can be isolating. I talk about my project with friends, and I do often get the chance to excitedly talk about my work with new acquaintances. But there’s something so wonderful about sharing carefully crafted work and getting that validation. So I’m sharing my paper and PowerPoint presentation here, because more validation can’t hurt, can it?

PowerPoint slide showing an image of a car-lined street. In the foreground, a man wearing a white kittel and a tallis. In the background, a woman wearing a black top and black skirt with a white tichel on her head.

On Saturdays, the streets of Boro Park and Midwood in Brooklyn are quieter than usual. It’s Shabbos (Shabbat), and the neighborhoods with large concentrations of Haredi and Hasidic Jews are at rest. On Thirteenth Avenue in Boro Park and Avenue J in Midwood, usually bustling with crowds of shoppers, the stores are shuttered. People on their way to and from shul (synagogue) and family meals walk down the center of the empty streets. It’s like a world separate from the weekend hustle and bustle of the rest of New York City. 

But this separate world is very much an integral part of New York City’s fabric. The neighborhood may have well-defined borders, which are a necessity when its inhabitants need everything essential to be within walking distance once a week. But the borders are permeable, with influences going in both directions. Haredi Jews work all over New York City, not only in the neighborhoods where they live. Some attend university outside of the enclave, bringing their own Haredi sensibilities to secular college classes and often bringing secular ideas back to their Haredi neighborhoods. Haredi Jews participate in elections, often electing “one of their own” to represent them in local government.

PowerPoint slide with four images of the 2016 presidential election results, showing neighborhoods with Haredi communities red amid a sea of New York blue.

In state or federal elections, the Haredi communities hold power because they often vote based on rabbis’ direction, and their concentration means that they can turn whole neighborhoods red or blue. Economically, socially, and politically, Haredi Jewish communities are an integral part of New York and of the United States. 

My dissertation aims to situate American Haredi culture and ideology within its American contexts by studying the literature that Haredi Judaism produces for its children. In my paper today, drawn from my dissertation, I’ll provide an overview of the literature and the reasons I think this study is important. The title of today’s paper – Sharing Spaces, Shaping Identities – is about my two major focuses (foci?): the space that Haredi children’s literature shares with mainstream American children’s literature, and the cultural and religious identity that this literature helps shape. I think that understanding both of these together is essential to study of the literature.

First, a definition of the term Haredi:

PowerPoint slide showing images of Hasidic, Haredi, and Modern Orthodox men and women, and text listing features of Haredi Judaism.

An over-generalized distinction between American Haredi communities and other Orthodox communities is that Hasidic communities are more insular than Haredi communities, while Modern Orthodox communities are more open to secular culture. As Finkelman defines Haredi Judaism, “[m]ore countercultural and enclavist than their Modern Orthodox peers to the left, this Haredi Jewry is also more acculturated and less rejectionist than some of the more isolationist Hassidic groups to the right” (58). There are numerous other boundaries within this not-completely-isolated but not-completely-acculturated group, of course. But the defining characteristic is this blend of insularity and interaction with the outside world, the defined yet permeable border. 

Haredi literature is also distinct from Hasidic and Modern Orthodox literature as well as from mainstream literature. Differentiating between Hasidic and Haredi books is simple due to the language difference: Haredi popular literature is almost always in English, while Hasidic books are generally in Yiddish – a surface distinction that denotes an underlying difference in ideology. Haredi and Modern Orthodox books are often more difficult to distinguish from each other, because they share a language as well as most basic beliefs and ideologies.

But while Modern Orthodox books are also in English, they have a different tone to them. They are more likely to include characters with “English” names or “modern Hebrew” names, i.e. names that are not Biblical or Yiddish. In general, while their explicit messages appear to match Haredi ideology, they differ in the degree to which they are inclusive of American or non-Orthodox modes of being Jewish. In line with each community’s boundary-setting, Modern Orthodox children’s texts might include mention of non-observant family members or even non-Jewish friends, while Haredi texts portray a world where the only sympathetic characters are Haredi Jews. 

As I’ll discuss in a moment, books that became part of the Haredi publishing world may contain traces of Modern Orthodox ideology because of the way these two communities diverged around the 1970s-80s.

PowerPoint slide listing Haredi publishers, with images of their logos.

Besides the ideological differences, Haredi literature also exists in a self-contained market. Haredi books are written by Haredi author, published by Haredi publishers, and sold in Haredi bookstores. While many Haredi household and school libraries contain non-Jewish books, they almost never contain Jewish books from non-Haredi authors or publishers.

There is a relatively small number of Haredi publishers even in 2020, and at the very beginning of the existence of Haredi children’s literature, there were only four: Feldheim, Artscroll-Mesorah, CIS, and Hachai Publishers. Each of these publishers started independently of each other, with founding dates spanning from 1939 to 1989, and two did not publish children’s books until they had been in business for some time.

I’m focusing on American Haredi children’s literature produced between the years 1980 and 2000 for a few reasons. First of all, there is little to study before this: the earliest American Haredi children’s texts appear at the tail end of the 1970s, growing exponentially in the 1980s. Through the end of the 1990s, the market of American Haredi children’s literature was dominated by four main publishers: Feldheim, Artscroll-Mesorah, CIS, and Hachai. Towards the end of the 1970s, independent groups had begun to publish books aimed at Haredi children, some of which were picked up by Artscroll.

For example, the Dov Dov books:

PowerPoint slide showing images of four book covers from the Dov Dov series.

The first of these short story collections appeared in the late 1970s in pamphlet-form, published by “Dov Dov Publications” and printed by Gross Printers. In the early 1980s, Artscroll printed additional Dov Dov short story collections under their imprint The Artscroll Youth Series.

After 2000, another growth in the industry occurred, with many more publishers appearing on the scene. They often worked in conjunction with Feldheim and Artscroll-Mesorah for help with distribution while still retaining their own distinct characters.  This creates clear boundaries for where my study should begin and end: It begins with the first appearance of Haredi children’s texts, and it ends when the market for Haredi children’s texts expands beyond the core few publishers that dominated these two decades. 

PowerPoint slide titled “Watershed Moments” with bullet points listing changes around the decades 1960, 1980, and 2000.

In addition to the obvious marketing trends, significant cultural shifts also occurred at the turn of the decades marking the beginning and end of my study. As Samuel Heilman, Yoel Finkelman, and Jeremy Stolow discuss in their surveys of American Haredi literature and of Artscroll-Mesorah, the 1980s was a crucial time for the rise of American Haredi ideology. Although the insularity of the American Haredi community began at least as far back as 1960, the 1980s saw a tightening ideology of insularity and distinction from mainstream society, a reaction against the perception of moral depravity in secular America, among other factors. 

The final year of my study, 2000, also marks a shift in American Haredi culture. While the 1980s saw a growing insularity, the 2000s saw a move away from insularity. When I began my study, relying on personal memory and research of the years 1980-2000, I was confident in my claim that Haredi literature excludes certain genres, most significantly science fiction and fantasy. While this is certainly true of the decades before 2000, there have been a significant number of fantasy novels written and published in American Haredi children’s literature since then.

This is indicative of a continuation of the phenomenon that Finkelman discusses: while the Haredi community espouses insularity and distinction, it creates materials that draw heavily from secular American culture. The fantasy novels of the post-2000 decades display a distinctive Haredi Jewishness, but they undoubtedly belong to the same genre as Harry Potter, a series banned by most American Haredi schools and summer camps in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

One of my arguments based on this narrative, with watershed moments occurring every 20 years, or the span of a generation, is that children’s literature is crucial to the development of Haredi ideology – the rapid ideological change, more rapid than even the rise of the Christian Right, is in large part due to the changing face of the literature and opportunities for writing made available to Haredi children, in what I call a limited literacy sponsorscape.

PowerPoint slide showing quotes from Deborah Brandt appearing in the following paragraphs.

In her 1998 paper on “Sponsors of Literacy,” Deborah Brandt demonstrates how the kinds of literacy someone has access to affects the ways their literacy grows. Her case studies indicate that the child’s socioeconomic environment and political surroundings will influence the modes of rhetoric they engage in later in life. Moving beyond the idea of access to texts and literacy education, Brandt explores how the various kinds of literacy a child is exposed to will affect the development of their literacy and the ways they engage with the world. More specifically, she argues that a child has access to literacy through sponsors, and that these sponsors “deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (168). The child’s parents, teachers, librarians, and religious leaders – among others – provide access to the various forms of literacy a child will encounter. And each one of these sponsors presents that access with embedded ideologies, not only in the content but in the form and rhetoric of the texts and engagement with the texts. They “enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy – and gain advantage by it” (166). 

Further studies have taken up Brandt’s ideas of literacy sponsors and extended the analysis to focus on literacy sponsorscapes, focusing not only on the individual sponsors that appear in a child’s life but, more importantly, on the cumulative effects of the networks and relationships among those sponsors. Catherine Compton-Lilly, for example, in her 2017 publication of a longitudinal study following a group of students and their families from elementary school through high school, analyzes the effects of the relationships among the numerous environments in one student’s life. In addition to the individual sponsors – home and school – the tensions between the sponsors affect the child’s (or adolescent’s) literacies. 

Although Compton-Lilly’s case study demonstrates the negative effects of tension between literacy sponsors, because the school misunderstands and misreads the contexts of the student’s home and social lives, tensions between sponsors of literacy is usually a positive force. Since, as Brandt’s seminal essay explains, the various sponsors deliver “ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have” (168), if numerous sponsors provide access to literacy with varying ideological freight, the child will experience more than one underlying ideology. Being tasked with navigating a multiplicity of worldviews is assumed by most educators and scholars of rhetoric to be a good thing. It trains the child in considering multiple ideas and making critical decisions about which to align themselves with, and it encourages tolerance of diverse opinions and thoughts. 

The American Haredi child attending Haredi schools and raised in Haredi communities does not experience as much tension as their public-school counterparts. Mainstream American sponsors of literacy include parents, educators (including the government and individual teachers and administrators), publishers of popular books as well as textbooks, libraries and librarians, religious leaders and communities, and social groups. All of those exist in Haredi children’s lives as well, with the possible exception of the government’s involvement in education policies. But the ideological freight delivered by each of these sponsoring bodies is less diverse than that of their mainstream counterparts. Where a child in mainstream America may be exposed to varying ideologies from the books their teachers assign versus the books that they have access to in their public library, a Haredi child is more limited. Many Haredi schools prohibit their students from using the public library, for example, and Haredi children have access only to books deemed appropriate enough to be included in the school library. 

PowerPoint illustrating the web of the Haredi sponsorscape as outlined in the following paragraphs.

In addition, there is much overlap in the leadership of the sponsoring institutions. For example: Artscroll runs the TextWords imprint, providing Haredi schools with literature textbooks and editions of Shakespeare – which means that two sponsors of literacy – popular publishing and textbook publishing – are one and the same in the Haredi world.

A more extended and complex example: Some of the first children’s literature to be published by Haredi institutions was a monthly magazine called Olomeinu / Our World, published by Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools The editor in 1960s was Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, a teacher in boys’ yeshivas who later became the editor of The Jewish Observer, the monthly magazine published by Agudath Israel of America, the leading organization for Orthodox Jews in America. Wolpin’s involvement in these two organizations (Torah Umesorah and Agudath Israel of America), as well as his experience as a teacher, is an indication of the overlap among the sponsors of literacy for Haredi children. In the 1960s, children would read magazines he edited. In the 1970s, their parents would read magazines he edited and continue to pass his ideologies on to their children.

After Rabbi Wolpin left the children’s magazine (Olomeinu) to lead the adults’ magazine (The Jewish Observer) in 1970, Rabbi Nosson Scherman became the editor of Olomeinu. Scherman had been writing articles for Olomeinu for a while by then, including features on prayer and great rabbinic leaders. He taught in a boys’ yeshiva (Torah VoDaas of Flatbush, later Yeshiva Torah Temimah) (Hoffman). From 1970 to 2009, Scherman is listed as the editor of the Olomeinu. In 1975, he and Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz began publishing English translations of Biblical, Talmudic, and Rabbinic texts and founded Artscroll-Mesorah Publications, which quickly became one of the leading publishers of Haredi texts. In 1989, while Scherman was still editing the Olomeinu, Artscroll published its first children’s book: The Best of Olomeinu, a collection of stories from the pages of the children’s magazine over the previous decades. After that, Artscroll published many books for teens and children. As recently as January 1, 2020, at the gathering to celebrate the completion of a 7-year cycle of studying the Talmud, Scherman led the children’s portion of the celebration.

With the literacy sponsorscape of Haredi children so interwoven, it’s clear that the ideological freight being delivered by the various sponsors is not diverse and does not ask the child to grapple with competing ideologies. In the minds of the Haredi leadership, this is a benefit rather than a drawback. While the links between the various sponsors of literacy is not a deliberate attempt to limit children’s access to a diversity of literacy approaches and ideas, it is a manifestation of the underlying ideology.  

With all that in mind, I want to move now to look briefly at some specific genres and texts in the corpus of Haredi children’s literature. I’ll start with the Olomeinu, because that was first on the scene and because its impressively long run makes it a useful touchstone for tracking the development of Haredi literature and ideology.

PowerPoint slide showing pages of the Olomeinu magazine.

At first, Olomeinu was very much an American-Jewish magazine, for children whose connection to America was of near-equal importance as their connection to Judaism. Issues from the 1940s and 1950s often ran features like “An Early American [Holiday]” or biographical sketches of famous early American rabbis and Jews. In stories about contemporary kids and in write-ups of individual readers, the children had names like “Harry” and “Cynthia,” rather than Hebrew or Yiddish names. Coverage of the creation of the State of Israel focused quite a bit on politics, though the magazine was never aligned with Zionism (the Haredi world, unlike the Modern Orthodox world, was never and still isn’t Zionist, but has a complex relationship with the State).

Towards the end of the academic year 1959-1960, Torah Umesorah (the publisher of Olomeinu) suffered financial difficulties. The magazine took a hiatus but was able to continue printing in 1960 thanks to a sizable donation from a community philanthropist. Their renewed magazine had a design makeover, and it also changed subtly in its ideological content. Children writing in still had American names, but children in the stories were more likely to be named “Eliyahu” and “Yocheved” than Harry or Cynthia. Biographical sketches of rabbis continued, but the emphasis was on Eastern European rabbis or American rabbis who “rebuilt” Orthodox Judaism in America after the Holocaust, rather than features on “early American rabbis.” Coverage of Israel dropped all mention of politics and instead focused on mitzvos that are unique to the land of Israel or coverage of religious events and institutions in Israel. The magazine changed subtly again in the 1980s, but those changes are too subtle for me to track in an overview like I’m doing today.

But the 1980s was also when Haredi publishers began to produce books for children, so I’ll turn to that now.

PowerPoint slide showing covers of Gemarakup, Encyclopedia Brown, The Babysitters Club, and The B.Y. Times

Some of the first books to be printed for Haredi children were very clearly inspired by popular mainstream American children’s fiction. Gemarakup was a series about a very smart boy with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmud (the Gemara), who was able to solve mysteries ranging from school-level accusations of stolen snacks to government-level terrorist threats. It is quite clearly modeled on Encyclopedia Brown – it follows the same format, asking readers to turn to the back at the end of each short story, where the solutions can be found.

Another very popular series was the B.Y. Times – B.Y. standing for Bais Yaakov, the generic term for Haredi girls’ schools. The series follows a group of middle school girls who run a school newspaper. It echoes The Babysitters Club series, providing a glimpse into the lives of the girls at school, at home, and in their social circles. These books don’t make their connection to the secular series explicit, but they are an obvious attempt to provide Haredi children an alternative to the popularity of books that depict non-Jewish families, characters, and situations.

Other cultural artifacts like Torah Cards and children’s music and storytapes follow the same pattern, with the creator of Torah Cards explicitly saying that he created them to provide Haredi boys an alternative to collecting baseball cards.

Haredi picture books have less of that one-to-one comparison. But they function in similar ways, taking mainstream secular themes and putting a Haredi spin on them.

PowerPoint slide showing cover images of three picture books.

Here are three examples: The Little Old Lady Who Couldn’t Fall Asleep tells a story about children who make so much noise at night that their elderly neighbor can’t sleep. Eli and His Little White Lie is a story about a boy who tells a harmless lie and gains a fluffy white “lie” on his shoulder, which grows and grows until it takes over his life and makes him miserable. Messes of Dresses tells a story about a girl who has lots of friends and only two dresses until Sarah Saks from Fifth Avenue comes to offer her loads of fancy dresses. She loses all her friends because she’s so obsessed with getting the latest styles and she has no room for hosting guests, until she comes to her senses and gets rid of her dresses except for her two original dresses, and all her friends come back.

All these books teach basic character traits that you might find in mainstream books: being considerate of others, being truthful, and valuing friendship over possessions. But the books are uniquely Haredi in the way they end: with a verse from Torah or Talmud to encapsulate the lesson.

PowerPoint slide showing pages of picture books with lessons in Hebrew and English.

The lesson of The Little Old Lady WHo Couldn’t Fall Asleep is “Ve’ahavta LeRe’acha Kamocha,” usually translated as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” here translated as “You shall love and care for your neighbors and friends.” The lesson of Eli and His Little White Lie is “Midvar Sheker Tirchak, Keep far away from lies,” and the lesson of Messes of Dresses is “Aizehu ashir, hasame’ach be-chelko, Who is rich? One who is satisfied with what he has.” Everything – even social competence and intelligence – is tied back to Torah and rabbinic authority.

PowerPoint slide titled “conclusions”

What I presented in this paper is really just an overview of the work I’ve begun to do. My basic arguments and conclusion center on these points, as I hope I’ve explained clearly by now:

  1. Haredi ideology of insularity and distinction offset by clear American influences
  2. Limited sponsorscape of Haredi children’s literacy
  3. Rapid ideological change due to changes in children’s books

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