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Protecting and Negotiating Jewish Identity in Haredi Books for Girls and Boys

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Through a survey of texts published between 1980 (the beginning of American Haredi children's publishing) and the present, I identify a trend in which Jewish boys and girls both play important roles in preserving their Orthodox communities, with roles differing along gendered lines. Texts featuring male protagonists and intended for male readers are most often set during times of extreme persecution, including the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, and the protagonists protect their communities from physical and spiritual threats. On the other hand, texts featuring female protagonists and intended for female readers are most often set during moments of relative peace and in eras important to non-Jewish history, most frequently the Victorian period. Rather than protecting their community against an obvious threat, girls face more benign threats stemming from encroachment of non-Jewish or secular culture. The mode of protection required from each is necessarily different. Boys must oppose the dominant culture in almost every situation, shepherding others away from violence or pressures to convert, while girls must engage with the dominant culture and figure out how to live an Orthodox life within the contexts of their host countries. Since Haredi understanding of history aligns with Jacob Neusner's analysis of paradigmatic time as depicted in the Mishna, in which "what was now is, and what will be is what was and is," children and teens reading these novels know that they are supposed to look to these historical boys and girls for guidance on how to live in the present.

In his seminal essay "Rupture and Reconstruction," Haym Soloveitchik explains the foundation of Orthodoxy as "the new and controlling role that texts now play in contemporary religious life," overpowering the mimetic transmission of a way of life which had held sway for centuries. In Haredi communities, the study of legal texts is limited to men, making the locus of religious construction not only textual but also male. Storytelling and family history remained women's domain for some time, but by the time American Haredi publishers turned their attention to texts for children and teens, this was no longer the case. Many of the initial authors for Haredi children were in fact women, but biographies and collections of short stories about great leaders of the past were overwhelmingly authored by men, with titles like Stories My Grandfather Told Me signifying male authority. Even when collections were authored by women, as in Miriam Stark Zakon's 1988 Jerusalem Diaries and Other Stories, the source for the stories is male: Zakon relates that the stories in this collection, as well as the stories used as solutions in her Encyclopedia Brown-inspired Gemarakup series, were all told to her by her husband. 

This emphasis on textual and male authority, however, obscures the significant role afforded to women and girls in the construction of religion. In her essay "American Jewish Girls and the Politics of Identity, 1860–1920," Melissa Klapper concludes that adolescent girls inhabited "dual roles as keepers of tradition and agents of acculturation," adjusting to constructions of American girlhood as part of their families' attempts to assimilate without compromising "religiously informed cultural continuities." Although Haredi girls are meant to aim for insularity–unlike their turn-of-the-century non-Orthodox counterparts who were aiming for assimilation–protagonists in Haredi historical fiction embody the same "dual roles." This complicates the assumption of textual and male supremacy in shaping lived religion in American Haredi communities.


Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

Haredi views of history align with Mishnaic views described by Jacob Neusner, with the past acting as "paradigms for the formation of the social order." Haredi historical fiction for teens and pre-teens establishes this link between past and present so that today's children learn about roles, limitations, and opportunities available to them through depictions of how Jewish children lived in past centuries. Protagonists of both genders engage in Jewish communal life embedded in the broader political contexts of their host countries, but the narrative built across the corpus clearly delineates between male and female engagement. Drawing on Melissa Klapper's theorizing of American Jewish girlhood, I argue that Haredi historical fiction cultivates an understanding of gendered roles where men and boys always resist the dominant culture, protecting their communities from both physical and spiritual endangerment, while women and girls maintain boundaries by engaging with and navigating between religious and secular cultures.



lived religion