Whenever I go into Jewish bookstores, I’m fascinated by what seems to be a new type of Jewish literature by a group of women considered to be the most silenced in Judaism—the ultra-Orthodox. These women, mostly known for their large families and absence from public Jewish ritual, are publishing volumes of child-raising advice, essays and poetry, spiritual memoirs and self-help that mix cultural feminism, popular psychology and Orthodox-filtered “Torah wisdom.” It’s a genre ripe for feminist analysis, which is why I was initially pleased to find this study by Alyse Fisher Roller.
Roller analyzes personal narratives, anthologies, Holocaust memoirs, self-help books and fiction written by ultra-Orthodox American and Israeli women, and attempts to place them in the context of traditional Judaism, Jewish feminist writing and feminist literary criticism. She proposes three central theses: one, ultra-Orthodox women’s writings respond to and denounce liberal feminist and Jewish feminist arguments while sometimes promoting certain feminist ideas; two, because ultra-Orthodox women’s lives are misrepresented in critical studies, their literature is the best source to hear their true voices; and, three, there are two distinct voices in ultra-Orthodox women’s writing: the feminist, self-reflective narrative of baalot tshuva (newly observant) women, and the masculine, traditional voice of FFB (“frum-from-birth”) women.
For Jewish feminists, Roller’s study will be a frustrating read. Despite her claims that she is going to let the authors speak for themselves, she rarely quotes their works. She also includes many subtle and not so subtle slurs against contemporary Jewish feminist thought. This includes a few glaring mistakes in citing sources. When she identifies Christian feminist Bible scholar Phyllis Trible as a “tradition-focused Jewish feminist” or offers as a proof text for Orthodox feminism’s success, Rereading the Rabbis (a work by Conservative-movement affiliated scholar Judith Hauptman), it is hard to know whether Roller is being merely careless or dismissive of Jewish feminism.
Roller’s work is the first to address this unique genre of Jewish women’s literature. Jewish feminist thought made a book like hers possible, not only for inspiring the works she critiques, but also by making her topic an acceptable one, worthy of analysis. Surely there is a way to both critique and appreciate the literature of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women without making gratuitous negative comments about contemporary Jewish feminism.
Susan Sapiro is coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group and a program associate at Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the JCC on the Upper West Side in New York City.