The Black-Hat Underground

By Yoel Finkelman
Monday, May 6, 2013

Aderaba—the title means “On the Contrary”—is in danger of closing.  After four years of publication, the magazine by, for, and about frustrated Israeli ba’alei teshuvah, newcomers to Jewish Orthodoxy, can barely afford to continue.  It has garnered neither a big enough subscription base nor the amount of advertising it would need to make ends meet, and editors were only able to put out the last issue after a long fundraising campaign. 

That’s a shame, because Aderaba isn’t the typical ba’al teshuvah publication—the one that offers real or imagined proofs of the truths of Orthodox dogma or explains how much happier one will be as an observant Jew.  Nor is it the typical rebellious Hasid story—the one that seem to appear regularly, occasionally even on the New York Times bestseller list, telling the story of a young haredi person who feels stifled by the conformity and groupthink and, after a few trips to bars or strip joints, painfully finds a new and more authentic life on the outside. 

Instead, Aderaba is the work of people who look like, act like, and in many ways are ultra-Orthodox Jews, straight out of Bnei Brak.  But they have had enough of the hypocrisy, discrimination, and poverty of haredi life.  They want something more, something greater, something worth changing one’s life for, something that lives up to the promises they were given when they were in the process of becoming religiously observant.  It is a magazine for haredi nonconformists struggling, fighting, groping, kvetching, thinking, and crying toward something else, something just as pious as the life of the strictest haredim, but rid of the social pressure to look and act just like everyone else.  Aderaba’s audience is made up of people who want to escape the stigma attached to those who were not born into the haredi community and who don’t believe that working for a living necessarily makes a man into a second-class citizen.

The magazine focuses in part on criticism of the negative features of haredi culture: discrimination against ba’alei teshuvah in general, and Sephardic ones in particular; “extra stringencies” in Jewish law for which people pay a price in personal happiness or economic well-being; power politics that replaces piety in haredi institutions; haredim-by-birth who don’t appreciate the positive baggage—the talents, knowledge and perspectives—that the newly Orthodox bring with them from the outside.  It also presents critiques of the secular way of life. 

Most of all, however, the magazine offers something new, positive, and constructive, something unavailable in other venues.  Several of its contributors have  reflected on how Israel’s largely secular social protest movement of the summer of 2011 has challenged the haredi community to do more on behalf of the country as a whole and to rethink its approach to economic equality and social justice.  One issue contains an interview with a prize-winning secular architect who suggests ways in which synagogue space could be shaped to make prayer more inspiring and school buildings could be constructed to encourage young people to feel a sense of belonging within the educational community.  Combining Zionism’s long-standing stress on the importance of manual labor with an Orthodox enthusiasm for mitzvah observance, one writer describes a newly Orthodox carpenter who teaches his haredi-from-birth neighbors to cut wood and construct their own sukkah, transforming the commandment into something more personal for people who never saw value in such “goyish” skills.  A typical haredi publication wouldn’t dream of making room for a regular column of satire or humor; Aderaba includes one regularly.  Short stories reflect on longing, love, passion, and wanderlust, just the kinds of themes that haredi fiction typically avoids. 

In part, the magazine serves as a kind of literary support group for people struggling because they can’t find shidduchim—marriage partners—for their children, because they are not satisfied with the schools, or because their children are rebelling against the observant way of life.  But in part the magazine and its constituency are trying to rethink the question of what a pious, ultra-Orthodox community might look in the Jewish state.  For these writers and readers, being a ba’al teshuvah is more than being a secular Jew who is now haredi, someone who may have job skills unattainable within the haredi educational system but whose past may, for that very reason, reveal an embarrassing and unremovable tattoo. 

Being a ba’al teshuvah is an identity of its own, a combination of general culture and haredi Judaism that is more than the sum of its parts.  Haredim-from-birth are too busy putting up walls and protecting themselves to appreciate the good and valuable aspects of modernity.  Religious Zionists and modern Orthodox Jews in general are too comfortable, too confident that they know the right synthesis of tradition, modernity, and Zionism.  Ba’alei teshuvah, at least the ones who write for Aderaba, see themselves as caught up in a more fluid and complex situation.  They are uncomfortable and searching.  Their quest is not a transitional stage between one clear identity and a later clear identity, but involves searching as a way of life.  In their case, liminality is something positive and desirable in itself.

These people see their searching as something central to repairing the social and religious ills that plague modern Israel, not only within the narrow walls of the ultra-Orthodox community but within the country as a whole.  “You have to understand,” says one contributor, “that ba’alei teshuvah are the future leaders of the state of Israel.  They came from within the country and now they have the power of Torah and mitzvot.  Today they are fragmented, but as soon as they get organized they will lead on every plane. . . .  Ba’alei teshuvah are the elite of the State of Israel.”

The same magazine in which these overconfident words appeared also published a piece of self-deprecating satire, in which the editor roams the haredi street looking, without success, for someone—anyone—who has read and wants to respond to the latest issue of Aderaba.   Unfortunately, however, the magazine’s economic struggle is no joke.  It demonstrates all too clearly that the community of creative ba’alei teshuvah is not yet big enough and has not built up enough momentum.  The pushback from the mainstream haredi community and the suspicion of non-haredi Israelis are too great to overcome, at least at this stage.  The black-hat underground is not yet ready to surface.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman lives with his wife and five children in Beit Shemesh, Israel.  He is the author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

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