Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy by Yoel Finkelman (review)
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Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy. By Yoel Finkelman. Boston: American Studies Press. 2011.

In his book, Yoel Finkelman critically investigates a community that he simultaneously inhabits and questions. A modern Orthodox Jew himself, he discovers an often hypocritical grooming of the literature, its publishers and hierarchy within the Ultra Orthodox Haredi community. In the preface, he presents a revealing illustration of a Haredi world’s eye view entitled The Lost Treasure of Tikkun HaMiddos Island. One side of the picture is clearly the “bad world” filled with corruption, lost souls, and addiction and the other is filled with synagogues, happy Jewish children, and religious celebrations. The caption states: “Many middos (character traits) are required as we grow up. We must be careful to choose a positive Torah environment, [End Page 99] which will enhance the development of good middos.” The concept of creating a self-contained pure environment, while being blind to the infiltration of popular and modern or post modern culture, is the nexus of this research.

The analysis utilizes varied disciplines of social and intellectual history and cultural and media studies. First, the research is connected to its social and historical context via text and collective narrative and then unravels the obvious, yet disguised outside influences of commercial and technological advances. By creating a critical research combining these stages of understanding, Finkelman reveals a world desperate to remain untouched by the outside world, claiming to have an uncomplicated and pure life while at the same time re-creating popular literature for a Haredi understanding. This re-writing takes both scientific and psychological knowledge and “stretches the truth” in order to provide a more Torah-centered answer for its public. The texts are re-told but are subtextually influenced by popular culture and literature. This subtext gives added value to the commercial value of the written word. The text is given a stamp of kashrut (kosher laws) by the author’s rabbinic status or place in Haredi expertise and practice. These texts are not popular culture, however they are also not-NOT popular culture.

One critical example is a discussion of parenting guides in the Haredi community. One author claims his parenting guide is as ancient and effective as the Torah. While legitimizing his book and theories with the backing and authenticity of the Torah, he himself disputes the support of corporal punishment which the texts of the Torah command. His parenting guide reads more like a secular guide written for a popular American parenting community. Another author includes citations of pop-psychology beside sources from the Torah. Finkelman reveals these idiosyncratic texts that assert both scientific and academic credentials without legitimate proof. He paints a world that is driven by a blind, simple faith, however, is intentionally “koshered” to portray a naïve and utopian world view. Education and the progress of the Haredi community becomes stifled and stuck in a narrative of the past, while mutually influenced by commercial religious gain. Filled with both subtle and blatant ironies, Finkelman brings the discussion of Jewish culture and identities into postmodern rhetoric.

Finkelman stands with only a handful of scholars such as Jeremy Stolow (author of Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the Artscroll Revolution, 2010) who have taken a risk to reveal and criticize their own Jewish community. This scholarship calls for more critical analysis and postmodern identity theory in Jewish Studies internationally.

Tamar H. Havilio
Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, Israel
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