Saturday 25 February 2012

Feldheim Books: a parallel universe

The 48 page catalogue was plopped unceremoniously through my letterbox. Feldheim: Jewish Books for the Whole Family. 48 pages of books offering a 25% discount during its annual Purim sale. Everything you’d expect from a religious publisher is available - hagiographies of rabbis including the Satmar and Klausenberger rebbes, Torah with classic commentaries and an assortment of legal texts covering Sabbath observance and laws of Kashrut. There are a myriad of prayer books, and Tefillas Channah caught my eye: “an exquisite book of stirring prayers, specially compiled for the Jewish woman. This beautifully designed, Hebrew-English, pocket-sized book is the Jewish woman's best friend--in good times and in challenging times. With prayers for candle-lighting, marital harmony, pregnancy, childbirth, child-raising, and mikveh immersion, along with many others, this prayer book is one-of-a-kind.”

On page 19, the catalogue starts to get more interesting. Religious Compulsions and Fears: A Guide to Treatment by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek ‘describes some of the obsessive compulsive disorders related to halachic matters as well as specific psychological techniques that can be helpful in treating sufferers. “ The website description elaborates: “He's so rigorous about netillas yadayim that he washes his hands the whole day! She's so careful about keeping kosher that she seems literally obsessed. He prays for hours on end, worried that he's mispronounced a word or lost concentration. Under the guise of religious observance, countless Jews are held prey to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and this book has what it takes to break out of the horrible cycle of entrapment."

There are other psychologically orientated books, but I am most keen to read Windows of the Soul -A Guide to Mastering One’s Eyes by Rabbi Zvi Miller, described as a “lesson-a-day format, assisting men with the difficult talks of mastering one’s eyes in the today’s world. Complete with anecdotal journal entries and focus points for every day.” Alternatively, try It's All a Gift by Miriam Adahan. “From birth, we encounter and endless series of events which are irritating, frightening or tormenting. Situations such as over-crowded living conditions, criticizing relatives or the loss of loved ones can trigger depression, hostility and bitterness. Or, these same events can be used as catalysts whereby we develop our hidden spiritual potential! …Adahan presents the philosophy and methodology which will enable the reader to achieve greater appreciation for the wisdom of Torah and a sense of closeness with G-d in the midst of distress.”

Of course, no Jewish book catalogue would not include some Jewish cookbooks. New to the market is The Bais Yaakov Cookbook by Jamie Geller which includes 200 original recipes with stunning, full color photography, a personal brocha and challah recipe from Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, a pictorial history of Sara Schneirer and the Bais Yaakov movement, a color guide to checking fruits and vegetables and tips on shopping for, preparing, and serving gourmet meals.” The Bais Yaakov movement, founded by Sara Schneirer in Poland, was a radical revolution that offered Jewish education for girls in the early 1900s. What’s fascinating about this is that Schneirer, a stout, dour looking and determined woman who had a short lived marriage and no children is hardly an inspiration for a cookbook. Yet, by appropriating her for a cook book the authors are recasting the role of the educated Jewish woman into the ultimate homemaker.

The catalogue has a series of novels published by Sapir Press, a Feldheim imprint that “brings you the best in contemporary Jewish literature… .all distinguished by their appropriateness for a Torah home." I was somewhat shocked to read the blurb about Charades by Riva Pomerantz. “On the outside, they're a perfect family. But what's really going on, beneath the surface? This is a novel like none you've experienced before. True-to-life characters, a fast-moving plot laced with suspense and mystery, and a message so powerful and so contemporary it will leave you reeling, Charades is an epic, exquisite story. Renowned author Riva Pomerantz weaves a riveting tale, opening a window on domestic abuse in the Orthodox community, presenting a compelling picture of the reality, the process, and above all, the hope. This is truly an unforgettable, transformational read.”

Since when did the religious community write about domestic violence or personal growth? One would have to embark on an academic study of these sorts of catalogues from years past, but I can’t imagine that these psychologically orientated and self-help books were written 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. These books indicate a shift in the social realities of the Orthodox world that merit further study as do the publishers who play an ideological role to ensure that these issues are brought to the fore, even if they are ultimately motivated by the profit margin.

Keen to expand their international reach, Feldheim have commissioned me to write their next novel. It’s set in a typical middle class Jewish family in London. I’ve got a rather long working title: The girl who wanted to be Chief Rabbi, but married him instead.