Orthodox Women Talk: Roundtable about media consumption

OWTHi, everyone! I know I pretty much never post twice in a day, but I’m hosting this month’s Orthodox Women Talk. Our panelists include:

  • Tali Simon
  • Melissa Amster
  • Ruchi Koval
  • Rivki Silver
  • Keshet Starr
  • Estee Lavitt
  • and yours truly.

This month’s question is this:

How much do you engage in popular music, movies and other forms of entertainment? What factors have contributed to that choice?

Wow! We’ve got a lot of variety in responses. Let’s see what our roundtable panelists have to say... Continue reading

How to optimize your Goodreads “To-Read” list

A few weeks back, I posted about how we select the books we want to read now, next and never.

On a related theme, I just spent an hour culling unwanted books from my Goodreads “To-Read” list. 

Because what good is a “To-Read” list if you don’t really want to read the books on it?

After my very well-intentioned husband took the aforementioned list to the library and returned with many of the books it contained, I discovered few were readable in the land of Mrs. Rebecca Klempner. Three offended my (admittedly rather sensitive) sensibilities so much that I immediately took them out to our van and left them there to be returned to the library. Ugh.

How do such books get on my “To-Read” list in the first place? Continue reading

Silence is golden: how to be a writer without harming others

Shimon, the son of Rabban Gamliel, said:

“I was brought up all my life among the Sages,

and I have found nothing as good for the body as silence…”

                                                                                                   (Pirkei Avot/The Sayings of our Fathers)

Sometimes a punch is less painful than a verbal blow.

Usually, when we hear about the value of silence, we think about what literally comes out of our mouths. According to Jewish law, before speaking, we’re supposed to chose our words carefully, and use them to teach, to learn, to express love and gratitude, to connect with people and with G-d.

However, as we become more conscious of our speech, we discover how often we use our words to accomplish the opposite. How many people have we offended because we mouthed off with the first thing that came to our heads? How often many times have we said something hasty and then wished we could take it back? Are there people who don’t trust us because we let slip their secrets?

If we’re lucky, we learn–like Rabbi Shimon, above–to value the word that is withheld as much or more than the one that is expressed.

Recently, I’ve noticed that sometimes silence can be golden when it comes to writing, too. It’s striking that many writers out there will justify misusing words for “art” or for profit. In the news lately, we’ve seen writers paid to produce reviews of books and others who write college and graduate school essays for a fee. Both are misleading their intended audiences.

I once read a novel that portrayed a beloved historical figure as a murderer. I guess the author thought it was was okay because it was just “fiction,” but the personage has living relatives. If she were living, she could sue, but because she’s dead, there’s nothing to protect her reputation.

And think about all the memoirists who paint vengeful, unflattering one-sided pictures of their nearest and dearest “because it’s the truth.” It might feel great to tell everyone you were mistreated by your drunken father, but how does your sister feel? And what if dad decides to become sober and you patch things up…how will you be able to retract the words you published for all the world to see?

It’s interesting, but in Jewish law, you can say something that could be harmful to a person’s reputation if it is for a constructive purpose–but ONLY if it is for a constructive purpose. If you have even the slightest thought of vengeance when you write a review, or you take the smallest grain of pleasure in describing your neighbor’s foibles, you are not allowed to share them. Imagine if everyone held themselves to that standard.

With the new year approaching (at Rosh HaShanah), I’ve been considering how much a writer has to say…and what shouldn’t be written. Even the non-professional writer has moments wishing they could push “unsend” after sending an email or drop a fishing line into the mailbox in order to retract the angry letter they’d just posted. Let’s hope we all channel beauty and purity into the world through our pens and our keyboards in the coming year.

Just when you think the world is going to heck in a handbasket…

Here are links to two articles with wonderful examples of how people can support one another despite sectarian differences.
A modest-clothing blogger who is a member of the LDS church bonds with the evangelist Christian, Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim women who visit her website.
Two Muslim cabbies from Pakistan buy out a struggling Jewish owned business and vow to keep it kosher.
And yes, I found the articles when wasting time I was supposed to be working on my novel.

Interesting perspective on modesty

Tzniut, or modesty, is an important topic for those who adopt a Torah-true lifestyle. I was attracted to Randa Abdel-Fattah’s book, Does My Head Look Big In This?, because it addresses this very issue from the Muslim perspective. I thought it would be interesting to see how a Muslim writer handled it as opposed to the Jewish writers I’m already familiar with.

Amal, a teenager in Australia, decides to begin to wear the hijab (traditional Muslim headcovering) full-time even though she attends a very White prep school. The saga of how her choice impacts more and more of her life flows logically. Amal is a very likable narrator and explains the ideology behind the hijab and other Muslim practices beautifully, and they are very much in harmony with the views of traditional Judaism. I appreciated that we see both the ups and downs along Amal’s journey, and that she stays firm on her decision at the conclusion of the book.
Amal, like most teenagers, is OBSESSED with movies, television, Cosmo, celebrity gossip, etc. We see Amal’s parents telling her that these pop-culture icons are nonsense, but we don’t see her very moved by this. Amal never seems to really get that celebrity culture and fashion magazines are completely the opposite of what the hajib stands for. Some of the trouble she must deal with is actually created by her involvement in mainstream culture. She keeps watching “Friends” even though the characters make life decisions incompatible with Islam, and she compulsively does Cosmo quizzes and uses the magazine’s advice to flirt with boys even though she will not date them. I wish the book would have been more insightful about how our society feeds into immodesty, and how it’s healthy to step out of that largely-immoral media mix.

Most Orthodox Jews would tell you that the solution is to retreat from secular media, to varying degrees. It’s common to monitor our children’s television viewing (or ban it from the house altogether), restrict what movies they see, limit internet access, and the like. Many frum children aren’t permitted to use cell phones, or the phones do not have text access. And many Orthodox Jews send their children to schools with separate girls’ and boys’ departments, if not entirely separate schools. I know that many Muslims adopt such strategies (none of which is perfect, but which help)…what puzzles me is that Ms. Abdel-Fattah doesn’t bring them up (except that Amal’s parents disapprove of Cosmo, so she has to sneak it into the house).
There are fleeting mentions of political beliefs that most Jewish readers will disagree with (there are a couple references to the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma); however, none of these are obnoxious, argumentative, or deeply offensive. There is mutual respect between all sorts of characters (it’s very nice that Jewish characters are portrayed favorably, with a marked distinction between politics and religion, although as an Orthodox Jew, I flinched when the Jewish kid falls for a non-Jew). 

Two things cause me to hesitate from recommending Does This Make My Head Look Big? to every Bais Yaakov girl, though: 

I was surprised that there is some swearing in the book (no F-bombs, though, I think), and there is some frank talk about how Amal’s beliefs address sexuality and women’s body image, although nothing graphic. However, I think that this book would be a very good read for many young women or even teachers/parents of young women. I think that the book has a lot of insights that are unlikely to be found in a YA novel published by a frum publishing house, and I think the fictional format is particularly useful in approaching this audience. I hope this book’s pro-modesty message will reach teens that wouldn’t normally pick up an Orthodox Jewish book.