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

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Different strokes for different folks: How one book can inspire so many others

A while back, someone my husband respects very much encouraged him to read this book:

Stop Surviving Start Living Shafier

Rabbi Shafier’s book, based largely on Mesillas Yesharim

The first time I read Rabbi Shafier’s book, Stop Surviving, Start Living, I just didn’t get it. Not the content of the book — the content was clear as day, written lucidly by Rabbi Shafier, with nice anecdotes and everything. What I didn’t get was that it was based on a book my husband had already read. This one: Mesillas Yesharim, known in English as The Path of the Just, one of the most foundational texts in the Mussar world.

Mesillas Yesharim by the RAMCHAL

The original. So inspirational…and a bit scary for the uninitiated.

Why, I asked my husband, write a book based on another one, a book that you actually want people to read (because you’re such a fan yourself)? Continue reading

Lights to the Nations: Two Jewish thinkers release their books for the secular–even non-Jewish–audience

Wow.

That’s pretty much all I could say. I read an amazing blog post by Ann Koffsky this morning (thanks Ann for sending me the link!) where she interviews the unforgettable writer Gila Manolson. The interview is chock full of advice to writers, advice to parents, and other neat stuff. But the biggest revelation to me is that Manolson has created a website to promote her upcoming book–her first book for a non-Jewish audience.

Manolson is not alone. Continue reading

How to teach people while you entertain them: Modern-day Moshels

To those unfamiliar with the term, a “moshel” is the Hebrew term for a parable, a story told with the intent to illustrate a lesson (usually a moral or theological one). I equate moshels with the soda your mom would offer you as a chaser after taking whatever foul-tasting medicine the doctor had prescribed you. It makes it easier to get the lesson down, and you might even look forward to the next dose.

Moshels–particularly those of the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and the Ben Ish Chai–are familiar to most readers with a Jewish education. They often appear in Rabbis’ drashos, and they sometimes make their way into children’s books. Several authors have recently attempted to update classic moshels and make them more appealing to tweens and teens–most successfully, perhaps, Steve Sheinkin in his entertaining Rabbi Harvey series, which take place in the Old West. One of the most challenging aspects of this genre is that you want to convey the lesson accurately without sounding pedantic, boring, or preachy. Also, some of the settings and situations detailed in traditional moshels don’t appeal to contemporary readers, or (more often) are so unfamiliar as to complicate comprehension of them.

I have my own spin on the Modern-day Moshel that I’ve been trying to market, which I’m not sharing here (because, like many authors, I’m terrified of people copying my idea before I can sell it myself–see this post). However, I thought I’d provide a heads-up to my readers what I’m thinking about right now.

fantasy, sci-fi and the Jewish reader

Thanks to my brother-in-law Joshua, I just heard about a wonderful new graphic novel called Hereville. The subject: an 11 y o Orthodox girl fights trolls. With a little research, I discovered that this is currently the #1 Jewish book for kids being sold on Amazon. This doesn’t surprise me in this least. There is a dearth of fantasy and sci-fi books for Jewish kids out there, but there is certainly demand.

Look at the popularity of Harry Potter novels, Percy Jackson adventures, The Dragonriders of Pern, the Circle of Magic series (by Tamora Pierce), The Blue Sword and other books by Robin McKinley, and all those early Heinleins (in his pre-Stranger in a Strange Land days when he still wrote “appropriate” material). Frankly, kids crave these types of books. Why? 1) Kids and teens want to be experience more than their everyday lives. This is escapism from the discomforts of childhood–bullying, homework, parental rule, etc. 2) Kids and teens are still learning to be comfortable with themselves. They have yet to learn many of their personal strengths and often feel inadequate. Many of them hope their hidden talents will “magically” come out and prove them to be special (maybe they’ll even save the world!), a common theme in many of these books.

Jewish kids are no different in these psychological needs. Some frum parents let their kids read secular sci-fi books, but there are a lot of problems with unrestricted access to them. Many fantasy books incorporate pantheism, animism, and avodah zara. Some (His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman, for example) are outright anti-religion. Others describe magic as an appealing alternative religion (many Tamora Pierce books).

Sci-fi books also frequently espouse atheism or portray Science as religion. Moreover, many frum people are uncomfortable with idea of life on other planets, though it is not clear that this opinion has a sound basis in our tradition. Another big barrier in portraying the future is that Moshiach must come, and most rabbeim hold He’ll arrive by the year 6000 on our calendar. Finally, the rigors of space travel introduce unwieldy elements into narratives about Jewish characters: halachic times, Shabbos, kashrus, etc. all must be dealt with.

I think we’re slowing coming to grips with these issues. I’ve seen some fantasy and sci-fi in the fiction department on Chabad.org. A few years ago, there was a fun adult novel of speculative fiction by David Shapiro called The Promise of G-d, and an anthology called Wandering Stars which is Jewish, though certainly not Orthodox. On the juvenile literature front, time travel has become an acceptable subgenre somehow–there’s The Devil’s Apprentice and Trekking Through Time. In 2009, a blogger described the 2009 Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference at the 92nd Street Y. There, participants were told that among the “in demand” topics was time travel, and that one lecture was about writing Jewish books for the “Twilight Generation”.

There was a piece in HaModia for You set in space last year, and currently the Aim tween supplement to Ami Magazine has a serial with a sci-fi mystery called “To the Edge of the Galaxy.” (disclaimer: I co-author it with Beth Firestone). Ami specifically wanted a sci-fi spin on the serial.

And now there’s Hereville. The reviews I’ve seen are great, and the readers aren’t just religious or even just Jews. Maybe the time for authentically Jewish sci-fi and fantasy books has come. It would be my fantasy come true!