Essays from an unabashedly chareidi point of view in The New York Times are about as frequent as sightings of the extinct dodo bird. For that reason Wendy Shalit's recent essay "The Observant Reader" in the New York Times Book Review generated a good deal of buzz.
Shalit's essay was both interesting in itself and as representative of a larger phenomenon of the contributions of ba'alei teshuv a to the chareidi world. Her topic was the portrayal of chareidim in contemporary fiction.
In her original piece and in a follow-up essay published on-line at Jewish World Review, Shalit showed a sharp eye for absurd distortions. One telling example: a 1995 story by Tova Reich about a chareidi girl lost on a school trip. In the story the girl's principal tells a reporter, "We went into the woods with 300 girls and came out with 299. . . [O]n a final exam that would give you . . . a sure A, maybe even an A plus."
Reich's story was based on a real life incident that took place the year before when a chareidi girl was lost for two days in a forest on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. Except in the real life case, hundreds of chareidim traveled for hours to participate in the search. Thousands more joined prayer vigils. Reich's portrayal of chareidi indifference to a young girl in danger constituted an authorial hate crime.
Shalit followed with a number of astute observations about the qualifications of the novelists in question to portray the chareidi world – a matter of great importance when the novels are being marketed as insider's view of a hitherto inaccessible world. The world of modern orthodoxy and the chareidi world are distinct in many ways, and knowledge of the former in no way guarantees knowledge of the latter. While the ability to pick out at two blocks which boy in a Tommy Hilfiger shirt will also be wearing a yarmulke may have served Tova Mirvis (another author discussed by Shalit) well at Columbia University, it would be useless in chassidic Williamsburg.
Of course, Shalit is not exactly a chareidi insider either. She has been fully observant only six years. But having lived in the chareidi world, she knew that the veritable rogues' gallery of shallow, hypocritical, mean-spirited chareidim in most popular fiction do not bear the slightest resemblance to the Jews who attracted her to religious observance.
Shalit may be a newcomer, but she has already made a major contribution to the chareidi community, both as its defender and as an eloquent exponent of Jewish values to the broader Jewish world. Indeed her contributions are inseparable from her status as a ba'alat teshuva.
While still an undergraduate at Williams College, she wrote "A Ladies Room of One's Own" for Commentary, in which she deftly skewered the ideology that rendered single-sex bathrooms extinct at Williams. And her book A Return to Modesty, written before she became fully observant, sold well, and made her a popular campus speaker.
Without these secular credentials, and the ability to spice her discussion with references to Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and James, the New York Times Book Review would never have given her the time of day.
Similarly, it was the incongruity of a chareidi writer citing Dante that piqued the interest of the editor of the Jerusalem Post when my first column appeared and led him to immediately offer me a weekly column. That column has allowed chareidim in Israel to speak for themselves for the first time rather than simply being spoken about as anthropological curiosities in a zoo.
The ability to speak two languages – that of the secular academic world in which they were raised and that of the Torah world which they have joined – has uniquely suited ba'alei teshuva to present the chareidi world to outsiders. That same ability explains why many of the most prominent outreach professionals today come from secular backgrounds.
By virtue of their ability to convey the deepest Torah ideas in a modern idiom ba'alei teshuva have proven to be some of the most successful expositors of Torah in our time. The Jewish Self by Jeremy Kagan, a Yale-trained philosopher, and a series of books by Dr. Akiva Tatz – Worldmask, Living Inspired, and Letters to a Buddhist Jew – are among the most important works of Jewish thought in the last decade.
Because most ba'alei teshuva came to their religion as adults and after sophisticated secular educations, they had to search the full breadth of Torah sources for the answers to their questions. They could not be satisfied with answers that suffice for a five-year-old who is first learning the aleph-bet. As a result, ba'alei teshuva have played an important role in opening the Torah world to a broader range of classic texts. Go to any lecture of the most profound Jewish thinkers of our time, and you will find a high percentage of ba'alei teshuva.
Every ba'al teshuva views his new community not only through his or her own eyes, but also the eyes of secular family and friends. As a consequence, ba'alei teshuva have sensitized the chareidi community to the Torah imperative of Kiddush Hashem.
Shalit's sharply observed essay is but one example of the contributions ba'alei teshuva have made to the Torah community by virtue of their ability to travel in two worlds simultaneously.