Paperback Boundaries

January 5, 2023

A Look at How the Contemporary Frum World Designs and Defines Kosher Reading

Elisheva Braun

As the People of the Book, our connection to reading material is intimate and inseverable. In a world that never stops evolving, growing, and publishing—upping the ante and raising the bar—can we provide our youth with the space to breathe, explore, and uncover while protecting them from less-than-virtuous material?

We spoke with those in the industry as well as spectators to its changes to find out.

Publishers speak

The vetting process

How do frum publishers decide whether a manuscript is publish-worthy?

The editors at Israel Bookshop rely on the discretion that its staff has developed over 30 years in the publishing industry. When in doubt, they are in touch with the company’s rav hamachshir. “The rav’s wife, a mechaneches and girls’ high school principal, also weighs in when we’re unsure whether a book is appropriate,” says Malkie Gendelman, acquisitions editor at the publishing house. “It’s usually not a yes-or-no issue; the rav and/or his wifeoften provide suggestions as to what can be switched, tweaked, or cut.”

ArtScroll Publications says, “All our books must pass the muster of an editorial board that includes mechanchim and bnei Torah who learned in leading yeshivos and under gedolei Yisrael.Of course, the board does not review every word of every work. We have a staff of experienced and sensitive editors who do that, and they refer any questions they have to those on the board. If questions of propriety arise, they are referred to the gedolei Yisrael who guide us.”

Rabbi David Kahn, general editor at Feldheim Publishers, has many years of experience in reviewing manuscripts. “Once I believe that it’s kosher, the book goes to our editors, who check it more thoroughly while editing. The work is then typeset and proofread, which is another check. Our system has many stops to help us catch mistakes.

“One book we edited included a false story about the Rambam which was published in a magazine years ago. The typesetter recognized the story and remembered that a retraction had followed its printing. Her attention to detail saved us from printing a falsified story about the Rambam.”

Discretion required

Sensitive material isn’t a frequent problem for Feldheim. “All of our manuscripts are from yerei Shamayim;we stay away from ‘borderline’ books,” says Rabbi Kahn.

“We do not publish general-reading books that we feel have sensitive content. While individual parents may have additional sensitivities, overall, we are true to our mission of publishing works that anyone can feel comfortable having around the house, no matter the age or gender of their children,” says ArtScroll.

Israel Bookshop steers clear of sensitive topics. When it comes to thrillers, which usually involve terrorists, guns, etc., “This is a very gray area, one that we’re constantly discussing with our rav. While we make sure action books are written with sensitivity, preteen boys love this genre, and we don’t want to deprive them of it altogether.”

Feldheim stops at nothing to remove potentially damaging material from the market. “On the rare occasions when mistakes slip past us, we have damage-control protocols in place. With a rav, we weigh hefsed concerns against the severity of the oversight to decide on the next steps. This can mean making corrections before a reprint, manually cutting out problematic sections and replacing them with new pages, and even initiating book recalls when necessary,” says Rabbi Kahn.

It’s a cultural thing

“Certain sensibilities are common in America and not in Eretz Yisrael, and vice versa,” says Rabbi Kahn. “Concepts such as connectivity to technology and women as careerists in the workforce are common in the US, while Israeli chareidim are familiar with low-income and political issues. A recent sample of this divergence came up in a book that discusses the Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews. The volume was heavily edited before print in the States, where a different standard of political correctness is accepted.

“In a Hebrew book that we translated, there was a story about a gadol who wouldn’t touch a doorknob after a goy touched it. I removed the story for the English edition as I felt that it would cause more harm than good. In Eretz Yisrael, the stringency is seen as praiseworthy, while Americans would perceive it as radical and extremist. We need to think not only of the words we write but also of the way they’ll be received and the effect that they may have.”

Israel Bookshop prefers to err on the side of caution. “Some things are okay for many groups except the ultra-yeshivish or chassidish. Because the market is so small to begin with, it isn’t worth it for us to cut out a group. For that reason, we tend to be more machmir than we need to be.”

The idea of creating an across-the-board rating system for frum literature was tossed around at Israel Bookshop many times. However, the hair-splittingly nuanced levels within Yiddishkeit make such a system seem impossible. “Because every parent wants different things for their children, we cannot say which book is for which age. Ultimately, it’s the parents’ responsibility to decide what their kids should read. To facilitate that, we remove the guesswork by making it clear—on the front or back cover—what each book is about. Parents should at least read the book’s description in order to know what type of book they are letting their child read.”

On haskamos

“A haskamah doesn’t completely protect you,” Rabbi Kahn cautions. “Sometimes it means nothing more than that the author keeps Torah and mitzvos. I read a book that compared therapists to doctors and said that if one needs psychological help, they may see a counselor who isn’t a yerei Shamayim.When I asked the rav who gave the haskamah if he agreed with that, he replied, ‘I told the author many times that a therapist must be a yerei Shamayim!’ Sadly, these occurrences are not uncommon.”

Readers should look carefully at the haskamah’s wording to verify whether the rav is merely approving the author or he has actually read the book.

Instructive or Gratuitous?

Psychotherapist Dr. Sara Teichman’s take

As parents and educators, it is our duty to protect our children from witnessing and experiencing aggression, bullying, and violence. Yet, we cannot go too far in sheltering kids; for the right age, in the right way, education about the realities of life is important.

Here is what I mean: Our nation’s history is written in blood. Learning about Haman, Pharaoh, and Antiochus is a normal part of school for us. We want our children to know about our past, even when it includes hardship and pain. The Churban, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust are all parts of our narrative, and they need to be taught, albeit in a sensitive, age-appropriate, not overly graphic manner. For safety reasons, we also have to warn our children about predators, thieves, and ne’er-do-wells.

That viewing violent activity leads to aggression has been proven many times. Thebystander effect (where one is neither victim nor bully, but rather a silent observer) desensitizes onlookers and diffuses responsibility. Violence, whether observed in schoolyard bullying, in verbal assaults, in books, or even in aggressive driving, is damaging, especially to children.

When children are exposed to violence, they react in one of two ways. Some see yelling, pushing, and hitting as a way to solve problems, and they unfortunately learn their lesson all too well. Other children may become afraid of the scary world around them and plagued all their life by anxiety and fear.

Parents have to use discretion in allowing their kids to explore and discover the world without being exposed to distressing and potentially traumatizing material. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof method. Your child will hear things from friends and neighbors, classmates and teachers. You can’t completely protect them. We don’t always know how kids interpret things; every child reacts differently to the same information. But a parent’s sensitive and sensible explanation is always better than an education from a classmate.

Society—both Jewish and secular—has not yet figured out how to curtail the presence and impact of violence on our children. We can certainly do our part by lowering the temperature in our home and maintaining a safe, even-keeled environment. We can make every attempt to send our child to a school that has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and aggression. We can, and should, screen media material—books, kosher videos, and periodicals—for violence that would traumatize our child.

At the end of the day, there are no easy answers to the really hard questions. The best a parent can do is maintain the balance between the need to know and the need to protect—and hope that we get it right.

Respect and verify

Judaica Plaza owner Rabbi Avrohom Levine weighs in

At Judaica Plaza, anything that seems problematic is flagged and discussed with a prominent BMG posek before being put up for sale. At the same time, the store caters to a diverse crowd and provides reading material for a wide gamut of Yidden.

Do we get complaints about books? All the time. But once we’ve done our part to make sure we have the approval of a posek, we leave the rest up to the customer. Everyone has different sensitivities, so it’s impossible to please each person. For instance, some people screamed when toy tefillin hit the market. Although I wouldn’t buy it for my own children as I worry that it could weaken their chashivus for tefillin,I felt that it was a call parents should make.

It’s important to understand that our world isn’t black and white. When there’s controversy, we temporarily take books off the shelves until the issues are cleared up. We don’t jump to conclusions but instead do the legwork to find out what the proper next step is. Sometimes, we’re guided to stop selling something. Other times, sticking a “contains sensitive material” warning on the cover is enough. I recommend that readers take a similar approach: before you dub something assur, uncover the truth about it.

The view from the library

High school mechaneches and library owner Baila Klein* shares

When I opened my neighborhood library, I spoke with many highly regarded people about which books to stock. The consensus was that although I must filter books on a basic level, the responsibility to screen reading material lies with parents.

While I have pulled a couple of problematic books that have made their way into my library, it usually isn’t a question of “good book versus bad book”; most reads simply aren’t meant for everyone. A tale of disordered eating can have disastrous effects on a developing mind. A girly, gossipy novel isn’t a good fit for a preteen boy, while his fast-paced action book would give his sister nightmares.

There are two genres for older kids that I dislike: spying-bombing-kidnapping-double-agent thrillers and books with mental health, marital, and addiction issues. Books that aim to “destigmatize” problems and bring attention—perhaps too much attention—to issues that have been “shoved under the carpet” are my personal pet peeves.

I recently asked some high school girls which category they think is worse. One girl told me, “The thrillers feel so removed from real life, they’re like fantasy reads to me. On the other hand, books that paint marriage and parenthood as stressful, chaotic, and just plain hard really affect me.”

The portrayal of crumbling marriages, addictive or avoidant behaviors, mental health crises, extreme poverty, and dysfunction is damaging. Teenagers—especially those who didn’t grow up in homes that modeled excellent parenting, shalom bayis, self-regulation, and communication—are left with skewed and disillusioned worldviews. Who would want to build a home when they believe they will inevitably perpetuate the pandemonium?

We’ve gotten lazy, and we don’t check anymore. If it’s Jewish, we’re in. We’re used to things being comfortable inside our unique kosher culture. But parental oversight is important. We would never drop off a young daughter at a frum clothing store and tell her to pick anything. We understand that there are some hechsheirim we don’t eat and some Jewish places we don’t frequent. There are so many shades and nuances within the frum community. Do our children’s books get the same discernment?

Growing up, I would take a bus to the public library and choose the books I wanted to read. My mother would skim through my selections before I read them. I feel that we should have the same attitude toward frum books today as we had toward public libraries 30 years ago.

A rav’s perspective

Rabbi Yaakov Berman speaks

The criteria for acceptance by the frum world cannot only be that it’s better than non-Jewish alternatives. Preventing people from engaging in worse does not always justify introducing kashered goy’ish entertainment or products to Klal Yisrael.

In a famous drashah, Rav Moshe Feinstein explained that the idea of indulgence in every goy’ish pleasure in a glatt kosher manner is treif. Reading for pleasure is a non-Jewish idea; generations of Yidden grew up reading Torah and mussar. The closest to entertainment that we had was sippurei tzaddikim, biographies, and Jewish history written by talmidei chachamim and filled with yiras Shamayim and inspiration. Therefore, one has to measure and weigh the benefits with the potential liabilities of reading novels, even frum ones.

The dangers are many: There’s the bittul zman the engrossing, hundreds-of-pages-long books bring on. Although blatant, graphic violence is usually not described in frum books, authors come as close as they can—a little too close. Although romance is avoided, the whole shidduch scene with all its details somehow became permitted territory. Reading about relationships and marriages good and bad has become the norm.

Many novels and serials expose the reader to the “real world” of jealousy, work and family politics, power grabbing, lying, stealing, anger, revenge, and inappropriate behavior. Some contain subtle and not-so-subtle agendas promoting husbands leaving kollel; promoting therapy as a cure-all for everyone; or suggesting that mental illness, divorce, addiction, and abuse are found in every frum home.

I feel that the proliferation of Jewish novels and serials is a disservice to Klal Yisrael, replacing pure books with empty fiction at best and opening up vistas that better remain closed to the young Jewish mind. I suggest that parents sit down with their children to openly and honestly explain the potential problems in literature and only purchase books that are beyond reproach.


On secular books

Rabbi Chaim Meir Roth gives perspective

Many of us fondly remember the nonreligious novels we grew up on as clean and kosher, but in fact, most of these works contain damaging messages, both subliminally and outright. Cheapening murder and promoting a reckless way of life are just some of the harms.

Additionally, ethical standards have dropped dramatically in recent years, and books are worse than ever. Nonreligious libraries and bookstores have become dangerous places.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that girls can read anything they want. In fact, there’s no halachic difference between men and women when it comes to reading divrei cheshek; it’s assur for everyone. This genre is especially dangerous because it creates an alternate universe of unrealistic expectations and twisted hashkafos.

While it may be difficult, we must find a way to satisfy our children’s love for reading without compromising on our values.

*Name has been changed