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Feb 23, 2012

Book Review: Strictly Kosher Reading

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, 
contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.

"Strictly Kosher Reading" is an academic book. To be honest, I received this book a few months ago, and took my time reading it. It is not an easy read, and I think that is mostly for style issues.. I would even say my criticism of the book is generally in style rather than in content. The content of the book is unique and intriguing. The style is what made it difficult to read - the font is tight, the paragraphs long, the chapters seem to run together. I could not read too much of it at a time, which is why it took me so long to finish, as I felt the need to stop after just a few paragraphs to rub my eyes and distract myself.   

With that out of the way, I can now say the content and perspective of Strictly Kosher Reading was both intriguing and fascinating.

The premise of the book is one I had never encountered before. The premise of the book is that one can analyze the ultra-orthodox, or haredi, society by the books it publishes. The author, Yoel Finkelman considers the publishers to be the gatekeepers of the haredi community. they decide what to allow to be published, and they decide what to reject. If a book does not sell the "party line" it will be rejected. For one of the haredi publishers to publish a book it would have to be non-critical of the community, it would have to play up certain stereotypes of how great the haredi lifestyle is and it would have to "sell" the "party line". It was a fascinating analysis, though it made me think of a cabal of evil publishers getting together and deciding what the party line is and which books portray it. 

Yoel Finkelman, author of Strictly Kosher Reading
Finkelman analyzes popular haredi books and compares them to their secular, or non-haredi, counterparts to show the different image portrayed. I found the analyses of the various books selected to be fascinating. He analyses the imagery used, along with the wording and phraseology and shows that each is carefully selected and controlled to portray certain impressions. 

Another key point in Strictly Kosher Reading is Finkelman's analysis of how haredi authors of self-help books, a major industry in its own right, must make the claim that the wisdom contained within and being transferred to the reader is all sourced in the Torah. This claim is regularly made in such books, yet Finkelman goes on to show that fairly frequently such books fail to quote any actual Torah sources for their material. A strong example of this is a book on nutrition in which the author claims it to be based on the instructions laid out by the Rambam. The author then goes on to give his guidance which never actually quotes the Rambam and is actually based on modern science and knowledge.

As well, Finkelman goes on to analyze certain books and show how the wisdom being taught is often influenced heavily be non-Jewish morals and teachings, comparing them to similar self-help books or guides (such as health and dieting books, time management, raising children, etc) from the non-Jewish sector. Often enough, Finkelman follows the timeline through Jewish history showing what beliefs were popular at different times, in similar ways to the way general society changed its opinion on such issues of morals and ethics, of parenting and the like. Authors who choose the modern way of thinking of, for example, how to raise children or dealing with spanking and basically talk about the importance and superiority of specific methods while failing to show that those methods have been shown in general society to be superior and fail to mention that Jewish sources often chose other paths and methods historically, while often changing its opinion based on the current knowledge in any given point in history.

Another major section, perhaps the most important, in the book, from my perspective, is the final chapter. The final chapter of Strictly Kosher Reading, Chapter 6, deals with haredi internal criticism. I found this concluding chapter particularly enlightening and fascinating. Finkelman shows how authors do not, perhaps can not, criticize the community openly, as doing so would be saying that the community leaders are not in tune with true torah-based directives, yet they find ways to subtly get their message of toned-down criticism across.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that significant portions of Strictly Kosher Reading focus on the works of Lawrence Keleman, the rejection of Slifkin and Kaminetsky, analyzing Jonathan Rosenblum's works and style, and the now-defunct Jewish Observer. The issues behind and surrounding these authors were major points in haredi society and the way these issues and authors were dealt with are very telling and enlightening when trying to understand the haredi community.

Anyone wanting to better understand the workings of haredi society would do well to read Strictly Kosher Reading.

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.


  1. big shame about the book is that it does not discuss the charedi magazine/newspaper explosion of the last few years and does not deal with these publications at all. I assume the reason is that the author started his phd (and this book is based on his thesis) in advance of this - but it really is a big hole in the book.

    Your astute friend

  2. he also doesnt deal with the hebrew book market.

  3. that would be too much - the book would need to be 500 pages long. he himself says that the difference between anglo 'mainstream' charedi and israeli charedi is huge (which it is).

    But if you are going to look at the anglo charedi reading customs, it seems unusual to miss out the magazines and newspapers which are in almost every household.


  4. I'm struck by the way MO academic writers tend to look at today's chareidim and their output from the outside as anthropologists might do. While this method can be useful in the right hands, it points to a dearth of direct inter-Orthodox communication, which is a real problem.

  5. Thanks for the review.

    Readers can download the preface and read other reviews at www.strictlykosherreading.blogspot.com

    Yes, the work of the book was done before the rise of the magazines, so only The Jewish Observer z"l gets discussed.

    Just to be precise, the book is not based on my doctoral thesis.


  6. Yoel - you should consider working on a volume 2 or sequel focusing on the magazines and newspapers

  7. I found the book a very eay read and read it over a shabbat. Interesting that people commented about newspapers and mags as in my review for my email lists I noted that:

    Re Celebrity Gedolim
    From time immemorial until the 70's one became a great sage in Israel almost always by the seforim one wrote. RDNR has written extensively in all areas psak, machshava, his multi volume Yad Pshutah on the Rambam etc., (link to his essay on Emmunat Hachomim http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%205%20Rabinovitch.pdf current issue has essay on his Yad Pshuta its time to subscribe) yet he does not merit to be recognized as a godol today. Even Reb Harry Maryless in recent blog on MO gedolim does not even mention RDNR.
    Gedolim today on the whole are manufactured by haredi publicists no differently then secular society aqnd its celebrities. This is an example of how Haredi society has adopted modernity for their own purposes. (it of course does not make them modern rather modern techniques permits them to maintain a medieval world view) Since the 70's to become a godol one need not author any works. One is elevated to the lofty status of a GODOL by appearing in the Haredi press. When I was growing up a hassidic Rebbe refused to be photographed. Today to be a somebody U need to appear in the centrefold of the Yated or Hamodia our version of People Magazine. It also helps if U issue or join in 10 line Kol Korehs knocking or better yet defaming the OTHER which the creators of the Celebrity Gedolim are most eager to publish. Rav Ruderman who was mishadich RDNR to his neice obviously recognized the greatness of RDNR, as does RLJS, Hakira and those who are learned but it is of liitle consequence if the editors of the Yated and Hamodia do not agree

  8. I hope to do some writing soon on magazines -- stay tuned.



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