One night I sat reading in the kitchen, thoroughly enjoying myself. The book was futuristic, imaginative, exciting, action packed and full of Goyish hashkafic trash. Then it came time to say Shma so I sighed, put down the book & took a minute or so to clear my mind, and davenned. Then I greedily reached for the book.

Then I felt strangely sick to the depths of my soul. Am I leading a double life? Did I think HaShem was only watching me while I davenned and after that became occupied with other concerns?

So I resolved not to finish that book.

Chol HaMoed- we borrow a "black box" and watch movies on the computer monitor. "Pinocchio". Kosher. Well, someone wrote a kuntras on it and it seems pretty moral to me. "Beauty and the beast?" Of course, it's about seeing the penimius, but a few not very tzenius innuendos- oh well, that goes over the kid's heads anyway. More so with "Aladdin"- but they're not watching the scantily clad heroine, they're watching the genie. "Charlotte's web"- very touching story about chesed and contribution and a pig. No problems? "Hook" and "Mary Poppins"? Wonderful movies about quality parenting. "The wizard of Oz" teaches that your greatest treasures are in your own back yard. "Terminator 2" teaches the evils of violence, right? All very moral stuff. Seriously, now!

"The Midrash says" just can't compete for dazzling, effective presentation. But can't one present any of these with a little kosher pep talk and make everything fine. Well, scratch the last movie for the kids- but the adults can sit there and convince one another that it's kosher to watch it, because -- well -- doesn't the heroine have rachmanus at the right time?

What influences are these media having on my soul?

Where do we draw the line?

This question faces me constantly in daily frum life. Whether it be reading, computer games or videos for the children. What are the limits?

How does one know them for each situation? The alternative, of course, is to ban the lot of them.

Take books. Yes please- lots of them! I must admit I love to sit down with a good science fiction, nurse my baby & read. I am soon in another world- quite literally in a sense. I look forward to the nursing, not just for the mother-baby contact- which is infinitely precious to me- but for the flight from reality which is involved. Don't mistake me. Reality is, boruch HaShem, not grim. I don't seek an escape. But science fiction simply gives me that easy, imaginative mental stimulation that frum novels don't quite seem to manage. The style of writing is also usually much more interesting.

What is my alternative? Jewish novels are often a fair read for moral inspiration and chizuk when I'm looking for that. However, the plot is unfailingly predictable. We know that ploni will do tshuva, we know that the plots of the goyim will be foiled. Certain things have to happen in a frum book or it would not be a approved as such. And certain things cannot happen, or cannot be said for the same reason.

Isn't it possible to write a book which is kosher in spirit but (italics) real in the telling? These books would have the potential to be classics in my opinion, because they combine the absolute morality of the Torah, (something that even the most moral Goyish books don't truly grasp, though many try in spirit & ideal, to discover the meaning of morality) with real people facing real nisyonos. Nisyonos in which the alternatives are also attractive, also have some apparent merit. Real people with real human natures, people who combine the sublime and the obscene. Reality.

There is a book, in Hebrew and in English, about a group of children marooned on a desert island. Within a few months they are all learning Torah every day, keeping Shabbos, fulfilling mitzvos, and, apart from a few minor incidents, dramatically portrayed as they are in the book, they are in remarkably mature accord. Do you believe it? I don't believe it. Despite the background of the most dominant personalities- and the book does not seem to understand dominance hierarchy dynamics at all- I would expect at least half the kids to frei out within a month and a couple of gruesome deaths.

But you can't write that. You can't write that, even if the wayward children do tshuva as soon as they hit Haifa. A book in which a few children frei out & a few children actually die might actually be a more interesting book in terms of a child's relationship to Yiddishkeit and to reality than the fake Pollyanna version. Don't try to tell me you're sparing the child the gory details because they get them anyway from any book of Jewish history, from the Torah narrative itself to the holocaust.

Are we looking for reality or for entertainment? Well, both actually. If the people are not real, not three dimensional, the story ceases to be an alternate reality. If I can't identify with the main characters I can't be with them and go with them into their world. If the imagination does not build a world which is somehow plausible, a fictional setting that rings true, then I immediately suspect insincerity. I am not "gripped".

The modern Hebrew word is "meratek" - arresting, exciting, thrilling. The root? "Retek" - a link, a connection. One needs to feel a true connection to the story, through identification with a complex personality and a setting which we intuitively recognise as real.

Human personalities have many layers, and many forces work upon us within. We hear, subconsciously usually, but also consciously sometimes, old voices of our teachers, each of our parents when we were children, as well as voices from shiurim, tapes, books. We hear our childish demands coming to us from way below, clamouring for attention and we hear the voice of sechel, guiding our actions, hopefully. Then we hear the voice of intuition, and wonder to what extent this is sullied by less kosher influences in our psyche, at the same time marvelling at the unconscious computer which generates our ideas. In view of all this, it is sometimes quite a wonder we manage to decide anything at all!

So, in sum, let's "get real". Let's write and read books which are kosher in general idea, and are based on real people, real nisyonos, real "meratek" experiences. (And maybe that way Targum will make more money if we're not put in cherem first...) A brocho for the future!

Copyright © 1999 Gila Atwood

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