Hello, my name is Miriam. For those of you who know me, you know that I recently left my husband and the charedi (ultra-orthodox Jewish) community of Stamford Hill, UK. In the process I lost the majority of my extensive and valuable book collection.
Those books meant a lot to me, not only because many of them were quite valuable, but they were also a reflection of my journey and the person I’ve become over the past few years.
I’ve always loved books, the feel of them, the look, the anticipation of starting one I’ve never read before, but more than anything I love the wealth of knowledge and ideas that they contain, and the way they broaden my world. I live inside myself but through books I get inside others and access to their knowledge. As a child I was allowed to go to the public library (which anyone familiar with the charedi world knows is contentious) but as I was growing up I began to hear more and more from my parents and educators about ‘bad books’. Bad books were books that were not charedi, not kosher, novels, books that promoted a lifestyle that was immoral, and ideas that were heretical. I spent many years grappling with my desire to read many diverse books and the message that it was bad, or wrong. I stopped going to the library and read only ‘acceptable’ books that I bought in a charedi bookstore, or borrowed from a charedi library when it finally opened. I felt virtuous, but there was an ongoing sense of discontent and unhappiness travelling with me through my life.
This continued while I tried to be a good charedi woman, having an arranged marriage at a young age and then quickly having children, doing God’s will as I had been taught. But after my third child was born, the good charedi woman fell apart. I found myself in therapy desperately trying to make sense of things, and from there it didn’t take me long to make my way back to the library.
I will never forget those first few weeks. I was like a starved person who is finally confronted with food. I went to the library every single day and took out the maximum number of books I could. Sometimes it still brings tears to my eyes to remember myself, like a crazed person, gorging myself on books.
I also began to build my own library. A library of books that expanded my knowledge and my world. That reflected my wide, diverse interests in psychology, philosophy, religion, science, history, nature, travel, art, personal development, fitness and gender.
Were these books bad? Well, they certainly were bad for the people who had tried to stop me from reading them, because they threatened their power to have me only know what they chose. They were bad because they gave me knowledge and information that posed a serious challenge to the narrow worldview and lifestyle I had been brought up with.
At one point I began to explore Judaism and religion, to question the simple narratives about God and the chosen people as I had been taught. To study Torah, not just the women’s Torah I had been allowed to study in school, but serious Torah on an adult level. I took classes on many subjects, including Talmud, outside the community, because they were not available to women in my community. It changed my life. And it also began to worry the people around me. So long as I was studying ‘secular’ subjects and developing myself within the parameters permitted to me as a charedi woman, I was safe. But once I began to study and engage with the hallowed male field of serious Torah study, and look at it critically through the lens of history, spirituality, religion, psychology and women’s issues, I became a threat. And the more my library grew, privately in my bedroom, spilling over from the shelves onto the floor, until it was bigger than the safe, acceptable collection of my husband’s seforim (Jewish books) on public display in the dining room, the more the conflict grew between my public persona as a good charedi woman and the real woman I was inside. And the more people felt threatened by me, the more oppressive it became to stay in that world.
Around five years ago it became clear to me that my marriage, which had been difficult on many levels, was at an end. But in this community a woman cannot divorce a man, so I started asking my husband for a divorce. Under the guise of ‘what’s better for the children’ he managed to delay the process and I tried to keep things together, until finally in October 2012 I made it clear that I was leaving. I, and my new partner, was then subjected to a vicious campaign of harassment from him and the community, which is still ongoing.
Some of you will know what it’s like to leave the charedi world. And some of you will know what it’s like to leave a difficult marriage. What the abuse, harassment, intimidation, slander and character assassination is like. How you are punished for leaving the marriage, and because you have broken the community’s spoken and unspoken rules. How others need to be made to fear to do likewise. How your words are distorted and you are made out to be a dangerous person, whose influence is bad, who must be silenced.
In the month before I left, my husband took my books and packed them away in boxes in the basement, saying he could not cope with their evil influence. I had to leave, without telling anyone, early on the morning of December 24th 2012, with two of my children and just the clothes I wore. After I left I tried to make arrangements to get my things, but was not allowed to. Some of my things were sent to my sister, but not my books. I was then told that they had been destroyed.
I was devastated by this; it felt like a huge part of me had been ripped away. Friends tried to console me by saying I could always get the same titles again over time. That was true, but it didn’t help, and I had to reflect on why.
One of the reasons I was never going to be able to stay within the Charedi community was that access to any information which challenges the status quo is forbidden. My life has been about trying to get access to the world in spite of this, often in secret, and my books were a big part of that. Destroying them seemed like an attempt to destroy my connection to the wider world of thinking and feeling.
Books, and the written word, have always been the conduit for new ideas and information, for challenging the old, for promoting complexity and encouraging discussion and debate. No wonder then that burning them, banning them and destroying them is so often used as a tactic by those who want to suppress individual freedom of thought and oppress others by trying to control the information they have access to.
Rather than stand by and passively watch this happen, and deal with it on my own, I find myself wanting to respond by doing something about it. I want to respond, not by retaliating and fighting with the people who act in this way, but by doing something that will counter their attempt to shut down information and knowledge. I am one person and ‘they’ are a whole community. A community of some people who actively malign and abuse those who step out of line, and others who stand by passively and fearfully, who are unable to think for themselves and lack the courage to take a stand, because they have had withheld, and continue to choose to withhold, the information they need to do so.
So I would like to do something that will increase knowledge, information and ideas in the world, and this where my idea for ‘give a thinking book’ comes in:
I’d like to ask you to give a book to someone. Or recommend one, or sponsor one. A book that has made you think, that has opened you up, perhaps to new ways of thinking, perhaps to new ways of understanding others, to increasing your knowledge and awareness of the world. The main thing is it should be thought-provoking and increase understanding, tolerance and wisdom.
If you’re giving the book to someone who might be a bit apprehensive, or worried about new or different ideas, you might want to put a message inside that says something like ‘I’m giving you this book because it’s one that made a difference to the way I see the world. Some of it made me feel a bit uncomfortable because it slaughtered some of my holy cows, but I survived the experience, and now I’m richer for it. I’d like to share it with you, so that you can also share that experience’.
I’m really interested to hear what you think, and which books you’re recommending. After all, I’m building up a new library and in it I want a great number of thinking books!