Let me begin this post with some very heartfelt, very dramatic words: Our Kollel years were the best ones of my life. (For the uninitiated, Kollel is a yeshivah where married men study for varying amounts of time; they study Torah and Talmud and may work to earn rabbinic ordination.) My husband and I embraced a kollel lifestyle right after our wedding and it was pure, absolute bliss. He learned all day; I worked to support us and felt privileged to do so. I am not being corny or kitschy; I really, wholly, and completely loved every minute of his full-time Torah learning. I feel like Kollel learning is such a noble, incredible pursuit and that it sustains the entire universe. Now, for those of you who may be wondering if there is some foreshadowing or preface going on here, you are highly astute.
Recently, a comment was made to me thusly: "Why are your serial stories bashing Kollel?" My head jerked up; my heart leapt into my throat. I was taken aback, really, especially in light of the above paragraph. When I finally gathered my wits to attempt to respond to the accusation, I first pointed out that Green Fences was definitely nowhere within the category of "kollel bashing". If anything, Green Fences showed the beauty and importance of kollel, which one Batya Sternheim attempted to deny. In Shattered Glass, my current serialized story, the protagonist, Betzalel Myers, does learn in Kollel, and perhaps that is what prompted the specious comment about my "kollel-bashing". Firstly, to extrapolate from one fictional story which centers on a man who happens to be learning in Kollel, the assumption that the author is a wanton, shameless "kollel-basher" seems not only ridiculous, but downright rude. Secondly, and this is much more interesting, I realized that as a writer, I am faced with a curious Kollel konundrum.
You see, the yeshivah/chareidi world today has a grey area when it comes to Kollel learning vs. working. This is the feisty fodder for many a discussion and even a serial story (think Black and White by Dov Haller and, er, Green Fences, by Riva Pomerantz :-)). While we all agree that learning Torah in Kollel is a most worthy pursuit, we also must acknowledge that not everyone is capable of this occupation and also, that we need mechanchim (teachers), rabbonim (rabbis), and countless other Torah Jews to fill other roles and serve as other professionals within our communities. My husband Joel, for example, is a school psychologist and cognitive-behavioral therapist. In his capacity, he helps countless people in our community who are struggling with very difficult, real issues. Yes, he cherishes his Kollel days, but now he is performing his avodas Hashem (service of G-d) in this venue.
I have often commented on the enormous, inexplicable power of fiction--to effect change, to provoke thought, and to spark discussion. More so than articles, workshops, and lectures, fiction has this uncanny ability to get through to people, most likely because it is non-threatening, interesting, and entertaining. I use fiction as a tool, a vehicle for an important message (in case you're wondering if there's any mind control going on in my work :-)). When it comes to writing serialized stories in frum magazines such as Mishpacha, the writer, when creating a plot, comes smack up against a huge, steel door. That door is the Kollel Konundrum. Essentially, since fiction is so powerful, and since our community is so highly attuned to nuance, and since the subject of Kollel vs. Working is so alive and conflicted, a writer who chooses a plot where the protagonist is working might be misconstrued as espousing working as a preferred occupation, which would be a slight against Kollel, which would be definitely not okay. Whew, long sentence. Therefore, choosing a character who is learning in Kollel, aside from immediately creating reader rapport because most of our readers identify strongly with a Kollel lifestyle (at least at one point in their lives), is also an endorsement of Kollel. Does that mean that by creating a character who is in Kollel and who is struggling, I am attempting to malign Kollel or suggest, chas v'shalom, that Betzalel's story is pretty typical or indicative of widespread problems within the Kollel community? Of course not! Betzalel's issues ARE, unfortunately, widespread within our community at-large, but certainly not specifically a Kollel problem. Betzalel could have just as easily been an accountant with a night chavrusah (Torah study partner) and the rest of Shattered Glass could have stayed exactly the same. But given the sensitivity of the Kollel vs. working issue, I opted to steer clear of it. Apparently, however, it's difficult to side-step.
What are your thoughts?
About Riva Pomerantz
I'm a freelance writer, widely published in several magazines including the internationally-distributed Ami Magazine and Mishpacha Jewish Family Weekly. Riva's work also appears on the award-winning website www.aish.com, amongst others. You can buy my books here.