Balancing Being A Hassid And Creating Art

Guest post by Leigh Herskovich

My name is Leigh Hershkovich, I am twenty-one years old, and I am an Orthodox Jew. I am also a novelist, and am currently under way of releasing my first novel, a physiological thriller titled, Shattered Illusions. I don’t see the two halves of myself as contradictory, but there are those who would beg to differ. This is not a path taken by many, at least not with my background or age. With only four months until the release of Shattered Illusions, I find more and more how these two truths of my life are one in the same, not opposite each other. There have been plenty of times when it felt as though my standards as a Lubavitcher and my love for the world would have caused much struggle. It is not easy to find yourself in a black and white world, but I have found, if only through the course of the publishing process, how much these ‘opposite’ worlds can feed off each other and grow from each other’s strengths, at least to a certain degree.

In fashioning the world of Shattered Illusions, things were a constant uphill battle. Every moment of the writing process was determined by my own strength or weakness at the time when I sat down to bring life to this world. Having gone through the manuscript several times since the announcement of the release, I have found moments of complexities within the lives of my characters that related directly back to the complexities of my own life. Though the lives of my characters were quite different and not entirely my own, it was I who had given them life. In a sense, I had poured myself into the mold of every one of them. It was not with ease that I chose their paths for them.

There were several inner struggles that I found myself stuck with when writing Shattered Illusions. The lives and the livelihood of every character became my own. Happy was I in their joy, miserable was I in their failures and loses. I put myself into every movement that was made, and from them, I was brought to life. Of course, the same could be said vice versa. So, it was no surprise that one of the deepest, longest and hardest debates came when it was time to choose the religious lifestyles that my characters would or would not lead.

It is not to say that all of them do, because in fact, only one of the characters does. The Orthodox Jewish character, a young woman by the name of Ella Sansburg, is the only character in Shattered Illusions that brought the religious lifestyle to life. That is not to say that her behavior is that of my own or of people who live their lives according to the Jewish tradition. In fact, it is quite the opposite at times. What I wanted to portray with Ella, as well as with the others, is that as mere humans, they cannot control the weight of the world, no matter where they come from or what they believe in. While the others briefly refer to their religious backgrounds, it was through Ella that I brought this to life.

The sad truth is that Orthodox Jews are not often looked upon with kind eyes. Our world has been thrown into much controversy in the past couple of years. We have moments of peace and moments of turmoil in our communities, all of which are watched with hawk-like eyes by the rest of the world, eager to see our next move. Our community attracts attention, and it’s not always positive. We live in a very tight-knit world, and it is often difficult to portray our world, even from the inside, without others taking it askew. Though the positive feedback has had the upper hand lately, opening the door to our community has always been frowned upon. A young, single, Orthodox Jew writing a novel for the secular demographic is news that tends to turn many heads.

I live in two worlds. The first filled with pop culture that I brought along from my childhood, as well as that of today’s society. Having grown up in an well educated, highly intellectual society, my creative flow often stems from this ‘world.’ I can discuss the works of Chopin and John Kennedy Toole with vigor and excitement. I have never had an issue with this world, as long as it does not cross into the boundaries of the halachot I keep. I have learned to balance my love for art, music and pop culture with my strict, strong faith. Yiddishkiet comes first, but that does not mean that the balance is not there, because it is. I have both feet firmly planted in both worlds, and they feed off each other. I can easily learn Tanya and discuss War and Peace with the same amount of exuberance and passion. But, I am first and foremost a frum girl and a child of the Rebbe, which means that my comfort level in secular matters only stems so far. There were always boundaries, and publishing a novel has given me more discretion and caution when proceeding in certain matters.

Taking on the task of writing a novel stemmed mainly from the fact that I was bored out of my skull by Jewish fiction, while at the same time disgusted and uncomfortable with the lake of morality in some secular novels. I wanted to find a balance. I wanted to give the secular world a book that would blow their minds, but that an Orthodox Jew could read without cringing. After all, how could I, who had always gained strength from both worlds, not incorporate them into my work? It became evident very early on that my beliefs played heavily in the lives of my characters, though I tried not to allow my beliefs interfere with their behaviors. In the matter of bringing G-d into the novel, there was simply no way to leave Him out, especially in the story of my Orthodox character.

The most difficult decision was leaving the word ‘G-d’ spelled without ‘o’ in the middle. Having received several advance reviews about the novel, mainly from secular novelists, I find that the issue I made such a fuss about goes right over their heads. Not one reviewer mentioned their discomfort or misunderstanding of words or phrases that I integrated into the dialogue. On the day that I began my journey with my publishers, it was the first thing they mentioned to me. It simply wouldn’t fly, secular audiences would scoff such a decision, they told me. Of course, I consulted a Rabbi, who gave me two options. He said that I could most definitely spell out the entire name, for it was for the sake of fiction. Or, I could leave it spelled as it was, and add a footnote explaining the reasoning behind the spelling. I decided to go with the second option. When I began sending out the manuscript for advanced reviews, that ‘issue’ worried me more than anything else. Several of the reviewers didn’t notice, and even if they did, didn’t mention it. Others were quite pleased with the fact that I had left it in. It was simply something that I did not feel right to sacrifice.

As well rounded and educated as I may be, I have never had an urge to sacrifice one side for the other. The greatest lesson drawn from this experience has been that when you can root yourself properly into your foundation, everything else will become a mirror of your roots, a growth mechanism, not an ax. If you steady yourself in your beliefs firmly enough, everything else you do with your life will be a living example of just that.

Leigh Hershkovich’s writing career began almost at infancy. Born and raised in The City by the Bay, Leigh was never seen without a pen and paper by her side, and was never without a story to share. With her vivid imagination and sharp writing tactics, she has taken the world by storm twice over. Now, with her debut novel Shattered Illusions, readers will get a first time glimpse into her first full fiction attempt.

An avid reader, accomplished pianist, passionate scholar of the language and the arts, Leigh currently resides in New York with her imagination.

You can learn more about Leigh and the world of Shattered Illusions by visiting her website, her blog, or by following her on Facebook). Shattered Illusions can also be found on Goodreads.

  • Hi. If you were raised in a secular way, then your immersion in secular culture is not something you made a conscious choice to do, because you had no knowledge of an alternative. However, as a frum Yid, never mind as a chossid, one should not be educating oneself in secular culture (this would be true even if it were not saturated with immodest and heretical elements, which it is); in fact, this was one of the sins that led to the Greeks conquering Yerushalayim and defiling the Beis HaMikdash in the time of Chanukah (see here). What you should do from now on in your personal case is a separate matter that I’m sure you’re discussing with a mashpia; however, I’m sure you understand that the approach of immersion in secular culture is not proper for others, who were lucky enough to be spared this exposure and raised in a relatively pure environment.

    Also, understand that the only way that one exposed to secular values can possibly truly overcome the influence that they have, both overt and insidious, on the mind and heart (see here) is by systematically unlearning them through serious Torah study. This is (one reason) why baalei Teshuvah must go to Yeshivah/ seminary before moving on with their lives, and then continue with regular Torah study part-time.

    With regard to the way a Jew should relate to the world: According to Chassidus, the Jew should view the world’s current state negatively (ideally with hatred and disgust), as it is filled with ego and conceals over the truth of Hashem, and his entire focus should be to influence it by revealing Hashem within it, and ultimately to bring Moshiach to transform it, get rid of all the junk, and reveal the Divine Life Force within everything. See here.

    If this is the goal of your book, then may you have much success!

  • Hi,

    I do think that there is a bit of clarification necessary. It seems that you missed the point of what I was saying almost completely. First of all, my intention was not to encourage others to immerse themselves in matters of secular culture. The point of writing a novel such as I did, which I said in the post above, was to give Frum people a novel that was ‘different’ while staying to the guidelines of Halacha and making it interesting enough that the secular community could enjoy it as well. I do see how you could take your conclusions away from this, and so perhaps I did not truly get the message I intended to get across. I invite you to read another blog post that I wrote about the topic, which may clarify a bit more (see here).

    My goal has always been, to be able to uncover the sparks of Hashem in this world. Perhaps it is only because I do it differently than you that you cannot understand where I am coming from. Every person has a different way of seeing the world, though at the end of the day, the goal may be the same. I do think it quite comical that you went to great lengths to highlight certain topics in Chassidus and Halacha that you assumed I was unaware of. Again, I urge you to read the other post that I wrote on this topic. Perhaps that will open your eyes to the fact that not everyone takes the same blanket approach as you.

  • 1. Thanks, I read the post. You misunderstand me: Nowhere did I say that I object to the writing of fiction, or that I don’t understand why one might want to write it. On the contrary, I understand the medium well, and I believe that if done in a refined manner, to communicate a Torah message, it’s a very worthy thing and an important didactic tool.

    2. Rather, I highlighted those Torah concepts in my previous comment because the way you wrote seemed to reflect a lack of awareness of them. What my comment comes down to is that you seem to be declaring that being “cultured” is an inherently worthwhile thing, and my point is that according to Torah sources in general, and Chassidus in particular, this is clearly not the case. If you have any sources that imply otherwise, I am very happy to look them up and reconsider my understanding. Until then, I believe that the sources I quote stand, and I can add many other to them, if you like.

    3. May I also point out that it is not enough for a work of art–in this case, fiction–not to violate halacha. It must convey a message that is actually fully Torah-based, and that strengthens Torah values for its consumers.

    4. The heading of the article, “Balancing Being A Hassid And Creating Art,” implied that there might be some kind of conflict between the two, but you managed to overcome it. But in the article itself, aside from the conflict about how to write G-d, you seem to say (unless I missed something) “there’s no contradiction at all; it’s only those intolerant, uncultured people who think there could be one, and my struggle has been about how to stay in the community while being so disapproved of.” If that’s the case, then I think the heading does not fit the content. It’s not that you are saying that you find being a chossid a secular novelist personally challenging; rather, you are saying that it is challenging when your choice is not accepted by the community.

    • Miche

      Just curious as to what you would say about the concept of Torah U’Madda? I know it’s not a Chassidic viewpoint, but definitely a Jewish one.

      • What would I say? I’m a Chabad chossid. Are you aware of what the Rebbeim of Chabad said?

  • Abby

    Interesting article, but I was surprised to read this: “This is not a path taken by many, at least not with my background or age.” I know a number of other young women in the orthodox community who have written or are writing novels. In fact, I wrote one myself when I was 19 and it never would have occurred to me that someone would think there’s an issue with being orthodox and writing a novel.

    • Miche

      So you think this IS a path taken by many? I would beg to differ. Are the young Orthodox writers that you know of writing novels for secular AND Orthodox audiences? I’ll be very surprised if you tell me they do. Many Orthodox communities don’t read books written for the secular audience, so you can imagine what kind of problems they would have with this type of writing.

    • As I understand, the opposition to Leigh’s book is coming not from the desire to write fiction per se, but from her desire to write in a secular style, for a secular audience “as well”, albeit in a way that she believes conforms with Torah.

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