Fifty Shades and a frum fanbase

By Brigit Grant, August 9, 2012

Consider this. Jews have a history of being on the move, yet few Jewish women know how to pack. You'd think the perpetual transit of our ancestors would have taught us something about travelling light, but trolleys creaking under the weight of stacked Samsonites at El Al check-in desks says it didn't.

I am as guilty as the next woman when it comes to over-stuffing a suitcase. Over the years, I've acquired a full set of those irksome "heavy" labels; not to mention the receipts for all that extra poundage. But this summer the dilemma of which shoes, bags and sinks to pack is compounded by another "excess baggage" concern. Should I take "the trilogy"? Don't go all coy on me and pretend you don't know what I'm referring to, as there is substantial evidence in north London and beyond that Jewish women have embraced E L James' Fifty Shades of Grey, Darker and Freed like a long-lost law firm.

"You mean you haven't read it?" exclaimed an acquaintance of the faith several months ago. This irked me, given that the last book she'd read was The Da Vinci Code in 2003. Yet here she was chastising me for not having purchased the pornbuster that her mother-in-law and cousins had recommended.

Sharing reading matter of a sexually explicit nature with the machatanim doesn't exactly tick my box, but I'm in the minority. With a pass-on ratio probably exceeding that of the JC, it's remarkable that James has sold four million copies, but the tell-tale charcoal spine peeking out of Mulberry totes from Chigwell to Childwall is one explanation.

Grudgingly, I spent £7.99 and acquired the fastest selling book of the year - or is it the century? The hyperbole in press releases issued by Random House implies that Fifty Shades overtook the Ten Commandments as a must-read back in March. And it was then, according to the New York Times, that New York's Orthodox women started reading it.

It even has a protagonist called Christian

I may be too far away, both religiously and geographically to have the first clue about the peccadilloes of observant Jewish women in New Jersey, but it initially struck me as odd that they would be remotely interested in a graphic novel about a 20-something virgin and a billionaire who's into BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission and masochism, for the non-practising).

Even if the bondage/slavery theme struck a chord with women who were simultaneously buying books about the Talmud, the moment hand-restraints and a red leather mattress are introduced, one assumes they'd bin it. But no. The US publishers cite the Orthodox community as the first devotees of this "mummy porn" sensation, which even has a protagonist called Christian, noch.

I must confess that, even after purchasing it, I did what the nice man in Joseph's Bookshop in Temple Fortune said I would and headed straight for the dirt. "A lot of our newer customers skip the middle book and go straight to the last one to find out the ending," he added, having noted that Jewish women who didn't even know there was a book store in the area have been casually dropping in to peruse the shelves."They're always buying it for a friend," he said.

Having had an early entrée (at 12) into the steamy novels of Harold Robbins, I can't fathom the fuss about Fifty. Even more confusing is its appeal to Jewish women, who in real life would verbally whip the eponymous hero into submission before accepting a ride in his helicopter. Just ask any Jewish husband.

As for the notorious BDSM contract that fills umpteen pages and is about as gripping as the potter's wheel interlude, had heroine Ana Steele been Jewish she would have had a solicitor friend look over it, increased the clothing allowance and insisted that Friday-night dinners were catered before getting down to that "double mitzvah".

With rabbis stateside now referring to Fifty Shades in their sermons, perhaps it's no surprise that James has a frum fan-base. Let's not forget that the Hebrew Hall of Fame includes publishers, performers and even psychotherapists who are no strangers to pornography - and then there are the authors.

Chances are my friend has yet to tackle any Philip Roth, Erica Jong or Howard Jacobson, but she should try some. In my humble opinion, they are all more accomplished at prose arousal and slip easily into a suitcase without shifting the scales. So, if I were you, I'd leave that trilogy at home.

Last updated: 10:51am, August 9 2012