[Paleopsych] NYTBR: The Observant Reader
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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: The Observant Reader
January 30, 2005
By WENDY SHALIT
JONATHAN ROSEN'S novel ''Joy Comes in the Morning'' features a
beatific Upper East Side Reform rabbi named Deborah whose days are
spent reassuring insecure converts, studying the Talmud and cuddling
deformed newborns whose parents have rejected them. This paragon is,
we are told, like a ''plant . . . nourishing herself directly from the
source.'' But if Deborah is a plant, she's certainly not a clinging
vine. When she propositions a man named Lev, it's with a sexy whisper:
''I'm a rabbi, not a nun.''
In contrast, Deborah's Orthodox ex, Reuben, is a Venus' flytrap.
Although he wasn't supposed to touch her, he had no qualms about
sleeping with Deborah, a slip she's sure was ''only one of the 613
commandments he had violated, but perhaps the one he most easily
discounted.'' Curiously, Reuben showed ''more anxiety about the state
of her kitchen'' than he did about spending the night -- next morning,
he went through the dishes to make sure she had separate sets for milk
You might think Reuben is just a guy with a problem, but the problem
may also be the author's. In the course of the novel, Rosen dismisses
modern Orthodox men as ''macho sissies'' and depicts ''pencil-necked''
Orthodox boys ''poring over giant books instead of looking out the
window at the natural world.'' Rosen's yeshiva students ''give in to
the simplicity of rules rather than the negotiated truce that Deborah
seemed to have achieved.'' Even an elderly lady attracts his withering
eye: ''Like many Orthodox women of a certain age, she had the look of
an aging drag queen.''
Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism -- or those who were never
really exposed to it to begin with -- have often portrayed deeply
observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light. Admittedly,
some of this has produced first-rate literature or, at the least,
great entertainment, but it has left many people thinking traditional
Jews actually live like Tevye in the musical ''Fiddler on the Roof''
or, at the opposite extreme, like the violent, vicious rabbi in Henry
Roth's novel ''Call It Sleep.'' Not long ago, I did too.
At 21, I was on the outside looking in, on my first trip to Israel
with a friend who was, like me, a Reform Jew. One day, we wandered
into a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, and suddenly there were
black hats and side curls everywhere. My friend pointed out a group of
men wearing odd fur hats. ''Those,'' he explained, ''are the really
mean ones.'' I never questioned our snap judgment of these people
until, a few years later, I returned to study at an all-girls seminary
and was surprised to discover that my teachers, whom I adored, were
men and women from this same community.
The women were a particular revelation. Instead of the oppressed
drudges I'd expected, they turned out to be strong and energetic,
raising large families and passing on beloved Jewish traditions, quite
often in addition to holding down outside jobs. Not all of them had
been born into this world: some were newly religious women, former
Broadway dancers or scholars with advanced degrees who had now
dedicated themselves to performing good deeds. After spending more
time in homes like theirs, in Israel and later in America, I came to
have a very different view of the haredi, known to outsiders as the
Some of my Jewish friends have intermarried with people of other
faiths; others have gone back to their traditional roots. Because I
did the latter, I'm fascinated by the ways different Jewish
communities understand and misunderstand one another. As a writer, I'm
especially fascinated by how this happens in print. And it seems I'm
not the only one. Although some Jewish outsiders, like Allegra
Goodman, have written sympathetically of the haredi, other writers
have purported to explain the ultra-Orthodox from an insider's
perspective. But are these authors really insiders? As I changed from
outsider to insider, my perspective changed too.
Consider, for example, Nathan Englander, a talented writer whose
collection of stories, ''For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,'' brimmed
with revelations of hypocrisy and self-inflicted misery: a fistfight
that breaks out in synagogue over who will read from the Torah; a sect
whose members fast three days instead of one and drink a dozen glasses
of wine at the Passover seders instead of four; a man whose rabbi
sends him to a prostitute when his wife won't sleep with him. Of
course, the Orthodox don't actually brawl over who reads the Torah, no
rabbi is allowed to write a dispensation for a man to see a
prostitute, and even extremely pious Jews can't invent their own
traditions for fast days or seders. Englander's sketches were
fictional, but did most people realize this?
Apparently not. The world at large took him to be a ''former yeshiva
boy'' who had renounced his old life. Englander didn't help matters by
referring to the ''anti-intellectual'' and ''fire-and-brimstone''
aspects of his ''shtetl mentality substandard education'' -- a strange
way of describing the Long Island community where he grew up, which
prides itself on its tolerance and dedication to learning, both
secular and religious. Englander is about as much a product of the
shtetl as John Kerry. He actually attended the coeducational Hebrew
Academy of Nassau County and then the State University of New York,
Binghamton. It was one of his supposedly substandard teachers who
encouraged him to write in the first place.
Englander is one of a number of outsider insiders. In 1978, Tova
Reich's novel ''Mara'' depicted an Orthodox rabbi who doubles as a
shady nursing-home owner, married to an overweight dietitian so
obsessed with food that she gorges herself with five-course meals,
even on the fast day of Yom Kippur. The Hasidic hero of her 1988
novel, ''Master of the Return'' (praised by Publishers Weekly for its
''devastating accuracy'') abandons his semi-paralyzed pregnant wife in
her wheelchair in order to spit on immodestly clad female strangers;
at home, he helps his 2-year-old son get ''high on the One Above'' by
giving him marijuana. Reich's 1995 novel, ''The Jewish War,'' told of
a band of zealots whose leader takes three wives and encourages his
followers to kill themselves. Reich herself prefers not to comment on
the level of observance she keeps today, while Englander for his part
publicly boasts about eating pork.
Ostensibly about ultra-Orthodox Jews, this kind of ''insider'' fiction
actually reveals the authors' estrangement from the traditional
Orthodox community, and sometimes from Judaism itself. Unlike Bernard
Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, assimilated Jews who have
written profoundly about the alienation that accompanies that way of
life, the outsider insiders write about a community they may never
have been part of.
One of the most popular of these is Tova Mirvis. In her first novel,
''The Ladies Auxiliary,'' the Orthodox women of Memphis appear in an
unsettlingly harsh light. One of Mirvis's favorite themes is the
oddball ba'al teshuvah (literally, ''master of repentance''), a deeply
observant Jew who did not grow up as one. Such a type can be seen in
''The Ladies Auxiliary'': Jocelyn, who after years of keeping kosher
still regularly indulges in the shrimp salad she hides in her freezer.
In Mirvis's more recent novel, ''The Outside World,'' we meet Shayna,
a mother of five girls living in an ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community.
Shayna supposedly chose a more spiritual life as a young adult, yet
now she spends most of her time reading bridal magazines. Another
character, Bryan, is a 19-year-old who returns home from Israel as a
deeply religious radical, renamed Baruch. Yet at his engagement party,
he's suddenly starring in a Harlequin romance: out on the porch,
Baruch embraces his fiancee and she leans ''in close, their bodies
gently pressing against each other.'' It's bad enough that a yeshiva
student would embrace a woman not related or married to him, but to do
so in public is even worse. Yet Baruch's younger sister isn't
surprised: ''They who pretended to be so holy in public were just like
everyone else in private. It confirmed what she had suspected: that it
was all pretense.''
It certainly seems that way. Shayna's supposedly observant husband,
Herschel, ignores his job as a kosher supervisor for the Orthodox
Coalition while collecting a salary, without experiencing a moment's
guilt. Meanwhile, Shayna has a television in her bedroom, ''its
presence an unacceptable connection to the outside world. It had long
ago been smuggled into the house in an air-conditioner box to hide it
from the neighbors, all of whom had done the same thing.'' All of
There will always be people who fail to live up to their ideals, and
it would be pointless to pretend the strictly observant don't have
failings. But before there can be hypocrisy, there must be real
idealism; in fiction that lacks idealistic characters, even the
hypocrite's place can't be properly understood. Like other outsider
insiders, Mirvis homes in on hypocrisy, but in the process she
undermines the logic of her plot. The novel's jacket copy announces
that ''The Outside World'' is meant to explain ''the retreat into
traditionalism that has become a worldwide phenomenon among young
people,'' but the uninformed reader might wonder why any young person
would want to be part of such a contemptible community.
On her Web site, Mirvis says she ''did very little research'' for her
books because ''I grew up with all these rules and customs and
rituals.'' People who grow up with some traditional customs may
imagine themselves experts, but until they've logged real time among
the haredi they may know as little as most secular writers. Come to
think of it, they may know less, because a secular writer might do
more on-the-spot research.
What is the market for this fiction? Does it simply satisfy our
desire, as one of Mirvis's reviewers put it, to indulge in
''eavesdropping on a closed world''? Or is there a deeper urge: do
some readers want to believe the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and
hypocritical, and thus lacking any competing claim to the truth?
Perhaps, on the other hand, readers are genuinely interested in
traditional Judaism but don't know where to look for more nuanced
portraits of this world.
Thankfully for this last group, another sort of fiction has recently
appeared, written by some of the newly religious Jews that Mirvis,
Englander and others describe but don't quite understand. In real
life, thousands of people each year enter the religious fold, and the
ones who are writers are bringing with them the literary training of
the more secular life they left behind. This makes them ideally suited
to act as interpreters between the two worlds.
Consider, for example, Risa Miller, whose ''Welcome to Heavenly
Heights'' is a sharply focused fictional portrait of a group of
religious American Jews in a settlement on Israel's West Bank. Miller
doesn't idealize her characters: they have the same worries and petty
jealousies as the rest of us. But she also presents them as people who
aspire to transcend their flaws. A ba'al teshuvah since her college
days at Goucher, Miller may well have been the first woman to accept
the PEN Discovery Award in a sheitel, the wig traditionally worn by
observant married women.
Ruchama King is another talented insiders' insider. King is also
haredi, though she grew up less observant, and her novel, ''Seven
Blessings,'' while ostensibly about matchmaking, is really about the
revolution in women's learning among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Like Miller,
King doesn't shy away from the problems that affect her world, but she
also captures the subtlety and magic of its traditions. In particular,
she convincingly describes the sublimated excitement that
characterizes ultra-Orthodox dating as tiny gestures take on
The promising young poet Eve Grubin, who was raised on the Upper West
Side of Manhattan and went to Smith College, has recently committed
herself to Orthodox Judaism. Her first collection, ''What Happened,''
which explores her faith, will appear this fall.
For now, harshly satirical views of the haredi may still be too
common, and novels and stories by sympathetic outsiders like Allegra
Goodman too rare. But the emergence of these newly religious novelists
is a refreshing development. In their work, age-old customs are being
presented in a way that reminds us of the deep satisfactions they can
provide, even, or especially, in the face of the uncertainties of
modern life. Who knows, they may even succeed in converting some of
those outsider insiders.
Wendy Shalit is the author of ''A Return to Modesty.'' She is at work
on a second book, ''The Rebellion of the Good Girl.''
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