[Paleopsych] NYTBR: The Observant Reader

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The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: The Observant Reader
January 30, 2005


    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
    and meat.

    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
    heightened meaning.

    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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