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Orthodox Jews in Fiction

May 9, 2009 | by Wendy Shalit

We have relied for too long on people disaffected with the Orthodox world to produce an "Orthodox literature" that verges on caricature.

Last month, the Sunday New York Times Book Review published an article by Wendy Shalit which offered a critique of the way Orthodox Jews are often stereotyped in a crude and negative way in certain contemporary works of fiction. While many non-writers thought her comments were thoughtful and fair, other literary types have been upset with her critique. Here, we reprint her response to her critics.

My recent January 30 New York Times essay on fictional representation of Orthodox Judaism seems to have touched a nerve. I wanted to spark discussion, but I've been surprised that some have reacted against what they suspect I am thinking, as opposed to what I actually wrote. Some have deduced that I feel "people don't have the right to their own experiences," or that I'm a "Soviet" who secretly advocates "lowering our artistic standards in order to accommodate a better message." One writer accused me of covertly thinking he didn't "stand at Sinai"; another likened me to "the mullahs of Tehran" who want to ban books.

Since I do not actually aspire to be a mullah, I feel the need to clarify. . . .

All the authors I discussed are great writers, and I'm sure they are good people too. Nevertheless, they are simply not from the fervently-Orthodox community that is featured so negatively in their novels. Unfortunately, the media (and many readers) seem to feel that these writers are representing the traditional Jewish community -- one "grants us the illicit pleasure of eavesdropping on a closed world," and another describes wacky newly religious types with "devastating accuracy" -- when by their own admission the authors do not identify with these worlds.

In quoting the authors' public statements about themselves, such as Nathan Englander's explanation that he's disillusioned with his modern Orthodoxy or Tova Mirvis's considering herself "liberal, feminist, open Orthodox," I am not critiquing their personal choices. I am examining why sometimes their haredi characters lack realism. The fact that these authors do not come from the specific subgroup they often write about would not be an insurmountable obstacle, so long as they didn't rely on negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, sometimes they do. The traditional Orthodox characters in their novels tend to be hypocrites.

Why is the best writing advice to "write what you know"? Why did Joyce write with maps of Dublin on his desk, when he was born and raised there? Because the fact is, authenticity in fiction does matter.

Everyone knows this intuitively, so why are certain literary types so upset by my essay? I think I've run up against a shibboleth. It's simply taken for granted in the literary world that if you can come up with a sufficiently odd cast of Orthodox characters, you're on your way to a great novel. And I'm challenging that formula. I'm saying: maybe this is not sufficient. Cynthia Ozick has said that "fiction has license to do anything it pleases," and indeed it does. But is that any guarantee that the fiction will be good?

Don't get me wrong: I think all these novelists are talented writers. But I think that they would be even better if they didn't rely so much on their characters' hypocrisy to fuel their plots.

I'm not advocating any sort of litmus test for Jewish fiction. I object to these novels on purely literary grounds: I find much of the contemporary fiction dealing with Orthodox Jews to be too predictable. Whenever an "ultra-Orthodox" character comes on the scene, I already know he's gonna be a bad guy. I have the same problem with officially "kosher" novels: before picking them up, I already know all the characters will be sugar and spice. That's just as tedious. Even religious people aren't all good -- or bad. Sometimes they can surprise us.

At the same time, we have relied for too long on people disaffected with the Orthodox world to produce an "Orthodox literature" that verges on caricature. Their characters, ostensibly spiritually motivated, never show anything resembling an inner life or concern for others. For me it's hard to get inside such flat characters, and I always had this problem -- even before I became interested in Judaism. Sometimes there is not even much of a setting in these novels, because a steady parade of weird religious Jews is seen to be sufficient.

I don't think it is. I think these books would be better if the authors would allow for people who were also trying to live by their ideals -- not just those who are gossips, mentally unstable, or drug addicts. To me the most enduring fiction includes both good and bad characters, and of course everything in between. In "As You Like It," there is a wonderful banished Duke who is a real saint. There are also characters who are corrupt or cynical, and then there are your basic strugglers and yearners. We needed that noble Duke to understand what the cynics were against. The Duke allows us to empathize with and enjoy the melancholic comment, "All the world's a stage." Or consider The Brothers Karamazov with the deeply good priest, without whom the hypocrites and even the strugglers and yearners would seem two-dimensional.

For whatever reason, many writers today like to create immoral haredi and newly-religious characters. The truth is, I don't know why. Perhaps because they are not from these worlds, they fail to appreciate the idealism that's there. Or perhaps it's because, as Ms. Mirvis has admitted, nowadays "there is a great deal of discomfort with religiosity, and I have to admit, I feel it myself as well."

When all your Orthodox characters are cold and dysfunctional, and unlike anything this group understands itself to be, then I think one must ask what else might be going on.

My claim that newly-religious writers are revolutionizing Jewish fiction is not based on their level of religious observance, nor any "message" in their books. Rather, it is rooted in their ability to navigate the misrepresented Orthodox world as insiders - i.e., those who do not carry "discomfort with religiosity" -- while bringing an 'outside' literary sensibility. Never before have we had a novelist like Risa Miller, who is the winner of a PEN award and also a disciple of the Bostoner Rebbe. For the first time, we have books that capture the complexity of the Orthodox world, and do it well.

Do authors outside the haredi world have the right to create literature about that world? Absolutely. Must we agree that such literature is all good? I'm not so sure. If anything reeks of "Soviets" or "mullahs," it is the position that one must approve of certain literature just because the group it derides is outside the protective walls of political correctness.

Tova Reich's 1995 story "The Lost Girl" (published originally in Harper's), pitted a girl who was lost on a field trip against a haredi school that was essentially indifferent to her. "Look," their principal tells a reporter, "We went into the woods with 300 girls and came out with 299...on a final exam that would give you a score of about 99.7 out of 100 -- a sure A, maybe even an A plus."

Now, this is really funny, but why? Mainly because any time a girl is lost in the real Orthodox world, an efficient network mobilizes a large army of searchers with flashlights and gear. Just one year before Reich's story, in fact, a 14-year-old Brooklyn girl disappeared in a Connecticut state park on a school outing, and the local search folks were bowled over by the busloads of yeshiva students from different states who dropped everything to find this girl.

To be sure, fiction is not sociology, and sometimes a negative slant can enliven a story. But when all your Orthodox characters are cold and dysfunctional, and unlike anything this group understands itself to be, then I think one must ask what else might be going on. Ironically, I feel my colleagues underestimate the importance of their own books, as if to say: "Oh, never mind our little stories, they have no impact anyway." But literature matters. 18th-century French literature was a reflection of, and shaped what became, modern society's dominant notions of the social contract. How is the treatment of Orthodox Jews in fiction affecting our society and particularly, the rest of the world's perception of the Jews? I don't pretend to know the answer to this, but I feel we should be permitted to ask the question.

Let's turn the tables. Suppose there is a new genre in American Jewish literature, in which Reform Jews are vilified regularly. There is the temple's secretary who kills one of her Hadassah sisters in order to get the latest Judith Lieber bag, and a gay Reform rabbi who seduces younger male congregants. There are idealistic college coeds who want to escape Reform life, but are daunted by the prospect of learning Hebrew, so they abuse drugs instead. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is such a genre. And suppose further that these novels are a bit short on character development, that they are primarily driven by page after page of weirdo Reform characters, and mouth agape, one must turn the pages in order to satisfy one's curiosity: what will this bad Reform bunch do next? The authors, who are not Reform themselves, are celebrated in the non-Jewish world and their Reform-bashing literature is translated into multiple languages.

How would we feel about such novels? My guess is that they would not be so popular, and the fact that we have toasted such literature about Orthodox Jews for so long might -- just might -- tell us something about our prejudices.

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