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Distant Sisters: The Women I Left Behind

Distant Sisters: The Women I Left Behind
by Juditli Rotem, Foreword by Nessa Rapoport Jewish Publication Society $34.95

Implicit in Judith Rotem’s exploration of women in the ultra-Orthodox haredi world is a critique, for she herself lived in that world for a decade, raised a family, supported her husband while he went to study every day at a yeshiva. And then she left. So when this Israeli novelist returns to the homes of women whose lives resemble her own past, she does so with ambivalence, distaste and affection.

The haredi women of Rotem’s book are overextended. Not only are they in a race to bear their full, large quota of children, but also their husbands learn sacred texts all day, leaving them to earn the family’s financies by hook or by crook. They must maintain both personal purity and their homes to precise standards. (The preparations for a haredi Passover, for instance, begin many months before). They are the economic, emotional foundation of the communities in which they live, “like fuel nourishing and sustaining the ongoing fire,. ensuring the survival of the haredi world,” Rotem writes.

This book, which presents women’s voices on such structures as milcveh, marriage, childbearing, beauty, is powerful in large part because of Rotem’s intimacy with the world she explores. She is sympathetic to the religious fervor that inspires her subjects, able to put them at ease, and attuned to the subtle ways in which they communicate. She notes, for instance, the mirror hung in the kitchen of an otherwise completely modest woman, or the sunken eyes and bent posture of a woman barely coping.

But while Rotem describes the backbreaking labor of haredi women, the insularity of the haredi world (the word, she explains, means “fearful one”), she pulls up short of completing her critique. She seems afraid of judging the haredi world, unwilling to call for change. So the reader is caught in limbo by an author who presents the case but refuses to make the closing argument.