How to Separate

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (Touchstone, $24.00) is a window into a relatively small and insular world — but a world so all-encompassing to its inhabitants that one may need to cross an ocean in order to escape it. Ronit Krushka, daughter of the revered leader of an Orthodox community in Hendon, North London, shook free of the constraints of her upbringing by moving to (where else?) America. Living on the Upper West Side, she exists in flagrant defiance of boundaries of any kind: she works in the “man’s world” of corporate finance, she pointedly ignores the laws of Shabbat, she venerates a psychoanalyst rather than a rabbi, and she has an affair with her (married) boss. It is Ronit’s intentional desecration of definition that makes her a multidimensional character — that, in fact, ultimately defines her. As Alderman writes, “In the beginning… the most important work is of separation. It is of pulling apart the tangled threads. It is of saying, ‘This shall be separate from that…’. It is of setting a line between them.” But when she receives a phone call telling her of her father’s death, the proverbial lines are blurred and Ronit boards a plane to go back to a place she never wants to see again — and to a community that views her as a challenge, a threat and even a sinner.

Ronit is more than simply an outsider who wears pants. Her history of sexual experimentation sets her irrevocably apart from a community focused on marriage and children. Ronit returns and finds that her childhood lover, a shy woman named Esti, has chosen to repress her sexual inclinations in the name of marriage to Ronit’s cousin David. With the meeting of the two women, the book becomes an implicit — and occasionally explicit — indictment of the role of women, sexuality and feminism in the North London community. Some of Alderman’s best moments as a writer are those where she takes the pulpit in the guise of the omniscient narrator to offer what are perhaps the sermons she might have delivered, were a woman rabbi ever allowed to speak to a mixed audience in such a community. In these passages, she gives the clearest voice to her fundamental dilemma: “We may, if we desire, stand atop a low mound of earth and declare ourselves lords of creation. But we should not then be surprised if we cease to burn with desire for the Source of the world, and if we cease to feel the warmth of His yearning for us.”

The book’s writing is somewhat uneven, and it is sometimes difficult to follow the division of the narration into alternating sections of a third-person omniscient voice and Ronit’s point of view. But Alderman lives and grew up in Hendon, and her unusual perspective as an insider renders her depiction of an outsider particularly resonant. As Ronit says at one point, “[W]hile you don’t have a choice about what you are, you have a choice about what you show.”

Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.