The students in the course I am teaching on “Jewish Women Writers and the Search for Religion” have difficulty with the portrait of Orthodoxy often found in contemporary fiction. They ask: Is it really this bad? Aren’t there any women with more positive perspectives on the Orthodox experience? (They wonder, too: are these the same questions their grandparents asked when Philip Roth first started writing about Jews?)
My students have a point. The past 15 years have witnessed an upsurge of fiction by Jewish women about the Orthodox world, much of it providing what purports to be unvarnished truth. The Satmar sect, in particular, is experiencing a literary moment in the sun this year with two new books by formerly Hasidic women — the memoir by twenty-four-year-old Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Simon & Schuster, $23), and the English-language debut novel by Anouk Markovitz, I Am Forbidden (Hogarth, $25). Both shed new light on this old culture.
Although it takes a while to get to the “scandals” promised in Feldman’s subtitle, the book has the honest feel of an author who is trying to ferret out the hidden truths of a world so often cloaked in black. The details of her upbringing invite a confessional memoir:
Feldman’s mother, a poor, English child of divorce, marries Feldman’s mentally disabled father as a way out of her own impoverishment. A lesbian, the mother eventually leaves her family and their Brooklyn Hasidic enclave —“driving off in her little Honda while everyone on the street poked their heads out the window to witness the spectacle.
Perhaps she was the first woman in Williamsburg to drive.” Shaped by her mother’s experience, Feldman realizes that to stay is to remain under the authoritarian eye of the Satmar; to leave is to pursue opportunities forbidden to women of her sect.
Far subtler, I Am Forbidden is a powerful fictional evocation of 20th century Hasidic life. The female experience in Hasidic culture is largely relayed through the characters of Mila Heller and Atara Zalman, who grow up as sisters after the wartime murder of Mila’s parents sends her to the Zalman home in Transylvania, in 1939. (The novel extends to present-day New York.) Mila’s life conforms to her adopted parents’ expectations, while Atara’s reading of secular books leads her away from this cloistered world. Atara’s hunger for learning makes her a true child of the Zalman family, but the strictures of ultra-Orthodoxy force an estrangement between father and daughter: “Zalman’s Talmud folios and Atara’s books were like neighbors who share a building without knowing each other, except that now and then Zalman searched the girls’ rooms for secular writings and tore them up. ‘I will not raise a Spinoza, not under my roof!’”
Exploring the Jewishness of their doubting characters was the concern of contemporary American Jewish writers influenced by Philip Roth; not for these two female authors. In the eyes of Feldman’s ultra-Orthodox family, ultra-Orthodox is the only way to be Jewish, and life beyond its borders is considered “living like a goy.” The “us” and “them” of earlier American Jewish literature was “Jew” and “gentile.” But these books reveal that, for many Jewish writers today, the chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is the critical divide.
Rachel Gordan teaches American Judaism at Northwestern University.