Emblematic of the struggle with the memories and the tugging demands of an Orthodox Jewish past are the writings of Ruth Knafo Setton. Her writings are reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s or Shalom Aleichem’s in telling the stories of the immigrant with one foot in the old country and a few toes in the new. But unlike her male predecessors, no uplifting theater, musical or otherwise, will ever emanate from her fiction, stories of women that are compellingly dark and dangerous.
In The Road to Fez, Setton tells the story of Brites Suleika Lek, who, like Setton, is Moroccan-born and American-raised. At 18, Brit has returned to her ancestral homeland. She is a naive, unmarried young woman living among her more experienced, married woman relatives. She is a Jew in an Arab society; Americanized yet strongly attracted to her ethnic heritage. She thinks she is in love with her widowed uncle. She also wants to find out more about her namesake, the mysterious Suleika who was martyred in Fez in the 19th century when, following her conversion to Islam, she attempted to return to the Jewish community. Like Suleika, Brit “hover[s] between two worlds.”
The novel is exotic and erotic, telling the story of a segregated society: Muslim vs. Jew; male vs. female; married vs. unmarried; natives vs. foreigners; powerful vs. powerless. Brit sits with her female cousins, helping in the frenetic Passover preparations, a member of her particular ghetto. “The courtyard is roofless, a secret world invisible from the street … an intimate world turned in on itself …Women’s tongues are sharp, but only in their domain: the rooftop, courtyard and kitchen, where they dissect an entire town, and then sew it back together.”
Setton candidly depicts the lives of these women, along with the often cruel (and sometimes fatal) treatment they receive because they are women in a male-dominated world. She also offers counter-voices to this culture. Her uncle reflects, “My brother-in-law, Haim, claims a woman needs brutality from a man. To be tamed and beaten and kept in her place. But look at my sister, Mamouche: a wounded, fluttering bird.” He further reflects, “You don’t hear a song by trampling it beneath your feet.” Setton’s skill in weaving legend, lore and life is awe-inspiring.
Rabbi Bonita E. Taylor is a CPE supervisor for The Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care, The Health Care Chaplaincy, in New York and rabbi for Congregation Gan Eden in Maui, Hawaii. Rabbi David J. Zucker is director of Pastoral Care and Recreation at Shalom Park in Aurora, Colorado. His latest book is American Rabbis: Facts and Fiction.