Writing in the Dark
Why an Orthodox novelist shuns Orthodox publishers
Brianna has always dreamed of being a writer, of having her words read by thousands of people, especially the members of the Orthodox Jewish community in which she grew up. That is the target audience for the unpublished novel she has penned over the last few years, a coming-of-age tale about a girl who—not unlike her—feels constricted by religion.
The school I went to as a kid was overly restrictive, so the book I wrote is about the fact that these schools don’t prepare girls for real life,” says Brianna, the nom de plume (nom de frum?) of the single, twenty-one-year-old blogger who grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community of Monsey, NY, where she shares an apartment with another Orthodox young woman.
The book is really exposing certain issues that no one else has dealt with before, things that girls have no idea about: Like in the workplace, what do you do when someone hits on you? Or what about financially, getting paid ten dollars an hour when everyone else is getting paid fifteen? Somebody needs to teach these girls how to live.” She knows just the person to do it: Herself.
Among her Monsey peers, Brianna is an anomaly. As a child, her parents allowed her to spend hours at the library reading books—secular books, with sex and violence and nudity and trayf. Her parents are ba’alei teshuva; raised un-Orthodox, they chose to become devout several years before they married. That’s one reason I believe they gave me access to videos—although not TV—and allowed me to read pretty much whatever I wanted,” she says, citing books like Gossip Girl and Daughters of the Night.
Maybe that was their first mistake,” she says with a laugh. I had a different intellectual background than my peers.” At sixteen she mustered the courage to go to community college, instead of a seminary. While many girls in her world go to community college, it’s usually to schools that offer single-sex programs, and only after attending all-girl yeshivas. In any case, school is often a place holder before the real goal: getting married. Brianna’s parents paid her way through college, which was, she says, very open-minded.” They could have forced her to go to Monsey Academy, a school for female teenage misfits, but were smart enough to recognize that I’m very smart and would do well in college.”
Unfortunately, Brianna’s fictional account of an Orthodox girl struggling with her environment will likely never be read by her peers. The fiction that passes muster in the ultra-Orthodox realm has no sex, drugs, rock and roll, and certainly no ambiguity about Judaism. The world depicted, says Gennady Estraikh, a professor of Yiddish Studies at New York University, is a wonderful, peaceful, helpful, pious community with excellent women—but we know nothing about the women apart from the fact that they’re excellent,” he says. They never discuss how pretty they are—they are simply a notion of a wonderful mother and wonderful wife.”
In general, the themes of these books (published by decidedly Jewish houses, including Artscroll, Feldheim, Targum, and Mesorah), such as A Promise Fulfilled by Menachem Kagan and Yair Weinstock’s Eye of the Storm, are consistent: a family is reunited after the Holocaust; a person struggles after gaining wealth; a teenager is convinced not to abandon Orthodoxy. Rabbis are depicted only in a good light and sensitive topics like molestation or agunah are never mentioned. Everything takes place within Orthodox communities—mirroring the lives of these books’ readers.
There are religious Jews that work, shop and play exclusively with other frum people,” says Brianna, who came up with her pseudonym after hearing the name on a talk radio show; she does not want the community to know her identity. They create a bubble of isolation for themselves and pretend nothing valuable can be found outside it. They rarely, if ever, interact with non-Jews or Jews who do things differently. In those fictional worlds, people who aren’t frum Jews are limited to their job descriptions: the mailman or the police officer, for example. Although the characters are polite to outsiders, no meaningful relationships take place.”
These books are a lot like Christian fiction—those are always pure and clean, and though there might be conflict, it’s not real,” adds Daisy Marylses, the executive editor of Publishers Weekly. They’re not necessarily written that well, because what’s more important than the story is the message.” A case in point: Chaim Eliav’s The Runaway, which tells the tale of an Orthodox boy who defects from the fold, joins a cult, but eventually finds his way home to normalcy.”
Brianna, unsurprisingly, resents the limited depictions and the fact that some authors are shunned by the Orthodox. Naomi Ragen is excellent, but the community won’t allow her books in the schools,” says Brianna about the best-selling author of, most recently, The Saturday Wife. They said it’s ‘airing dirty laundry.’”
This airing dirty laundry” is an issue for many people who believe that fictional portrayals must be positive—both to themselves and to the world at large. Part of the reason Jewish presses don’t publish Ragen’s books is because she writes about suicide, adultery, and the like. *
Ragen, an American now living near Jerusalem, is exceptional in her refusal to bow to the community’s worst impulses. In Jephte’s Daughter, published in 1989, she tells of a Hasidic woman, fed up with her husband’s physical and emotional abuse, who jumps, with her three-year-old daughter, to her death. Sotah, from 1995, follows an ultra-Orthodox woman falsely accused of adultery. The Saturday Wife concerns a frustrated Orthodox woman who longs for a better life. Call her Emma Bovary-stein.
Ragen admits that she was conflicted about bringing these topics to light; she is Orthodox, and says she feels guilty about her negative depictions. She has refused to let her books be translated into Hebrew (Finnish, however, is another matter). She also has refused to sell film rights, because she doesn’t want the images she has conjured in print—of a religious Jew beating his wife, for example—on the big screen. Nevertheless, she is delighted to have opened the door,” she writes in an email. It’s a fascinating world, and deserves fictional representation.”
Censoring novels doesn’t curb the hunger for forbidden content. Brianna still visits the library regularly to find books that go beyond family issues, shidduch issues, and marriage.” Shtreimel, the pseudonymous name of a thirtysomething year old blogger who was raised in a Hasidic family in Brooklyn, recalls finding his mother’s stash of stupid, silly novels” buried deep in a closet. Though his parents bought him plenty of books in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English that passed muster, he was intrigued by what was off limits, and as soon as he discovered real”—that is, uncensored—fiction he became a public library member, visiting once a week.
Now a fan of World War II fiction, he’s wary of novels printed by Orthodox houses. Not that they’re on a worse level than those published by the leading publishers, nor are the topics boring or uninteresting. It’s the blatant lack of information that is hampering one from getting a full picture of what was going on at the time.”
Meanwhile, mainstream publishing houses are increasingly offering serious fiction set in the world of Orthodoxy, like Rochelle Krich’s Dream House, about a smart, sexy, Shabbat-observant Los Angeles journalist; Joshua Braff’s The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green; Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World; and Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1998. These novels take tradition seriously, not merely as something that needs to be shed in order to be modern or as nostalgic kitsch, but as a strong, worthwhile, contemporary presence in people’s lives.
Mirvis says she feels an obligation to write the truth—or her version of it. I have no interest in promoting a certain religious point of view, in affirming or even teaching about Orthodoxy,” she says. If the books teach people something about the Orthodox world, that’s fine, but my real interest is in the characters, the themes, the conflicts.”
Reared to the right of center” in an Orthodox community in Memphis, Mirvis says she is guided by Cynthia Ozick, who wrote in her essay Tradition and (or Versus) the Jewish Writer” that when a thesis or framework—any kind of prescriptiveness of tendentiousness—is imposed on the writing of fiction, imagination flies out the door, and with it, the freedom and volatility and irresponsibility that imagination both confers and commands.”
Brianna agrees—but she understands the hesitation on the part of the Orthodox community. People who come from this world have an emotional attachment to it. It’s hard to go against the grain,” she says. She even considered toning down some of the anti-Orthodox sentiments in her book, but decided against it. When you control what people read, what information they have access to, you control what they think,” she says. That is a far worse prison than any physical one could be.” In the meantime, she is posting chapters of her book on her blog. If the day should come that her literary ambition gets the better of her and she tries to get her book published, Brianna won’t send the manuscript to a Jewish press. It’s like sending The Da Vinci Code to a Christian publisher—kind of useless except perhaps as an insult.”