Stranger to Fiction

Wendy Shalit wrongfully accuses authors of misrepresenting the Orthodox

By Sara Ivry|February 2, 2005 10:33 AM

Wagging a finger—naughty, naughty!—at Nathan Englander [1], Tova Mirvis [2], and my colleague, Jonathan Rosen [3], Wendy Shalit rebukes writers who portray “deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light [4].” The young scold went to Israel, found God, and now opines that fiction’s purpose is not art or even mere entertainment, but P.R. It should depict a community—in this case one Shalit claims to know from her stay in a Jerusalem yeshiva—in an ideal form.

But how ridiculous the light appears depends on how hard you squint, and Shalit blinds herself to the purpose of fiction. It is invention, after all, not a sociological inquiry or an educational primer. Readers turn to it to gain entry into other worlds, real and unreal. That’s the fun of it, and Shalit’s not having it. She seeks affirmation of her life choices and, like any good zealot, does not countenance deviation.

What’s more, she glosses over the spectrum that exists under the “Orthodox” umbrella—modern Orthodoxy is a world apart from the more fervent Haredim—and she willfully misapprehends characters’ viewpoints as those of their inventors. Her contest doesn’t stop there. She also outs writers as impious, yet Englander’s taste for pork has nothing to do with his right to write about those who keep kosher.

Though she keeps from stating this outright, Shalit is ultimately preoccupied with what was likely a key lesson in her religious schooling: marit ayin, or how things appear to others. What may have been lacking in that classroom was instruction on the distinction between imagination and reality. Unlike Orthodoxy, fiction encourages rule breaking, and its consequences can be sublime.

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