Portraying believers in literature
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 8, 2005
Essays written from an unabashedly haredi viewpoint in The New York Times are about as frequent as sightings of the extinct dodo bird. For that reason, Wendy Shalit's "The Observant Reader" in the January 30, 2005 New York Times Book Review has generated more than the usual buzz.
Shalit's topic is the portrayal of the haredi world in contemporary fiction. And her principal analytical tool is to classify various authors as insiders and outsiders.
By including ba'alei teshuva like herself in the category of "insiders" and appearing to treat a lack of religious observance as an indicia of "outsider" status, Shalit left herself vulnerable to the charge that her real distinction is between those who portray the haredi world positively and those who do not. (She convincingly rebuts that charge at the Jewish World Review Web site.)
Methodological quibbles aside, Shalit raises valid questions about the verisimilitude of fictional portrayals of haredim. In her rebuttal, she cites Tova Reich's 1995 story about a haredi girl lost on a school field trip. The girl's principal tells a reporter, "We went into the woods with 300 girls and came out with 299... [O]n a final exam that would give you... a sure A, maybe even an A plus."
Yet when a haredi girl was lost on a school trip in a Connecticut forest just the year prior to Reich's story, hundreds of haredim traveled for hours to take part in the two-day search and thousands more joined in prayer vigils. Reich's portrayal of haredi indifference to a young girl in danger cannot be dismissed as an author pursuing her private muse. Such a distorted presentation of haredi behavior constitutes an authorial hate crime.
Biographical questions are entirely valid when authors are being marketed for their ability to provide an inside view of a hitherto inaccessible world. To non-Orthodox readers, "yeshiva" may be a generic term. But the co-ed Long Island Yeshiva where Nathan Englander learned as a boy bears no resemblance to Volozhin Yeshiva, and guarantees no knowledge of Boro Park.
Similarly, Tova Mirvis's self-proclaimed ability to discern at a distance of two blocks which boy in a Tommy Hilfiger shirt will also be wearing a yarmulke may have been a useful skill growing up in Memphis or on the Columbia University campus. It would be useless in hassidic Williamsburg.
That Englander boasts of eating pork today does not automatically undermine the accuracy of his descriptions of haredi society. Chaim Grade's fictional portrait of the Chazon Ish, with whom he studied as a young man in Vilna, is unmatched by any biography of a major Torah figure. Yet Grade was no longer fully observant when he wrote The Yeshiva. And in My Quarrel with Hirsch Rasseneyer, he conveys the arguments of a Holocaust survivor who retained his faith as powerfully as those of his friend, who did not.
Yet neither is Englander's chazzer fressing necessarily irrelevant. Many who cast off religious observance will be tempted to justify their life choices by painting the world of their youth as darkly as possible.
When the characters in a Spike Lee film address one another as "nigger," we do not suspect racism, as we would if a white director portrayed all blacks as shiftless gangsters with boom boxes. We would recognize the latter's use of stereotypes as an act of self-validation of his own group.
In other words, insider or outsider status makes a big difference.
No less relevant than authors' biographies is the sociology of their readership.
Why do works filled with villainous or shallow haredim speak to non-haredi readers? Take interviews with authors who have left the world of religious observance, such as Alan Dershowitz or Englander. These interviews tend to follow a set pattern, with the interviewee sharing stories of how he consistently stumped his rabbis with theological questions that left them dumbfounded.
Granted Dershowitz is very bright, and not every cheder rebbe is open to or capable of answering the sorts of questions that will occur to most intelligent youngsters. Still something here is a bit too pat. I would venture that those who leave religious observance due to hormones, academic failure, or dysfunctional families outnumber those who do so for intellectual reasons 10 to one. But the stock self-portrait of the former yeshiva boy assures secular readers that Orthodoxy lacks intellectual seriousness.
In a similar vein, the late Samuel Dresner once wondered why American Jews gobble up Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories with such relish. He answered that for all his literary genius, Singer's chief attraction was the reassurance he provided American Jews that their ancestors were as sex-obsessed as they.
Curiously, Shalit omits from her survey Naomi Ragen, the doyenne of the genre of novels about depraved haredim. Yet surely much of Ragen's popularity owes to her veritable rogues gallery of avaricious, cruel, hypocritical haredim hiding private vices behind public piety.
Like Shalit, I am a ba'al teshuva. As such, I suspect that what pains her most is the lack of a literature that makes sense of her decision, and that of thousands of other highly educated ba'alei teshuva, to abandon the secular success track and join a world in which we remain partial outsiders, even after many decades.
Were the haredi community composed of people so uniformly shallow, hypocritical and mean-spirited as those found in the books Shalit discusses, that decision would be truly incomprehensible.
Indeed the quality of those we met at the outset was usually one of the prime attractions of the haredi world.
Haaretz editor David Landau once asked me how a Yale-educated professional could have become haredi. I told him that I had never before encountered people of such seriousness of purpose, dedication and generosity. And I mentioned the effect of meeting a handful of tzadikim who are characterized by the internal consistency of their lives and their ability to rise above all considerations of self.
Landau, who comes from a family of Gerrer hassidim, thought for a minute before replying, "Yes. That's the hardest thing for me to deal with."
The first question ba'alei teshuva are likely to ask of a work of fiction is: Will it inspire a greater interest in a Torah-based life, or the opposite? Our evaluation will never be purely esthetic.
But that need not mark us as enemies of good literature. On the contrary. Raised on Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Austen, Eliot and James, we are dismayed that our own community's literary efforts seldom rise above the level of Parson Weems's fables. We know that no one will be attracted by monochromatic portraits of supernal beings. As a biographer of major Torah figures, I have always tried to steer clear of hagiography.
A book like Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls, which turns a sharp eye on aspects of the haredi community, does not bother us, for she also captures the daily struggle of committed Jews between their earthly natures and their higher aspirations.
To do that, or to convey the subtle pleasure of unraveling together with others the twists and turns of a talmudic passage requires not only literary gifts, but, as Shalit rightly asserts, knowledge of the community being described.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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