November 21, 2005

Wendy,

Is it true that you said you have to be an Orthodox Jew to write accurately about that community? I didn’t read your original article but I read articles on your article and I don’t think what you said is true. I think the fun of literature is that we can go “outside” of ourselves.

Thank you for your time,
Alex


Dear Ms. Shalit,

It was a pleasure reading your New York Times Book Review article and your response on Aish.com. As a ba'alas teshuva [returnee to Judaism] myself, I often hunger for that "good" literature that I left behind in my old life...literature that I can sink into with abandon, becoming part of the story myself, coming out with a deeper understanding of the human condition in all of its facets. However, since I have become frum [religious], I have developed a discomfort for much of this literature. Don't get me wrong--I see the point in legitimate struggle and pain as life deals it out. I'm not suggesting that life is all sunshine and flowers, and books that are written that way frankly bore me. Yet as soon as I get to the point in a novel where the protagonist can't control her feelings for her brother-in-law anymore, leading to, ahem, a lapse in discretion, I have to put the book down! Why should I fill the mind that God gave me with such gratuitous junk?

I'm an avid reader, and desperately in need of a book list. I've read most of the books published by the religious imprints already, and I get that claustrophobic feeling if I read too many of them back to back. I appreciated your mentioning other authors who have produced work sympathetic to Orthodox characters, and will definitely look into them soon. What I'm wondering if you can help me with, though, is a list of secular books that you have read or heard about, that are uplifting to read. I guess I'm actually writing this as a spokeswoman for the entire frum community in my city, since we have many educated, thinking and sensitive women here with nothing to read! If you could help me out in any way, shape or form, I'd greatly appreciate it.

Keep up the great work!

All best,

Debra



Dear Debra,

Have you considered Flowers in the Attic? Only joking.

I think it’s a wonderful idea to start a book list.

But first I’d like to clarify two points for those who didn’t read my article. The problem I have with novels featuring Orthodox hypocrites is not a moral problem but a literary one. If the reader knows in advance that the Orthodox Jews will always be “bad guys,” it’s simply too predictable. To me, it is this predictability that makes for for plodding literature--not the immorality, per se. After all, Madame Bovary concerns immorality, but who could improve on Flaubert? The power of the novel lies in Emma’s complexity.

So the reason I enjoyed Ruchama King and Risa Miller’s novels is not because they are “moral” or because the Orthodox characters “look good” (in fact their characters have many failings) but rather, because their characters are portrayed as multi-dimensional.

Alex, thanks for your important question. No, I never wrote that you have to be an “insider” to portray Orthodox Jews accurately. However, let’s face it: it’s easy to fall prey to inaccurate stereotypes when a world is foreign to you. That King and Miller’s characters are real people is no accident. These authors know the inner workings of the worlds they depict, and this first-hand knowledge matters a lot. Is it possible to write about an Orthodox wife who covers her hair, for instance, if you personally do not? Of course it is. But the story will only be good if you can overcome your preconceptions about how these women must feel, and try to understand them as they understand themselves.

Back to Debra’s great idea. I’m going to kick off a book list with some of my favorites, but I would love to hear yours and other people’s, so please send them in!

In no particular order mine are:

  • Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch, and Adam Bede, by George Eliot
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
  • Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
  • Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
  • The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguru
  • All of Jane Austen
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Ann Bronte
  • Anna Karenina by Tolstoy
  • Anything by Anthony Trollope
  • Clarissa and Charles Grandison, by Samuel Richardson
  • Niels Lyhne & Mogens & Marie Grubbe, by Jens Peter Jacobsen
  • The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Debra, I know you asked about fiction, but as long as we’re talking favorites, no one will regret reading Whitaker Chambers’s Witness, F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, or anything by Samuel Johnson.

More recently I’ve become reacquainted with Brown Bear, Brown Bear: What Do You See? and The Runaway Bunny. They are very deep.





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