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Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, by Nora L. Rubel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 207 pp. $24.50.
In “The Observant Reader,” her brief, polemical 2005 New York Times Book Review essay, Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty (1999), called several prominent Jewish American novelists to task for their “unflattering” portrayals of Orthodox Jews (and in particular of ultra-Orthodox Jews) and asked wistfully why there were so few positive religiously observant characters in contemporary Jewish fiction. Curiously, Nora Rubel mentions Shalit’s essay only on the very last page of her slim monograph, though she engages the same phenomenon (more expansively, to be sure) and asks more or less the same question. Noting an upsurge in ultra-Orthodox characters in literature, film, and television since the mid-80s, and remarking that these mostly negative portrayals coincide with the much-touted revival of observant Judaism in America (of which Shalit was a part), Rubel wonders at what seems to be the simultaneous attraction and revulsion of mainstream American Jewry toward the ultra-Orthodox, concluding that American Jews are deeply ambivalent about haredim—and about themselves.
Beginning with a desultory sketch of ultra-Orthodoxy, Rubel follows with “a historical introduction to twentieth century Jewish American fiction and its engagement with Orthodoxy” (p. 20) in which she identifies three stages: first-generation fiction, in which Orthodoxy represents an imposing Old World; second generation writing, in which Orthodoxy’s role is negligible, and the contemporary scene that is her major focus. She then proceeds to engage the primary texts of her study, organizing these too into three categories, each of which is allotted its own chapter. Each chapter is sprinkled with glimpses of numerous narratives (mostly novels and stories, but also a number of films and television shows) and assorted other documents (news accounts, opinion pieces, etc.) but centers on two selected works that serve as primary examples of the category. The first category comprises narratives in which ultra-Orthodoxy is questioned, focusing on Erich Segal’s Acts of Faith (1992) and Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader (1995), both apostasy narratives in which formerly haredi characters leave the fold. In the second, Orthodoxy is violently rejected: her choices here are Naomi Ragen’s Sotah (1993) and Boaz Yakin’s 1998 film, A Price Above Rubies, captivity narratives in which women find themselves imprisoned within the gothic, patriarchal world of the haredim. The third category consists of narratives in which more or less acculturated Jewish American parents are confronted with the haredization of their children. Her major examples: Anne Roiphe’s Lovingkindness (1987) and Tova Mirvis’s The Outside World (2004). Together, the chapters deliberately form (we are told) a trajectory of questioning, rejection, and coming to terms, underscoring the author’s hope for eventual reconciliation, a hope belied by the chronology of the works examined.
Rubel is to be commended for turning the spotlight on the ultra-Orthodox and for taking their place in the contemporary Jewish American imagination seriously. But those familiar with the contemporary haredi world or with previous works such as Sam Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew will find here little that is new. To be sure, Rubel’s contribution lies primarily in her literary focus, but it is hard to say what that focus adds: indeed, those acquainted with her primary materials will find little that is revelatory in Rubel’s readings and may even find them reductive. Students of Jewish literary history may judge some of her generalizations imprecise and ill-advised: the lumping together, say, of Fiddler on the Roof, Sholem Aleichem, and I. B. Singer as sources of “storybook shtetl images” (p. 24), or of Philip Roth, Herman Wouk, and Saul Bellow as writers who address “an already acculturated American Jewry encountering the alienation of the suburbs” (p. 31). Some may wonder why the author devotes a whole chapter to the gothic distortions of Sotah and Rubies, say, and ignores writers who treat contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy more benevolently, such as Risa Miller, Ruchama King, and most prominently, Allegra Goodman. (Of these, only Goodman is mentioned here and there in passing.) Wouldn’t an in-depth analysis of these writers—all of whom are mentioned by Shalit—add a crucial dimension to our understanding of the place of the haredim in the Jewish American imagination?
Beyond the quibbles, more fundamental issues about method and scope present themselves. To begin with, questions about how to read literary texts, about the interconnectedness of literary texts and the culture at large: do novels offer material fundamentally different than other documentary evidence, or are they simply fictionalized equivalents? About mid-way through the monograph, Rubel quotes Chaim Potok as saying that “no one can work with the novel and remain inside any fundamentalist sect” (p. 69), suggesting that something about the novel form makes it categorically inhospitable to wholly sympathetic accounts of haredi life. What do such statements say about choosing novels as an index of the Jewish American imagination? One wonders, too, if the focus on depictions of the ultra-Orthodox is too narrow, whether the haredi characters are foils for larger concerns—not about the validity and authenticity of non-Orthodox Judaism, but about the place of faith and spiritual discipline in contemporary life. Should we be asking about the place of haredim in the Jewish American imagination, or about the absence of God?
One final note: the editing of the volume is surprisingly poor. Within one 10-page stretch, Thomas Friedmann, who wrote an important article on Orthodoxy in Jewish American literature, appears as Thomas Friedman, the journalist, who is also quoted in the book (e.g., p. 32); Donna Rifkind appears as Donna Riskind (p. 38); “fictitiously” is used instead of the more precise “fictionally” (p. 36); and the 1957 edition of Nathan Glazer’s American Judaism is referenced on the impact of the 1967 Six-Day War on American Jews (p. 32, note 31). One expects more of a prestigious publisher such as Columbia University Press.
Michael P. Kramer