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November 3, 2010

Naomi Ragen’s cathartic eighth novel

http://www.jewishjournal.com/books/article/naomi_ragens_cathartic_eighth_novel_20101103

Naomi Ragen Novel

Naomi Ragen Novel

For many years, Orthodox novelist and playwright Naomi Ragen has drawn upon her own knowledge and experience to shape her texts, but it is her most recent novel that comes closest to home. Inspired by her legal battles over the last three and a half years concerning copyright infringement, “The Tenth Song” tells the story of an upper-middle-class American Jewish family whose lives are suddenly turned upside down by a lawsuit they could never have imagined.

When the FBI accuses Adam Samuels, a well-respected accountant in Boston and an observant Jew, of funding terrorist organizations directly responsible for the death of American soldiers, he vows to defend himself in court — even if that means the financial ruin of his family and serving many years in prison.

The devastating effects of the accusation and ensuing trial send shock waves through the entire family, prompting the characters to make drastic life changes and question what really matters. Adam’s daughter Kayla suddenly quits Harvard Law School and breaks off her engagement, fleeing to a desert commune near the Dead Sea run by a charismatic mystic. Adam’s wife, Abigail, rushes to her rescue. But instead of dragging Kayla back home, Abigail begins to examine her own lifestyle choices and values. Several surprising plot twists ensue, and although there are occasional gaps, Ragen is largely able to keep the plot believable.

In her upcoming book tour across the United States, including an appearance at American Jewish University on Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.  as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books,  the author plans to discuss the challenges she has recently faced in her personal life and how she overcame them, the driving force behind her work and the principle that motivates her. 

In response to criticism that the most interesting element of the plot — an examination of the Patriot Act in a post-9/11 world — is quickly overshadowed by the relationship between Abigail and Kayla, Ragen was emphatic. “This is not a thriller,” she said. “I was interested in how this family survives and what happens to them in their personal relationships. I wanted to explore their growth as characters.”

The dialogue is too sanctimonious at times and the message occasionally comes across as heavy-handed, but Ragen insists that it’s not about a single solution. The novel emphasizes the need to re-evaluate, find your own 10th song and live it. 

“This story is about reaching out and saying to people that it doesn’t matter what you’ve gone through — whether it’s a disease or financial ruin — there is still another song left,” Ragen explained. “Sometimes you have to find a new way to live, and although it’s hard to believe, your next life might even be better. That’s the message I’m trying to get across.”

No stranger to controversy, Ragen is well-known for her advocacy of gender equality and women’s rights. Her outspoken criticisms of certain practices in the Charedi world and her public involvement in the battle to outlaw segregated buses in Israel that are used by ultra-Orthodox men have incensed many fellow Jerusalemites and ultra-Orthodox Jews around the world for years. Her political columns leave little room for doubt about her opinions, for which she is unapologetic.

“I always welcome controversy, and I speak my truth, but that may not be everyone’s truth,” she said. Nevertheless, despite her enemies in the ultra-Orthodox world, when Ragen found herself accused of copyright infringement, it came as a complete shock. “On Wednesday, I got this extortion e-mail from a lawyer that I couldn’t believe, claiming that I had stolen parts of a woman’s book who I had never heard of,” she recalled. “On Thursday, this lawyer called my house, and by Friday, I had journalists informing me that he’d gotten an injunction to have my books taken off the shelves,” she said in an incredulous tone. “This is my nightmare, and it’s what I’m referencing in the novel.”

Since then, two more ultra-Orthodox women writers have added their complaints to those of Michal Tal, author of “The Lion and the Cross,” who claims that parts of Ragen’s novel “The Ghost of Hannah Mendes” were copied from her. The other two authors also allege that Ragen lifted scenes from their books. Fervently denying all charges, Ragen believes she was targeted because she is a successful, best-selling novelist and that these plagiarism cases all boil down to one thing: extortion.

“You have two choices when something like this happens,” she explained. “You can either settle, which basically is seen as an admission of guilt, or you can see them through to the end and get a judgment. I’m fortunate that I have the money to defend myself, even if it was money set aside for my retirement. What about those who cannot defend themselves against these frivolous cases?”

No verdict has been handed down as of now, but Ragen believes that in the end the cases all will be dismissed. In the meantime, she has no plans to back down. “I’m not giving this up. All I have is my name, and that’s why I’m fighting so hard. I’m going to take this lawyer to the Supreme Court.”

Like her characters in the novel, Ragen has discovered who her true friends are, what kind of man she married and what really matters in her life. And although some may find it paradoxical for a Modern Orthodox woman to criticize the ultra-Orthodox world, Ragen has been sure of her faith from an early age.

Not raised in an observant home, she ended up in an Orthodox Hebrew day school in New York by sheer chance. Her mother had already paid $5 for her older brother to take the evaluation tests and when he refused to attend the school, the money could not be refunded so Naomi reluctantly went in his place. She was soon enchanted by the prayers, rituals and peace she found in the synagogue that was so different from the poverty-stricken, noisy neighborhood where she lived.

“When I finished junior high, I made the emotional and intellectual decision that I wanted to be an Orthodox Jew. In order to do that, I needed to live in Israel,” she said.

Ragen made aliyah to Israel with her husband, Alex, in 1971. “He was the only one who didn’t turn around and run when I told him I was moving to Israel,” she said, smiling at the memory. “We made aliyah without ever having been here before, and when I got off the bus in Jerusalem for the first time, I said to myself, ‘This is home.’ It was love at first sight.”

At 38, after the birth of her first child, Ragen wrote her first novel and has been writing ever since. Of the eight novels she has published so far, she calls “The Tenth Song” her most deeply felt. Named for the one song that has not yet been sung and will only be sung at the end of days, according to Jewish belief, the title is imbued with the same spiritual resonance that echoes throughout the novel. 

“One of the reasons why I wrote this book is that I knew my experience could be helpful to others. I wanted people to know that they can overcome hardship, survive and find their 10th song.”

Naomi Ragen will be speaking in Los Angeles on Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at American Jewish University. For more information, visit aju.edu.

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