This past week, the New York Times Book Review ran a lengthy essay by writer Wendy Shalit titled "The Observant Reader." In it, Shalit harshly criticized books she deemed to be unfriendly to Orthodox Judaism. Even worse than the books, she asserted, were some of their writers, including such literary luminaries as Tova Mirvis ("The Outside World") and Nathan Englander ("For the Relief of Unbearable Urges").
Shalit's chief complaint against these writers is that they are frauds.
"Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism," she wrote, "or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with -- have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light."
If these writers were actually observant, Shalit seems to reason, they would never depict the world of the religious as they do. Needless to say, Shalit's essay has sparked a controversy in the Jewish literary world.
The author of a nonfiction book, "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue" (Free Press, 2000) and a ba'alat teshuvah, Shalit was raised as a Reform Jew and entered the ultra-Orthodox world only after spending time in Israel as an adult. Her criticism reflects this. It reads as the musings of someone who, though the analogy may be strange, has found Jesus and become more Catholic than the pope. For Shalit, there is one correct way to write about Judaism and infinite ways to transgress. For her, anyone who has left the fold is unworthy to write about it.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not been, nor ever will be, part of the ultra-Orthodox world. But as a writer and a Jew, I feel strongly that Shalit's statements are dangerous. Should we lower our standards on having rich, multifaceted literature in order for Jewish books to function as a public relations vehicle? The Jewish community should laud, not condemn, the grappling of writers who chronicle the nuances and workings of Jewish life in all of its varieties.
Debating the religious credentials of Englander and Mirvis -- both of whom were raised in Orthodox communities -- is a fruitless argument. It could go on forever and never be proved or disproved to someone with an agenda. What does matter, and is shocking, is that Shalit, a writer herself, believes you can and should set standards on what constitutes "appropriate" writing about an ethnic community. Instead of admiring the intricacies of Orthodox life that Englander's imagination reveals, Shalit can only comment that Englander's work is invalid because he "publicly boasts about eating pork."
Since when is literature concerned with propagating the status quo? Great writing reveals a rich inner life fraught with complexity and difficult situations, and allows readers a greater understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit. The more unexamined a person or community is, the more it needs a mirror to be held up to it. Jewish writing is no exception to this rule.
A topic that Shalit might have legitimately explored is the creation and marketing of literary personas for Jewish writers. The media does seem to be awfully fond of writers who seemingly coalesce out of some mythic shtetl and are dropped onto a bookshelf (an image that perhaps fulfills some deep post-Holocaust longing). Instead, Shalit spends her time making personal attacks.
In any case, I would hope that Shalit could find within her piety the strength to believe that Judaism is strong enough to hold up to whatever depictions of complexity come its way. I, for one, have faith that it can.
Ruth Andrew Ellenson is a journalist and the editor of the forthcoming anthology, "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" (August 2005, Dutton).
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