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Indeed, the Orthodox world offers rich material for fiction writers. It supplies small communities where status and hierarchy are prized, taboos and social norms are strictly enforced, and rebellion is serious business. The large size of Orthodox families provides an environment bursting with character and conflict possibilities. Thanks to low standards of secular education and lifelong religious indoctrination, it creates a series of built-in obstacles for characters to overcome.
At the same time, the need for sympathetic identification with Orthodox life is greater in fiction than it is in memoir. Whereas memoirs implicitly assume the perspective of the post-Orthodox author, fiction immerses the reader more immediately in the here-and-now of its characters. By bringing the realities of religious life within close view, these books show the individuality of Orthodox Jews as much as their group characteristics or exotic otherness.
Consider, for example, “The Romance Reader” (1996) by Pearl Abraham, and “Hush” (2010) by Eishes Chayil (who now goes by her real name, Judy Brown). These books seem to have much in common. Both are coming-of-age stories featuring young female protagonists from hasidic families. Both depict innocent childhood delights like sharing secrets and sneaking candy with siblings, while also examining more disturbing aspects of Orthodox life, like the fetishization of the Holocaust, the demonization of non-Jews, and the absolute separation of gender roles. By the end of these books, both Gittel, in “Hush,” and Rachel, in “The Romance Reader,” come to question their communities as they struggle with the difficulties of arranged marriages.
Yet the worlds and characters of these novels are strongly distinct. While “The Romance Reader” is set in a sparsely populated area of upstate New York, where Rachel’s father runs his own synagogue and aspires to lead his own sect, “Hush” takes place in Borough Park, an epicenter of American hasidism. While Rachel’s parents fight over their conflicting goals — her mother would rather live in an established community and is frustrated by her husband’s inability to earn a living — Gittel’s non-rabbinic parents are an example of love and marital stability. Most important, while Gittel ultimately manages to find happiness in her marriage and accommodation with her community, Rachel decides that she must leave both behind. Such divergent representations paint Orthodoxy not as a one-dimensional model of religious fundamentalism, but as a nuanced setting for a variety of characters and stories.
Just as the orthodoxies described by these authors are different from one another, so too are the paths away from them. For some writers, the decision to leave religion was the result of a purely intellectual journey, with one question leading to another until the edifice of Orthodox dogma collapsed. More troubling stories include experiences of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. In 2007’s “The Rabbi’s Daughter,” Reva Mann goes from growing up as the rebellious daughter of a prominent Modern Orthodox British rabbi to living in an ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem to following her own self-defined Jewish path. Many of these books reflect women’s experiences, and several come to a head when the protagonist must extricate herself from an arranged marriage.