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February 11, 2005

Fiction on the Orthodox Affects Societal Views

My January 30 New York Times Book Review essay on fictional representation of Orthodox Judaism seems to have touched a nerve. Arts and culture writer Tova Mirvis, like other letter writers and bloggers, accuses me of trying to impose ideological standards on writers (“Judging a Book by Its Head Covering,” February 4). She misses my point.

I think I’ve run up against a shibboleth. It’s simply taken for granted in the literary world that if you can come up with a sufficiently odd cast of Orthodox characters, you’re on your way to a great novel. And I’m challenging that formula.

I’m saying, maybe this is not sufficient. Cynthia Ozick has said that “fiction has license to do anything it pleases,” and indeed, it does have license to do what it pleases. But is that any guarantee that the fiction will be good?

I’m not advocating any sort of litmus test for Jewish fiction. I object purely on literary grounds: I find much of the contemporary fiction dealing with Orthodox Jews to be too predictable. Whenever an ultra-Orthodox character comes on the scene, I already know he’s going to be a bad guy. I have the same problem with officially “kosher” charedi novels: Before picking them up, I already know all the characters will be sugar and spice. That’s just as tedious. Even religious people aren’t all good — or bad. Sometimes they can surprise us.

At the same time, we have relied for too long on people disaffected with the Orthodox world to produce an Orthodox literature that verges on caricature. Their characters, ostensibly spiritually motivated, never show anything resembling an inner life or concern for others.

For me it’s hard to get inside such flat characters, and I always had this problem — even before I became interested in Judaism. Sometimes there is not even much of a setting in these novels, because a steady parade of weird religious Jews is seen to be sufficient.

To be sure, fiction is not sociology, and sometimes a negative slant can enliven a story. But when all your Orthodox characters are cold and dysfunctional, and unlike anything this group understands itself to be, then I think one must ask what else might be going on.

To me the most enduring fiction includes both good and bad characters, and of course everything in between. In “As You Like It,” there is a wonderful banished duke who is a real tzaddik. There are also characters who are corrupt or cynical, and then there are your basic strugglers and yearners. We needed that noble duke to understand what the cynics were against. The duke allows us to empathize with and enjoy the melancholic comment, “All the world’s a stage.” Or consider “The Brothers Karamazov,” with the deeply good priest, without whom the hypocrites and even the strugglers and yearners would seem two dimensional.

Ironically, I feel my colleagues underestimate the importance of their own books, as if to say: “Oh, never mind our little stories, they have no impact anyway.” But literature matters. Eighteenth-century French literature was a reflection of, and shaped what became, modern society’s dominant notions of the social contract. How is the treatment of Orthodox Jews in today’s fiction affecting our society and particularly, the rest of the world’s perception of the Jews? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this, but I feel we should be permitted to ask the question.

Wendy Shalit

Toronto, Ontario

Tova Mirvis didn’t like what Wendy Shalit said about her in the New York Times Book Review, but in her February 4 article Mirvis totally misrepresents what Shalit actually wrote. For this reason, Mirvis’s article only compounds the failings that Shalit wrote about. Far from refuting them, she inadvertently confirms them.

Mirvis accuses Shalit of “discounting and de-legitimizing any individual experience other than her own.” If Shalit had complained about a single novel, Mirvis might have a point.

What Shalit actually said is that modern American Jewish fiction routinely misrepresents Orthodoxy.

Many readers do take these novels seriously, and mistakenly think that they are accurate in their portrayal of Orthodox life. Not one but many of these novelists do give the impression that they are insiders and are portraying the Orthodox community as it really is.

Most readers do not understand that the drumbeat of negativity is only a product of the authors’ imagination. Most readers don’t realize that the slurs of a hundred different individual imaginations are only a coincidence. They think, when they’ve read a dozen such novels, that Orthodox Jews really are that way.

Mirvis writes, “Shalit espouses an approach to literature in which the message matters most of all.” This is untrue. Shalit never said anything of the sort.

What she said was that she is tired of seeing Orthodox Jews routinely portrayed in the worst possible light by writers who claim to be dishing out the real inside scoop. People do form their impression of what goes on in Orthodox societies from these novels.

It is quite disingenuous of Mirvis to write, as she does, “At stake here is the question of who owns the imaginative rights to a way of life… even if all of them have the exact same experience as Shalit, might not fiction still seek to imagine a different scenario?”

I’d like to see Mirvis put a disclaimer on the cover of every one of her books, something like: “This book is a fictional representation of Orthodox life and is totally a product of my imagination. Any resemblance to actual Orthodoxy is coincidental and entirely unintended.”

But she knows very well that such a disclaimer would greatly diminish her readers’ interest in her books. They think the dirt she dishes is real, and that’s what they find titillating.

They don’t understand that it has no basis in reality. That was Shalit’s only point, and it is what Mirvis refuses to address.

Toby Bulman Katz

North Miami Beach, Fla.

Labeling of Economist Denigrating to Women

Do we really need sexist qualifiers such as “Julie Delpy lookalike” and “certified infobabe” (admittedly cited from another source) to describe British economist Noreena Hertz (“Young Activists Join Economic Lions at Davos Parley,” January 28)?

Did the Forward use physical attributes to describe any of the male economists cited? Do physical attributes have anything to do with Hertz emerging as a world-class economist? I think not.

Many women, myself included, are still reeling over Harvard University President Lawrence Summers’s comments regarding women in math and science. The Forward’s use of modifiers adds insult to injury.

Madeleine Tress

New York, N.Y.

Kiddush Clubs Wrong For Multiple Reasons

The Orthodox Union has recently called on its participating synagogues to ban Kiddush clubs” at their congregations, and points to the use of hard liquor as one of the reasons (“Orthodox Union Sets Ban on Clubs for Scotch Tipplers,” January 28). However, there seem to be two distinct issues.

One issue is whether an individual should leave services at all during the Haftorah and make kiddush. If this is what the O.U. is objecting to, then it’s the act of leaving the services — and not the alcohol — that should be the reason behind its decision. Under this scenario, even if a person made kiddush on grape juice, the Kiddush club would be objectionable.

The other issue is the practice of drinking hard liquor at kiddush, and its glorification and the impact it has on youngsters. If this is indeed the problem, then the O.U. should have called on its synagogues to eliminate all hard liquor, even at the kiddush after services, and not have banned only Kiddush clubs.

In fact, there are a few Orthodox synagogues that have independently made a decision to ban all hard liquor and at kiddush and other synagogue functions.

Michael Feldstein

Stamford, Conn.

Poll on Political Views Draws on Small Group

A February 4 article on three different Pew surveys suggests that one-quarter of the 16% of Jews who attend services at least once a week “were likely to vote Republican,” compared with “17% of those who attend services twice per month” (“Poll Finds Jewish Political Gap”). According to the article, the total number of Jews in the particular survey is either 600, 500 or 100.

At most, therefore, this conclusion is based on 25% of 16% of 600 Jews, or a subgroup of 24. Among the group of 100 Jews polled, the same proportion totals only four Jews — not even a minyan.

At either quantity, the difference between 25% and 17% does not represent enough actual respondents to be statistically significant or useful, let alone “dramatic,” as stated in the article.

Shai Franklin

New York, N.Y.


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