Straight from the (London) shtetl

Nominated for the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize, Naomi Alderman's first novel has received mixed reactions in her own community.

naomi alderman 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
naomi alderman 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Disobedience By Naomi Alderman Viking 272 pages Naomi Alderman was at work on September 11, 2001. Glancing out the window, she watched in horror as two airliners slammed into the World Trade Center. The devastating attack dramatically changed the landscape of global politics. On a smaller scale, it impacted upon the lives of millions of New Yorkers - Alderman included. Then the marketing manager of an international law firm, she traded her day job and its accompanying perks for a place on a British master's degree in creative writing. Two years later Alderman signed a publishing deal. In 2006 her first novel, Disobedience, was awarded the Orange Prize for New Writers. Set in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hendon, London - where Alderman grew up - Disobedience has now been nominated for the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature. Alderman, 32, recalls the day that changed her life. "We didn't know how many planes there were," she says. "We thought it might be the beginning of Armageddon. Once you have that sort of experience, you're never the same again. I had always wanted to write, and thought: 'One day I'll get round to it.' After September 11, I realized I just had to get on with it." Alderman's friends made similar changes to their lives. "People I knew in Manhattan felt the same way: They didn't want to live life in an inauthentic way any more. A lot of people came out as gay soon after the attacks." Many of them were Orthodox Jews, says Alderman. "They had been through a lot of pain and sadness. I began to feel that by having lived an Orthodox Jewish life and simply not talked about this issue, that I had been somehow complicit in that suffering. The seeds of the novel grew from that." Disobedience opens with the death of a highly respected rabbi. His wayward daughter Ronit, now a secular high-flyer, returns home from New York. The community she left behind is outraged by her provocative ways. When Ronit is reunited with Esti, her childhood girlfriend and now a married woman, the two women confront their shared history and the different choices they made. So how autobiographical is Disobedience? "It's fiction," says Alderman, who now lives back in Hendon. "It's set in places I have lived, but the events have never happened to me. My parents are alive and I've never had an affair with a married man - or woman." Much has been written about Disobedience, but little mention has been made of Alderman's own sexuality. "People presume I'm gay," she says. "I don't mind - it's quite interesting. We are all somewhere on that spectrum and I would never say I could never fall in love with a woman. There are people whose sexuality is black or white, but I think it's more uncommon than those for whom it's grey." RONIT'S NEW YORK life is at loggerheads with her upbringing. What's more, she is angry with British Jewry. In the novel, she says: "There's a vicious circle here, in which the Jewish fear of being noticed and the natural British reticence interact. They feed off each other so that British Jews cannot speak, cannot be seen, value absolute invisibility above all other virtues." Fiction it may be, but this is Alderman speaking loud and clear. She says: "There's something about Britishness that resists ethnic and religious difference. We are a small community, but actually quite a strong community in terms of achievement, yet there's no Jewish character in any British soap, sitcom or drama. "The idea of Americanness is much more about immigrant communities coming and forging a new life. America isn't a perfect country by any means, but in that particular way there is more room for diversity." Hendon is a London suburb, but Alderman depicts a shtetl-like village. She writes: "In Hendon, a woman cannot walk from one end of the high street to the other without encountering someone she knows, perhaps stopping for a chat between butcher, baker, grocer. In Hendon, only frozen vegetables and washing powder are bought in supermarkets; all other produce is purchased at small shops, in which the shopkeepers know their customers by name, remember their favorite items and put them by." The atmosphere is vibrant, but suffocating. So why did Alderman return there? "I am terribly fond of Hendon, but at the same time it annoys me," she says. "I have a lot of people here whom I love. In terms of reasons to live somewhere, that's probably the best one." Brought up strictly Orthodox, she considers herself "still somewhat observant." "There are things that are important to me and things that bother me. I am still in a relationship with Judaism, but the relationship is complicated." That relationship has been further complicated by the community's mixed reaction to Disobedience. Alderman says: "Sometimes people come up to me in Hendon and say: 'You wrote that wonderful book - I loved it.' Other people have said: 'You wrote that filthy, disgusting book.' A couple of people have become unexpectedly and inexplicably angry." There is nothing particularly graphic in the novel, yet the mere suggestion of same-sex relations has provoked outrage in some quarters. PERHAPS MOST upsetting was the review that the book received from the Jewish Chronicle, the mouthpiece of Britain's Jewish community. "The review was full of venom and bitterness, as if I'd done something to personally offend the reviewer. To see I had that sort of review from my own community was horrible." Nevertheless, the book has been warmly received by society at large. On a recent school visit, Alderman was approached by two students - one Asian, one black. Both said they connected with Disobedience, feeling it could have been set within their own tight-knit communities. But what did they make of the language? Alderman's characters go to shul, sit shiva and immerse themselves in the mikve. "Jewish people worry about this a lot," says Alderman. "Don't underestimate the modern reader. People are used to picking up novels from India and Africa. You need to know whether something is a kind of food or a type of hat, but you don't need to know exactly what that food tastes like or how that hat looks. I wanted to recreate the way people in Hendon talk. It would have been ridiculous not to use those words." If she wins the Sami Rohr Prize, it will be an "amazing achievement". "I am honored to be on the shortlist - it means a lot to be honored by my community," Alderman says. "My life isn't all about prize ceremonies, but what it does mean is that my life now is writing. I'm writing a new book and every time I think, 'this is terrible,' I have some proof that that isn't the case." Her novel-in-progress is set in Oxford, where Alderman went to university. "The isolation of writing can be difficult, but I'm very lucky in that I have another job - as lead writer for a computer games company - which is very social and collaborative," she says. "I tend to spend my mornings in glorious isolation, thinking about the book I'm working on, and then spend the afternoons bouncing ideas back and forth with my colleagues, inventing different kinds of peril to put our heroes in."