No shades of grey

Naomi Ragen’s latest novel is compelling, but she fails to portray the ultra-Orthodox world as nuanced.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish in NY 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish in NY 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Sisters Weiss opens in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1956.
Rose and Pearl are the only girls in an ultra-Orthodox family with four older brothers.
Rose, the older sister, often takes care of her little sister, and they have an especially close relationship.
Rabbi Asher Weiss is a Torah scholar, “dressed in the black garb of the hassidim, although he wasn’t a hassid.” His wife, Rebbitzin Bracha Weiss, toils day and night taking care of the family and house, and works part-time in a store. When it comes to child rearing, she looks to her husband as the final authority.
The Weiss family lives in a community that is made up of families like them, families where the boys are dressed in black and white from an early age, and the girls wear skirts down to their ankles and keep their long hair braided. Children are taught to stay away from the secular world and its dangers, and are kept well-hidden from the opportunities which might make them want to explore it. At 16 or 17, the girls are put on the bridal market and married off as quickly as possible.
This is Naomi Ragen’s eighth book and it is a compelling one. As Pearl and Rose grow up, the reader becomes absorbed in their stories and the challenges they face as they go their separate ways. This book, like most of her other books, examines the haredi world with all its joys and sorrows, its warm, traditional atmosphere and its rigid, constricting lifestyle. Pearl, a boisterous, lively little girl, becomes a pious, well-behaved adolescent and young woman, following the rules to the letter. Rose, the obedient big sister, on the other hand, finds her passion in photography as a young teen, an interest that is strongly condemned by her parents.
She rebels against their tight control, and the more they try to rein her in, the more she realizes she really can choose how to live her life.
In a final act of rebellion, Rose runs away the night before she is supposed to marry a promising scholar at the age of 17.
Pearl and the rest of the family are left behind in shock and anger, facing the condemnation of the community, and asking themselves what went wrong.
Rose remains estranged from her parents and family for decades, although they are never far from her mind. Pearl and Rose do not meet for 40 years, yet the love between them remains. Rose’s escape from an unwanted marriage becomes an embarrassing legend and the next generation hears about her only as the family outcast, the one who brought horrible shame to the family. It is only 40 years later, when Pearl’s daughter, Rivka, discovers some surprising information about the Aunt Rose she never met, that a chain of events is set off that ultimately brings Rose back to Pearl – and to a deeper understanding of the difficult choices she has made along the way.
In the first chapter of The Sisters Weiss, the reader gets a glimpse of the Weiss’s child-rearing style when three-year-old Pearl loudly repeats her father’s kiddush at the table on Friday night.
“Had she been a boy, the scenario would have been quite different. Perhaps one of the men would have lifted him up onto a stool. Perhaps Rabbi Weiss would have allowed him to touch his arm, looking at him encouragingly, and everyone would have been delighted at this display of early saintliness on the part of a child so young, and so eager to perform a religious obligation. But as it was, it was viewed as a sign of bad character and, even worse, bad upbringing, a female putting herself in front of a room full of men in a wanton and naked display of desire to be the center of attention – an anathema to any truly religious girl from a truly religious family.”
When Pearl enthusiastically reaches for the cup of wine, she succeeds in knocking it over, and soaks her father’s satin waistcoat, the white tablecloth and her own head. The smack she receives sends her howling to six-year-old Rose, who reaches for a cloth napkin to wipe off Pearl’s head. After being reprimanded with no explanation for using cloth on Shabbat, Rose obediently takes Pearl away from the table and into their bedroom.
Later, she brings Pearl into the kitchen to give her something to eat, but Rebbitzin Weiss tells Pearl she is a naughty girl and doesn’t deserve any dinner. After sending Pearl back to her room, she realizes that Rose missed kiddush altogether. Although girls were not supposed to make Kiddush for themselves, “certainly not girls who were not even bat mitzva yet, and certainly not in a room full of men, some of them strangers,” all the men had already heard kiddush, so Rabbi Weiss reluctantly lets Rose make her own Kiddush.
As she sips the wine, she notices Pearl standing in the hallway, watching with envy and indignation.
I found this scenario disturbing, for the main reason that Ragen paints a picture of insensitive parenting as directly related to the Weiss’s strict religious adherence. Can their lack of compassion for a little girl’s excitement, and her subsequent mishap, be blamed on their religiosity? Those familiar with Ragen’s earlier books would know that she consistently uses her fiction to criticize the rigidness of haredi society, especially in terms of their treatment of women and girls. In The Sisters Weiss, as in most of her other books, she paints a picture of the ultra-Orthodox way of life in the extreme. While Ragen apparently wants to make a strong impression on the reader, it is important to remember that there are shades of gray – some haredim might react this way to a little girl who knocks over a kiddush cup, but certainly not all. In this book, we have Rabbi Weiss as a super-strict haredi equal to Rabbi Weiss as a super-strict, unfeeling father. Rebbitzin Weiss is portrayed as classic haredi mother who works around the clock to care for her family, and never questions anything her husband says or does. I cannot help wondering if it is fair to portray a haredi family in this stereotypical way.
Towards the end of the novel, the reader does begin to perceive that there really is a place for Jews who want to live a life of Jewish tradition while also being a part of the modern world. Rose’s daughter, Hannah, who was raised without Jewish tradition, becomes engaged to a kippa-wearing doctoral student who keeps kosher yet shakes hands with women, and her niece, Rivka, who stays estranged from her family, holds onto some of the traditions of her childhood. Non-haredi Jews are shown as individuals with different shades of faith and observance, yet Ragen’s ultra-Orthodox are all pretty much the same.
In The Sisters Weiss, Ragen tells an engrossing story. Her personal demonstration against the haredi world, however, is often as inflexible as the lives of her characters.