Mirror, mirror on the wall

Consider this.

girl reading book 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
girl reading book 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I received a letter the other day from a reader. As with all respectful letters I receive from readers, I read it in its entirety and answered it. Because I don’t have permission to reveal the author’s name, let’s just call her Chava from Brooklyn: Dear Naomi, I just finished reading your latest novel, The Sisters Weiss. While I enjoyed parts of it, I found that you once again defamed the ultra-Orthodox community.
Why would you use your skill as a platform to denounce your own people? I, too, am a child of Holocaust survivors.
My parents remained religious despite the atrocities and losses they suffered, and are resilient, charismatic, faithful spouses, parents and grandparents.
I am Orthodox, dress modestly yet trendily; cover my hair and keep all laws according to the Torah. My brothers are hassidic and live beautiful lives.
All our parties have separate seating and yes, on Simhat Torah, the women watch the men and boys dance from behind a mehitza. It’s part of our belief system and we do get to enjoy the beauty of the celebration! Your reference to hassidim as “schnorrers” who are “looking for 70 percent off bargains” is your own stereotypical typecast. There are no Morality Police in Williamsburg, and husbands do love their wives. They have come a long way from your archaic description of them… To have someone of your intellectual caliber, a highly respected Jewish author, make cynical references to their lifestyle breeds hate. Someone making fun of their own people is someone who may have their own issues, because they have not gotten the facts right. And it certainly doesn’t reflect well when seen/ read by gentiles.
My response: First, a caveat: I don’t refer to haredim as schnorrers – one of my characters does. As for loving 70% off, find me a Jew in New York who doesn’t! As for the goyim who read my books, they are unfailingly the ones who write to tell me how much more respect they have for the Jewish people afterwards… But I understand the writer, and she is not alone. These complaints have followed me throughout my career, the way they’ve followed Irshad Manji, who dared to write The Trouble with Islam.
First of all, a word about the book in question. The Sisters Weiss is a wholly fictional account of two sisters growing up in Williamsburg in the 1950s to strict but loving, good yeshivish (as opposed to hassidic) parents, both of them survivors.
The story describes how the older sister, Rose, commits a somewhat minor infraction (she’s caught reading a photography book with some immodest photos), is sent off to Satmar and exiled from her family, until such time as she repents. She is 16 years old. From there, her life spirals out of control until she leaves the community and her faith.
Forty years later, her niece, daughter of her haredi younger sister, decides to follow in her example – with heartbreaking consequences.
Why, as a religious Jew, write fiction that deals with a less-than-stellar portrait of your community? Instead, why not, in the genre produced by Mr. Feldheim and Targum, write only how wonderful, pure, good, and holy religious Jews are? Because, despite what my critics believe, I certainly have encountered such Jews. Indeed, they appear regularly in my fiction: Judah, the husband in Sotah; Bathsheva HaLevi in Jephte’s Daughter; Jenny in The Sacrifice of Tamar; Dona Gracia Mendes in The Ghost of Hannah Mendes; etc., etc. Why don’t my critics see those characters? Nurtured by the books of Targum and Feldheim, where a Jew can do no wrong that is not quickly corrected by teshuva, people read my books looking for the magic mirror of Snow White’s stepmother: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” What they want is for my books to give them back a resounding and reassuring: “YOU.”
But like all real mirrors, my books simply reflect the truth, warts and all.
If not, I wouldn’t be an author, but a propagandist and haredi apologist, and goodness knows there are enough of those around already.
When an author shirks the responsibility of dealing with painful subjects that need to be brought to light, they do their society no favor. Contrary to the belief of my ultra-Orthodox critics, I write about haredi society because of all the good I see there; because of all the affection I have for its members, and the sadness and anger I feel about the abuses that continue to thrive there, hurting the innocent, devout people who live in that world.
Good does come of it. When some 20-odd years ago, I began writing about domestic abuse in that world, I was vilified. But now there are shelters for haredi women, and rabbis who visit and support them, and even guidelines from the Orthodox Union on how rabbis should deal with domestic abuse.
In The Sisters Weiss, I have chosen to write about how haredi parents deal with adolescents who express discontent with certain aspects of their upbringing.
What inspired me was actually an article in the haredi magazine Mishpacha, in which a rabbi discusses the terrible mistakes haredi parents make when they reject a questioning child, rather than embracing him or her – mistakes that lead to children becoming not only virulently anti-religious, but psychologically wounded and even suicidal. All you have to do is keep your eyes open in the center of town to see how many such youngsters are living on the streets.
Luckily, Rabbi Noach Korman, who founded Bat Melech, the first haredi shelter for abused women in Israel, now also has a shelter for such children. The stories he tells are horrific.
But authors are not immune to criticism, and I in particular take the words of my readers to heart. I was mulling over Chava from Brooklyn’s letter when I just happened to pick up Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent, published last week by Doubleday.
To my utter amazement, here was a non-fiction book about a good Bais Yaakov girl, brought up by good haredi parents, who is a model child – until she is sent off to an ultra-Orthodox seminary in Gateshead when she is 15.
When she makes the fatal mistake of telling her mother she wants to go to college, she is exiled to a seminar for ba’alot teshuva in Israel, where she compounds her sins by wearing a sweater that is deemed too figure-enhancing.
And when her British aunt discovers childish love letters to her classmate’s older brother she left behind, her life is over for good.
What follows made me happy The Sisters Weiss was published at least six months before; otherwise, I’d be worried some shyster lawyer would be knocking on Leah Vincent’s door encouraging her to sue me for plagiarism.
It is shocking how similar my fictional description of such a situation mirrors the events in this non-fiction book. I must admit, though, I’m much nicer to that world and to my heroine, whose horrific descent into a netherworld of promiscuity, self-abuse and near suicide I honestly couldn’t have imagined. Ironically, the haredi world I portray in my novels, is never, ever as awful as the reality in these non-fiction books. Which leads me to wonder if I often soften my portrait deliberately out of loyalty and a desire not to paint too devastating a portrait, feelings my critics give me no credit for having? But even if I don’t have the guts to let the whole, sordid truth hang out, perhaps my books have encouraged others to do so. If that is true, then I am glad.
I wish Leah Vincent well, and hope one day she might forgive, and not feel it necessary to eat ham for breakfast.
And I hope that Chava from Brooklyn and others like her, who live fortunate, fulfilled, fully functional lives within the haredi world, will look up and around them at those who don’t, and try to change the situation for the better – especially for the wounded children who dare to question.