Monday, January 31, 2005

The Observant Reader

Wendy Shalit writes an interesting piece in today's New York Times about the spurt, in recent years, of literature about the Haredi community. Her basic thesis is that some of the most successful books -- eg. Nathan Englander's For The Relief of Unbearable Urges , books by Tova Reich and Tova Mirvis -- are written by people who purport to be insiders, but have in fact left the fold or perhaps never even really belonged in it. As a result, they portray the community rather negatively, and without any really idealistic characters. She asks:
What is the market for this fiction? Does it simply satisfy our desire, as one of Mirvis's reviewers put it, to indulge in ''eavesdropping on a closed world''? Or is there a deeper urge: do some readers want to believe the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and hypocritical, and thus lacking any competing claim to the truth? Perhaps, on the other hand, readers are genuinely interested in traditional Judaism but don't know where to look for more nuanced portraits of this world.
Shalit contrasts this to Welcome to Heavenly Heights by Risa Miller and Seven Blessings by Ruchama King, both of which came out a couple of years ago. Writes Shalit:
Like Miller, King doesn't shy away from the problems that affect her world, but she also captures the subtlety and magic of its traditions. In particular, she convincingly describes the sublimated excitement that characterizes ultra-Orthodox dating as tiny gestures take on heightened meaning.
I think that Shalit is perhaps oversensitive here to the books being written by the Mirvises and Englanders of this world. I don't think you can read either of their books without gaining the impression that this is a world they both do -- in vastly different ways, and certainly vastly differently to the way Shalit does -- care about. (I can't comment about Tova Reich whom I've never read.)
In any case, the crux of Shalit's argument is that one portrayal is more 'real'/'authentic' than another. On this I disagree with her. As a Ba'alat Tshuva, she -- and Miller, and King -- see this community in a very different way to the way others who were either born and bred in it, or who grew up in close proximity see it. This does not mean one is 'wrong' and one is 'right.' People simply experience reality differently, and they're entitled to write about it as they see fit.
You could also ask to what extent any author portrays any community / experience 'realistically.' Does John LeCarre portray the spy world "realistically"?? Does Jilly Cooper portray the racing world "realistically"?? Did Bashevis Singer always portray the Shtetl world "realistically"?? I doubt it, and I'm not sure this is a valid criterion for measuring these books.
In any case, I should add that both Englander and Mirvis are, in my opinion, highly overrated, but Risa Miller and Ruchama King were downright awful. Their books had no real plot or tension; they were held together, barely, by the kind of 'atmosphere' which Shalit seems to laud them for. If you haven't heard of them, there's a reason for that. I'm sure there are many people out there who will happily buy more 'realistic' (and by that, Shalit means 'sympathetic') books about the Haredi world if only those which do come out were a little more gripping.

(Cross-posted to Bloghead)


Blogger aoc gold said...

What Does Little Birdie Say?


What does little birdie say,
In her nest at peep of day?
Let me fly, says little birdie,
Mother, let me fly away,
Birdie, rest a little longer,

Till the little wings are stronger.

So she rests a little longer,

Then she flies away.


What does little baby say,
In her bed at peep of day?

Baby says, like little birdie,

Let me rise and fly away.

Baby, sleep a little longer,

Till the little limbs are stronger.

If she sleeps a little longer,

Baby too shall fly away.

-----by runescape gold

August 30, 2008 at 4:33 AM  

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