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Must Orthodox Fiction Be So Fictional?


Editor’s Note: The following piece appeared earlier this week at JewishWorldReview.com.  JWR editor-in-chief Binyamin Jolkovsky and Ms. Shalit both felt the article would be of special interest to readers of The Jewish Press. Last month, The New York Times Book Review published an essay in which Ms. Shalit took issue with the negative portrayal of Judaism’s most fervently Orthodox in contemporary fiction. It didn’t take long before the literary world was abuzz with attacks against her. Here, she responds to her critics.
* * * * * * *
My January 30 New York Times essay on fictional representation of Orthodox Judaism seems to have touched a nerve. I wanted to spark discussion, but I’ve been surprised that some have reacted against what they suspect I am thinking, as opposed to what I actually wrote.Some have deduced that I feel “people don’t have the right to their own experiences,” or that I’m a “Soviet” who secretly advocates “lowering our artistic standards in order to accommodate a better message.” One writer accused me of covertly thinking he didn’t “stand at Sinai”; another likened me to “the mullahs of Tehran” who want to ban books.

Since I do not actually aspire to be a mullah, I feel the need to clarify.

All the authors I discussed are great writers, and I’m sure they are good people too. Nevertheless, they are simply not from the fervently-Orthodox community that is featured so negatively in their novels. Unfortunately, the media (and many readers) seem to feel that these writers are representing the traditional Jewish community – one “grants us the illicit pleasure of eavesdropping on a closed world,” and another describes wacky newly religious types with “devastating accuracy” – when by their own admission the authors do not identify with these worlds.

In quoting the authors’ public statements about themselves, such as Nathan Englander’s explanation that he’s disillusioned with his Modern Orthodoxy or Tova Mirvis’s considering herself “liberal, feminist, open Orthodox,” I am not critiquing their personal choices. I am examining why sometimes their haredi characters lack realism. The fact that these authors do not come from the specific subgroup they often write about would not be an insurmountable obstacle, so long as they didn’t rely on negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, sometimes they do. The traditional Orthodox characters in their novels tend to be hypocrites.

Why is the best writing advice to “write what you know”? Why did Joyce write with maps of Dublin on his desk, when he was born and raised there? Because the fact is, authenticity in fiction does matter.

Everyone knows this intuitively, so why are certain literary types so upset by my essay? 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. But is that any guarantee that the fiction will be good?

Don’t get me wrong: I think all these novelists are talented writers. But I think that they would be even better if they didn’t rely so much on their characters’ hypocrisy to fuel their plots.

I’m not advocating any sort of litmus test for Jewish fiction. I object to these novels on purely 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 gonna be a bad guy. I have the same problem with officially “kosher” 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.

About the Author: Wendy Shalit is the author of "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue." She can be contacted at comments@wendyshalit.com.


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I am not critiquing their personal choices. I am examining why sometimes their haredi characters lack realism.

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