Printer Friendly

Binding oneself to Judaism in contemporary Jewish women's fiction (1).

This essay examines two contemporary first novels by Jewish women in relation to Allegra Goodman as a model for depicting religious practice sympathetically. I argue that Goodman (Kaaterskill Falls), Dara Horn (In the Image) and Ruchama King (Seven Blessings) portray religion, spirituality, and religious learning as integral to women's lives. This focus contrasts with writers who portray the transition toward secularity, anxious relations toward being a Jew, or the struggle to assimilate in other, perhaps prior, strands of Jewish writing. I offer contextualized close readings of the negotiation between the religious and the secular focused on the gendered symbols of water and tefillin and the fraught relation between women's bodies and their minds.

The last decade has seen a spate of remarkable first novels by Jewish women. Two such novels that concern us here are Dara Horn's award-winning, phantasmagorical fiction of several generations of intertwined families in In the Image (2002) and Ruchama King's Seven Blessings (2003), which describes the baal teshuvah (religious returnee) movement and religious dating scene of Americans in Israel. Both novels can be seen in fruitful relation to an immediate precursor, Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls (1998), a breakout first novel in which Goodman created a provocative yet heartening historical fic-tion of a Jewish ultra-Orthodox community. The salient feature of this writing is the return of contemporary Jewish women to religious practice, to a Jewish sense of self and community, and to a Jewish spirituality and family.

In contrast to the mid-century Jewish writers, many of whom portrayed a more secular and rootless world as a result of a more anxious relation to their status as Jews, Goodman, Horn, and King embrace--even celebrate--religion; they unabashedly seek and revere spirituality and convey the importance of women's learning and intellect through their characters and narratives. (2) My analysis of the novels by Horn and King will demonstrate how Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls may be viewed as a precursor to both texts. Yet these offspring are radically different. Horn's novel, with a postmodern sensibility, moves fluidly through generations and timeframes, linking periods and people through an elaborate symbolic system. King's gritty, emphatically realist work immerses readers in the world of religious learning while enacting its own lessons in maturity, passion, honor, and connection. The analysis also shows how each book, though depicting "Tradition Reborn," focuses on the negotiation between the secular and the religious to a different end. If, as Sanford Pinsker contends, Goodman's "characters ... struggle within the restrictions of traditional Judaism," they ultimately accept those restrictions in order to remain "within," (3) Horn's characters, however, struggling more with the sense of a loss of tradition than of constrained practice, work to revive a Jewish culture and tradition perceived as abandoned. King's characters, finally, focus more on personal fulfillment, as they embrace the constraints of traditional Judaism yet struggle to reconcile beliefs with desires and societal expectations. If Goodman's depiction of ultra-Orthodoxy conveys a messages of duty to family and community superseding duty to self, King's books conveys the opposites message, yet allows room for a duty to self to exist within traditional Judaism through Jewish study. Horn's novel calls for honoring tradition, but values familial connections and personal practices beyond any ready-made religious systems whose authenticity is questioned.

Tradition Reborn

In a sociological observation referred to as "Hansen's law," the third generation remembers what the second generation tried to forget. Dara Horn, who wrote her first novel in between college and graduate school, "started noticing the phenomenon of people [her] age deciding to become more religious than their parents." She explains, in contrast to the generation of more rebellious writers set on assimilation and universal recognition that preceded her, "[f] or my generation, the way to rebel against your parents is to become Orthodox." If turning to religious traditionalism does not sound like a typical rebellion, this is an irony that several contemporary writers with newly orthodox characters explore in their novels. "[I] f your think about it", says Horn, "if you choose to become more religious than your parent, that means that someone in your family, however many generations back, and made the opposite choice, deciding to become less religious than their parents." (4)

Horn's reviewers have sharply underscored her difference from (an admittedly oversimplified, monolithic, 1960s') Philip Roth in particular, entitling reviews, for example: "Goodbye, Goodbye, Columbus," and "A New Generation says Goodbye to Goodye, Columbus." (5) In the latter article, Horn's interview begins with an explicit comparison to and renunciation of Roth as an emblem of the previous generation of American Jewish writers invested in "maleness" and "assimilationist writing." Horn says,

I grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey, which is probably best known for Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. As a reader who cared about Jewish identity, that book made me so angry. ... I have to say I was frustrated and disappointed with much of the American Jewish literature of the 1960s. Roth and other writers of that generation told stories that had nothing to do with what people my age experience growing up. (6)

Though one may object that "Roth and other writers of that generation" are in fact still writing and have produced a more varied corpus than Horn gives them credit for, what is clear is that Roth stands in as a straw man in Horn's expression of anger, frustration, and disappointment, and that all of these emotions figure largely in the genesis of In the Image--a novel focused on the "recovery" of Judaism.

What exactly did Horn's generation of young Jews--now approaching thirty--experience? A special issue of Commentary from 1996 entitled" What Do American Jews Believe?," containing a collection of interviews, claims that "the most striking [piece of news] ... coming out of an American community routinely characterized as a standard-bearer of secularism" is the fact that "religion is back, ... fueled by traditionalism." (7)Sociologists have observed that, along with the general rise in conservative religious practices and the interest in ethnicity, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed a rise in the numbers of Jews taking on a traditional lifestyle in the United States, a trend that has continued. Of particular interest is the reaction of parents to children who become more observant as adults. "Not surprisingly, some look askance ... [becaust]he parents, after all, are of a generation that worked hard to gain acceptance by majority Americans. (8) For an example of the parent's perspective, Allegra Goodman, in the final story of her collection The Family Markowitz (1996), explotes a marriage and "the confusion liberal Jewish parents often feel when their children unexpectedly abandon pleasant suburban Judaism for rigid, even strident orthodoxy." The only thing the two sets of new in-laws can agree on is their "common disdain" for their children's new orthodox lives. (9) Tova Mirvis explores the point of view of the parents newly orthodox children leave behind in her most recent novel The outside World (2004). Baruch (formerly Bryan) Miller's mother, Naomi, rather than reject his choice. counters his turn toward orthodoxy with her own turn toward spirituality, women's learning, and new traditions (such as a Women's Pre-Passover Healing Circle and a Miriam's Cup on the Seder plate). (10) More often than not, however, the depicted movement toward tradition focuses on the experience and quandaries of the returnee. Goodman creates a newly Orthodox character in Nina Melish and a newly-converted character in Beatrix Birnbaum in her Kaaterskill Falls. Both King and Horn present male baalei teshuvah characters in their novels and explore the men's problematic self-perceptions--as too childish (lacking Talmudic knowledge) and too world by (having too much sexual experience)-- when they leave secular lives behind to become Orthodox as adults.

Focusing on Elizabeth Shulman, a member of the ultra-Orthodox, fictional Kirschner community in Kaaterskill Falls, Goodman writes from within an Orthodox community. Rather than generating a feeling of exoticism or alienating her secular readers, she instead generates the feeling of "total immersion." (11) Goodman, as Horn does after her, claims to model her prose on early 20th-century Yiddish immigrant novelists, "who wrote of a living unself-conscious tradition." As Goodman puts it,

I write from the inside, taking, as they did, an idiom in which ritual and liturgy are a natural part of my fictional world. ... [I] present the exotic as familiar. ... [I do] not interrupt ... to explain or translate religious terms or rituals, I found that readers relished a feeling of total immersion. I was not trying to be obscure ... [but] I was not apologetic [either]." (12) King, a baalat teshuvah, explains her goal in strikingly similar terms:

I wanted to write about a Jewish religious community--my community--from as inside a view as possible. ... I wanted to capture this world in a lived sense, without overly explaining it, without poking too much fun at it. ... I wanted to write an honest book, and yet I feared going overboard in my honesty. ... I didn't want to use my community for the sake of advancing my writing career, to turn my characters into objects of irony and ridicule. ... I equally didn't want to write a book of propaganda, a two-dimensional novel depicting the cozy delights of living in a religious community. (13)

If, therefore, we wish to trace a group of contemporary women writers who are concerned with positive depictions of Jewish identity as in Horn, and natural representations of religious communities as in King, we find that both writers connect to concerns found in Goodman. In her article on Kaaterskill Falls, Maya Socolovsky writes, Goodman's "text does not simply return to tradition," nor does it simply function as nostalgia for a "Jewish literary tradition before its religious disintegration." Rather, the novel "negotiates a new 'post-assimi-larionist' space from which a renewed Jewish American legacy can be articulated." (14) If Goodman rejects a model of Jewish American writing that projects guilt and ambivalence toward Jewish tradition (like emblematic Roth) then it is in favor of a tradition that includes major Yiddish writers such as Chaim Grade, Sholem Aleichem, and I.B. Singer, as well as Chaim Potok and Cynthia Ozick, "who treat . . . the religious dimension of Judaism" without, in Goodman's words, "guilty nostalgia and anger or condescending bemusement." (15)

The discussion that follows will tease out Horn's version of "total immersion": her use of water metaphors, her intertextual Jewish and secular allusions, and her symbol of tefillin as tokens of boundless return rather than of binding. It will continue with other, more ambivalent uses of the symbol of tefillin in recent literature, and end with an analysis of how King uses the term "to bind" not as a term of constriction but as a connection between people and generations.

"Diving into the Wreck"

Adrienne Rich offers an idiom for understanding what Goodman means by "total immersion." In Rich's 1972 poem "Diving into the Wreck," the lyrical voice is that of a diver, who, as her body descends in the water, resists the distraction of undersea life in order to pursue her goal, both the exploration of a sunken ship and the exploration of self:
  ... it is easy to forget
  what I came for. ...
  I came to explore the wreck.
  The words are purposes.
  The words are maps.
  I came to see the damage that was done
  and the treasure that prevail." (16)


Rich's description of loss--as wreck, damage, and treasure--and the other-worldliness of the watery subconscious affords us a way into Dara Horn's In the Image, whose keynote is "recovery." Horn's pervasive use of water metaphors and allusions makes clear that aquatic imagery underpins her recovery theme. The loss incurred on the very first page of the novel establishes the need for recovery. Leora, the young protagonist, and Bill Landsmann, whose family history is traced, lose the person that links their lives: Leora's best friend Naomi, who is also Landsmann's granddaughter, is killed in a car accident. Through the recurring symbol of tefillin, Horn articulates her argument for a return to Judaism to stave off loss through unexpected images of burial and recovery, flood and purification, and diving and salvaging.

Images of the characters' lives being at sea abound. Leora makes "conversation, to keep from drowning in ... guilty silence," just as later Landsmann's father sits "in the window writing a letter, ... unaware that this moment was already buried under so many other moments that came after it--unaware ... that he was drowning in all the choices that would ultimately destroy him." (17) During a trip to the zoo, Leora admires a seal "as he d[i]ve[s] into the water, soaring ... beneath its depths" (p. 45). And of surrounding Hassidic onlookers, the narrator, whose voice is at this point allied with Leora's perspective, observes, "the crowd didn't seem like the seas of black hats that sometimes appear in movies ... [b]ut that was because of the women and kids, who broke up the black-hat ocean into a saturation of lakes, each surrounded by its lakefront property of wives and children" (p. 45). Later, Leora feels a "wave of fatigue" wash over her "as if sleep were water and the room were slowly filling with a rising tide. ... Her breath flow[ing] in and out ... like gentle waves on a beach" (pp. 178-9).

Horn challenges her readers to immerse themselves in water images in an allusive (and generally parodic) language that can hardly fail to resonate. Jeff Sharlet calls this technique "collage" and shares his experience of "[p]aging through the novel with Horn along to illuminate her own text, [where] nearly every sentence was revealed as borrowed." (18) Some easily identifiable examples include a parody of Genesis: "And so the story began, formless and void, in the darkness on the face of the deep, and the voice of Bill Landsmann hovered over the waters" (pp. 20-1); verses from Shakespeare's watery play The Tempest: "Full fathom five thy father lies, Leora thought. Of his bones are coral made" (p. 33); and Emma Lazarus' famous poem, "The New Colossus," which is demoted to a paean to Costco:

And so [Leora] embarked on a journey to the promised land of groceries, the paradise of price, where huddled masses yearning to breathe free of halitosis went [for] ... mouthwash and where the wretched refuse of the teeming shore could purchase ... garbage bags, where the tempest-tossed could replace barbecues lost ... and where ... lamps stood raised and gleaming beside the golden door[:] ... Costco, (p. 63)

In the final, magical-realist chapter of the novel set on the eve of her wedding to Jake, Leora dreams of diving into New York Harbor, where she discovers an Atlantis-like storehouse composed of all the possible "roads not taken." It contains "only things that we have truly abandoned, created exclusively out of what we believe to be lost forever" (pp. 270, 273). Leora finds that "the road to the lost city ... is paved with tefillin" (p. 273). The guards are suicides, the zoo features only extinct animals, and Leora herself is listed in the phonebook under her college boyfriend's name--Dr. Jason and Mrs.--their road not taken (p. 277). When she realizes that the lost city is populated by "all the choices that hadn't been made" (p. 278), she "spr[i]ing[s] off the ocean floor ... and push[es] hard against the centuries of rejected possibilities until ... her head burst[s] out of the saline waters like a newborn child's" (p. 280). This rebirth is an apt image for the act of salvaging--diving, mining, and ultimately recovering--combined with the ambivalent attitude addressed toward those who abandoned or discarded what future generations have come to value.

When it comes to water imagery in general, Heather Asals reminds us that the "action of going down is the gesture of knowing: the deep holds within it the secret of all that is unknown" or of the"'world not world.'" (19) As we know, water is a maternal symbol that contains a contradictory "life-death message" that is transformational as well. (20) If Horn has Leora quote lines from Ariel in The Tempest, it is in a transformational move of embedding text through allusion and then mining it, like a diamond, transformed by its "gestational-burial" and its new context. After the quoted phrase" Full fathom five," Ariel continues: "Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange." Likewise, everything that returns from the deep--like Leora herself--returns transformed. If "resurrected" contains a valence too Christian for Horn's text, Leora's return is clearly a rebirth ("a newborn child") as well as a mikveh-like immersion and purification. Just as "total immersion" in the mikveh implies the transformative quality of water, this possibility is underscored by Horn's use of the water mataphor.

" ... [A]s a sign upon thine hand ... ": Tefillin in Horn

Not only does water pervade Horn's metaphoric and allusive systems, as we see through these earlier examples, it is also the key to her theme of recovery as established through the recurring symbol of tefillin. Early in the novel Leora's boyfriend, Jason, is told a deathbed story by an old immigrant in a nursing home. Upon arriving in New York Harbor, a young Mr. Rosenthal had witnessed Jews "throwing their tefillin overboard. Because tefillin were something for the Old World, and here in the New World they didn't need them anymore." The dying man is filled with regret and challenges Jason: "And that is why I want you to be a deep-sea diver. ... I want you to dive down to the bottom of New York Harbor and bring those cast-off tefillin back up to the land'" (p. 52). Although Jason hardly knows what tefillin are, he ultimately leaves Leora, adopts the name Yehudah, and becomes a baal teshuvah: "Jason himself might as well have fallen down to the bottom of the ocean, like a diver plunging to the depths of the water, forgetting to save enough air for the return trip" (p. 37). (21) Jason/Yehudah clearly takes on the mission of recovery, but it is unclear whether he has salvaged tradition (by making it meaningful in the modern world) or lost himself to it. Not only is he a deep-sea diver, he is also a reincarnated Ezekiel: "Leora knew that Yehudah was a dried-out name, one that Jason had found at the bottom of that valley [of dry bones Horn calls The Valley of Discarded Names] and that he wanted to speak back to life" (p. 67). (22)

If the tefillin give new shape to Jason's life, establishing his religious vocation, they also hold a symbolic place in Leora's, helping her to identify her basherter (the one she is destined for). "Three years after Jason ... Leora finally found the tefillin" (p. 101). They were, according to the man selling them, "dredged up" from the bottom of New York Harbor where "there were tons of them ... like an underwater graveyard of thousands of these things. ... " (pp. 114-5, emphasis in original). Leora decides when she meets Jake, for whom she feels an immediate affinity, that she wants to create her own, original story to prove their connection from the outset. In order to do so, she sets up a challenge. "'I want you to find the store where I saw those bones [a skull called 'The Missing Link'] and ... find the thing in that store that interested me the most'" (p. 129). Jake sends her a gift with a card quoting Ezekiel 37:13-4, "' ... as I opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of them, I shall put my spirit in you and you shall live ... ' Inside the bubble wrap, [Leora] found the tefillin" (p. 132, emphasis in original). The link between Jake and Leora is first made through the gift of tefillin. By the end of the novel, the reader realizes that these tefillin are the very ones Bill Landsmann's grandmother Leah (with whom we spend time in the latter part of the novel) threw overboard in New York Harbor as she abandoned her disappointing immigrant life in America to return to Europe (p. 161). Using the same device Dickens used for high comedy--animate inanimates--Horn gives symbolic objects, such as the tefillin, lives of their own, in a book that, as one critic notes, "abounds with coincidences, many of which are known only to readers and not to the characters--a neat trick that grants readers an enjoyable omniscience." (23) Like the gratifying coincidence of the drowned-and-saved tefillin, a genealogical chart at the end of the novel that proves that Leora's Jake is in fact related to Bill Landsmann rewards the attentive reader with the feeling of coming full circle. Leora's last-name-less, tefillin-linked basherter Jake serves to double if not "recover" her lost, best friend Naomi.

Horn herself is on record interpreting her symbol of tefillin. The casting of the tefillin into the harbor signifies Judaism itself, or the traditions that immigrants from the Old World felt the need to reject in order to acculturate; but, she says, "it's not just tefillin that are discarded, but names, language, culture." And so, the process of returning to Judaism is embedded in that of diving down for drowned tefillin. Or in Horn's words, What someone in your family once decided to jettison, you decide to retrieve." (24)

In the Image includes a bibliography, attesting to Horn's other life as a student of Jewish literature. Interestingly, the bibliography features many of the same writers Goodman named as her inspirations. These include sources like the Book of Job, I.L. Peretz, Abramovitch, and Sholem Aleichem, among others, as well as a poem, "The Crown" (1956) by Yankev Glatshteyn, translated from the Yiddish by Horn. This last, almost an afterthought within the pages of the reader's guide (and therefore designed for the current phenomenon of--dare we say female?--book club discussions), clearly articulates the inspiration for her novel:
  ... I sent my tefillin out on the waters.
  Like cast-off bread, the tefillin's crown came back.
  After many years, the soaked crown swam back.
  .. ...
  As for my parents, made in God's image,
  I more than once encountered them on the roads.
  .. ...
  O, leave your bread on the water,
  The straps that bind you,
  Throw them into the deepest abyss.
  Throw! What kind of meaning do they have, anyway?
  Many days from now, you will find them.
  You will have to find them.
  Now my parents have been rewarded.
  My head is crowned.
  With ancient gray Jewishness.


Tefillin are cast into the water only to be salvaged later on; a companion scene to that of discarding the tefillin involves Landsmann's curious joy at a recovered childhood memory of his one Rosh Hashanah Tasblikh experience casting bread symbolic of sins into a flowing river (pp. 190-5). If this act is read as a symbolic parallel, then the sins for which one asks (and expects to receive) forgiveness at Yom Kippur will not necessarily all be washed away. Landsmann remembers a relative reproaching his father by saying, "'not everything can be cast into the water. ... Some things never go away ... [such as] sins between one man and another'" (p. 194). Some acts, seemingly discarded, will rather ambivalently be "preserved" in God's "vast underwater storehouse" of secrets, moments, and images (p. 269).

Landsmann, who is depicted as faithful only to the preservation of images, amassing a slide collection of Jewish sites that is washed away in "Hurricane Job," attaches himself to his living children and grandchildren only after his slides are destroyed. Horn's penultimate chapter contains Landsmann's lament for his seven thousand lost slides in the tour-de-force, allusive parody, "The Book of Hurricane Job." Landsmann, as Job, laments his loss and is reproached by three points of view: Why blame God (only now)? Why blame God (rather than thank him)? Why blame God (when clearly he is an indifferent if not absent divinity)? Landsmann's belief is that "God does not 'cleanse' the world,/ ... Things are preserved somewhere, somehow ... "(p. 264). God, from out of the whirlwind, answers Landsmann's lament:
  You take your images of the ocean, of the ripples on its surface,
  But have you photographed the fullness thereof--
  The centuries of secrets buried at the bottom of the sea?
  ... My vast underwater storehouse for every refugee of time.
  ... These are my images, my universe, my eternity ...
  ... I created you in my image. I am nor created in yours! (p. 269)


God's rebuttal glances toward other parts of Horn's symbolic system that we have not yet touched upon. In addition to the water imagery previously noted, we see Horn using symbols such as slides (as in photography and tourism), dollhouses (implying mniniatunsm and godlike control), as well as diamonds, that, like tefillin, suggest the transformation of time or treasures that resurface. God says, "I created you in my image," an idea that explains Horn's conservative (in the sense of preservationist) ethos. If we are made in the image of an eternal God and yet are not eternal ourselves, Horn reasons, "maybe that remnant of eternity with us is the impulse to record and save things,... to preserve the memories of what's meaningful." (25)

"Thou shalt bind them ..."

Although Horn's language may be the most liquid, luscious, and limpid, her concerns certainly connect to those of her contemporaries. The boundlessness of Horn's water metaphors--albeit linked to tefillin--contrast with the emphasis on bounds, boundaries, and binding of more conventional uses of the symbol. If Horn uses tefillin as a symbol of rediscovery and a movement from secularism to Judaism, others use tefillin from "within" Judaism to symbolize both a way to bind oneself to tradition and the constraint of feeling bound. Given that they are traditionally used only by men for prayer, tefillin take on a special significance in relation to women. Goodman's Elizabeth Shulma.n of Kaaterskill Falls is particularly concerned with the constraint she feels in the Kirschner community into which she has married and borne five daughters. Her project of importing kosher food to Kaaterskill is stymied by the new religious leader just as she finds out that she is, yet again, pregnant. At the birth of Elizabeth's sixth daughter, both Shulmans are disappointed, though they will never admit it. Isaac was hoping for a son at last. So was Elizabeth. "She feels it more than she used to, the difficulty with girls, the confining of expectations. ... The Kehilla is a tight little world, and a tighter one for women. A narrow place. Always safe and always binding."26 Tin's sense of confinement as tight, narrow, and binding seems negative in relation to women and their life-choices. In a parallel passage, however, this bindedness--now allied with tefillin (for both men and women, concrete or metaphorical)--stresses the value of safety, as the law becomes a life-preserver of sorts.

[Isaac Shulman] will put on his morning tefillin [at the synagogue] wrapping his arms with leather straps. He will wrap the tefillin so tightly that they will leave their red impression on his arms. He will bind himself with the words of the Sh'ma. ... Elizabeth will pray in the house as soon as she can, in the time that she finds. She will not put on tefillin, but, like Isaac, she will bind herself with the commandments. She will not fold herself in a tallis, but, like him, she will fold herself in prayer. She will never cast the life away.(27)

Though the gesture is clearly ambivalent--more of a coming to terms than a positive movement--the refusal to discard ("never cast the life away"), in its double negativity, shades into what other writers have used as a positive moment of taking on the responsibility of accepting the commandments. The ambivalence lies elsewhere in the debate: whether women's exemption from time-bound practices (like wrapping tehllin or wearing a tallit) constitutes what has come to be seen as a prohibition against using them. (28) Maggie Anton, in Rashi's Daughters (2005), depicts her protagonist, Joheved, as drawn to wrapping tefillin:

She couldn't help but caress the lengths of black leather ... when a shocking thought struck her. ... Why shouldn't she pray with tefillin? ... Shaking with fear and excitement, she rolled up the sleeves of her chemise, unwrapped rhe tefillin's arm straps, and started putting them on. When she finished winding them around her hand, a sense of holiness enveloped her that obliterated any feeling of wrongdoing. The sacred leather, pressing tightly against her skin, gave her a constant awareness of the Holy One's presence. ... The rest of the morning Joheved could feel where the tefillin straps had left their mark ... [;] the tight tefillin straps made her feel as if the Holy One was holding her arm Hhnself. (29)

Nevertheless, in Anton's text the problematic female use of tefillin is a recurring motif: it demands a formal query and responsum from Rashi to defend the practice and remains one of the secret, dubiously masculinizing practices (like studying Talmud) Joheved feels she cannot share with her loving husband until he discovers it for himself. Jonathan Rosen also opens his Joy Comes in the Morning (2005) by depicting a female rabbi, Deborah Green, wearing tallit and tefillin as she prays at home; nonetheless, she cannot help but painfully recall being accused of transvestism by an "Orthodox" former lover for doing so. (30) Both Deborah and Joheved significantly come to resolutions that include binding tefillin and binding themselves to men who accept that practice.

Ruchama King takes a slightly more traditional tack, binding her female protagonists to Judaism through Talmud and Torah rather than tallit and tefillin. The result is King's Seven Blessings, set in 1980s Jerusalem, and populated by one "FFB--frum from birth," single, American olah (immigrant), Beth, whose faith is shaken when she is asked to teach Talmud in her women's yeshiva, one American olah former-Rebbetzin-cum-matchmaker, Judy, and one Holocaust-survivor grocery store owner-matchmaker, Tsippi, who take up Talmud and Torah study respectively. (31) Through her depictions of Beth, Tsippi, and Judy, Ruchama King attempts what Steven Schneider calls the "midrashic impulse," that is, "a strategy to counter [female] silence, to challenge the perception of women as inferior, to strengthen Jewish female identity and to register political and social concerns." (32) An effort to breathe life into, and ultimately alter rather than just recover, traditional (religious) texts marks King's project and others like it. Whereas Anita Diamant's The Red Tent (1997) and Anton's Rashi's Daughters are historical fictions of biblical or medieval periods, King's text depicts contemporary Jewish women engaging with religious practice, studying and interpreting Torah and Talmud in their everyday lives.

Perhaps the best evidence of this engagement with interpretation may be drawn from Judy Bartosky's study session with two young women at Beit Shifra women's yeshiva. They consider the verse from Genesis that precedes and predicts the creation of Eve: "It is not good for Adam to be alone. I will make him a helpmeet opposite him." After a give and take about the plight of Jewish single women, Judy arrives at a way of using her calling, matchmaking, to understand the verse:

'It really is a kind of Jewish taboo to be single, which is very painful and not very fair. But taboos are useful, you know. They help move people on to the next stage in their life. ... The men. Without the taboo, they'd never get it together'. ... 'Maybe,' [Judy] said quietly ... 'it's not the creation of woman that completes the world but... when a man and woman become reconciled to one another, can live together in a warm connection, that's what completes and forms the basis of the entire creation.'. ... As she spoke, her own words resonated deeply inside her. Because her job as a matchmaker was not just to put odd socks together and match them up, but to reconcile man to woman and woman to man. (pp. 72-75)

In Judy's interpretation of Genesis, she forges a link between her everyday vocation--connections between people--and her choice to enhance her religious practice through study. In this synthesis of the spiritual and the mundane, as well as of the mind and the body, we see the rejection of dualism also present in Kaaterskill Falls, Goodman's Elizabeth Shulman may be said to serve as a model for Judy Bartosky, as a newly respected, learned, "maternal and sexual" Jewish woman. According to Socolovsky, "Elizabeth,. ... with her quiet orthodoxy, allows Jewish American literature to begin to respect its women characters." (33) One of the ways to reject the legacy of Jewish literary and cultural stereotypes surrounding the Jewish woman is to reject the Western stereotypical division of the person into body and spirit. "Although Elizabeth is all covered up, according to the laws of modesty, the text never allows her to seem non-sexual. The text shows [the Shulmans'] physical relationship as spiritually and intellectually significant." (34)

Just as Goodman achieves this with Elizabeth, so too does King with each of her three female protagonists. What is more, this cohesiveness between the body and mind also forms a cohesion between women:

[Beth] tentatively approached the Kotel [Western Wall] and touched its nubbly surface as if it was the face of a man she was deciding if she liked. Farther down, an old woman ... was moving her lips and smiling, the only person smiling at the Kotel, a hand grasping a tuft of grass growing between the huge stones. ... The woman was fierce in her words as if she were giving God a tough piece of her mind, and then her manner changed and became almost congenial, as if God were a friend sitting across from her [at the] kitchen table, a bowl of fruit between them, and then a moment later she turned inward, quiet, covering her face with her gray crackly hands. Beth had never seen anyone pray like that. With a shock she realized it was Tsippi. ... She felt an upwelling of awe for the old woman, and love, for her and for all the women here. She walked up to the Wall, turned her face sideways and put her cheek on the warm craggy stone. She stood like that, taking in the tiny pings of love coming off the Kotel's stones, a hundred massive ancient breasts, wrinkled by the tears, flattened by the cheeks of thousands, (pp. 193-94)

The prayers of both Tsippi and Beth are extremely body-bound. They touch the Kotel and talk to God as one would both a lover and a grandmother, in both cases embracing the physical connection that permits the spiritual one.

In another instance, Beth attends the performance of an all-women's Orthodox band that plays exclusively for women. "In every generation,'" the leader of the band intones, in a vocabulary of secrecy, transmission and binding, '"we women pass secrets to each other, wisdom the men don't know, the hidden Torah, the secrets that create a living tradition, that bind us together" (emphasis added). King's crucial phrase "bind us together" emphasizes linkage and empowerment, rather than constraint, obligation, or struggle.

Beth let herself be dragged into a circle of women. The drum pounded. ... Sweat formed on foreheads and necks as scarves and wigs were skewing to the side, Beth whirled, swept up by the beat. ... These women and girls around her were her sisters, weren't they? She was not a lone atom bouncing along randomly ... she was linked to the Jewish women in history. (pp. 108-9)

In these initial examples I have stressed the bodily ties, both maternal and sexual, that bind women to each other in order to displace for a moment the assumption of a male subject in the creation of a new model that is "maternal and sexual." That said, though the model I am tracing runs through female lines, the authors also portray their women as intellectual and sexual in relation to men.

When Judy, as both a gracious hostess and an insightful student, responds to the question, "'Can God create a rock so big that even He can't lift it?,'" that others deride as "obvious" and uninteresting, she is concerned about how her husband will perceive her intellect. She approaches the question through a thoughtful analysis of anthropomorphism, of the assumption of power in capacity rather than incapacity, and in the possibility that though a question may be posed in language, "language can't answer the question."

[Judy's husband] Dovid pulled himself out of his former slouching position and was looking at her rather meditatively. 'I'm enjoying this,' he said. 'I'm enjoying you. ... To my wife, the scholar.' ... Judy ... could feel each cell vibrating with pleasure and well being ... for the keen joy of claiming her mind and along with it, her soul. (pp. 227-230)

Likewise, Tsippi suffers from a lack of attention and romance going back to the earliest, embarrassing first days of her marriage. In her seventies now, she volunteers to read from the Bible to a crotchety, blind old woman, Rochel Leah, who suddenly dismisses her. Tsippi feels downcast at the loss of her learning partner, her chevrutah. Her husband Shlomo, who at every opportunity studies Talmud with his partner while she runs the shop, responds,

'Oh Chevrusah oh meeusah--give me a chevrutah or give me death, ... Or, actually, did the rabbis mean "give me friendship or give me death"? I'd have to see the Gemara.'

Tsippi suppressed a sigh as he went over to the bookshelves. ... (p.204)

While searching for the appropriate tract, Shlomo stumbles on one that, the couple together decides, argues that sexual desire is'"at the root of everything ... the hidden motive behind all our actions."'This makes perfect sense to Tsippi, but their combined effort at understanding this particular tract comes as a revelation to the couple as they allow the rabbis to speak for and to them:

[S]he slid down next to him, on the same chair, and they sat learning, and there was room for both.

Later ... [Tsippi decided, n]o more chevrutahs meeting in the evening. ... At night, his mind and bones belonged to her. She would be his night chevrutah. (p. 206)

Both Judy and Tsippi wish to use their minds in tandem with their bodies in their relationships with their husbands' appreciation of them as complete people. Each experiences, as do we along with them, the joy of claiming one's "mind and ... soul" or one's "mind and bones." The clear emphasis is on the inseparability of mind and body, a refusal of dualism: the refusal to distinguish one as the province of men and the other as the curse of women. The total person refuses this separation and refuses the hierarchy implied by it, achieving greater spirituality and equanimity because of this refusal.

Conclusion

The lessons we take from these three first novels--about recovery of tradition, preservation of memory, connection to others, and a holistic sense of self--are both particularly Jewish and ultimately universal. In the oft-rehearsed debate about who is a Jewish author and what is a Jewish book certain definitions and positions have been clearly staked out. Where Philip Roth famously claimed, "'I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew,'" and Cynthia Ozick called the label Jewish American writer "derogatory," "simplistic," and "reductive," Allegra Goodman has dared to disagree. She attests, "a writer cannot have enough labels if they are keys to new audiences." (35) Ruth Wisse offers the following definition of Jewish writing: "[I]n Jewish literature the authors and characters know and let the reader know that they are Jews." (36)

How does each of the books considered in this article let its readers know that it is inhabited by Jews who care deeply about being Jews? Horn's protagonist Leora begins by tutoring her college boyfriend in all things Jewish until his observance ultimately excludes her; she then spends her twenties searching for a basherter who can share her Spinoza-inspired skepticism complemented by her quirky personal rituals of Jewish observance. (37) Horn's Jews are Jews of both words and images, of collections, of stories, films and miniatures; they believe in skulls and the fill in--or Darwinian "missing links" and rediscovered amulets of faith transformed into signs of love. King's several strong Jewish women and their different origins and problems testify to the variety of spiritual practices among a group thought of as relatively homogeneous: observant Jews. Judy, the self-sacrificing mother, wife, and matchmaker, discovers a new type of validation in Jewish scholarship; Tsippi, the Holocaust survivor, who had repressed her body along with her trauma, discovers the possibility for touch, romance, and desire in her forty-year-old marriage; and Beth, the single protagonist, recovers from her crisis of faith in learning, abandons her search for perfection in a mate by recognizing her own imperfections, and discovers a way of connecting her spiritual and bodily desires. Many of these epiphanies are anticipated in Kaater skill Falls with its array of female portraits, such as those of from but displaced British Jew Elizabeth Shulman and her questioning daughters, zealous Argentinian baalat tesbuvh Nina Melish, her rebellious American daughter Renee, or her Hungarian Holocaust-survivor sisters-in-law, Eva and Maja. Though Goodman offers an entire array of figures--many of them negative--in addition to the ones above, what we do not find in any of these texts are conventional stereotypes. The assimilationist model seems squarely set aside; it may not speak to this generation in the way it spoke to Jewish writers and audiences in the past. In contrast to works whose pro-tagonists strove to join a "universal" (to assimilate to Christianity or majority culture) by leaving behind a parochial Judaism, today's texts convey universal lessons within a struggle to reconnect with things Jewish.

Women writers of the twenty-first century do not seem put off by prospective labeling: young, first-timer, newly religious, baalat teshuvah, American, female. Goodman has called for Jewish American writing to "use religion as more than 'shtick.'" (38) Horn, if facetious about her potential labeling (claiming, of course, to be more labile than she's given credit for) answers that call in her own way, by striking a now familiar chord of recovery and reconnection:

Those considering a writing career, be warned. If you choose to write about anything even tangentially Jewish--even the slightest phrase--you will be condemned to a life sentence of sitting on panels where you will be repeatedly forced to face that eternally tedious question:'Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?' ... [T]hat tired question becomes deeply meaningful [when] animated by the reality of a vast legacy of Jewish American writing. ... [T]his legacy is authentic, and vital in every sense. ... Ask not what your past can do for you; ask what you can do for your past--and for your future. (39)

(1) My thanks to Wendy Zierler and Evelyn Avery, whose AJS and MLA panels allowed me to present some initial thoughts on this topic, and to my colleagues Harry Marten, Peter Heinegg, Stephen and Alexandra Schmidt, and Bernhard Kuhn.

(2) Thane Rosenbaum coined the term "the new wave" of Jewish literature to signal a return to Jewish religious or cultural commitments either through a "thread of spirituality, of intellectualism, or of political activism," yet the term had already come into use by the 1980s and 1990s to describe works such as Rebecca Goldstein's Mazel, E. M. Broner's A Weave of Women, and other works that reverse "the flight from ethnic identity so common in earlier American Jewish writing." "In any case," writes Janet Burstein, "an often ambivalent gesture of recovery emerges vividly from these writings and distinguishes them as a group." See Janet Handler Burstein, "Recalling Home: American Jewish Women Writers of the New Wave," Contemporary Literature, Vol. 42, No. 4 (2001): 803.

(3) Ruth Wisse minimizes this new wave as a'trickle" when she traces the ebb and flow of the relation to tradition in terms of the relative maturity and immaturity of different generations of Jewish writers, childishness being identified with rebelliousness and a rejection of tradition. By the end of the twentieth century, Wisse writes, "the original constraints of a tight religious community had loosened to the point of disintegration, that children were more likely to want for parental guidance than to suffer its demands," however, "a trickle of American Jewish writers took up the perspective of parents rather than children and .. . asked what kind of world they had wrought." See Ruth Wisse, The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture (New York: The Free Press, 2000), pp. 310; 26.

(4) Sanford Pinsker, "Going Everywhere: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century," http://www.myjewishlearning.com. accessed 20 April 2006.

(5) Anon., "A New Generation Says Goodbye to Goodbye, Columbus: The 26-year-old Winner of the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction Talks about Her Life and Work," Reform Judaism Magazine Online, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2003), http://www.reformjudaismmag. net/03winter/choice/shtml, accessed 15 July 2005 (emphasis in original).

(6) Jeff Sharlet, "Goodbye, Goodbye, Columbus: Dara Horn Sets Out to Write the Great American Yiddish Novel--in English," The Forward (8 November 2002), http://www.forward.com/issues/2002/02.11.08/artsl.html. accessed 15 July 2005; Anon, "A New Generation."

(7) Anon.,"A New Generation,"

(8) Neal Kozodoy, Introduction to Special Issue, "What Do American Jews Believe?" Commentary, Vol. 102, No. 2 (1996); 18.

(9) Micbal Moskow "Possessions as Indicators of Culture Retention and Change among a High Status Group, American Jewish Women," Anthropos, Vol, 98 (2003): 112.

(10) Allegra Goodman, The Family Markowitz (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996); Ann Simon, "Allegra Goodman," in Patrick: Meanor and Joseph McNicholas, eds., Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Vol. 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Fourth Series (Farmington Hills, MI Gale Group, 2001), pp. 147-152.

(11) Tova Mirvis, the Outside World (New York: Knopf, 2004).

(12) Total Immersion is the title of Goodman's first collections of short stories, published when she was 21 (Allegra Goodman, Total Immersion [New York: HarperCollins, 1989]).

(13) Allegra Goodman, "Writing Jewish Fiction In and Out of the Multicultural Context," in Jay Halio and Ben Siegel, eds.. Daughters of Valor: Contemporary Jewish American Women Writers (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997), pp. 270-1, emphasis added.

(14) Interview with Ruchama King, author of Seven Blessings: A Novel," http://www.aish.com/societyWork/arts/Seven Blessings QandA with the Author.asp, accessed 20 March 2005; emphasis added.

(15) Maya Socolovsky, "Land, Legacy, and Return: Negotiating a Post-Assimilationisr Stance in Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls," Shofar, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2004): 29. Socolovsky continues, "The negotiation of this space is also gendered insofar as the role of women and the position of feminism within orthodoxy are difficult issues to broach and important ones to articulate for future Jewish women writers" (p. 29).

(16) Good-man,"Writing," pp.270-71.

(17) Adrienne Rich, 'Diving into the Wreck,'' The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984 (New York: W. W Norton, 1984), p. 163.

(18) Dara Horn, In the Image (New York: Norton, 2003), pp. 33, 100. Subsequent references will be given in parentheses in the main text.

(19) Sharlet writes that Horn has written "a Yiddish novel in English, made Jewish not by the oy veys and herring but by the theological and literary underpinnings of a contemporary story pinned to the past by biblical allusion." In this "collage ... every third word [is] a reference to Scripture. But whereas in Yiddish the biblical allusions were obvious because they were in Hebrew, in English they hide within prose that with a few lyrical exceptions is mostly straightforward. ... "I don't believe anything is ever lost,' Horn said."

(20) Heather Asals, "The Voices of Silence and Underwater Experience," Analecta Hus-seriiana, Vol. 19 (1985): 300.

(21) Asals,"The Voices of Silence," p. 305.

(22) Water is often a metaphor for the study of Torah or Talmud, based on Deuteronomy 32:2: "May my teaching fall like raindrops, my words distill like dew, like fine rain on tender grass, like lavish showers on growing plants." The study of Talmud in particular is often compared to diving into an ocean. My thanks to Stephen and Alexandra Schmidt for this suggestion.

(23) The name Jason is Greek and refers to a mythological Greek sailor (Jason and the Golden Fleece), whereas his new, chosen name, Yehudah, is Hebrew for Jew (or Jewish man).

(24) Kate Washington, "A Loner who Longs to Belong," San Francisco Chronicle (29 Sept 2002), http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/ 2002/09/29/RV37915.DTL. accessed 15 July 2005.

(25) Anon., "A New Generation."

(26) Anon,, "A New Generation."

(27) AIlegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls (New York: Delta, 1998), p. 282. "A narrow place" is the literal translation of"Mitzrayim," the Hebrew for Egypt. Therefore the inclusion of this fragment in Elizabeth's thinking about the condition of women in the Kehilla suggests slavery and the need for emancipation. My thanks to Stephen and Alexandra Schmidt.

(28) Goodman, Kaaterskiii, pp. 294-95, emphasis added.

(29) See David Golinkin and Aliza Berger for a discussion of the debate surrounding women's use of tefillin (David Golinkin, "May Women Wear Tefillin?" Conservative Judaism, Vol. 50, No. 1 [1997]; 3-18; Aliza Berger, "Wrapped Attention; May Women Wear Tefillin?" in Micah Halperin and Ghana Safrai, eds., Jewish Legal Writings by Women [Jerusalem/Brooklyn: Urim Publications/Lam da Publishers, 1998], pp.75-118).

(30) Maggie Anton, Rashi's Daughters (Glendale, CA; Banot Press, 2005), p. 133.

(31) Jonathan Rosen, Joy Comes in the Morning (New York: Picador, 2005).

(32) Ruchama King, Seven Blessings (New York: St. Martins's Griffen, 2004). Subsequent references will be given in parentheses in the main text.

(33) Steven Schneider, "Poetry, Midrash, and Feminism," Tikkun (July--August 2001): 61.

(34) Socolovsky, Land, Legacy, and Return," p. 40.

(35) Socolovsky, "Land, Legacy, and Return," p. 41.

(36) Wisse, The Modern Jewish Canon, p. 11; Goodman, "Writing," pp. 268-9.

(37) Wisse, The Modern Jewish Canon, p. 15.

(38) Besides Jason's rejection of his liberal parents' lifestyle, Horn also portrays an example of generational continuity. Leora, as an adult, continues to follow her parents'eccentric formulation of Judaism even after meeting Jake: her family's "Friday Nights were reserved for Important Films: movies that ... would teach them something about the Human Condition. ... To Leora, this was sabbath eve--prayer, food, song, and epic films" (p. 57).

(39) Goodman, "Writing," p. 273.

(40) Dara Horn, review of The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature by Hana Wirth-Nesher et. al., American Jewish History, Vol. 91, No. 1 (2003): 171-74.

Judith Lewin

Union College
COPYRIGHT 2008 Purdue University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:"Diving into the Wreck"
Author:Lewin, Judith
Publication:Shofar
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Words:8371
Previous Article:Louise Levitas Henriksen's critique of Anzia Yezierska's autobiography.
Next Article:A comparison of Jan Koplowitz' novel Bohemia, mein Schicksal (1979) and Horst Seemann's film Hotel Polan und seine Gaste (1981).
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters