Saturday, January 29, 2005

Wendy Shalit Says Authors Tova Mirvis, Nathan Englander, Jonathan Rosen Don't Get Orthodox Judaism

Wendy Shalit (author of A RETURN TO MODESTY: Discovering the Lost Virtue) writes in The New York Times:

Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism -- or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with -- have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light. Admittedly, some of this has produced first-rate literature or, at the least, great entertainment, but it has left many people thinking traditional Jews actually live like Tevye in the musical ''Fiddler on the Roof'' or, at the opposite extreme, like the violent, vicious rabbi in Henry Roth's novel ''Call It Sleep.'' Not long ago, I did too.

Wendy implicitly says she understands Orthodox Judaism better than such authors as Tova Mirvis, Nathan Englander and Jonathan Rosen and that she sees Orthodox Judaism as something wonderful.
This is an interesting claim, one common with converts to a cause (I felt similarly during my early years in Judaism). I suspect that Englander and Mirvis have spent more years in Orthodox Judaism and have deeper learning in Jewish text than Wendy as they were raised in Orthodox Judaism and given a day-school education in that faith (and consequently must be literate in Hebrew). Mirvis still belongs to an Orthodox Judaism. I think she has been Orthodox all her life. Who is Wendy to say, on the basis of six years of observance and study of Orthodox Judaism, that she knows better than someone who has spent a lifetime in the faith?
Three generations ago, most Jews in the world were Orthodox. Now they are not. As soon as Jews had a choice to leave Orthodox Judaism, most of them did. They did so for rational reasons. They may have been wrong. They may have betrayed their God and their heritage. But they acted, in part, out of the reasons Shalit ridicules in her essay.
The Forward will publish a response to Shalit's essay in its next issue.
Forward literary editor Alana Newhouse replies to my email:

Ruchama King and Risa Miller are good writers, but, based on artistic merit alone, they are not in the same league as Englander, Rosen, Mirvis and Reich. So what Shalit is essentially asking us to do is to lower our artistic standards in order to
accomodate a better message, which feels rather Soviet to me; as someone who values art, I simply can't countenance that. Moreover, Shalit criticizes those writers for not giving Orthodoxy its due but it is she who underestimates it, by presenting it as so fragile that it cannot withstand criticism. Those of us who truly know Orthodoxy -- yes, even those of us who may have at one time or another strayed from it -- understand that it is held up by a much stronger foundation than she allows, one based on intellectual, emotional and social legitimacy. What I think may be at work here is a bit of misplaced jeaolusy: Shalit, who came to Orthodoxy later in life and probably had to undergo a good deal of personal change and intellectual
work to join it, is envious of those of us who had it all along. She cannot fathom how anyone could take for granted what she labored so hard to acquire; then, on top of "abandoning" it, these writers went and criticized it, which must feel like just too much ingratitude for her to tolerate. But, like your friend with the fabulous family that you would have given anything to trade for your own, these authors have the right to their experiences as well. That they could make from them art that
is, by the highest standards, both good and important, is a blessing to readers and, dare I say, a gift from God.

Miriam comments.