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After embracing Orthodox Judaism in her late teens, Wendy Shalit wrote the book, A RETURN TO MODESTY: Discovering the Lost Virtue.

1/30/05

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

Wendy Shalit writes in The New York Times Book Review:

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 know 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 has spent her entire life within Orthodoxy. She has family members who are Haredi. 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 Orthodoxy?
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.
I emailed Wendy an interview request. She did not reply, instead settling for the kid gloves treatment of the ponderous Sandee Brawarsky.
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.

From the Forward:
Judging a Book By Its Head Covering
By Tova Mirvis
February 4, 2005

But the fact that we are insiders to the Orthodox world is irrelevant. Since when must a fiction writer actually have lived the life he or she writes about? Since when must one be a murderer to write "Crime and Punishment," a pedophile to write "Lolita," a hermaphrodite to write "Middlesex," a boy on a boat with a tiger to write "Life of Pi"? Yes, it seems, Shalit has outed the whole tawdry lot of us. She's revealed to the public the terrible truth: Fiction writers make up things.

What is true is that these portrayals apparently don't capture Shalit's experience of being a baal teshuvah, or to use her definition, "a deeply observant Jew who did not grow up as one," they aren't consistent with the personal fulfillment she's found recently. And this, I suspect, is what bothers Shalit most. But instead of being able to allow for that difference of experience, she labels these other portrayals as false. If someone doesn't see Orthodoxy as she does, then he or she must not really understand it. Englander has said that he experienced his upbringing as "anti-intellectual." But she doesn't think it was, so what right does he have to say this, least of all publicly? It's this discounting and de-legitimizing of any individual experience other than her own that is so troubling.

It's bad enough she does this to people. What's worse is that she does it to fictional characters. She attacks books for depicting characters who deviate from communal norms. Englander besmirches Judaism by depicting a fight in a synagogue. Rosen creates a character, an unmarried Orthodox man who sleeps with a female Reform rabbi. Reich imagines an overweight dietician who gorges on Yom Kippur. People like Shalit attack a story by saying, "But not everyone is like this." Of course not. But the fiction writer is saying, "Let's imagine one person who is."

I call Tova Mirvis Tuesday morning, February 1, 2005: "Could you tell me about your background in Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "Contrary to what Wendy Shalit might believe, I am an Orthodox Jew. I've been part of a Modern Orthodox community my entire life. I went to [Jewish] day school, yeshiva high school [Orthodox], spent a year studying in a yeshiva in Israel. I've davened every week in an Orthodox shul and I send my kids to an Orthodox day school."

Luke: "Do you read Hebrew?"

Tova: "I read Hebrew. I can read Jewish texts. I have studied Talmud. Credentials? I keep kosher. I don't turn the light switch on [on Shabbat and festivals]."

Luke: "Where did you go to college?"

Tova: "Columbia [with a degree in English literature]. Then I went to the Columbia MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) program."

Tova studied seven years at Columbia.

Luke: "You spent your entire life in Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "Right. It's funny to find out from The Times that apparently I didn't. I thought I did."

Luke: "Have you ever spoken to Wendy Shalit?"

Tova: "No. I must confess to firing off a pissed-off email in the middle of the night."

Luke: "Did you have any inkling that this article was coming down mentioning you?"

Tova: "No, not at all. It was surprising, to say the least. I was home in a crazy Boston blizzard [Tova lived in New York for 13 years until moving to Newton, Massachusetts in the summer of 2004] with my children and some neighborhood children and my agent called me..."

Luke: "Were you a rebel vis-à-vis Orthodox Judaism in your childhood or college?"

Tova: "I wish I was. No. I was the quintessential good girl. My big rebellion was to go to Columbia.

"My relationship to Orthodox Judaism is not uncomplicated. I struggle with issues of feminism and egalitarianism in the Orthodox world. I observe but I question. Questioning is part of what it means to belong to the community. The notion that one is either in or out of a community is not true. Insiders of this world know it's not true. A little hug on a back porch is not outside the experience of day-to-day lived [Orthodox Judaism]."

Wendy Shalit writes in The NYT:
Another character, Bryan, is a 19-year-old who returns home from Israel as a deeply religious radical, renamed Baruch. Yet at his engagement party, he's suddenly starring in a Harlequin romance: out on the porch, Baruch embraces his fiancee and she leans ''in close, their bodies gently pressing against each other.'' It's bad enough that a yeshiva student would embrace a woman not related or married to him, but to do so in public is even worse. Yet Baruch's younger sister isn't surprised: ''They who pretended to be so holy in public were just like everyone else in private. It confirmed what she had suspected: that it was all pretense.''
Here is the scene in question by Tova Mirvis. The young couple are alone, "as alone as they'd ever been," out back on a dark porch. They're engaged and have never touched each other before.
They sat next to each other, on chairs whose legs were touching. Tzippy's and Baruch's arms almost touched as well. She was scared of what she would feel and scared of how he would react, scared that he would pull away in horror and scared that he wouldn't. But she couldn't stop herself. She leaned toward him and grazed his hand with two of his fingers. It was so ligght, so soft, that it could have been imagined or wished. she did it again, to be sure it had really happened. She ran her fingers across his hand, and her body tingled with the shock and pleasure of actually touching. Too thrileld and scared to move her hand, she waited to see what would happen next.

He held her hand. He gently stroked her fingers. he wantged to touch her face which he had stared at these past few months. He wanted to kiss her mouth, which had distracted him when he learned, when he davened, when he slept. He put his arms around her and she leaned in clsoe, their bodies gently pressing against each other.

Just as his lips were about to find hers, a looming figure appeared in Baruch's head. It was the face of his rabbi who whispered in his ear, "So you haven't changed at all." If he leaned any closer to Tzippy, these words would come true. One kiss and he would disappear. Guilt outpaced desire and he pulled away. He was surpised at her and surprised at himself. His married friends had warned him of the pitfalls of engagement. The knowledge of what you would one day be able to do threatened to overepower even the strongest self-control. It was dangerous to walk the edges. That was where people got lost. Baruch stood up and turned around. They both tried to pretend that it hadn't happened.

As they went inside though, the initial touch replayed itself in their heads, mirrored back from every angle. A hundred hands reached for each other. A thousand fingers intertwined.
Luke: "What about the hug being at a party and in front of people and that that is unlikely?"

Tova: "That is not uncommon. I went back and looked at that section [and asked herself], did they hug? It's a debatable point. It was a slight hug. It was not in front of people. [Wendy] doesn't mention that the hug was immediately ended because Baruch feels intense guilt about it. He has Wendy Shalit's mindset."

Tova repeatedly pronounces Wendy's last name as "SHALL-it," though I believe she knows the correct pronunciation is "Shuh-LEET."

Tova: "The scene is about the struggle between [divine ideals] and physical desire. To say that no unmarried people [of the opposite sex not related to each other] in the Orthodox world touch each other is a stretch, to put it mildly. Her comment afterwards: "It's bad enough that a yeshiva student would embrace a woman not related or married to him, but to do so in public is even worse." That misses the experience of being in that moment, which fiction does. Fiction is not shaking your finger at someone and saying, 'Naughty!' It's about what does it feel like to want this hug, to touch somebody you want to touch."

Luke: "Have you spent a significant period of your life completely outside of Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "No. Maybe according to Wendy Shalit, I have, if mild transgressions put one outside."

Luke: "You haven't gone six months without going to shul?"

Tova: "No."

Luke: "Do you know anything about Haredi [fervent Orthodoxy] Judaism?"

Tova: "One of the weird things about the piece is the notion that Modern Orthodoxy is somehow invalid. She says that to be Modern Orthodox is to be familiar with 'some traditional customs.' That's an odd thing to say about Modern Orthodoxy. There are numerous differences between Haredi Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy but they share a lot more than what separates them, certainly in the experience of day-to-day life, particularly in how human emotions reconcile with religious law.

"I do have a lot of experience with ultra-Orthodox Judaism with close family members who are part of the ultra-Orthodox world. I have family members who are part of the Haredi world."

Luke: "Do you hate the ultra-Orthodox world?"

Tova: "No."

She laughs. "I don't even think in those terms. How do you hate worlds? I'm so closely interwoven into it. I'm not sure my characters are ultra-Orthodox, maybe yeshivish or right-wing. I think my books are more about Modern Orthodoxy.

"That hug, which seems to have drawn her greatest irritation... Because a character succumbs to a moment of desire and therefore I hate the ultra-Orthodox world? It's outrageous. I disagree with her characterization of my novels as portraying the Orthodox world as 'contemptible.' I've heard a lot about my novels. I've never heard that before. I think it is not true."

Luke: "That charge has not appeared in reviews of your work?"

Tova: "Not once. I've been faulted for portraying it [Orthodox Judaism] with too much love...for not pushing my characters hard enough, for not having any of the characters leave Orthodoxy. At readings for The Ladies Auxiliary, I was asked if community was good or bad. Fiction doesn't deal with those terms. I don't even think in those terms."

Luke: "Are your novels good or bad for the Jews?"

Tova: "I don't even think about it."

We laugh.

Tova: "I've been on a Philip Roth reading binge. It brings to mind the questions Judge Leopold Wapter asks [of the Philip Roth character in the book The Ghost Writer]. I've just finished my piece for the Forward where I say that Wendy Shalit is a modern-day Leopold Wapter.

"I'll disagree with the premise of your question and answer it anyway. I don't know what we gain by presenting hagiography: 'We don't struggle. We don't question. Maybe we have a small moment of pettiness, but we are happy here. You might have issues in your life, but not here.' I'm not sure that benefits the Orthodox world."

Luke: "How accurate a reading of you and the things you struggle with and the things you observe are your novels?"

Tova: "They are not autobiographical but I'm in there all over the pages. The Ladies Auxiliary, ironically, is very much about what it means to be an insider or outsider. I am a sixth generation Memphian. I grew up as an insider in that world but at the same time feeling outside for not always agreeing with the community. There was the sense that if you deviated in the smallest way you would find yourself on the outside. I am certainly not Batsheva [the convert to Judaism in the novel]. I am not even any of the high school girls.

"I grew up with such a strong sense of being from somewhere, and I think about how you hold on to that desire without it becoming suffocating and requiring conformity. The Outside World is about how people wrestle with this question of tradition and modernity, how people make those tabulations in their life."

Wendy Shalit writes: "Mirvis hones in on hypocrisy..."

Tova: "I have no problem with hypocrisy [as Wendy defines it]. If Baruch believes in this strict interpretation of Orthodoxy yet he hugs his fiancee on the back porch, is he a hypocrite? Is that the best word we have for that? I think it's about human failings and the tension between divine ideals and human needs. The whole notion of hypocrisy is so baffling to me. I almost want to write against the idea that you are either this or that.

"I was interested in what happens to the dreams and desires that are not kosher. What happens when people belong to communities and their private feelings do not always match that. What is that individual's experience? In the Modern Orthodox family [in Tova's novel The Outside World], I wanted to write about the father Joel who describes himself as an observant agnostic. It's not about whether it is good to be that or bad to be that, but what does it feel like to be that. That's what fiction does. Her piece has nothing to do with fiction."

Luke: "I find it hard to believe that the things your characters saw and did are foreign to you. This all comes from a world of possibilities you are familiar with."

Tova: "Very much so. Their struggles are very much my own struggles. To hear that those are not authentic is, what polite word can I use, surprising."

Luke: "Do you known anyone in Orthodoxy who keeps shrimp in the freezer?"

Tova: "I had a friend in college who told me this story. I've always had this uncomfortable feeling that someone in Memphis thinks I am on to them, but I have no idea who it is.

"I think Shalit's piece loses any notion of humor. There's no possibility for humor in Wendy's worldview.

"Whether someone actually keeps shrimp salad in her fridge isn't important [in determining the veracity of a novel]... It's the metaphorical shrimp salad, the things that people do that don't fit in. Everyone has them. I suspect Wendy Shalit has her own metaphorical shrimp salads in her freezer and it doesn't make her hypocritical or an outsider. It just makes her a normal person."

Wendy criticizes you for writing that a group of neighbors smuggled televisions into their homes in airconditioner boxes.

Tova: "I'm guilty of the crime as a fiction writer of making something up."

Luke: "But this isn't unknown in the Orthodox world?"

Tova: "It's an urban legend in the Orthodox world. The air conditioner box has become a catch phrase. It signifies for insiders about what one is doing in private. If you go from door-to-door in Borough Park, will you find that all of them have done that? Of course not."

Luke: "Do you think your novels inform your reader why people would want to be part of Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "They might. It's certainly not what they set out to be. I've heard from a few people that they've had to read my novels in their conversion classes. That's nice and funny but not my goal. I hope that what they [Tova's novels] do is ask questions about what it means to live inside a world. What is the experience of living with rules?"

Wendy Shalit writes: "The novel's jacket copy announces that ''The Outside World'' is meant to explain ''the retreat into traditionalism that has become a worldwide phenomenon among young people,'' but the uninformed reader might wonder why any young person would want to be part of such a contemptible community."

Tova: "Her use of the word 'contemptible' is outrageous. Do shrimp salad, a hug and bride magazines add up to a contemptible portrayal, so that one would think, 'I could never live in that contemptible world.' I'm not sure what she is referring to.

"She used to think that Hasidim were all bad, all mean."

Wendy writes:
At 21, I was on the outside looking in, on my first trip to Israel with a friend who was, like me, a Reform Jew. One day, we wandered into a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem, and suddenly there were black hats and side curls everywhere. My friend pointed out a group of men wearing odd fur hats. ''Those,'' he explained, ''are the really mean ones.'' I never questioned our snap judgment of these people until, a few years later, I returned to study at an all-girls seminary and was surprised to discover that my teachers, whom I adored, were men and women from this same community.


Tova: "Now they're all good. It's a black-and-white way of looking at the world on both counts.

"I don't feel that it is portrayed as contemptible. It's my world. I live in it every single day. Often there's this notion that Orthodoxy is swallowed whole. People will say, 'Oh, but she's Orthodox." As though I am not a thinking wrestling person. That, to me, is the biggest problem with her interpretation of Orthodoxy. There's no room to question. I hope that my books portray that tension.

"I remember from my book tour with The Ladies Auxiliary, one lady would raise her hand and say, I could just kill that Mrs. Levy. Those women were the most narrow petty bitches I've ever seen in my life. And another person would say, 'I love that book because it has such a warm sense of community. They care about one another.'

"Ultimately, that difference of opinion is not about the book. It's about the reader. It has to do with where they are coming from and what they want to see represented. Someone who wants to kill Mrs. Levy has her own experience of being inside or outside.

"I want to write books that press buttons. I'm not interested in writing parve [a kashrut term that refers to food that is neither meat nor dairy] fiction.

"I found with The Ladies Auxiliary, the farther someone was from Orthodoxy, the warmer they felt the portrayal was.

"I go home to Memphis all the time. I live in that world. I'm the one who wrote that book. I understand the feeling that I've aired the dirty laundry... 'Will people want to move to Memphis still?'"

Luke: "What have you had to deal with in the Memphis community?"

Tova: "It's a mixed reception. It divided along the lines of insiders versus outsiders. People who felt themselves deeply inside that world were very upset about the book. Either it was nothing like Memphis or it was exactly like Memphis. People told me that they didn't read the book but a copy of all the negative passages had been passed around. People were busy trying to play who's who. They wanted to crack my code.

"At the beginning, it was upsetting. It became funny. Apparently there were five candidates for Mrs. Levy including one man. People who did not feel like insiders loved the book. One person said that it felt like I had explained her life to her. She always wondered why she hadn't felt accepted here.

"When I go back there, I watch my back."

Luke: "But it's not so bad you can't go back."

Tova: "It's also the Southern thing. People will never say anything to your face. People will give me this smile and say, 'I read your book.' That's it."

Luke: "How did your parents feel about the book?"

Tova: "They were great despite that my mom heard a comment about it every day, every time she left her house. They loved the book and felt like it spoke to a truth for them and their experiences. When I was writing the book, my mom would say, 'You're not really going to do this, are you?' I had to promise that not only would I not use any Memphis names, they couldn't even sound anything like Memphis names."

Wendy Shalit writes: "But before there can be hypocrisy, there must be real idealism; in fiction that lacks idealistic characters, even the hypocrite's place can't be properly understood."

Tova: "My idea of idealistic characters is characters who hold ideals and struggle to realize them. I think Baruch is idealistic. He aspires to something higher than himself. He doesn't always reach it.

"What Shalit is really asking for is idealized characters. She praises books, not on whether the characters are fully realized, but do they promote ideals."

Luke: "Did you write or approve the jacket copy for The Outside World?"

Tova: "I approved it. Writers get very little say over book jackets. It's the publisher's job. But it was not my favorite line in the jacket copy."

Luke: "Yes. I would not think that The Outside World was primarily a way to explain a retreat into traditionalism."

Tova: "I agree."

Luke: "Do your novels indulge the baser instincts, such as the desire to eavesdrop on a closed world?"

Tova: "I don't know that eavesdropping is so base. All of our lives are closed to some degree. The act of reading is a form of eavesdropping on other people's lives."

Luke: "Did you consider when you were writing that you would be feeding a wanted belief among many of your readers that the ultra-Orthodox are crooked and hypocritical and lacking any competing claim to the truth?"

Tova: "No. I might be feeding the notion that they are also human."

Luke: "Have you read Ruchama King?"

Tova: "I blurbed her novel [Seven Blessings]. I think it has many nice things about it. I would praise her for the intimacy of her moments, her details, and the delicacy of her language."

Luke: "Eve Grubin?"

Tova: "I'm friendly with Eve Grubin as is Wendy Shalit. I haven't read Eve's book but will once it is published. I think she's a nice person. I think it's odd to have someone in The Times Book Review when their book hasn't been published. I think Eve was praised for becoming Orthodoxy, not for her poetry."

Luke: "Allegra Goodman?"

Tova: "I love her work. I love Kaaterskill Falls. Paradise Park is a riot. I would contest [Wendy's] characterization of Allegra as a 'sympathetic outsider.' It doesn't do her work justice. And it isn't so sympathetic. If you talked to people from the community that Kaaterskill Falls is based on, I don't think they would agree with Shalit that it was so sympathetic. And I don't mean that as a charge against Allegra. I mean it as a compliment. I think her work is funny, sharp, and pointed."

Luke: "I find it hard to believe that Allegra is an outsider to Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "It depends on your definitions."

Luke: "I am sure Allegra has spent time in Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "The whole notion of a classification system [of outsider/insider] is highly offensive. Who's deciding which of us is in or out? I would argue that Nathan Englander is an insider too. Wendy doesn't take into account that there are many ways to be insiders. When you grow up in a world, you know a world. Nathan knows this world deeply and fully. Just because he doesn't believe in it now doesn't remove that. It's a matter of knowing his stuff whether he practices it or not."

Luke: "Is it unbelievable to think that an Orthodox rabbi would write a dispensation for a man to see a prostitute?"

That is the key story in Englander's collection of short stories and also occurs at the beginning of the Israeli film The Holy Land.

Tova: "It's a Talmudic story. I bet that Wendy, with all her claims to be an insider, did not know that it's a Talmudic story. That's what is so disturbing about the way his work is treated [by Wendy].

"I think the single most outrageous line in the piece was: 'Englander's sketches were fictional, but did most people realize this?' Well, they're called fiction. It's not about whether it does happen in life. It's a story."

Luke: "Tova Reich?"

Tova: "I haven't read her. I know her brother is an Orthodox rabbi."

Luke: "If so, then it is hard to believe she's an outsider to Orthodox Judaism."

Tova: "Apparently one becomes an insider by feeling the way Wendy does about the world. By her logic, if you know the world, you must love it. And if you don't love it, you don't know it.

"Pearl Abraham is not mentioned in the piece because she disproves the thesis. Pearl Abraham grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community. The Romance Reader is about her rejection of that world. She certainly knows the world."

Luke: "Did you read Chaim Potok's novels?"

Tova: "I did growing up. I saw the movie The Chosen and read it. My Name is Asher Lev. Davita's Harp."

Luke: "I read all of Chaim Potok's novels when I was a kid and reread them during my conversion to Judaism. Now I gorge on Jewish fiction. I'm struck the difference in the intellectual caliber of the characters between Potok's characters who are obsessed with intellectual questions such as Biblical Criticism and other questions about texts, and the lack of that contemporary Jewish fiction."

Tova: "I disagree with that. For Baruch, it's a text-based struggle. In Orthodox Judaism, sociological details are not separate from theological ones. Halacha [Jewish law] is so minute. That characterizes that world. In the discussion of domestic details, there are large theological questions. It's the way ideology is lived through sociology. In a world where clothing and every gesture matter so much, The difference between seamed stockings and unseamed stockings can speak volumes about who a person is as an Orthodox woman."

Luke: "To me the primary question one would ask in determining whether or not to lead an Orthodox life is does one truly believe that God gave the Torah. That question does not seem to be present."

Tova: "Because it is taken for granted. It is taken as a given. If they are arguing about putting dish racks in a sink to make it kosher, God is implicit in that conversation."

Luke: "Do you believe in God?"

Tova: "Yes."

Luke: "Do you believe God gave the Torah?"

Tova: "I do. I think it's more complicated... I don't believe in the fundamentalist notion that he wrote it down and handed it off but I believe in an evolving dynamic chain of tradition. It has formed my life. It is complicated. I would guess that I don't believe in it in the same terms that Wendy Shalit does."

Luke: "How about in the terms that Maimonidies formulates in his eighth of thirteen required beliefs [the Jewish prayer Yigdal, which translated into English reads: 'I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him.']"

Tova: "Remind me."

Luke: "That the Torah is divine. That every word of it is divine. And if a person was to say that a single word in the Torah is not divine, that that is outside permitted belief."

Tova: "I don't know. That's a good question. Part of my Orthodoxy is that you don't have to know all the answers. I don't know. It's a good question."

Luke: "This was a question that obsessed the characters of Chaim Potok novels and it obsesses me."

Tova: "What's interesting about Orthodoxy is does the term mean sameness of belief? There's little sameness of belief in Orthodoxy. There are basic tenets. I don't think one could articulate an Orthodox theology that would apply across the board. It's complicated and I live with that complication every day."

Luke: "Orthoprax means correct practice. Orthodox means correct belief. Sorry to hone in on this, but would it be more accurate to call you Orthoprax than Orthodox?"

Tova pauses: "I don't even know where to begin. No, I have no idea. I don't know what those words mean. Is someone who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and drives there [on Shabbat and festivals], is he Orthodox? I don't know. Is one who davens three times a day but eats out [in non-kosher restaurants], is he Orthodox? I don't do that, before that gets tagged on to me, but I don't know. I don't know what these terms mean. I don't really think about them. I don't know that there's a need to define in that way.

"I am Modern Orthodox. I am liberal Orthodox. I am feminist Orthodox. But what does that have to do with my right to write fiction? The whole question of where writers are coming from is problematic and the least interesting way of looking at novels. I don't know what my own personal beliefs have to do with it. Is it a credential test?

"People ask [a prominent Jewish author] if he believes in God. They want a yes or no answer. He thinks it's not a yes-or-no answer but a discussion. To live in the Orthodox world is to be engaged in these questions and discussions and to wrestle with them and to be part of a conversation. It's not to have all the answers. I just don't believe that anyone does."

Luke: "Are you familiar with Louis Jacobs?"

Tova: "Vaguely."

Luke: "He was on the way to becoming Chief Rabbi of England in the early 1960s. They found a book he wrote in 1957 called We Have Reason To Believe where he accepted what is the universally held view in academic study of sacred text that the Torah is composed of different strands composed in different centuries and woven together over centuries. Because of that, he was thrown out of Orthodox Judaism.

"I bring that up because with your vast secular education, I am sure you are familiar with literary criticism and the asking of three basic questions: When was something written? Who wrote it? For what purpose was it written? If you apply those three basic questions to sacred text, you would come up with an answer completely different from that of traditional Judaism to its sacred texts. Do you wrestle with this?"

Tova, pauses: "Sometimes, but not to where I need to have the answer, to resolve it in my head. I think the same applies to issues of Orthodoxy and science."

Luke: "Is Jewish Orthodoxy compatible with Modernity?"

Tova: "Yes."

Luke: "So one can be authentically Orthodox and authentically Modern?"

Tova: "That's what the Modern Orthodox movement is about. Modern Orthodoxy was founded on the principle that one doesn't live in separate worlds where we do our Orthodox thing and then we do our Modern thing. We integrate them."

Luke: "Do you think it is true?"

Tova: "Do I think that it is true?"

Luke: "Ontologically, ultimately? That you can be authentically Modern and authentically Orthodox and integrated?"

Tova: "I do."

Luke: "I'm sure that much of what you learned at Columbia ran completely counter to your Orthodox Judaism?"

Tova: "I don't know. It didn't."

Luke: "Did you ever take a class in Bible?"

Tova: "I didn't. I regret that.

"I think these are interesting questions but they don't have to do with fiction, with my fiction.

"I think of Wendy Shalit's piece as a tzitzit-check, a sheitel-check. What are your credentials for writing. As a writer, I don't pretend to have all the answers to the theological questions of Orthodoxy. I don't pretend it in my life and I don't pretend it in my fiction.

"I don't think that writing from a place of certainty makes for the best fiction.

"I can discuss with you my own doubts though I don't think that I need to. Orthodoxy is not always an easy package to hold together.

"I take issue with her argument that because characters struggle with communal norms and divine truths they are outsiders. I think she wants to do this to writers and to our characters. It is the second one that pisses me off more."

After the interview, I exchanged some emails with Tova.

Eighty minutes after the conclusion of our interview, Tova wrote me:
I must tell you as well, in hindsight, that I have an isssue with many of your questions. Upon thinking about it, I wondered whether questions such as whether I believe in the one of maimonides 13 principles of faith are intended for discussion and thought, or to determine whether I'm really the insider I claim to be. if the former, then I truly am interested in the conversation and the ongoing exploration. But if its the latter, then I'd make the same objection as I make to her piece. Must we believe in the 3rd principle of faith, for example, to write legitimately about the ortjodox world. What if someone only believed in numbers 1-11? Does that disqualify them? And since its so on point, I'd love to quote The Ghost Writer, which I mentioned: "Do you practice Judaism? If so, how? If not, what qualifies you to write about Judaism for national magazines?" I'm feeling a little too much of Judge Wapter in the air.
I replied:
That was my favorite section of the Ghostwriter. I do not believe that you need to believe in anything to write on Orthodox Judaism or any topic. My questions on your beliefs were to find out where you are coming from. I realize this is a very sensitive area for many people... I had a fascinating discussion along a similar line with Alana Newhouse...in my book on Jewish journalism.

Later, I emailed Tova: "Why have you stayed Orthodox?"

Tova wrote back: "I've stayed Orthodox because it's who I am, it's my childhood and its my family, my parents and my children, and it's part of all my memories. I'm Orthodox because I love ritual, because I love the texts, love the idea of a chain of ideas passed down from generation to generation, each one adding one more link. Because I love Shabbos, love that the chaos of my everyday life quiets down for those hours. Because sometimes when I least expect it, a cantorial tune, a word of a prayer will catch me off guard and move me, make me feel a longing for something deeper, fuller, higher. I've stayed Orthodox even though so many things about it anger me, so many things feel problematic and troubling and unresolvable. And I stay because the Orthodox world is so much wider than some people believe, because one can doubt and wrestle and observe and believe and that is all part of this tradition."

Wendy Shalit's essay on Orthodox fiction in The New York Times has sparked a ton of good writing and bad writing (sharp thinking and fuzzy thinking). The worst? Sandee Brawarsky at The Jewish Week and Esther D. Kustanowitz at MyUrbanKvetch, who also writes for The Jewish Week.

Esther writes:

As a result, when I write today, I grapple with authenticity, education, power, authority, authenticity, empowerment, tradition, feminism, modernity, identity and everything under the sun.

Sandee Brawarsky writes in The Jewish Week 2/4/05:

“I’m not judging the level of observance of these authors; I’m just trying to present a different perspective from someone who has been both an insider and an outsider,” [Wendy] wrote. “To me, the strongest novels are the ones that portray an ideal to live up to, not just people’s failings.”

When asked to comment on criticism of her blurred distinctions between literature and journalism or sociology, she says, “The problem is that these books are sold as ‘authentic’ portrayals of Orthodox life, and also reviewed as such — therefore I think it’s a fair question to ask: How authentic are these portraits, really?” She explains that she wrote the essay “to spark a discussion, so it’s healthy that we’re having this debate now in the Jewish world,” she says, adding, “We’re at a very exciting moment in American Jewish fiction because the monopoly of the Ortho-bashers is ending.”

Does she have interest in writing fiction? “Perhaps someday.”

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, explains that the piece grew out of a review Shalit wrote that seemed more essay than review, so she was asked to recast it into a longer piece. “Her argument struck us as one that was interesting and provocative, which doesn’t mean we agree with her. Wendy has an unusual voice; she comes to literary matters from a more philosophical point of view.”

The most demerits in this controversy must go to the prestigious publication that published Wendy Shalit's essay without fact-checking it - The New York Times. I sent emails to the Books section and to the ombudsman Daniel Okrent asking if the Times fact-checked essays written for its book section. Judging by Shalit's piece (which alleges that Nathan Englander and Tova Mirvis, among other authors, were ignorant of Orthodox Judaism, a completely fact-checkable charge easily refuted by the facts), the Times obviously does not fact-check many if not all of the essays published in the Books section, and when asked about it, they don't reply. So the biggest black eye in all this belongs to Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus who is too big of a weenie to admit how much he and The Times fell down on the job here (and judging by this debacle, many other times as well).

Chatting About Wendy

Here's a selective transcript of a chat I had with Alana Newhouse, Arts and Culture editor of the Forward, on Monday night, February 7, 2005.

Luke: "Do you remember when there was this much discussion about an essay on Jewish fiction?"

Alana: "When was the last time The New York Times did something really big on Jewish fiction? I don't know. You're right to say that there's been a lot of chatter in the past week-and-a-half about Jewish fiction. But I'm looking at the quality of the chatter, not the quantity."

Luke: "And the quality of the chatter is what?"

Alana: "Wendy put something out there. People either come out one side or the other. I'm not sure that anyone's learning anything."

Luke: "Did Wendy Shalit's essay surprise the hell out of you?"

Alana: "No. I'm still perplexed about the process behind it...

"I still didn't find it that compelling."

Luke: "Because she doesn't critique literature qua literature?"

Alana: "That's primarily it."

Luke: "Because she judged it morally."

Alana: "Well, my position is more nuanced than saying that literature has no moral value. Stories have affected my life. But what affects us personally is different from making broad moral judgments [about literature].

"Soviet art was bad because they put the moral first. When art comes second to the message, it loses value."

Luke: "Do you think novels can be moral or immoral?"

Alana: "No. Can it be offensive to certain people sense of morality, including my own?"

Luke: "Of course. That goes without saying."

Alana: "There's plenty of art out there that offends me."

Luke: "No, no, no. Don't worry about that. Can a novel be immoral?"

Alana: "No. I attach morality to actions."

Luke: "Did you read Lolita?"

Alana: "Yes."

Luke: "And you don't think that's immoral?"

Alana: "No. I can't say it's immoral. It happens to be one of the books that changed my life."

Luke: "I hate to think which way."

Alana: "In a very good and important way."

Luke: "How old were you when you read it?"

Alana: "Nineteen."

Luke: "Thank G-d.

"I think Wendy Shalit believes that fiction can be moral or immoral."

Alana: "I imbue human beings with agency."

That's a fancy way of saying that Alana holds people, not books, responsible for human behavior.

Luke: "Do you believe that movies can be moral or immoral?"

Alana: "No. It's like people saying that a Marilyn Manson song made them kill someone. It didn't do that. It may have inspired something that existed in the person already but the song didn't make you do it."

Luke: "The Passion."

Alana: "It's a work of art but it's an example of someone using their art to send a larger message, and as a result, the art lost some of its value. But it is not an immoral movie."

Luke: "The movie Gloomy Sunday is based, in part, on a true story about a 1930s hit song that dozens of people committed suicide listening to."

Alana: "That's a terrible thing and I'm sorry it happened.

"We all come to art with our own experiences. I don't know why the song inspired people to do that. Something can inspire people to act but art itself doesn't act. I can walk out into a forest and feel supremely lonely and be overcome by despair and want to kill myself but nobody is going to cut down a forest because it inspires somebody to commit suicide.

"Art can have the power to impart morality or immorality but art is an inanimate object neither moral nor immoral."

Luke: "Do you think something with the power to impart morality or immorality is moral or immoral?"

Alana: "You decided the definitions of things here. I'm willing to concede that certain things may impart immorality. That's a different discussion. I don't know that Wendy was making that point. I don't think she was saying that any of this fiction would inspire Orthodox people to go out and not be Orthodox."

Luke: "Her criticism of the fiction is that it enables people to say to a group who purport to a higher moral law, a ha, they pretend to be so holy in public but it is all pretense."

Alana: "Yes, and to be fair, that's a better argument than saying that we don't want to write this because it is going to inspire kids to eat shrimp salad, which is not what Shalit wrote."

Luke: "I wonder if somebody could believe that Orthodox Judaism is divine truth, superior to all other religions, and write a compelling novel about Orthodox Jewish life?"

Alana: "I wonder too. I don't know if they haven't written that novel already. I don't know what goes on in these writers' heads. I don't know that Tova Mirvis, for example, isn't the person you just described."

Alana admits that she spent Shabbos afternoon thinking about Wendy Shalit's essay.

Luke: "Did Wendy's essay intellectually excite you?"

Alana: "Yes, but I'm easily excitable.

"One of the reasons you saw pieces in Jewish newspapers about Wendy's essay is that her piece touches on a cultural divide that goes beyond literature -- the rightward shift of the Orthodox community and the fear that Modern Orthodoxy is dying. It may have touched a nerve far beyond the effect of literature.

"One of the nerves it touched for me was my fear that Orthodoxy is becoming more provincial and less permissive of art and what the world has to offer."

Luke: "Are you disturbed by the amount of hubbub over the piece?"

Alana: "Nah."

Luke: "Wendy didn't see her story replicated in the pages of Orthodox Jewish fiction..."

Alana: "Yes. I agree with her on that."

Orthodox Jews In Fiction

Letters to The New York Times Book Review take up a page of the Sunday 2/27/05 section:

In her essay ''The Observant Reader'' (Jan. 30), Wendy Shalit chastises several writers — myself included — for misrepresenting Orthodox Judaism and purporting to be insiders. But apparently the only true experience of Orthodoxy is her own — and any portrayal that doesn't confirm her newfound personal fulfillment is inauthentic. Shalit misrepresents my depiction of Orthodox Judaism, a world I know and live in every day. Evidently, in her divine scale of justice, one character's unhealthy obsession with bridal magazines and another character's forbidden hug add up to ''contemptible.''

The true sin seems to be portraying Orthodox Jews with any human failings, with having moments when they do not conform to the dictates of Jewish law. Shalit is not an observant reader but an ideological one. She's looking for public relations documents, kosher books by ''insiders' insiders'' that will ''convert'' even us ''outsider insiders.'' I didn't realize that despite spending my life as an Orthodox Jew, I'm in need of conversion. But then, I also didn't realize that novels were in the business of proselytizing.

TOVA MIRVIS
Newton, Mass.

• To the Editor:

I do not know if Wendy Shalit's inability to read my novel as a work of fiction stems from her anxiety about Orthodox stereotypes or from a simple failure of imagination, but it is necessary to point out an inaccuracy in her representation of my views in my novel ''Joy Comes in the Morning.'' Shalit writes that ''Rosen dismisses modern Orthodox men as 'macho sissies' and depicts 'pencilnecked' Orthodox boys.'' I do not dismiss Orthodox men as anything. Deborah, a character in my novel who has had an affair with an Orthodox man about whom she is still conflicted, entertains the ''macho sissies'' thought (along with many other, often contradictory thoughts). Lev, a young man awkwardly entering into a relationship with Deborah, who is a Reform rabbi, has an anxious association with thin yeshiva boys as he himself is about to embark on a session of Talmud study. The boundaries of Judaism are fluid for these characters, as they are in real life. Judaism, to its glory, has so far managed to avoid breaking down into ''denominations,'' but Shalit writes as if no complex web exists linking secular and observant, ancient and modern.

In her treatment of other Jewish writers, Shalit gathers up a few biographical scraps to determine whether these writers are ''outsiders'' or ''insiders'' — as if the authority of a literary work were a matter of birthright and not imaginative power. This is a sad diversion from all the truly interesting questions there are to be raised about religion and the imagination, about traditional Judaism and works of new creation, about honest exploration and communal anxiety. One wonders what Shalit would make of the story about the cunning ancestor who robs his brother and cheats his father — but then the Bible doesn't specify whether Jacob is Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or haredi.

Shalit's attack on the way contemporary Jewish novelists do — or do not — write about the haredi community put me in mind of Oscar Wilde's observation that the 19th-century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. Shalit's dislike seems to be for imaginative fiction itself — her prerogative, of course, but a strange attribute for someone writing seriously about it.

JONATHAN ROSEN
New York

Wendy Shalit Strikes Back

Shmarya Rosenberg writes 3/7/05:

Wendy Shalit has apparently complained to my service provider about the following post. She claims I have used her name "without permission." Ms. Shalit, so quick to pontificate about and judge others deemed less moral (i.e., less ultra-Orthodox) than her, apparently is unfamiliar with protected speech – and with satire. For those of us who have read Shalit's work, her lack of a sense of humor should come as no surprise. That Shalit was too cowardly to approach me directly and instead resorted to a base attempt at censorship only reinforces her image as a bullying ideologue. An objective observer, an honest reporter Ms. Shalit is not.

Why does traditional girl Wendy Shalit still go by her maiden name? I guess she's happy to cast aside modesty and tradition when it comes to advancing herself. Sort of like that born-again Christian Herbert Streicher in Utah who still uses his stage name Harry Reems. Or abuse victim Nora Louise Kuzma who still uses her stage name Traci Lords.

Wendy Shalit Satire Removed

Shmarya Rosenberg writes 3/10/05:

Six Apart has removed the following satirical image from my blog because it uses author and social commentator Wendy Shalit's name without her permission. The United States Supreme Court has definitively ruled that this type of satire is protected speech and is not legally actionable. The frightening thing is that thousands of political and news blogs use this company's products – MoveableType and TypePad. So if a sexual predator like Rabbi Baruch Lanner or a Catholic priest didn't like the way he was represented, he could simply complain to Six Apart and the "offending" material would be removed. But, following Six Apart's logic, the purge would not stop there. Hillary Clinton or Alan Greenspan could make the same complaint, and Six Apart would purge the post. In effect, because Six Apart makes no distinction between mentioning a public figure like Wendy Shalit and a private party – your landlady, for example – all political and social discourse is open to censorship. This is an Orwellian situation that pulls the blogosphere into a strange Pravda-like twilight zone, where convicted abusers and public figures – not the little people they damage – control the discussion of and free-flow of information regarding their foibles. Welcome to the world of Wendy Shalit – ultra-Orthodox apologist, humor-phobe, anti-free speech social commentator. Queen Pravda in a sheitel.