"Hardly There Even When She Wasn't Lost": Orthodox Daughters and the "Mind-Body Problem" in Contemporary Jewish American Fiction

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. This paper analyzes contemporary Jewish fiction to suggest that both writers and their Orthodox daughter protagonists can be viewed as the inheritors and continuation of a literary tradition questioning roles, perceptions of and opportunities for Jewish women. It also proposes that the real "mind-body" problem or dilemma that Orthodox Jewish women confront comes not from the secular world -- as Rebecca Goldstein's protagonist Renee presents in The Mind-Body Problem -- but from the conservative and traditional religious Jewish world they experienced as children and, in several cases, leave as adults. It is within the confining and constricting world of traditional Judaism and Orthodox Jewish religious observance -- traditionally male-dominated -- that they experience a kind of disconnect or come to an impasse, finding that they must be perceived as either mind or body but cannot be perceived simultaneously as both.

In Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem (1983), Goldstein sets out to explore what she describes as the "mind-body problem," the dichotomy between being perceived as either attractive or intellectual when the two are polarized and seen as mutually exclusive. Her protagonist, Renee Feuer, is a graduate student in philosophy who comes from an Orthodox Jewish background. On a superficial level, her problem revolves around not being taken seriously in the secular, academic world because she is attractive. One of her friends, Ava, addresses this problem by resorting to "intentional uglification." She doesn't want to look "pretty" or "feminine" because "feminine is dumb." She explains to Renee:

You've got to stamp out all traces of girlishness if you want to be taken seriously by the others, but more importantly by yourself.... It was okay to be a girl when I was only a student, but not anymore. When I'm attracted to a man and start playing the part of a woman, there's a voice sneering inside me: Dumb. You dumb cunt. You just can't be a cunt with intelligence. You can have a brain and a prick, there's no incompatibility there. "Brainy prick" sounds all right, but "intelligent cunt" is ridiculous, a contradiction in terms.(1)

Ava has internalized the mind-body problem and come up with her own solution. She feels that she must sacrifice being attractive in order to be taken seriously.(2)

Renee is very attractive, so it is questionable whether or not gaining fifteen pounds and/or wearing an unbecoming hairstyle would provide the answer for her. But Renee, like Ava, has been very successful as a student, graduating summa cum laude from Barnard and getting accepted into a doctoral program at Princeton. She seems to feel a little overwhelmed and describes feeling "marginalized" as a first-year graduate student, but she doesn't cite any specific examples as to how she has been dismissed or denigrated because she is a woman. The problems that lead to her abandoning her program seem to have more to do with her own feelings of ambivalence about what she is doing in philosophy. She never seems clear about what kind of contribution she would like to make within her field, or how she envisions fitting into the world of philosophy as a practitioner. Despite Renee's constant references to various philosophic theories, there is a striking lack of commitment; her interest seems almost desultory. There is never any discussion after she marries about whether or not she will continue with her training. Her husband doesn't voice any objection, yet she seems almost eager and relieved to have an excuse to give it up. Again, the "mind-body" problem is something that Renee has internalized -- it doesn't have to be imposed. Even though she feels marginalized and self-conscious about being a woman in a "man's world," nobody is refusing to take her seriously. Renee refuses to take herself seriously. Her problem seems to stem from something that she hasn't resolved from the past.

This culturally induced internalization seems to be the significant mind-body problem at the heart of The Mind-Body Problem, and it is a problem which is not unique to Goldstein's work. …