Academic journal article Shofar

"Diving into the Wreck": Binding Oneself to Judaism in Contemporary Jewish Women's Fiction1

Academic journal article Shofar

"Diving into the Wreck": Binding Oneself to Judaism in Contemporary Jewish Women's Fiction1

Article excerpt

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 tesbuvah (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 fiction of ajewish ultra-Orthodox community. The salient feature of this writing is the return of contemporary Jewish women to religious practice, to ajewish sense of self and community, and to ajewish 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 KaaterskM 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 message of duty to family and community superseding duty to self, King's book conveys the opposite 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 Jor my generation, the way to rebel against your parents is to become Orthodox. …

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