'OBSERVANT READER' RESPONSE: CHAPTER 3
From Sandee Brawarsky’s column in this week's New York Jewish Week:
When asked to comment on criticism of her blurred distinctions between literature and journalism or sociology, [Shalit] 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.”
While the term “monopoly of the Ortho-bashers” is a terrific soundbyte, is this at all what’s happening in contemporary Jewish literature? Does exploration, challenge and intellectual consideration constitute bashing? And how much of a book’s marketing, a decision that I understand is made primarily by publishers, is to be blamed on the author? Are these pieces of literature designed to incinerate religious Jewish life?
My opinion? The bottom line, for me, is that these books are not about Ortho-bashing. No novel is going to take down traditional Judaism. The last few years alone have seen a few anthologies containing stories that were definitely outside the mainstream of religious Judaism, but which were clearly reflective of the struggle of contemporary Jews. (Paul Zakrzewski’s Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Melvin Jules Bukiet’s Neurotica are two notable examples.)
People who are determined to come to a negative conclusion after reading of a fictional protagonist’s experience are going to do so, no matter how lovingly the portrait of observance is rendered. Similarly, people who are committed to Judaism, on whatever level, are going to understand that one character’s challenge of observance doesn’t necessarily constitute a wholesale condemnation of all Jewish religious practice, even if the fictional character is a religiously involved Jew who rejects the system in its entirety. The bias that each discerning reader brings to a work of literature is part of their personality, and necessarily tints their perspective on the words they read off the page. It's the rare work of literature that can override this kind of already-ingrained personal theology.