Disobedience

Simon & Schuster/Touchstone  2006

 
What is “dissed” in Disobedience is obedience— but not completely. Naomi Alderman’s prize-winning first novel (Orange Prize for Fiction) challenges rigid religious authority by having its heroine assert her individual freedom, but then softens that assertion by having her realize how obedience to tradition can restore peace of mind within the frenzied modern West. Ronit Krushka is the lesbian daughter of a venerated London Rav, who returns from America to attend his funeral in the Orthodox Hendon neighborhood. For her, no dichotomies are absolute. Ronit is gay, but is having an affair with a married American Christian man; she is a free, high-powered corporate functionary, but she feels more free observing Shabbat in the semi-shtetl that is Hendon. Her girlhood lesbian lover, Esti, is married to Dovid, the Rav’s rabbinic heir apparent, but both husband and wife implicitly accept Esti’s divergent sexuality. 


Obedience is told in three voices: a composite voice of traditional Judaism opens chapters and expounds passages of Torah, a ubiquitous narrator applies the religious texts to the developing story, and Ronit’s own first-person Americanized voice registers, sometimes satirically, her conflict with Orthodox temple politics. “[G]ayness, Jewishness” she tells us, “—are invisible.” They can be “outed” or kept hidden as the individual chooses. Alderman celebrates the ambiguity of the name “Israel,” as eternal fighting with or for God. And God is seen as enjoying the Jews’ struggle. Plot resolutions—whether Ronit can attend the hesped honoring the Rav’s life or lesbian Esti can function as rebbitzin—are foreshadowed to build suspense, and the contrasting narrative viewpoints implicate the reader in the unraveling. Ronit’s voice is lively; the ubiquitous narrator’s sometimes trips into stereotype. Disobedience, like The Chosen, Brick Lane, and The Kite Runner, probes the fissure between tribalism and pluralism, but with a learned Jewish wistfulness most readers will enjoy.

From the Rohr Judges

Alderman, a young novelist, is as capable of discussing the latest video games and graphic novels as she is of talking about midrash and the synagogue liturgy; her work, however, displays the sophistication and the emotional complexity of an author who has been working for quite some time. 

In Disobedience, Alderman tells the story of a young woman who has left behind her ultra- Orthodox upbringing – and the distinguished rabbinical family she was a part of – to seek happiness and fulfillment elsewhere. Many novels of disobedience in Jewish literature, from the beginning of the modern period on, paint the world left behind in largely--or entirely-- unsympathetic terms; when the main character is forced, by circumstance, to return to that world, one of Alderman’s achievements is to complicate that picture by rendering it in subtle shades and its inhabitants as real people, not caricatures. Alderman’s abilities are by no means limited to ethnography, though; through a series of surprising developments, she explores how and whether change can come to a world that prides itself on holding fast against change; and how her characters’ various disobediences are themselves, if not necessary, seemingly inevitable.

Naomi Alderman On...

The Biggest Challenges of Writing Fiction

The crippling self-doubt, probably. The sense that the book is never, quite, what you imagined it to be in the first instant it screeched, white-hot, into your brain from wherever-it-is that books come from. It is quite isolating. But there's a peace to be found on the page as well as a kind of insanity. Like all places to live, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

How She Writes

A laptop but no internet. The internet is deadly though so seductive with its ease of research. So easy to spend hours finding out useful and interesting things and doing no work at all. As for where: anywhere with natural light and no music. Libraries are particularly conducive. I feel I can almost hear the books mating in the background, encouraging me to produce my own baby volume.

Being a Rohr Finalist and Being a Part of a Community of Writers

One of the joys of being involved in this prize is to discover some truly wonderful international Jewish writers - the vibrancy and diversity are astonishing.

It's really an honour to be part of a community of writers and something that I'm very keen to participate in. Writers tend, by our nature, to work alone. Living in Britain, which has a small Jewish community and where we tend, I'm afraid, to celebrate Israeli and US Jewish cultural achievements above the homegrown variety, does make me feel quite isolated. The idea of being part of a growing, learning, developing community of Jewish writers is, quite frankly, exactly what I need.

Discussion Questions

 From: Simon&Schuster.net


1) Disobedience gives the reader insight into life in a tight-knit, religious community. Do you think Hendon is different than Jewish communities in the United States? How so?


2) Ronit's married lover, Scott, once told her "you belong in three places: the place you grew up, the place where you went to college, and the place where the person you love is." (p.49) Do you agree? Ronit left Hendon but she notes that while "I can give up being Orthodox, I can't give up being a Jew." (p.50) How much does your heritage contribute to the person you become?


3) In addition to examining the concept of whether or not one can go home again, what are the novel's other themes? Why do you think the author chose the title, Disobedience?


4) The narration of the novel shifts between first person and third person. How does this affect the storytelling? Why do you think each chapter starts with an excerpt from a Jewish prayer?


5) When first studying under Rav Krushka, Dovid begins to experience blinding migraines accompanied by flashes of vivid color. Do you think, as the Rav did, that Dovid was receiving visions from God or was he just suffering from stress-induced headaches? Discuss the importance of color during these episodes.


6) Within their community, it is widely assumed that the "correct mode for a man is speech, while the correct mode for a woman is silence." (p.213) What are the different expectations for men and women in Hendon? How does Esti fit in? How does she change from the beginning of the novel to her speech at the Rav's memorial service?


7) When Ronit and Esti rekindle their old feelings for each other, Esti muses, "...loving Ronit seemed, already, to demand some denial of herself. Or perhaps, she reflected later, all love demands that." (p. 94) Do you agree?


8) The only possession Ronit wants from her father's house is a set of silver candlesticks she remembered from Shabbat dinners of her youth. What do these candlesticks represent and why are they so important to her?


9) What do you think was Ronit's true intention when standing behind Esti in the kitchen, giving her the gift of hydrangeas, just as she did when they were younger? Why do you think Ronit told the Hartogs and the Goldfarbs that she was a lesbian with a girlfriend back in New York?


10) The novel eloquently ruminates over the concepts of time, love, and family, as in this passage: "Often it may seem that time has taken us very far from our origin. But if we only take a few more steps, we will round the corner and see a familiar place...but although the view may be similar, it will never be identical; we should remember that there is no return." (p. 92) How does this apply to Ronit's journey?


11) What is the significance of the bible story of David, Jonathan and King Saul? What does it mean to Esti?


12) Why do you think Ronit ignored Hartog's warning, disguised herself and attended the memorial service? Why doesn't she confront Hartog afterwards?


13) Esti and Dovid decide to stay together and have their baby. Do you think their marriage will be a happy one? Can you think of other examples of successful marriages that relied more on partnership than love? Will Dovid make a good rabbi? And what of Ronit at the end of the novel? Is she happy?


14) What new insight did you gain from reading Disobedience? Did you learn something about yourself, someone you know, or communities like Hendon?



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