The ProsenPeople

Based on a “True” Story

Friday, March 26, 2010 | Permalink

In her last posts, Nora Rubel wrote about keeping kosher and “keeping Jewish”and Jewsteria Lane. She has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

I love television, I love movies, and I read too (when I can squeeze in time between my regularly scheduled programming). I have always been interested in how popular culture attempts to warn us about the dangerous influences of our time. Such literary and cinematic narratives warn us about the consequences of certain behaviors. Sometimes they warn us about the influence of alcohol or drugs as in the 1980s’ after school specials Angel Dusted and Desperate Lives (both of which feature Helen Hunt). Sometimes, we can learn to fear the influence of certain types of people and religious beliefs (think about Iranians and Islam in the 1991 film Not Without My Daughter). If we examine the context of such films however, we can see that they tell us more about ourselves and our times than they do of the chosen subject matter.

When I was in college, my mother gave me the Naomi Ragen novel Sotah. While I ravenously devoured it, enjoying the sneak peek into the hidden world of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews, I imagine that I (embarrassingly uncritically) swallowed the content as completely true.


Nora Rubel

Ragen’s books—and there are quite a few—on the haredi community are an entertaining mix of Jewish Harlequin-style romance novel and quasi-feminist theological critique. The heroines awaken to their own oppression and find love and happiness in what is essentially a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. As a grad student in American religion, I began to notice a pattern of such “sneak peek” narratives, beginning with the seventeenth-century Indian captivity narrative giving way over time to anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, and anti-Muslim stories. Such fictions employed manipulative tactics in order to rouse the passions of the reader; a dominant theme is that of the oppression of women.

One such famous (and false) tale is the 1836 bestselling exposé Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, which told of unspeakable horrors that took place in a Montreal convent: the sexual solicitation of nuns by priests, infanticide, and murder. Read by many at a time when convents were actually being burned down by angry mobs, these convent tales fueled already existing nativist passions. A ghostwritten work, its purpose was to warn Protestant women of the dangers of the Catholic Church.

After I read this piece, my thoughts turned back to Sotah, a novel that (likeAwful Disclosures) highlighted anxiety about the nature of power and authority, primarily the power wielded over women. I thought of my response to the novel, particularly my feelings of certainty that the haredi world was a dangerous place for women, and wondered if perhaps I was being manipulated as a reader. I began seeking out fictional narratives that featured ultra-Orthodox characters and found that for many this theme of Ragen’s was common. Sometimes the agenda was in favor of a more moderate religiosity, sometimes it favored a progressive secularism. In all cases, the texts seemed to function as weapons in an ongoing culture war, one that is an argument over authentic Judaism.

The texts pursued in my new book, Doubting the Devout: the Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, emerge therefore in a period of cultural contestation, a moment when the dominant group, mainstream American Jewry, consciously or unconsciously believes it is being threatened by an invasion of the marginalized group, the ultra-Orthodox. As in the earlier anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim narratives, the dominant culture constructs extreme portraits of the marginalized group as an articulation of its own cultural insecurity and anxiety. The anti-haredi writings that I profile in this book place this American Jewish culture war in a long line of American ethnic and religious conflict. The narratives replace the lecherous priests in anti-Catholic tales with manipulative rabbis, the abusive convent with the repressive yeshiva, but the formula remains the same: these people are different and threatening, and the public should be warned.

Nora Rubel is the author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination. She has been blogging here all week.

Jewsteria Lane

Thursday, March 25, 2010 | Permalink

In her last post, Nora Rubel wrote about keeping kosher and “keeping Jewish”. She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

I just published my first book, Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, a book which deals with contemporary tensions among American Jewry. While I was working on it, my family moved to a beautiful neighborhood in Western New York. Our house was chosen primarily for its 1930s Arts and Crafts style and charm. Sidewalks and vintage street lamps lined the street, which was in a great location.

Little did I know that I was about to move into what is essentially a microcosm of American Jewry, as well as into the pages of my book. We knew that the area was a relatively Jewish one, but I think we were unprepared for quite how Jewish it was. Located within an eruv, our neighborhood is where our town’s haredi Jews live. Our particular block is made up of a mix of wig-wearing and black hat Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, and hard-core Reform and interfaith families. I know there are local Conservative Jews, but they don’t live here.

Within a short time of moving in, we became aware of the street’s character — joking that the street was so safe for the kids on Saturday because hardly anyone drove. We were soon approached by a neighbor who confided that he was relieved when he discovered that we weren’t Orthodox (too many of them already). My first impression of the street was thus one of sharp divisions, proving my book’s argument.

However, over time, I began to romanticize the pluralistic nature of my street—thinking perhaps I had overstated the original hostility I had picked up on. Many of the religious women in the neighborhood were nothing but nice to me (in spite of my nose ring and non-Jewish husband) and when the weather was nice, outdoor socializing between the various strands of the tribe was not uncommon. But as I began to become closer with these neighbors — and I started to think of many of them as friends — I learned that there are even deeper divisions beneath the Midwestern pleasantries that exist here. One woman’s skirt is too short, another’s house is not kosher enough. As an academic, I frequently critique the need for categories, yet recognize that this is still how we see the world. And the contemporary Jewish world is one framed by sharp—yet complex—categories.

There’s a house for sale on my street again, and I feel my neighbors’ eyes upon it — waiting to see who will move in (and what sort of hat the new neighbor will sport).

Nora Rubel is the author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination. She will be blogging here all week.

Not Kosher

Monday, March 22, 2010 | Permalink

Nora Rubel, author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination, will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

I just finished rereading Elizabeth Ehrlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen for what feels like the umpteenth time. I assign this multi-layered memoir of a woman’s journey into the observance of kashrut for my class on religion and foodways. Upon completion—every spring semester—I want to throw out all my dishes, kasher my pots, and start all over in a neatly organized kosher kitchen that pays homage to these boundaries that my ancestors found so important. Except that this is myth, one that goes quite a few generations back. My paternal grandparents—Holocaust survivors—taught me to enjoy a good lobster. My maternal grandfather, the grandson of a great rabbi in Poland, had no use for organized religion, let alone such antiquated dietary laws. My parents eat on Yom Kippur. And yet, despite the longstanding ritual impurity of my kitchen history, I am haunted by minor transgressions. I am hyperaware of the cutting board used to slice meat and I will choose a different one for dairy—even if these items will share space on the dinner table.

When I see my mother-in-law drink a glass of milk with a meat meal, I recoil. But is that the response of a closeted kosher girl or just that of a pretentious foodie who believes that milk is not the proper gastronomic accompaniment to a lemongrass-scented beef stew? It is one thing to take on these obligations when there is a cultural context for such behavior, but I grew up with none. Perhaps I am just too lazy to take the leap into what would surely be a downward spiral into obsessive compulsive behavior. My partner and I already have food rules, but ours are more along the lines of Michael Pollan’s recommendations than those mitzvot passed down at Sinai. We make our own bread, buy meat from farmers we know, belong to a CSA, and eschew processed foods. We eat in what we see as an ethical way. But is it Jewish?

Last fall the president of the Reform Movement, Eric Yoffie, suggested a way that it might be.“This is not about kashrut… We need to think about how the food we eat advances the values we hold as Reform Jews.” In the aftermath of the nightmare revelations of the Postville slaughter house, one realizes that kosher does not always equal ethical. Yoffie’s—and the URJ’s—Green Table/Just Table initiative requires us to bring back a sense of wonder to thinking about how our food gets to our table. Is factory farmed beef worthy of a bracha? Or is the local pasture raised lamb, slaughtered without a shochet, something more laudable? At least for now, my table remains ritually impure. Maybe it’s not kosher, but I think it’s still Jewish.

Editor’s note: There has also been a significant response among kosher-keeping Jews to Postville. Check out MJL’s coverage of the Tav HaYosher campaign from Uri L’tzedek.

Nora Rubel is the author of the recently published Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination . She will be blogging here all week.