By – October 26, 2011

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.

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.

Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Simon & Schuster

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?

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.