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 Mon­tréal 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.