Jewish Literature As It Ought To Be: Naomi Alderman’s “Disobedience”

Haim Watzman

Last month I published an essay in the Jewish Chronicle of London in which I asserted that something is missing from most of the literature being produced by and about Jews today: “What I seek are books that, without being bound by conventions of religion and history, nevertheless use familiarity with and respect for the past as an instrument for thinking about the future of the Jewish people and what it means to be part of that collective.”

Had I read Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience before I wrote that, I would have written: I’ve found it. This is exactly what I mean.

Disobedience presents us with the most intriguing, unusual, and complex love triangle I’ve seen in contemporary fiction for quite some time. Rabbi Krushka, the spiritual leader of a small, straight-laced, insular, and conventional Orthodox community in London’s Hendon neighborhood, has passed on. He groomed as his successor his nephew, Dovid, but Dovid lacks his uncle’s charisma and native wisdom. Even worse, Dovid is married to Esti, a woman known for her long silences. She doesn’t mix much with the community’s women, she’s born no children, and everyone thinks that she’s more than a tad weird.

The intimate stranger who barges into the week of Rabbi Krushka’s funeral and shiva is Ronit, the rabbi’s only, wayward child. Ronit was a rebel from childhood, going so far as to buy buns at bakeries with a hechsher her father did not accept. Seeing that his daughter could and would not follow the usual Hendon Jewish path of high school, Jewish women’s college, early marriage, and childrearing, he sent her off to Stern College in Manhattan. There Ronit quickly slid out of observance and into a series of relationships with women and married men, and into a high-powered Manhattan financial career.

But Ronit’s first lover was Esti, and Esti has waited for years for Ronit to return to her.

A story like that could easily turn into either a gray affirmation of traditional values or a polemic against the oppression of women in suffocating Orthodox communities. But Alderman’s narrative strategy produces a fabric of great complexity and intricacy. Part of the story is narrated by Ronit—cynical, sometimes grating, sometimes lonely, despite her alienation still tied by emotion and no little appreciation to the Jewish life she has slammed the door on. The other part is told by an anonymous third-person narrator intimately acquainted with the community and the three major characters. This narrator also discusses traditional text, halachot, and rituals. This voice, while clearly immersed in tradition, explicates it with a depth and complexity that challenges the stolidity of the Hendon community. Is it an outside observer, or is this Rabbi Krushka himself, or perhaps Rabbi Krushka speaking in and through the minds of the three main characters?

This combination of narrative viewpoints produces a multifaceted portrayal, both empathetic and critical, of the characters, of the community, and of homosexual love as a challenge to traditional mores. Alderman eschews the orthodoxies both of Jewish tradition and of contemporary I’m-ok-you’re-ok Western society. In her world, human beings are free agents. God has created them with certain instincts, desires, and proclivities, and they must choose whether to observe the Torah’s precept or not. They must also make choices about how to address their inborn sexuality in the context of the world and community in which they live. Choices mean responsibility, and accepting responsibility means that the right choice is not always the one that makes you happiest.

Alderman plays subtly with Jewish texts—Ronit and Esti speak explicitly about the love of David and Jonathan, and the third-person narrator tells other tales. There are also unflagged references to Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz and several other biblical and rabbinic stories.

At the end of the story, neither tradition nor rebellion are unreservedly affirmed. Neither side wins the battle between the call of love and the call of duty. Esti, Dovid, and Ronit make their imperfect choices. And they live happily enough, if not for ever after, than at least long enough for a human life.

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Disobedience was a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this book; my book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award. More Sami Rohr books I’ve written about on South Jerusalem:

Tel Aviv Ennui: Yael Hedaya’s Accidents

Black and White and Jew All Over: Eric L. Goldstein’s “The Price of Whiteness”

The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Standing Between: Ilana M. Blumberg’s “Houses of Study”

4 thoughts on “Jewish Literature As It Ought To Be: Naomi Alderman’s “Disobedience””

  1. I’ve read this book some time ago in Polish translation which was published shortly after the original had appeared.

    And I loved it. It’s a gem.

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