Wendy Shalit and her critics

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Two weeks ago, Wendy Shalit had a much-discussed article in the Sunday NY Times Book Review, decrying the way Orthodox Jews are routinely pilloried in modern Jewish-American fiction. One of the writers she mentioned, Tova Mirvis, responded in the Forward, with an article that was critical and condescending towards Shalit. Shalit’s reply to Mirvis and to her other critics can be read in the Jewish World Review.

Full disclosure: I am both a friend and a fan of Wendy Shalit’s. I loved her book, A Return to Modesty, and I knew when I read it that she would be religious some day.

I wrote a letter to the NY Times to tell them how pleased I was that they ran Shalit’s article, and I also wrote a letter to the Forward to argue with Mirvis. The NY Times did not print my letter, the Forward did, but not online. Here are both letters.

1) My letter to the NY Times (which was not published):

January 31, 2005

There is a set of American novelists who disdain religion, and a rarefied subset of Jewish-American novelists whose disdain is reserved for one particular religion: their own.

Wendy Shalit (“The Observant Reader,” Jan 30) perfectly captures the tone of hostility and outlandish caricature that marks this sub-genre.

American Jews have long had a love-hate relationship with their own faith. They know that if their great-grandparents had not clung to it ferociously, there would be no Jews today. But gratitude is mixed with guilt and exasperation. How long do we have to keep this thing going? Enough already! Can we slip into something more comfortable?

The easy way to be rid of the guilt and the sense of obligation is to “discover” that the whole thing is just a crock anyway and no one really believes in it.

But beneath this layer of disillusionment is a more perduring layer of “illusionment”– an idealized picture of what a Torah-based society should be.

It is refreshing to read an essay like Shalit’s, which acknowledges forthrightly the prejudices underlying so many “Jewish” novels. I don’t recognize my friends and family in them. The adulterers, drunkards, and hypocrites who populate this fiction do not populate my Orthodox neighborhood. We have our human foibles, but that’s what we are: human.

What novelist Tova Mirvis wrote–“[T]hey who pretend to be so holy are just like everyone else…it was all pretense”–does not ring true. We do not pretend to be holy. We aspire to be holy. Sometimes we fail; falling and getting up again is not hypocrisy.

Why are we portrayed so negatively, so often? I don’t know the whole answer, but part of it is, as Shalit puts it so gracefully, “Before there can be hypocrisy, there must be real idealism.”

2) My letter to The Forward (which was published):

To the Editor:

Tova Mirvis didn’t like what Wendy Shalit said about her in the NY Times, but in her article of Feb 4, “Judging a Book By Its Head Covering,” she totally misrepresents what Shalit actually said. For this reason Mirvis’ article only compounds the failings that Shalit wrote about. Far from refuting them, she inadvertently confirms them.

Mirvis accuses Shalit of “discounting and de-legitimizing any individual experience other than her own.” If Shalit had complained about a single novel, Mirvis might have a point. What Shalit actually said is that modern American Jewish fiction routinely misrepresents Orthodoxy.

Many readers do take these novels seriously and mistakenly think that they are accurate in their portrayal of Orthodox life. Not one but many of these novelists do give the impression that they are insiders and are portraying the Orthodox community as it really is.

Most readers do not understand that the drumbeat of negativity is only a product of the authors’ imagination. Most readers don’t realize that the slurs of a hundred different individual imaginations are only a coincidence. They think, when they’ve read a dozen such novels, that Orthodox Jews really are that way.

Mirvis writes, “Shalit espouses an approach to literature in which the message matters most of all.” This is untrue. Shalit never said anything of the sort.

What she said was that she is tired of seeing Orthodox Jews routinely portrayed in the worst possible light by writers who claim to be dishing out the real inside scoop. People do form their impression of what goes on in Orthodox societies from these novels.

It is quite disingenuous of Mirvis to write, as she does, “At stake here is the question of who owns the imaginative rights to a way of life. …even if all of them have the exact same experience as Shalit, might not fiction still seek to imagine a different scenario?”

I’d like to see Mirvis put a disclaimer on the cover of every one of her books, something like, “This book is a fictional representation of Orthodox life and is totally a product of my imagination. Any resemblance to actual Orthodoxy is coincidental and entirely unintended.”

But she knows very well that such a disclaimer would greatly diminish her readers’ interest in her books. They think the dirt she dishes is real, and that’s what they find titillating. They don’t understand that it has no basis in reality. That was Shalit’s only point, and it is what Mirvis refuses to address.

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10 Responses

  1. Esther says:

    I agree with the general direction of these comments but I notice something thta I have observed many times in people’s criticisms of those outside the frum world. You cannot expect not-frum people to be frum! If we want positive Orthodox literature, someone Orthodox is going to have to write it. And if we want to be portrayed positively, the best proactive step is to work more on how we act when dealing with others, what image we give them. Everyone has heard the stories of people who became frum (or at least closer to Judaism) because one frum person was extra-nice to them. I am sorry to say that a lot of people seem to need much work in these areas. That is not to excuse what this particular person wrote in her books, but rather to say that she herself doesn’t care. Those of us who do care are the only ones who can change things.

  2. nrt says:

    I have enjoyed reading Wendy Shalit in the past and was pleased to see her reemergence with this piece. So many of
    these authors have been accorded acclaim precisely because they were supposed to have brought “authenticity” to their
    work. Thank G-d someone tore the curtain away from Oz!

  3. DMZ says:

    “What about Chaim Potok’s characters? (I don’t know…perhaps you think that is not serious literature, or believe the frum characters in his books were not portrayed sympathetically.)”

    I think Potok portrayed his characters in a very sympathetic light. Even R’ Saunders (who would be the closest thing to a villain in The Chosen) is so well fleshed out and explained that it’s hard to not understand his position.

    I think that the characters in the Asher Lev books were less prone to sympathy, but you could make the argument that their actions were at least reasonably believable (that is to say, they were portrayed accurately, more or less). Sometimes, even in real life, it’s hard to be happy with the actions of your fellow Jews, even if you understand them.

    -DMZ

  4. Rachel B. says:

    I’ve been following this debate and someone sent this to me and I thought I should post.

    Read http://www.beliefnet.com/story/27/tory_2796_1.html

    to have more background on where Mirvis comes from:

    “Letting My Hair Down

    Orthodox women must cover their hair after marriage. But after years of struggle, my feminism beat out my Orthodoxy on this one . . . In the end, my decision to uncover my hair wasn’t a halakic decision, but a personal one. I stopped because I was no longer willing to do something that offended me so much. By willfully doing something that I acknowledged to be against halakah, I had changed. My bind to halakah had loosened. I had to concede that though hair covering doesn’t mean everything, it does mean something. Halakah was no longer the sole criterion by which I would be making decisions; other values such as feminism now had competing weight. Questions that used to seem black and white–Is it in accordance with halakah or not?– have become more complicated. If I’m already not covering my hair, I can ask myself, why it is that I am not called up to the Torah in the synagogue, which is also against Orthodox practice? And if I am not observing laws that offend me, what about the prohibition against a man hearing a woman sing for fear it will arouse him? So far, I haven’t changed in these or any other ways, but I do not know what the future holds. By opening the door to this kind of reckoning, I knew I was setting down a risky path, and now I can’t be sure where I will end up.”

    –> My comment is, I don’t cover my hair either and so I have a lot of sympathy with Mivis’s points. But I wouldn’t call myself Orthodox. (I’m Conservative with a lot of Orthodox friends.) I don’t think it’s entirely fair of Mirvis to now say, Oh, I’ve been observant my whole life when she’s on the left-fringes of Orthodoxy and clearly has some problems with being Orthodox. I don’t agree with everything in Wendy’s article eithr, but these authors obviously do have ‘issues’ with Orthodoxy and that is coming through in their negative writing. I am sick of reading so much negativity too. Yes, we need more Chaim Potoks! I agree with whoever made that comment.

  5. Michael Feldstein says:

    Starting with Call It Sleep, there have been no sympathetic Frum characters in serious American literature.
    ———————
    What about Chaim Potok’s characters? (I don’t know…perhaps you think that is not serious literature, or believe the frum characters in his books were not portrayed sympathetically.)

  6. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    Your article and letter were wonderful. Starting with Call It Sleep, there have been no sympathetic Frum characters in serious American literature. For the self-doubting or self-hating Jew, Frum has become synonymous with pinata. Finally, you have given the Jewish literary elite notice that their creations are Potemkins erected to validate their internal conflicts and nothing more.

  7. Zev says:

    Mrs. Katz, I’m really enjoying your posts. I’m a fan of Wendy’s work, and her response to Mirvis was great. Clear thinking and writing; making the point without getting personal.

  8. Aaron says:

    I think the publishing houses would be more responsive to this sort of criticism. After all, these enlightened authors & publishers wouldn’t dare publish this kind of stereotyping about blacks or other etnic groups.

  9. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    Dear Toby,

    Keep up the great work. Any comments on the NY Times portrayal of Rachel Factor’s show (Tuesday Feb 15, Arts)?

  10. TheLoenCabbage says:

    much sound and furry signifying nothing. Mirvis takes Shalit’s article as an insult and returns in the same, only with far more to go around. Not only does she manage to accuse Shalit of book burning and propaganda ala Mulahs of Tehran but she also throws in a nice bit of “Bal Teshuva’s don’t know what real judiasm is about”.

    Of course, in her rage, she utterly fails to find the point of Shalit’s essay. Not that you can’t have off flawed-frum charechters, but that you shouldn’t use the frum as your whipping boy.

    And when you wright phrases such as

    “[T]hey who pretend to be so holy are just like everyone else…it was all pretense”

    You don’t also get to say , “Let’s imagine one person who is.”

    It’s wrong to invent a sinner so that your protagonist can then draw conclusions about a whole community.

    As a BT I’m highly offended by Mirvis’s sweeping generalizations regarding those whome with I’ve traveled a similar derech. She accuses Shalit in one moment of judgeing her credentials based on her shettle, and then slanders her by demotstrating how better her understanding is because of her early (childhood/childish) experiences with Judiasm. I would counter, that a childs understanding of the world can not compare with those of an adult; no matter how much cholent still resides in her colen.

    Mirvis comes off as an adolecent strutting about in self importance, and labeling only thouse of her ilk as true artists. The rest being cheasy kiruv hacks… (all love to those kiruv workers btw)