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Jewish World Review
Feb. 24, 2005
/ 15 Adar I, 5765
The Right to Write: Who Decides What's Kosher?
Last week author Wendy Shalit addressed the emerging of a new literature that too often casts Judaism's most fervently-religious in what can be politely described as a very unflattering light. Now, a best-selling mystery writer, herself an Orthodox Jew, weighs-in on the challenges of her career and lays out standards to judge agendas.
Another JWR exclusive!
Twenty years ago I saw "The Color Purple," Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. I was moved by the film, and didn't leave the theater believing that all black men abuse their women, and was surprised to learn that many blacks were offended by the film and were worried that, for white audiences, it would reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks. For me, the film was about resilience, courage, and hope in the face of impossible obstacles and tragedy. Many blacks are also offended by the portrayal of Jim in Twain's Huckleberry Finn. A runaway slave, Jim is an easy target for practical jokes perpetrated by Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer, teenage members of the more "civilized" and "educated" white society. But in spite of his unschooled simplicity and childlike naivetť, Jim has always struck me as noble and is, I believe, the moral core and heart of the book. That's how I taught the novel for eighteen years. But those are my perceptions, my views. I have no way of knowing how other audiences and readers react to that film or novel, and I can understand the concern of black audiences or readers when outsiders are invited into their world.
The film and novel have been on my mind in the past month as I read Wendy Shalit's New York Times article, Tova Mirvis's response in the Forward, Ms. Shalit's rebuttal in JWR, and numerous opinions expressed in other media and proliferating in Internet blogs. I was particularly interested in the subject since I write crime fiction with Jewish characters, and a few days ago I was invited to participate in an interview: Was it all right, the interviewer asked, for Jewish writers to harshly criticize Orthodox characters in their writing, or portray them in a not-so-flattering light? Did I think this reflected badly on Jews, or did I believe that writers have artistic license?
I find myself on the fence, emotionally and philosophically. As a writer, I do believe that a novelist should have artistic license and must be prepared for criticism if his work displeases one person or ten thousand. I'm talking about novels, by the way, not incendiary propoganda that masquerades as fiction. (An example of the latter is "Kadosh," a relentlessly anti-Haredi film by Amos Gitai, which I reviewed for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. ) As an Orthodox Jew, and a daughter of Holocaust survivors, I am wary whenever I pick up a book or see a film that depicts Orthodox Jews, or Jews in general. Mostly, I want the author or filmmaker to "get it right." Sometimes I worry that a negative depiction of Jews will stoke the fires of anti-Semitism. I'm particularly bothered when the only Jews in the novel or film or the only Orthodox Jews are immoral or otherwise unappealing.
"A Price Above Rubies" comes to mind. I loathed the film. I was apprehensive about the filmmaker's depiction of Orthodox Judaism as a world in which women are, at best, restricted and stripped of their individuality-and where one woman (Renee Zelwegger) is raped with impunity by her brother-in-law. Even the rabbi, not a negative character, was benignly unaware and other-worldly no help to a troubled Zelwegger.
I haven't met an Orthodox Jew who wasn't bothered by the film. Some non-Orthodox Jews shared my concerns. Others reacted the way I reacted to "The Color Purple": They saw the film not as an indictment of an entire group, but as a story about a fictional family. Still others felt that the fictional family might be representational of Orthodox Jewry. And what is the impact of the film, I worry, on non-Jewish audiences who had little or no contact with Orthodox Jews before seeing it? Did it color or create their views? Did it give them a jaundiced view of Orthodoxy? Did it fuel anti-Semitism, or anti-Orthodox sentiment?
As a friend reminded me, anti-Semitism has a sturdy, vigorous life that doesn't depend on fictional Jewish characters to sustain itself. When Blues in the Night, my first Molly Blume mystery, was published (Molly is an Orthodox Jewish tabloid journalist), I received numerous e-mails from non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews who loved her warmth and feisty humor and boisterous family and appreciated learning about her Orthodox lifestyle.
Yet a reviewer on Amazon wrote about the book: "FOR JEWOPHILES ONLY... Why is it that Jews think the rest of us are so endlessly fascinated with their lives?" That reader knew from the jacket copy that Molly is Orthodox. She didn't have to read the book, and I'm not sure she did. More recently, on an on-line mystery subscription list to which I belong, one poster complained that several of my Orthodox Jewish characters carry a great deal of "Jewish angst." Another poster (who prefaced his remarks with the statement that his 82 year old grandmother was a refugee from Poland shades of "some of my best friends are Jews"?) then reported that "Rochelle Krich is a very well known worker for Orthodox Judaism...as a polemicist she had to stick to one line and to load her heroines with baggage and doing so she was in fact writing books which were exactly suited to her purpose." Tens of posters, Jewish and non-Jewish, leaped to my literary defense and blasted the two original posts as anti-Semitic. My point? Molly is a character who embraces her Orthodox lifestyle, but for readers looking for a reason to dislike Jews or Orthodoxy, she met their needs.
And who is to decide what constitutes a "harsh" criticism of Jews through the depiction of characters in a Jewish author's works? Can one write about Orthodox characters who question their faith? Who commit petty or more significant transgressions? Who are narrow-minded? Who cheat? Who are adulterous? Can one write a mystery in which the killer is an Orthodox Jew? Another important question: Can one create a realistic world if all the characters are idealized?
I donít think so. I have created flawed Orthodox characters. A rabbi doing kiruv (outreach) whose idealism blinds him to the truth. Parents who, concerned about yichus, cancel their sonís wedding when their future daughter-in-law reveals she was adopted, something she herself has just learned. The high school teacher Molly Blume adored, who turned out to have feet of clay. A person driven to murder. The flawed character is juxtaposed against other Orthodox characters who represent more accurately my experience as an Orthodox Jew.
My world, my fiction, my choices. I'm hoping to dispel negative stereotypes while telling an entertaining and thought-provoking story. I'm gratified when readers tell me my depiction of Orthodoxy has brought them closer to Judaism, or has helped them understand the customs of their Jewish neighbors. But I'm not immune to criticism. In Till Death Do Us Part, which deals with an agunah, I was careful to point out that the problem men who won't grant their wives a get, a bill of divorce, without which an Orthodox woman can never remarry doesn't lie in the Torah, but in recalcitrant husbands who manipulate Torah law and refuse to adhere to it. I received countless letters from Orthodox readers who appreciated the delicate way I handled the subject. But a man who claimed he championed the rights of agunos (a close friend, who was an agunah at the time, disputed his claim) ambushed me at what was supposed to be a casual meeting at a mutual friend's house. He admitted that he hadn't read my book, but he told me, "It's books like yours that cause problems and are a chillul Hashem ," a desecration of the Divine. And a Jewish reader wrote that she hated "writers like me" who don't tell the truth that recalcitrant husbands are, for the most part, leading otherwise observant lives.
That was her "truth." What is mine? I still loathe "A Price Above Rubies." It makes me see red. I still worry about negative portrayals of Orthodoxy and Judaism. Sometimes I'm offended because the portrayals are biased and skewed and nasty, or ignorant. Sometimes I'm uncomfortable because they're dead on, and I'm queasy about the rest of the world being allowed a peek into a messy room in our "house." But I wouldn't want to stifle a writer's vision which, I have to recognize, may be completely different from mine. And I treasure the freedom we have in this country to write about Jews and Judaism with the openness that others write about their cultures, to explore smaller worlds in an attempt to understand universal truths.
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Award-winning, bestselling author Rochelle Krich's latest book is "Grave Endings: A Novel of Suspense". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2005, Rochelle Krich