Until recently, a major narrative strain in Jewish literature was the bildungsroman, in which a young person realizes that he (less frequently, she) must repudiate the traditional Jewish community in which he was raised because its religious injunctions thwart his ambitions. Anger at the perceived narrowness of the Orthodox world is, at times, mixed with some regret at what is lost in escaping its confines.
Disobedience, British novelist Naomi Alderman's debut novel, marches in the opposite direction of this classic bildungsroman. We join the action after the protagonist's break from Orthodoxy, and the narrative moves toward reconciliation with tradition rather than rupture. The novel does direct anger and bitterness at Orthodoxy's constraints, but these are more than balanced by an appreciation for the beauty and power of living according to Jewish law. The work suggests two courses for reconciling religious observance with individual desire, courses that strike me—though not the characters who embark on them—as unsatisfying in the long run.
The death of the aged rabbi of a small shul in London's Orthodox Hendon district sets in motion a complicated chain of events. The Rav's estranged daughter returns from New York, where she has lived her entire adult life, to attend the funeral. In her early thirties, Ronit is an independent woman who is unafraid to speak her mind. She works as a financial analyst for a prestigious corporation and identifies as a lesbian.
Ronit's return to Hendon arouses anticipation, distaste, and fear. Anticipation on the part of Esti, a quiet, withdrawn woman who as a teenager had had a passionate sexual relationship with Ronit. Esti's marriage to Dovid, the Rav's feckless nephew and heir apparent, is nearly sexless and apparently loveless; she has waited for years for the chance to renew her relationship with Ronit. Distaste on the part of the shul community, which would rather not face a woman who rejects their way of life. And, after Ronit comes out as a lesbian at a Shabbat dinner at the home of the shul's president, fear that Ronit will make a disturbance at the hesped, a memorial celebrating the Rav's life, at which the shul machers will anoint Dovid as the Rav's successor.
Esti wants to take up where she and Ronit left off years earlier; Ronit does not. A rumor is started that Ronit tried to force herself on Esti. The president of the synagogue board bribes Ronit to leave before the hesped so that she will not be on hand to make a scene. Dovid suffers from headaches that, it turns out, the Rav thought were a prophetic gift and so kept him away from doctors and advised him to marry a woman "of silence," someone who [End Page 203] would allow him to cultivate his gift in peace. Ronit and Esti wind up in bed, where Dovid walks in on them. Ronit outwits the evil synagogue president. Dovid, his headaches now controlled by medicine prescribed by a doctor that Ronit insisted he visit, scandalizes the community by allowing Esti to speak at the hesped. Before the assembled community she acknowledges that she is a lesbian, condemns the community's lashon hara about her sexuality, and reaffirms her commitment to her marriage. Ronit leaves for New York with her mother's silver candlesticks. And Esti learns that she is pregnant.
Stated so baldly, the novel sounds as preposterous as a soap opera. Yet it is a measure of the author's talent that the action is, for the most part, plausible. Perhaps its plausibility is rooted in the nature of a community that requires its members to be so intimately entangled in one another's affairs. Perhaps it is also because the dilemmas the characters face are so urgent.
The novel's structure reflects the tension between traditional Jewish observance and the counterclaims of the secular world. Each chapter begins with a textual quote from the Torah or other sacred writings, followed by an explication of the text from a traditional viewpoint. The...