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  • Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination
  • Rachel Rubinstein (bio)
Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the Jewish American Imagination. By Nora L. Rubel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. xi + 207 pp.

The overarching argument of this timely book does not come as too much of a surprise. In Doubting the Devout, Nora Rubel delineates a profound ambivalence regarding the ultra-Orthodox on the part of secular or liberal American Jews. The ultra-Orthodox (or haredim in [End Page 191] Hebrew) represent Jewish authenticity but also Jewish fundamentalism and intolerance, a link to an imagined Old-World past infused with mourning and nostalgia but also a threatening possible future. They are a persistent reminder of an unassimilable Jewish otherness, everything liberal and secular Jews have worked so hard to overcome, but also perversely long for in the face of postmodern uncertainties. Resentment towards and ambivalence about American Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy, Rubel suggests persuasively, is a Jewish matter, what she terms a "family feud." In a context of "acculturation, Americanization, and concern over Jewish continuity," the polarization of American Jews is driven by "problematic assertions of Jewish authority and authenticity, as well as the limits of tolerance over such claims" (22).

Rubel places this dialectic between secularism or progressive Judaism and ultra-Orthodoxy in Jewish historical context. She traces the tension between assimilated and ultra-Orthodox Jews back to Enlightenment anxieties about the success of modernization for Jews, and the difference threatening to erupt from under the surface that the visibly "other" Orthodox Jew represents to the anxiously acculturating, but not fully assimilated, Jew. Maskilic literature is rife with satirical and critical representations of the pious unenlightened. Rubel describes contemporary Jewish tensions between liberal, progressive Jewish movements and ultra-Orthodoxy as a culture war, focusing on women's religious rights as a particular site of conflict. She thus challenges the implicit assumptions that undergird much American Jewish literary criticism: that Jews in America are on a steady march towards secularism (or at least very liberal, progressive forms of Jewish practice), and that the tensions and conflicts that animate American Jewish culture are between Jews and the dominant Christian culture, or between Jews and other ethnoracial "others"—not between Jews themselves.

Though she makes frequent gestures to tensions around haredim in Israel, Rubel is primarily interested in an American Jewish culture "in transition" (150). She therefore also places critical representations of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy in an American literary history of religious captivity narratives dating to the eighteenth century in which evil yet seductive Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and modern cults vie for the souls of vulnerable young people. In the literary imagination such captivity narratives serve to explore and ultimately reinforce the boundaries of America's liberal religious pluralism.

Rubel concentrates on post-1985 narratives, arguing that 1985 marked the year in which the Conservative movement made the choice to ordain women, thus "drawing the line in the sand between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews" (15). Similarly, most of the discussions in the book focus [End Page 192] on gender roles and expectations as the major site of conflict between ultra-Orthodox and non- or modern Orthodox Jews. Rubel discusses coming-of-age narratives that feature rebellious haredi girls (Erich Segal's Acts of Faith and Pearl Abraham's The Romance Reader); haredi "escape tales" in which unhappily married women choose "deviant" paths and are punished by their communities (Naomi Rogan's novel Sotah and Boaz Yakin's film A Price Above Rubies); and finally discusses tales of generational conflict in which children of non-Orthodox Jews choose haredi lifestyles over the objections of their more liberal parents (Anne Roiphe's Lovingkindness and Tova Mirvis's The Outside World).

These literary discussions function as opportunities to gesture toward social and historical tensions and conflicts. The book opens with a discussion of the "Yale Five," a group of Orthodox students who protested Yale's coeducational dorms, arguing that such living arrangements "compromised their modesty." In what becomes the reigning dynamic of the book's discussions, Rubell quotes a Yale student as observing that the non-Jews on campus supported the Yale Five, seeing this as a...


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