Saturday, February 26, 2005

Fiction Posing as Fact

Wendy Shalit's primary offense is not that she wrote an essay critical of several Jewish novelists whose tales disparage Orthodox Jews. Far worse, her piece was published in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, which added prestige and weight to her argument. The publication decision was, of course, not hers to make, but Sam Tanenhaus', the editor of the Book Review who suggested that a conventional review assignment be turned into a broader essay. He is, incidentally, the son of Joseph Tanenhaus of blessed memory, one of the noblest persons ever to grace academia and my dissertation supervisor with whom more than forty years ago I co-authored what remains the definitive study of how the U.S. Supreme Court decides what cases it will decide.

The storm that arose after Shalit's article was published induced me to purchase Tova Mirvis' "The Outside World," she being one of the novelists taken to task by Shalit. Mirvis is a splendid writer, but her book is defective and not only because of highly improbable plot twists. Her characters are cardboard figures whose words and acts are meant to represent different types of Orthodox Jews, often in an unflattering way. Mirvis' description of Orthodox life is generally knowing and this authenticity adds to the distortion when she presents as aspects of Orthodox behavior details that veer sharply away from reality.

The misrepresentation of how these Jews live obliterates the empathy that I believe Mirvis has for all but one of her stereotypical characters. In a fierce response published in the Forward, Mirvis charges that "apparently The New York Times Book Review now runs tzitzit checks. Or, in my case, a sheitel check." She concludes, "Oh, and as for my own sheitel? Sorry, Wendy. Only my hairdresser knows for sure." There's nothing in Shalit's essay to warrant this silliness, although in the novel Mirvis looks under the skirts of Orthodox women to describe what they are wearing and with a touch of smuttiness she manages to get it wrong. She also gets wrong much else, including the mandatory size of engagement rings, flowers at Orthodox weddings, television sets in Orthodox homes, etc.

Shalit has hit a raw nerve. Her critics charge that fiction writers can create whatever they want to create and they invoke Cynthia Ozick who has written that "fiction has license to do anything it pleases. Fiction is liberty at its purest."

That's true in a legal sense and, I suppose also in a literary sense, but the right to write does not immunize writers from criticism, including on the ground that the product is biased. There are thousands of reviews each year criticizing novelists and rarely does anyone yell foul because, after all, it's fiction that is being reviewed and the authors have a license to write whatever they please. Wendy Shalit did not argue that the authors she targets did not have a right to have their material published.

It is interesting and telling that Orthodox-bashing is a respectable literary genre. When other ethnics are maligned, as for example when Italians or Blacks or Jews are presented as stereotypes to be disparaged, our sense of decency flares up and we call the writers to task for their bigotry, without the eminent Ms. Ozick being trotted out to sermonize about liberty. When Jews gripe about Shylock and Fagin, it's not sufficient to respond that Shakespeare and Dickens were great writers who had a license to write whatever pleased them, including what may fairly be characterized as anti-Semitic. When we read T.S. Eliot's notorious lines "The rats are underneath the piles. The Jew is underneath the lot," we do not make excuses or say that Bleistein is just a fictional character in a poem. We know that Bleistein is meant to represent Jews. When Orthodox Jews are disparaged, we turn a blind eye to bigotry.

Much of the discussion about Shalit focuses on her insider/outsider typology, her notion that novelists who are hostile to Orthodoxy are Jews who are estranged from the tradition that they write about. This thesis is not new, as it was formulated about sixty years ago by Kurt Lewin, a great psychologist who is all but forgotten. Lewin wrote about Jews at the edge of Jewish life whose marginality bred self-hatred. Similarly, there are Jewish writers - and others - who are at the edge of our religious life, a condition that induces a narrower yet potent form of self-hatred.

Shalit's important essay is a challenge to those who write about Orthodoxy - whether in fictionalized form or as reportage - to reflect on the distortions that inform much of this writing. As she notes, there are Orthodox Jews and perhaps too many with serious character defects. As I have written, this is a community that like all others has major problems that need to be confronted. No more than any other people can the Orthodox fully escape the failings that inhere in the species or the corrosive impact of hedonism and modernity.

Yet, there is glory and transcendence in Orthodox life and it is manifested in thousands of homes where modesty and piety are ordinary forms of behavior, where giving and helping are integral, where Torah study is exalted, and where parents with many children struggle to meet their obligations with dignity, humility, decency and truth. Jewish novelists and those who report on the Orthodox community rarely present this picture.

In a sense, what Shalit is saying is what many Orthodox Jews are saying: Enough with the stereotypes and distortions. This is not a cry coming from the more fervently religious or charedi Jews, few of whom read these novels or even our communal newspapers. The Orthodox Jews who feel most hurt by the distortions are those of a somewhat modernist orientation, people who refuse to accept the sophistry that Orthodox-bashing is an acceptable path to literature.