by Naomi Ragen
St Martin’s Press: Oct 2013
Naomi Ragen’s novels, often about the lives of Orthodox women of varying levels of observance, can provide a glimpse into a world that seems foreign and exotic even to most liberal Jews. Sometimes those encounters between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are even a main part of the storyline – it is in The Sisters Weiss. Having read several of Ragen’s books, I am usually fascinated by what I consider the educational nuggets she places throughout. It’s possible that I learned just as much about niddah (Jewish laws about womens’ menstruation) and home kashrut and Satmar clothing choices from her books as I did from anything in rabbinics class at school. OK, I’m exaggerating. But certainly, more than once, as we learned about one of those particular domestic topics in Jewish codes class, a bell would go off as I remembered some passage from a Ragen novel.
The Sisters Weiss is, obviously, about two sisters, Rose and Pearl. The two are growing up in an Orthodox family in Williamsburg in the 1950’s when Rose, the older, finds herself chafing against the restrictions of her world. Rose is introduced to photography by a “wayward” friend from their girls-yeshiva school (both girls are soon kicked out) and creates a lot of trouble by doing things such attempting to take a photography course and looking at a book of artistic photos. Those things are too much in the secular world to be permitted in Rose’s family and community. On top of that, she is about to be put into an arranged marriage – so she runs away. At age seventeen, she has lost all contact with her family, who disown her after finding out that she has left Orthodox Judaism.
Many years later, Pearl’s young daughter, Rivka, finds herself in a similar situation, running away from home and Orthodoxy to escape an arranged marriage and a life she doesn’t want. Rivka tracks down her infamous Aunt Rose, who has become a world-renowned photographer. She hopes that Rose will take pity on her and help her. And Rose, and Rose’s own daughter, Hannah, both do just that at first. With them, Rivka begins to wear “normal” clothes (meaning, clothes that let Rivka show her ankles and/or collarbone) and eat yogurt that hasn’t been triple-stamped by Hassidic rabbis. She seems to be inspired by Hannah’s college classes and Aunt Rose’s career.
So far that’s all okay, but admittedly, not that exciting to me. It seemed like a cliché, as though Ragen had written something that was just a collage of the conflicts from her other books in which Orthodox Jewish women leave the eruv and find their Selves. To be sure, Ragen does this in a sensitive, loving way. Like the great recent movie Filling the Void, Ragen portrays her Orthodox characters first and foremost as people, not freaks, and takes great pains to show that most of them are just as loving as any other family. She also finds ways to show how much of Jewish ritual can be meaningful and and how the close-knit religious communities can be very supportive and helpful. Also, it might be good to point out that Ragen is usually portraying more ultra-Orthodox or Haredi communities, rather than modern Orthodox.
Still, as I found myself sort of slogging through this book, thinking it was kind of unoriginal for Ragen, I was pleasantly intrigued by a few little zingers Ragen throws in towards the end. One of the touching aspects about Rivka is her initial innocence when it comes to things like boyfriends, college drinking, and the possibility of a career. She also is under the impression that, since children are blessings from God, they won’t be “granted” if the woman is sinning in some way. * Therefore, premarital sex can’t possibly result in children. Thus misinformed, Rivka ends up pregnant, though not completely alone, as Aunt Rose allows her to move in and takes care of her. At the doctor’s appointment, the possibility of abortion is mentioned, as it’s still very early in the pregnancy. Rivka, in her newfound state of women’s liberation, thinks it sounds like a good and sensible idea.
Aunt Rose, though she is divorced and enjoys living by herself, and loves having her successful career, and was once a Hassidic runaway herself, is surprisingly hesitant about that plan:
“ ‘ Hannah, she’s very upset! I don’t know what to do with her!”
‘What do you mean?’
‘She’s got this idea in her head that she can just abort this baby and keep living with me, and all her childish dreams will still magically come true…’
‘There are consequences!’
‘Only if people insist on imposing them.’
‘No, there are natural consequences that can’t be avoided. You can’t have an abortion and go on as if nothing happened,’ Rose insisted.”
Rose’s reaction to the proposed abortion surprised me, Hannah, and also, apparently, Rose:
“Rose hung up the phone, wringing her hands…even more disturbing was the fact that she couldn’t understand herself. She wasn’t one of those right-to-lifers. She’d voted a straight liberal, Democratic ticket in every election for the past forty years…So where was this coming from? And then the realization struck her…She had this image in her head of a beautiful little baby…who might even look a little like her or her precious son or daughter. Or her little sister Pearl. It was one thing to be in favor of abortions for strangers you had never met. Quite another, she thought, when the fetus bore your genes and was your own blood.”
Rose even goes “so far” as to suggest that Rivka speak to a rabbi about her “situation,” arguing that “ ‘…This is a moral problem and you need some moral guidance, Rivka.’”
When quoted like this, Ragen’s portrayal of Rose’s feelings seems stylistically blatant and oversimplified. But it fit in with the rest of the writing, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Ragen’s books, as I mentioned, are perfectly fine as they are. They are easy to read, sensitive, and, I think, highly educational. They can be very useful and enjoyable for those to want to learn more about orthodox Judaism. They aren’t high literature or really meant to be subtle meditations on the aura and dangers of boundaries (such as I am Forbidden). I would certainly recommend them as a sort of resource for those who might be interested in a good intro novel about Orthodox Judaism (not that I get many – any – of those requests. But I’m prepared).
I had a hunch, as I read The Sisters Weiss, that Ragen would try to dramatically temper Rivka’s fury against her Orthodox upbringing. I didn’t quite expect the pro-life diatribe, and I am impressed that Ragen did make Rose’s feelings about it so forceful. By showing that we are all capable and sometimes in need of a change of heart, Ragen nicely rounds out the novel without having to make either “side,” whether secular or Orthodox, too much of either a villain or hero. It even makes for a bit of inspiration, that Rose, who had already taken on so many challenges in her life, was still ready to challenge even her own preconceived ideas.
It also probably shows Ragen’s own political stripes. I think this just because of an additional hint later, as Rose recalls her first husband:
“Raphael…was someone I met in the park. He wasn’t Jewish. All we ever talked about was politics. He was a radical socialist determined to save the world, involved in a million organizations. That left him very little time to help me out, even when I was pregnant. He believed in women’s rights, just no this wife. He thought my photography was a hobby and I should be spending my time vacuuming and typing up his political screeds.”
Between the pro-life “liberal” and an evil radical socialist husband, I think Ragen might have some feelings about the idea of “cultural conservatism.” Aside from that, her books are still, for me, “guilty pleasures.” They’re not, as I said, anything fantastic literarily speaking, but for someone who is fascinated by Judaism in all its forms, they make for a few well-spent evenings.
*So, unfortunately, in some ultra-Orthodox circles, this means that infertility is a reflection on the woman’s piety.