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Jewish writers tackle taboos

Naomi Alderman and Shalom Auslander question orthodox Jewish tenets in their books.

india Updated: Mar 02, 2006 18:12 IST
Reuters
Reuters
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A lesbian affair set in an Orthodox area of London and a character who discovers God is a large chicken -- two young Jewish writers are challenging the taboos of their upbringing with provocative debut books.

Naomi Alderman, a 31-year-old who grew up in Hendon, north London, uses Disobedience to question some of the central tenets of Orthodox Judaism and to try to reconcile feminism with a religious system that often seems to contradict it.

In Beware of God, New Yorker Shalom Auslander takes a comic look at Jews who suffer from overbearing guilt and mistake Holocaust Remembrance Day for a survival lesson for the future, while God struggles to kill off a man he has chosen for death.

"Asserting my right to question is the way to put it," said Alderman, whose new book offers a rare glimpse into the world of Britain's Orthodox Jews.

"Actually, Judaism has a very healthy tradition of questioning and being irreverent, and it is to be regretted that it has dwindled away in recent years."

The book follows the character Ronit from New York to London. It explores how a lesbian affair with the wife of a rabbi upsets the status quo in the tight-knit community, and seeks to reconcile religiosity and homosexuality.

"These are two modes of human desire which unfortunately are in opposition, and nothing can really be done about that," said Alderman, who, unlike Auslander, remains part of the Jewish community she describes in the novel.

She aims to "blow the doors open" on a society she says is too insular for its own good.

"There is more and more interest among young Jewish people in finding ways to live life involving some religious practices without returning to a very cut-off way of life."

Alderman told Reuters she drew inspiration from two Jewish gay friends who "came out" after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

"Two people very close to me suddenly came out and told me their stories of absolute misery: lives lived in fear and hiding and in denial of self."

Early reaction to Disobedience has been mixed. One reader told her she should not have written it, while others wondered why she could not have been more "nice". Her father joked that there would be book-burnings on the streets of Hendon.

"KEEPING SCORE"

Auslander, 36, found that some of the positive reaction to his collection of short stories came from people from other religions who said they also spent their lives "keeping score" of sins and good deeds.

"The focus is always on what's next," said the author, who has fallen out with his family and the Jewish Orthodox community.

"This world is just a half-way station. In the next world everything is so sweet and pretty."

Beware of God includes a story that opens: "When Yankel Morgenstern died and went to heaven, he was surprised to discover that God was a large chicken. The chicken was around 30 feet tall, and spoke perfect English".

Auslander said he was brought up believing in a God who was "80 feet tall and stared down from the sky angrily at you".

"I can never quite get that character out of my head. I wrote the book to examine that. This was all about trying to release myself from these repressive beliefs."

Alderman and Auslander are being touted as provocative new voices in Jewish writing, although many have gone before them.

Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer examined the clash between religion and free thought and feminism, while Philip Roth, to whom Auslander has been compared, has looked at the experiences of American Jews.

First Published: Mar 02, 2006 16:13 IST