Outsider vs. Insider

I found Wendy Shalit’s Sunday Times piece about the portrayal of Orthodox Jews in literature interesting but ultimately short-sighted.

Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism — or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with — have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light. Admittedly, some of this has produced first-rate literature or, at the least, great entertainment, but it has left many people thinking traditional Jews actually live like Tevye in the musical ”Fiddler on the Roof” or, at the opposite extreme, like the violent, vicious rabbi in Henry Roth’s novel ”Call It Sleep.” Not long ago, I did too.

Shalit argues that often these unsympathetic portrayals come from authors who present themselves as insiders but are, in her view, outsiders. She takes on one of my favorite collections of recent memory, Nathan Englander’s For The Relief Of Unbearable Urges, finding fault with Englander’s portrayals not because of his fictional take on Orthodox life but for what she sees as dismissive comments he made in interviews.

I readily admit that I don’t know nearly enough about Orthodox Judaism to be able to discuss the finer points of shtetl etiquette, but the larger question of who can tell which stories and how has always fascinated me. With a relatively small community that gets very little representation in the mainstream there’s an enormous responsibility on the writer to show all aspects of that community’s life, an incredibly difficult task indeed.

The problem, however, is that Shalit attacks the author, not the work. There isn’t any mention in the article of specific shortcomings in Englander’s stories. Isn’t the text the ultimate proof? Who cares where Englander went to university? Shouldn’t she address whether the book is any good?

In fact, it seems to me that Shalit herself comes to this kind of fiction with her own agenda. One work that finds favor in her eyes, for instance, features “a group of religious American Jews in a settlement on Israel’s West Bank.” Other people call it Palestine, Wendy.

Link via Sarah.