Imagining a Secular World : A Hasidic girl chooses between the security of community and the emancipating tug of modernism : THE ROMANCE READER, <i> By Pearl Abraham (Riverhead Books: $21.95; 296 pp.)</i>
Here is a novel about a Hasidic girl, raised in a small Jewish community in Monhegan, N.Y., where the ultra-orthodox families of Williamsburg and Borough Park spend their summer vacations in bungalow colonies and tourist hotels. This is uncharted territory.
We do have Chaim Potak’s “The Chosen,” which tells the story of a boy who with great struggle breaks away from the close, tradition-bound world of his fathers; I.B. Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” concerns an intellectually hungry young woman, but we have never before, as far as I know, heard from a talented woman writer the story of an American Orthodox girl who defies her family by obtaining a forbidden library card and allows herself to imagine a secular universe.
Pearl Abraham knows the people and the place she writes about. Her vision is without sentimentality, exposing the realities of a piety that severely limits the choices for females, binding them to demanding, ever present laws with cords of guilt. Her narrator, Rachel, tells us about her family and lets us see her mother’s discontent, her father’s imperviousness to other’s needs, her family’s attempt to stand firm in their belief against the culture around them.
Abraham captures the awakening of sensuality and the growing need to be an individual that marks Rachel as an American and places her on a collision course with her family. The author has given us a portrait of an intelligent young narrator who maintains her mind and her personal determination against all odds.
Rachel is a young girl whose spirit defies the small space it has been allotted. Her story exposes the conformities and certain intellectual limits of this world but doesn’t forget the family members’ firm connection to each other, describing the fierce stuff of families that binds us to them even as we try to run away.
The details with which Abraham reveals the trials of Rachel and her sister, Leah, her brothers and her visionary, stubborn, remote father are excellent. But most remarkable of all is the portrait of the mother, whose anger at her isolation in the country spills over her children in a constant nipping, barking and howling.
This is a mother who is limited in education, in possibility, who passes on to her daughters the taboos and constrictions that limit the roles and options of Hasidic Jewish women mainly to their homes, husbands and children, often making them ashamed of both their bodies and minds. This is a mother whom one both hates and understands. She fights with her daughter, forbidding her to wear a bathing suit at her lifeguard job at a local pool. She struggles with a husband who is often absent, with the physical and financial burdens of seven children, with a pathetic fear of social shame that continually haunts her.
We also start to understand this community, burdened by its rules of behavior, its constant misogyny, its fear of sexuality in all its forms. At the same time we feel the pull of this world, its closeness, its support systems, its decency, its communal power. We see Rachel endure the humiliations of an arranged marriage. We see her try and fail to protect her hair, her body from the communal invasion of custom and rules.
We understand that her freedom will be bought at a high price because there is no middle ground. You are either a part of a world which makes a huge moral and social issue out of a girl’s wearing stockings with seams or you are a stranger, a person who stands entirely outside God’s circle.
This author tells the story of a young woman forced to live as if it were still the 16th Century, as if Freud, Marx and Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, Darwin and Madonna did not exist. We are alarmed by her marriage and relieved when she finally indicates that she will not stay in her mother’s place.
This novel while clearly on the side of modernity, indicting the conformism of this intensely religious way of life, illustrates what we in the modern world have lost.
Our marriages are not necessarily better than these. The rules that separate the members of this community from their neighbors are laws that preserve the group’s special quality, and that for the most part serve as walls to keep strangers out and members within.
While clearly hard on female aspiration, dignity, curiosity, joy, this community avoids our contemporary brand of loneliness, and in return for surrender of individuality it spares its members the isolation that we in the modern world so frequently encounter.
The writer understands all this and more. She shows us that the will to rebel, to defy even God, rises in the belly of the female as well as the male. She shows us that Rachel, while cheating on a fast, while lying about her whereabouts, is behaving in the way that independent minds must. The rigors of Orthodox Judaism might very well be resisted by someone who cannot be punished into giving up her own vision and her own human expectations.
While Rachel’s rebellion is around such seemingly minor matters of dress, of hairstyle, of the right to read the classics, to discover romance novels, far more is at stake than the adolescent issues of separation and declaration of self. This character is engaged in a struggle for female emancipation. This includes respect for the mind and a search of an unembarrassed decent physical life.
The bathing suit becomes the symbol of freedom and this story, dealing as it does with guilt and God, is about a journey as brave as Huck Finn’s, as difficult as Holden Caulfield’s, as stark as any I’ve read.
It is no accident that the center of the narrative concerns the swimming pool and the struggle of Rachel and Leah to become lifeguards wearing their bathing suits. The tension between the Hellenistic emphasis on body harmony and the Jewish law is an old one and brings passion to this story just as it did to the avenging Maccabees fighting in the hills.
That now we should have the tale told from a woman’s point of view is a sign that at last the full Jewish voice, with all its multiple visions of right and wrong, of hope and morality will be heard across the land. In a time when most novels are about lost souls looking for a structure, for a way to tell right from wrong, it is good to have a story that reminds us that we can have too much structure, too much community, too little loneliness after all.