Jbooks.com, a site for which I occasionally do a book review, just posted a review of Josh Braff's The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, by Michael Kress, an old Ramah friend of mine and current editor of MyJewishLearning.com. Kress looks at the book in light of the recent discussion on portrayals of Orthodox Judaism in contemporary fiction:
I, like the rest of the world—or at least my (pseudo)intellectual-snob corner of it—read Wendy Shalit's New York Times Book Review attack on Orthodox writers and their portrayals of Orthodoxy, and I've followed some of the responses assailing Shalit's belief that writers like Tova Mirvis incorrectly and unfairly portray the world of Orthodox Judaism negatively. This cultural debate burbled in the back of my head as I read The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, by Joshua Braff. While Braff's novel does not revolve around an Orthodox family, I kept thinking about Shalit as I read about Jacob Green's abusive father, comically futile Hebrew School experience, and especially, the years he spent (prior to needing that supplementary Jewish education), at a woeful Orthodox day school.
Firstly, I want to say in a shout-out to Michael in case he's reading, that I feel his pain--these days it seems like we're all living in our own little pseudo-intellectual snob corners of the world. (Which we can't all be doing, as that's too many corners for a round world. Unless the world is flat, or the universe is like a blanket, and don't get me involved in that argument again or we'll all end up "hearting Huckabees.")
I've already been on a Braff-quest that took me to the deepest, darkest reaches of Southern New Jersey. My more-than-a-trusted-sidekick Ginger, not a Member of the Tribe, nonetheless loved the book. Though I don't wish to speak for her, I believe that she was able to relate to the book because of its humor and the humanity of its characters--in essence, the universal truths of Braff's book (complex family dynamics, coming of age, humor) transcended the dayschool backdrop. (And because she loves tall people.)
As for the debate about using the less-impressive parts of Orthodox life in fiction, I've written tons on this subject already. Part of me just can't believe that people are still debating this. But because I am an egomaniac, I would like to quote myself on this issue:
A writer’s choice to include diverse views does not necessarily indicate that author’s ideology. His or her irreverence, playing with the language and laws of Judaism in a contemporary context, is the right of the writer/thinker/Jew, and makes for both interesting reading and high-stakes conflict between the modern, dynamic world and the staid unmalleability of tradition. In fact, it would be most fortuitous if people who read these works of struggle were inspired to think about the statement this makes about the contemporary Jewish community.
Last week's Jewish Week featured a "Back of the Book" piece by Daniel Schifrin (excerpt):
The issue of a deep Jewish reading of literary texts goes all the way back to the Bible, which is full of characters whose moral decisions would get them thrown out of yeshiva in a heartbeat. I would assume Shalit would not begin a review of the Torah in the New York Times by saying, “The stories of Genesis portray Jews in a poor light. How God could write a book where incest and a lack of parental respect are represented as Jewish values is beyond me … .”
One of the tragedies of an increasingly insular Jewish Orthodoxy is that voices of creative dissent are heard less and less. Without access to the wisdom of our best fiction writers, whether they are compassionate, lacerating, or somewhere in between, traditional Judaism will undermine its very vitality — producing, in effect, Jewish readers like Wendy Shalit.
We need those voices of creative dissent. They are what makes Jewish cultural life in America resplendent with color--two Jews, three opinions to create a patchwork quilt of experience. If, as American Jews, we want to isolate ourselves within the cocoon of a Torah-true life undiluted by American culture, politics, society, and art, there are certainly geographical pockets in which this kind of existence is possible. But if we, to any degree, with myriad labels ranging from "Modern Orthodox" to "secular," wish to let ourselves ingest the culture and filter it through ourselves, then a whole range of opinions and artistic expressions will emerge.
Writers and artists for whom Judaism constitutes a religious or a moral influence are, in a real sense, leaving an artistic record of the American Jewish experience. Generations from now (pending potential messianic scenarios), American Jews will read Mirvis, Englander, Braff, Rosen and others, not necessarily to know the facts and figures about turn-of-the-century American Jewish life--that will be available in more objectively quantifiable sources of information. They will read in order to understand the heart of their intellectual, religious and artistic forebears. Because these works, although they be fiction, still convey truth.