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Author’s Novels Evoke World of the Ultra-Orthodox

by Shelley Kleiman

On the face of it, there seems little in Naomi Ragen’s life to suggest the ultra-Orthodox world she’s so successfully evokes in her three best-selling novels.

Her large suburban home in Ramot, a mixed religious and secular neighborhood in Jerusalem, seems more than a cultural stone’s throw away from Mea Shearim and B’nei Brak where much of her fiction is set. But if it is esoteric to some, this world of matchmaking and wig choosing, of morals patrols and seminary study, is as familiar to Ragen as toast and jam.

Ragen’s novels have sold more than a half million copies, and aside from the American and English editions, her first novel, Jephte’s Daughter, was translated into Finnish; Sotah her second into Norwegian. Sotah has just come out in Hebrew, leaving the American-born Ragen a little nervous about the exposure here.

Mother of four and grandmother of a 2-year-old, Ragen, 47, writes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. “Those hours are sacrosanct,” she says, then laughs: “Except when a kid gets sick and you have to run to the doctor.”

Ragen is a woman with a mission. Blind conformity, the kind that feeds upon what the neighbors will say, the kind that suppresses individual freedom, is this novelist’s muse.

Jephte’s Daughter was based on a true story of an ultra-Orthodox woman who leapt to her death with her 3-year-old daughter. Physically and mentally abused by her husband and confined to a world in which “what’s nice you don’t show” or talk about, she took what she saw as her only way out. Shocked by the story (it turns out they had been neighbors) Ragen gives her fictional character a second chance.

“It would have served no purpose for her to have died in Jephte’s Daughter, explains Ragen. “I wanted to bring her back to life, to show others like her what should have happened.” In her own way, Ragen wants to make the world a better place.

A portrait of oppression and letter-of-the-law rigidity, Ragen’s first novel left this devoutly religious writer feeling a bit guilty.

“There are many wonderful aspects of the haredi world – their family values, the way siblings care for each other, the way children respect their elders – that didn’t surface in Jephte’s Daughter.” says Ragen.

She did not want the book to be translated into Hebrew and would not sell the film rights because she didn’t want the image of a religious Jew beating his wife flashed on the screen. “I just couldn’t do it.”

Ragen calls Sotah her tshuvah, or repentance, for her first novel. It is peopled with warm supportive and kind people, but Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community is still not exactly paradise regained. About an ultra-Orthodox woman wrongly accused of adultery and banished from the community by a religiously ordained purge, Sotah is also about acceptance and forgiveness.

Ragen’s third novel, The Sacrifice of Tamar – the story (also based on fact) of a haredi woman raped by a black man – takes place in a religious enclave in Brooklyn, where Ragen herself spent a year attending a women’s teaching seminary.

Ragen likes to talk. Her speech is so fast that listening to her is like riding a New York City subway during rush hour – the words keep tumbling out, each pushing their way to exit first. She talks so intimately about her characters, it is a bit of a disappointment when they don’t knock on the door to borrow some sugar to tea.

“They don’t always cooperate,” she says as if describing some recalcitrant children. “That’s why I never know how my books will end until I get there.”

Ragen’s most deeply felt persona, though, is not a character, but a city, described in such intimate detail it is brought anthropomorphically alive.

“I’m so deeply in love with Jerusalem,” says Ragen, echoing the sentiments of many of her characters.

“See the hills from my house?” asks Ragen. “Somewhere out there David fought Goliath. Over to the right is the tomb of Samuel the prophet.”

To Ragen, Jerusalem is more than the concrete reality of cars, office buildings and hotels. “There is an otherwordliness here,” she says. “What you are looking at is a palpable 2,000-year-old longing.”

Born in 1949, Ragen grew up in the Rockaways, NY, in a racially-mixed low-income – “deadening to the imagination” – housing project. Her father died when she was five and an unredeemable $5 application fee landed her in a religious girls’ school as a scholarship student. Ashamed of her financial status, she was even ashamed she didn’t have a father.

“Isn’t that strange?” Ragen asks, baffled by her own self-consciousness. it was in school that Ragen began her life-long love affair with Orthodox Judaism. And writing.

In 1971, Ragen and her husband moved to Israel without even having been there: “We didn’t want to be like the biblical spies.”

She wrote freelance articles, suppressing, she says, an almost pathological fear of being considered a housewife who writes on the side.

By the time she decided to tackle fiction (she already had a BA and MA in English Literature), she and her husband traded their brand of ultra-Orthodoxy for something more modern. Straddling two worlds, Ragen is as comfortable discussing D.H.Lawrence as she is explaining Jewish ritual.

Although she has read and admires Amos Oz and David Grossman – she finds the Hebrew a bit tough going despite her 25 years in the country – she admits to living in a sort of literary no-man’s land.

“Israelis will never consider me truly their own,” says Ragen, who writes in English, primarily for American audiences.

Ragen answers all her fan (and occasionally hate) mail and had not read reviews of her books since a New York Times reviewer hailed Jephte’s Daughter as a new genre of Jewish Gothic. “As if I had made the whole thing up,” fumes Ragen.

She is currently at work on her fourth novel. Taking her leave of the ultra-Orthodox world, she is approaching the Sephardi Jewish community with great awe. Three years into research, Ragen says she is only beginning to scratch the surface. Although the novel takes place in New York, Ragen feels confident her characters will end up in Jerusalem.

“It is,” she says, “where all roads eventually lead.”

This article originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News and is reprinted with permission.