Subscribe to Naomi's blog and receive a notification every time Naomi posts a new article.Click to Subscribe

Naomi Ragen – Autobiography

I was born in July, 1949 at the Brooklyn Jewish hospital. My mother was a second generation American from an Orthodox family, while my father, a first generation American who had come to New York as a child from the Ukraine, was fairly assimilated, following his own father’s lead of trying to fit into his new country. I started out going to school in P.S. 44 in Rockaway. Just before I started second grade, my father very suddenly died following a minor operation.

The family was devastated. My older brother was unhappy in school and my mother, thinking it would somehow be helpful to him, applied for a scholarship for him at The Hebrew Institute of Long Island, a private Orthodox Hebrew Day School in Far Rockaway. I believe she had to pay a $5 fee for an IQ test. After she’d paid the fee, they told her my brother would have to take Hebrew with the first-graders if he got in, something he as a sixth grader refused to consider. My mother asked for the $5.00 back and they told her it was nonrefundable and did she have another child, perhaps, that might want to apply. And that is how I wound up at an Orthodox private school until I graduated high school.

At first, I was very unhappy with the decision. We lived in a housing project which was mostly lower middle class, mostly black and Puerto Rican. It was hard to make the transition to an all white, all Jewish, very middle to upper class group of children who wore mohair sweaters and kid gloves.

The curriculum was also difficult. I didn’t know Hebrew, as I hadn’t been there in first grade. I was also struggling to catch up in the secular studies as well, because the school was on a much higher level than the one I’d left. I didn’t understand why I needed to know Hebrew. I was an American. I was never going to use it.

They taught us Bible, Prophets, Jewish law, the daily prayers. We would begin each day praying together. We would sing grace after meals each lunch time. The songs, the music, the preparation for the holidays began to enchant me. It was exotic and joyful and the housing projects were so deadening to the imagination – those endless red bricks! Those dingy, frightening hallways. At home, we were still watching cartoons on Saturdays, but slowly I began to want to go to the synagogue, which was full of light, of golden Torah chalices, velvet embroidered covers. It was mysterious and warm and beautiful.

I was in high school, however, when the serious change took place. My best friend was the daughter of a rabbi. They were haredi misnagdim. She was a wonderful, brilliant girl who drew me closer into her world and I began to see the value and the beauty of it. I also had a number of inspiring rabbi-teachers for Torah, Prophets, and especially something called mussar – sort of spiritual guidance. Through them I began to long for a different kind of life than my parents had had.

I was always writing. Always entering poetry contests, essay contests. Always reading: Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontes… I knew even then that I wanted to be a writer. But I also knew I didn’t want to abandon my Hebrew studies. I still felt very ignorant, as if I was just at the beginning of some real depth and understanding. And so, when I graduated, I went to college during the day and continued my religious studies at night at an ultra-Orthodox women’s teacher college in Boro Park called Sara Schneur’s Seminary, named after the woman who founded the Bais Yaakov movement. In order to do this, I left home and rented a room in Boro Park with a haredi family, one of the rabbis from the Seminary. They had a daughter my age and her life was so different than mine, so restricted. I got to know her and the life and customs in the haredi world as an intimate insider. It brought me deeper and deeper into the haredi world.

Much of what I saw I deeply admired. And yet there was a narrowness there, a suspicion. I didn’t fit in and I knew it. But I didn’t want to give either world up. During the day I continued being a college student majoring in English at a wonderful experimental Freshman Program at CUNY’s Graduate Center. There I had Irving Howe for English, Leo Steinberg for art, Stanley Milgram for psychology. A whole new world was opening up to me, a world that my nighttime studies were adamantly opposed to. No one else in the Seminary would have dreamt of going to college. And yet my evening studies – Jewish History, Law, philosophy – also fulfilled an important need in me. I wanted and needed both.

I met my husband in 1968, my sophomore year in Brooklyn College. He was a yeshiva high school graduate studying in yeshiva as well as finishing his degree in math. We were married in 1969. In January 1971, we moved to Israel.

My dream was and has always been to be a writer. I was a creative writing major in college and after moving to Israel began to write as a freelance journalist. I had two little babies by then, but the urge to write was so strong, so undeniable, that I had no choice but to write. I picked myself up one day and interviewd some people in the Mayor’s Office and published my first article about problems in an immigrant neighborhood, my own. I kept going, writing feature articles for whoever would pay for them – mostly Jewish newspapers, magazines. Believe me, from this you do not get rich! I went back to school and got a Master’s in English from Hebrew University.

It was then I began to feel very odd. After all, we were living in an Orthodox neighborhood, which was getting more and more ultra by the minute. I had come from America for religious reasons. Lech Lecha Me Artizecha. I wanted to live in Jerusalem, to dwell in G-d’s house all the days of my life. And yet, I began to feel more and more out of place. What was I doing in the park with my wig and jeans skirts and little babies working on writing term papers on the love poetry of John Donne, the poetic imagination in Coleridge? The male element in the women of D.H.Lawrence? When all the women around me were busy gossiping over what brand of kosher magarine was more kosher? When they wore longer skirts, and stockings with seams and sleeves to their wrists? Slowly it began to dawn on me that I was uncomfortable among my own kind, religious Jews. That I didn’t fit in among them anymore than I had fit in among the Italians in Canarsie or the Catholics in Far Rockaway.

This was a tremendous, traumatic and heartbreaking shock to me. Because I wanted desperately to keep all the mitvos, to rise higher and higher, to be part of a society that would be as close to G-d as possible. And yet, the thought of dressing as they did, of spending my days as they did, of giving up my writing, my work at the Univeristy, made me ill. All the vague misgivings I had had in Boro Park now came back with new strength. I could not live the life of the women around me. I was being pushed out against my will in very subtle ways, being made to feel there was no room for me, for any kind of variety in religious life and observance. Maybe it was all subjective, just something in my head. But that’s how I felt.

I left the neighborhood. And then one morning when I was taking my child to kindergarten a neighbor asked me if I’d heard what’d happened the day before. A young, beautiful haredi woman from across the street had taken her little girl to the top of a hotel in Tel Aviv and jumped to her death, killing them both. The woman, she said, was was in her early twenties, a stunning blond, very intelligent, the daughter of a very wealthy man from Europe. The child was a little blond angel. And now they were both dead. It was a shidduch, my neighbor said. Her father wanted a Talmud scholar. “He wasn’t for her,” my neighbor said, She was a very wise woman and very shrewd.” She wanted to work, to go to the movies, to concerts. He wouldn’t go and he wouldn’t let her go. Everything she wanted to do was no. Everything she wanted to be was no. In frustration,he began to beat her, to be cruel to the child. He was locked into a marriage that was not for him and she was locked into a marriage that was not for her.

Something about this touched me deeply. Not just the bad marriage, but the portrait of this stifling life, the crushing of individuality, the creativity that was being drained from this woman who couldn’t be part of this society without conforming one hundred percent. And she was being brutalized into conformance.

I didn’t do anything about the story for a long while. I was shocked. Stunned. It was almost a personal tragedy and I didn’t understand why it was affecting me so deeply, until I looked at my own life, I looked at how I had felt at what was happening to me. How I was being pushed out. Thank G-d I had a husband who supported me and what I wanted to do… But what if I hadn’t? What if my husband had been against me also?

And people began to say “She was crazy.” And when I heard that I got very angry, because I knew in my heart she wasn’t crazy. I understood what happens to someone who is forced to conform. A lovely intelligent deeply religious person, which she was. I began to write Jephte’s Daughter because I wanted to explain to myself what had happened, and because I wanted to stop her from taking that step out of the window. I wanted to show her another way she could have gone and solved her problem.

What have some of the reactions been to the publication of Jephte’s Daughter, among secular and religious Jews and among Gentiles? I’m a little isolated from it all because I live in Jerusalem. I can only tell you what letters have been sent to me and what rumors have come my way. Out of the dozens of letters I’ve received from all over the world, only three have been critical. Of those, two were from Gentiles who were mildly to extremely outraged over my treatment of Catholicism. I stand by what I’ve said and have it on the best authority.

The only Jewish letter I got was from a very passionately irate Jewish grandfather from England who wrote me three ten-page letters explaining the Jewish religion and pleading with me to withdraw the book from publication. He even offered to compensate me for my loss by paying me fifty pounds sterling. What upset the gentleman from England, however, was the suggestion that an Orthodox Jewish girl ever thought about sex. Kissing, he explained to me, was very unsanitary, and it was much better to show affection with a hug, even among married people. “As if a girl really needed a man’s arms around her and a kiss on her lips (the latter I explained as ridiculous)! With the correct thinking and attitudes these feelings do not come, or at most, not too much in quality nor quantity, and when in marriage there is a correct way of dealing with all this at the permitted times. If one is cuddling a girl for a certain time, he will get a certain fast heart and pulse beat, and a certain amount of harm to the spine. Suffice it it state that in the preliminary to cohabitation (at the permitted time of course within marriage) I emphasize that a limited amount of kissing and embracing is advisable. I need not state why an unlimited amount would do more harm than good and have the wrong result. It is too delicate for me to speak to a lady in that way, I would not have written the way I did to you but I had to in the light of the delicate issues you raised.”

The rest of my correspondence, dozens and dozens of letters were beautiful. Most Jews wrote that they could see the Israel I described and really identify with the plight of the characters. Others said I had led them to look through the Bible again, something they hadn’t done in years. I got a letter from a shelter for battered Jewish women in Ontario saying that the situation I described was very accurate, and a letter from a psychiatrist who had worked in Israel among haredim which said he thought he knew the people involved and that he had come across many such cases. I got a phone call from a distraught American mother whose daughter was desperately seeking a divorce from a haredi she had married in Jerusalem through a shidduch, asking for my advice.

I’ve heard rumors that the book has been banned in Jewish book stores in Boro Park, and confiscated by Jewish mothers so their marriage-age daughters won’t read it. I’ve heard that several Michlalah girls who read it were shocked and outraged and that my old editor at a haredi publishing house in Jerusalem, the same one who wouldn’t put my name on my work because I was a woman, the same one who bragged to everyone when I sold my book to Warner Books that he’d helped me do it, was ready to organize a lynch.

And then of course there were the critics, some of whom were so ignorant they couldn’t believe any of this could be true and so accused me of starting a new genre: Gothic Jewish.

But mostly, my heart has been warmed by the beautiful words people have written. And almost everyone said the same thing: They loved the book and couldn’t put it down.

I’ve searched my conscience and am not completely convinced that bringing all these issues to light was the right thing to do. Because of this, I’ve turned down a number of movie offers as well as a publication contract in Israel. I hope Hashem will forgive me for any harm I’ve done, as well those people who’ve been personally offended by my descriptions of Issac Harshen. I was not describing the rule but the exception. Isaac Harshen is a bad person. It just happens that he’s haredi. He ‘d be a bad Catholic, a bad Hindu. I do not, and did not mean to indict the whole haredi world, for which I have great respect and admiration both for their dedicated self sacrifice and commitment to spiritual growth. Their way is not my way, but I hope both our ways lead to the same G-d, the same Torah.

Before I close, I have something I would like to share with you, which I’ve told very few people about and which I myself have just discovered. It’s an anonymous letter written right after the suicide of the real Bathsheva Halevi. The letter was photocopied and handed out in the neighborhood.

“In this tragedy that has just befallen us, there are a lot of people who want to judge, and many who don’t want to understand. Some want to say it was beshert [pre-ordained], and some say she was crazy and some even justify her. And some just want to forget. But I would like to look into the Torah and into reality and understand why this catastrophe took place and see what there is to learn from it.

“It’s wrong to say it’s beshert because a man has free choice, including the ability to fling himself off a roof. It’s wrong to say she was insane, because I knew her, and she was very normal. I know that she killed herself because she didn’t want to get a divorce that would disgrace her family, herself, her husband. It was no doubt some momentary insanity because as she fell she cried out, coming to her senses and doing teshuvah before she died.

“We fool ourselves, we who are supposedly living a life of Torah and piety, while in our midst we see divorces, violence and hatred, dissension, slander and dishonesty. How can such things happen among our kind? It is because we do our mitzvot only for ourselves, to receive a reward and not from the love of G-d. Things will only get better when we take it upon ourselves to open our eyes and look around us, to think what our friends and relatives need, when each man stops thinking only of himself. And then the verse from Yehezkel will be fulfilled in us: “And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit, and I will take away the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”