Alderman, Naomi. “Disobedience”. Simon and Schuster, 2006.
A Jewish Lesbian Goes Home
“Disobedience” by Naomi Alderman is a beautiful book and it is a first novel. Ronit, the protagonist of the novel is a British émigré to the United States and living in New York. She returns to London, to her Orthodox Jewish community upon the death of her father. The rabbi, her father, was a beloved man and leader of a small middle-class congregation, and leaves a void with his passing. It is to be filled by Dovid, his protégé and nephew, who is sensitive and has been training for years. As children, Dovid and Ronit were close friends and together with Esti, a dreamy girl who has a romantic history with both of them, they grew to adulthood. Esti has married Dovid but longs for Ronit’s touch. Here is the plot—an Orthodox Jewish woman is having an affair with a married man and she is also a lesbian. When she returns home, she upsets her community.
The happenings in the book are familiar to the author. She was raised and still lives in the orthodox neighborhood of Hendon and this is the neighborhood she describes in her book. It is an island in the world of secularism, closed in, on itself, and afraid of the outside world while being dedicated to a strange form of British reticence. Ronit says that she had forgotten what she was returning to. The synagogue was a place for small cramped minds, dark and dank. It was a place of silence where the Jews are quieter than the gentiles and the women are quieter than the men and they are different from American Jews. American Orthodox Jews may think that they maintain a separate identity but they are constantly engaged in some form of communication with the world. They argue with the branches of liberal Judaism, they collaborate with Christian fundamentalists and they are active participants inside the poetical, educational and professional systems of the world in which they live. They have power, they are bold, and they demand to be recognized and to be respected. This is not the case in Great Britain.
The Jews of Hendon are silent but their silence is not absolute and can be broken when necessary. Ronit manages to break that silence, albeit in whispers. Whispering is also silence but a different kind of silence. It is not so much the homosexuality or lesbianism that the whispering is about. We live in an enlightened world. The love between Esti and Ronit is treated respectfully and with dignity. It is not looked lasciviously or with salaciousness as it is in Orthodox Judaism, Alderman beautifully points out that being a Jew and being gay are invisible states. One doesn’t see them at first and they are only revealed if the person wants to reveal the traits. “Outing” oneself is a choice and a decision just as is telling another about your religious beliefs.
Alderman captures the spirit of the place she writes about with beautiful prose and with sensory images. When she describes Dovid’s migraine headaches the reader feels the pain. When she speaks at the women at the synagogue, segregated from the men, we can hear the chatter and when she describes Esti’s cooking for the Sabbath, we can almost smell the aroma of brisket roasting. Alderman’s details are vibrant and exceedingly palpable. It is the characters of the book that we see in the shadows, they are just outlines. Ronit is bold and brassy, Esti is emotionally repressed, and Dovid with his saintly aura are like movie characters waiting for the actors to give them the breaths of live. They each have one single trait which describes them. They are not fully developed who share the feelings of real people and this, of course, was deliberately done.
Alderman also weaves classical Jewish texts throughout the novel. Each chapter opens with a quotation from the Five Books of Moses, the Old Testament or other classical Jewish books. The theological discussions and the use of religious ritual give the novel depth and complexity but it is the subtlety of the texts and the deepness of the texts that they illuminate that give life to the characterizations in the book. The most amazing thing a bout the book is the sense of place and perspective are the spine of the story as we are given an interesting look at Judaism and the Jewish community.