Oct/Nov 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Hard, Beautiful Place between Sanctuary and Flight, Words and Silence

Review by Robert Gray

Naomi Alderman.
Touchstone / Simon & Schuster. 2006.
ISBN 0-7432-9156-5.

Great question: does the sheltered "contemplative life" behind our walls here, sheltered by many observances, sheltered by many observations, defended against the life and thought of ordinary men, not in the end make us afraid of the damned?

It may seem odd to begin the review of a book about an Orthodox Jewish community in London with a quotation from a Trappist monk, but Naomi Alderman's Orange Prize-winning novel addresses two vital themes that transcend religion even as they illuminate it. The first is her portrayal of a classic dilemma: How do we choose between shelter and freedom, security and uncertainty, refuge and prospect? The second is her exploration of the power of words—sacred words, irreverent words, profound words, words withheld: "[O]ur words will swallow us. We have spat them out, but in the end they will drown us."

We all must decide between sanctuary and flight at critical moments in our lives. Either way, a price is extracted. This archetypal conflict may not be about religious issues for most of us, but it is inextricable for others. Such is the case in Disobedience, where a woman who left her Orthodox Jewish community behind many years before suddenly finds herself thrust into its midst again.

This story is so ancient that one can imagine a prehistoric man standing at the entrance of his smoke-filled cave and wondering what life would be like if he just hightailed it across the savannah and never looked back.

Or consider the Prodigal Son, that curious parable from the Gospel of Luke (if you will forgive one last Christian reference). Jesus says, "A man had two sons..." which sounds like the beginning of a joke, but isn't. The younger son asks for his share of the estate, receives it, then hits the road. He quickly blows his inheritance in, well, prodigal fashion, endures a famine and eventually crawls back home to beg his father's forgiveness. The old man brushes off the apology and welcomes the kid back with open arms (and the slaughter of a fattened calf for a big feast). The older son, who's been busting his butt in the fields all this time, is not pleased with this development, and says so. His father scolds him for being an ingrate and says, "My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

The Lost Son.

"Prodigal" is not the same as "lost," though we often make them interchangeable in Christian context. The parable is not really concerned with the younger son's extravagance, but the fact that "he was lost and has been found." The words and their meanings matter here, as they do in Disobedience, where Alderman subtly examines the at once healing and harmful power of words and of silence.

It is so damned easy to be lost in this world and so damned hard to be found. Sometimes you can't tell the difference.

Disobedience opens during what will be the final moments in the life of a beloved rabbi in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hendon:

By the first Sabbath after the festival of Simchat Torah, Rav Krushka had grown so thin and pale that, the congregation muttered, the next world could be seen in the hollows of his eyes.

The frail Rav expires just after a blaze of eloquence during his last sermon, which considers the sacred force of words:

The Torah itself. A book. Hashem could have given us a painting, or a sculpture, a forest, a creature, an idea in our minds to explain His world. But He gave us a book. Words... It means we have a hint of Hashem's power. Our words are, in a sense, real. They can create worlds and destroy them. They have edges, like a knife.

He collapses. He dies. The sheltered Hendon community mourns even as it quietly begins the critical quest to name the Rav's successor while causing as few ripples in the social and spiritual fabric as possible.

This will not be simple, for there is a Lost Daughter.

In Manhattan, Ronit Krushka, a single woman in her early thirties, learns of her father's death from her cousin Dovid Kuperman, the Rav's assistant and perhaps the next rabbi. Ronit owns her apartment, has a first-rate job as a financial analyst, a second-rate love affair with a married man, and a therapist, Dr. Feingold, who keeps telling her that she can only save herself. This cosmopolitan American life seems a clean break with her childhood as the Rav's daughter, but the past turns out to be as close as a phone call.

"The night before, I dreamed about him," Ronit remembers before Dovid contacts her. "No. Really. I knew him by his words. I dreamed about a huge room filled with books, floor to ceiling, the shelves stretching on and on farther and farther out, so that the harder I looked, the more that became visible at the limits of my sight. I realized that the books, and the words, were everything that was and everything that had ever been or would ever be. I started walking; my steps were silent, and when I looked down I saw that I was walking on words, that the walls and the ceiling and the tables and the lamps and the chairs were all words."

Ronit flies to London on a plane that is also a time machine. Once back "home," she must confront the eternal absence of her father and the infernal—for her—presence of a community that seems virtually unchanged:

It's difficult to work out the meaning of life in Hendon. I mean, it's difficult to work it out for yourself, rather than allowing other people to tell you. Because in Hendon there are plenty of people just dying to explain the meaning of life to you. I guess that's true in New York, too, but in New York, everyone seems to disagree with everyone else about what the meaning of life is. In Hendon, at least the Hendon I grew up in, everything faced in one direction, there was nowhere to get a grip.

Ronit's mission appears simple: mourn her father and find a pair of Shabbat candlesticks that belonged to her mother. Of course it is anything but simple, since there would be no story otherwise. Her return disturbs the community. She is the Rav's prodigal daughter, the Rav's lost daughter, the Rav's bisexual daughter, the Rav's troublemaking daughter.

No one wants her back.

Almost no one.

Dovid is married to Esti, a woman so silent in this world of words that a new member of the community once asked her husband, "Does your wife speak?" The reason for her silence is complex, and part of the complexity lies in the fact that Dovid and Esti were also childhood companions of Ronit. Therein, as they say, lies a tale. When you read Disobedience, secrets about this trio will be unveiled, but I won't ruin the story for you by saying too much here.

Words can be saved as well as spent.

Ronit's return to Hendon is duly scandalous, but that is the least intriguing aspect of the novel for me and would not be enough if Alderman offered us only this. We've read that story before. In fact, I can imagine some readers finding Ronit a bit too predictable in her behavior and her reactions. On the other hand, she is not a protagonist here; she's a catalyst. The community is shaken, if not stirred, by her presence, but it has weathered other storms and you know it will weather this one. Ronit will leave and they will forget her again. Quicker, I suspect, than she will forget them.

Dovid and Esti, on the other hand, must face both the emotional tempest of Ronit's presence in their lives again as well as repeated blows from another form of word power, "lashon hara—an evil tongue," the high voltage hum of gossip that also powers this insular world.

Words, both sacred and wicked, govern life in Hendon, but silence has its role as well. Ronit's memory of arguments with her father mirrors her current battle, interior as well as exterior, with Hendon:

I tried to argue with my father so many times. He was a difficult man to argue with. He believed in silence. It doesn't make for rip-roaring, gut-busting, passionate debate, trying to argue with someone who believes in silence. I could shout my lungs hollow at him and he wouldn't respond. He'd listen, with all appearance of attention, and when I was finished, he'd wait for a few moments and then turn back to his books. Dr. Feingold reminds me of him, just a little, in the velvety softness of her silence, in the pause after I finish speaking.

The silence, the pause after speaking, the meaningless words said and important words left unsaid for so many reasons: "We did not go out of each other's lives in a blaze of anger. We simply fell out of the habit of speaking. We lost our common language and so lost everything. There was nothing for us to say."

Alderman sketches the community's life delicately—in the small, seemingly mundane details of women preparing food for the Sabbath ("their lives of chatter and busyness"); of men scheming subtly to maintain the status quo after the Rav's death; and of Ronit's impact on them, which is neither as extreme as she imagines nor as inconsequential as they might wish.

If change, even minor change, is to come at all, it will have to be through Dovid and Esti because that is where the reader experiences most intensely the shocks and aftershocks of Ronit's presence. Ultimately, the story is driven beyond the ordinary by Dovid's poignant struggles within his marriage and his vocation; and by Esti's comparable struggles with her identity as well as her intriguing role as both liability and source of strength for her husband.

Definition of any sort is hard won.

"Disobedience" is just another word. In the end, this book is about evolution, not revolution, and the former is a painstaking, endless process. Does the community view Ronit as someone to be afraid of, like the "damned" in the Merton quote with which I began this piece? The answer is yes, no, and perhaps. The answer is that no one is safe and no one escapes. The answer is beside the point. The questions are all that matter.

Allegra Goodman addressed similar issues in Kaaterskill Falls. There is a passage in that book which seems appropriate here:

She wonders, even now, what her daughters will inherit and discover. Whether they will shake themselves and venture out, even if only to touch the larger world... Or whether, like their father, they will absorb themselves in the life and turn, heart and mind, toward the Kehilla. And there is beauty in this. Such observance is ordinary to her mind, but there is something beautiful in the constant conscious and unconscious work, the labor of it, ornamenting each day with prayer, dedicating each month, and season, and every act, to God.

Not simple.

Never simple.

Refuge and prospect.

Words and silence.

Life and death.


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