By Donald Weber
Naomi Alderman’s debut novel, Disobedience, is an insider’s narrative about the Orthodox world of Hendon in north London, just two tube stops beyond the larger and better known Jewish suburb of Golders Green. When the novel appeared in Britain last March it was a big a publishing event. It even snagged the prestigious Orange Prize in June, for the best first novel by a woman. Reviewers linked Disobedience with a group of recent novels-Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Diana Evans’s 26a, and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (just published in the States)-admired for their “anthropological appeal," their ability to map the social and emotional landscapes of contemporary multicultural Britain.
For Jewish-American readers, Disobedience introduces a remarkable young talent. Naomi Alderman is an author immersed by choice in an Orthodox world (she continues to live in Hendon as an observant Jew); yet she is also a modern woman at odds with aspects of tradition, bristling at the limits imposed on female expression, above all on the taboos around unsanctioned sexual desire. In this respect, Disobedience seeks a more inviting space-really, voice-for women struggling silently under the weight of Orthodoxy. At the same time, the novel lovingly celebrates an awe-inspiring world of meaning-full ritual and the resonant beauty of holy texts. Despite its title, Disobedience reveals Alderman’s own deep attachment to Judaism as the foundation of her identity.
Disobedience is narrated in contrapuntal voices. There is “loud and vivid” Ronit, clearly Alderman’s alter-ego, the novel’s unabashed first-person narrator, a high-powered working woman in New York (where, after the muted English tone, everyone seems “Jewish”), a self-styled “drama queen” of “slightly amorphous sexuality,” in flight from her native Hendon. And there is a more measured insider voice, speaking on behalf of Hendon itself, narrating a story of ambivalent homecoming and re-awakened sexual desire. The emotional energy in Disobedience issues from the tension in the charged narrative gap between these alternating registers: Ronit’s brash New York-nourished edge, determined to unsettle Hendon’s regulated world of faith and practice, and Hendon’s self-conscious, self-effacing Anglo-Jewish “investment”-at least in Ronit’s exasperated view-“in silence,” in “absolute invisibility.”
The novel’s plot concerns Ronit’s anxious return to Hendon upon the news of the death of her father, Rav Krushka, the beloved spiritual leader of the community. In her early 30s Ronit remains haunted by memories of loss (her mother died when Ronit was quite young), of alienated flight (Ronit and her father stopped talking years ago, after a rebellious Ronit refused to observe the laws of kashrut) and, above all, of forbidden sexual desire, the unspoken, unutterable secret at the center of Disobedience.
Moving back and forth in narrative time, we learn how Ronit and her closest school mate, Esti, fell deeply in love, , as adolescents, consummating their mutual desire despite the religious taboo. “We didn’t know what to do, really, that first time,” Ronit sweetly recalls, her repressed Hendon memories returning in the presence of an older Esti, who chose to stay home. “We leaned on each other’s hair, fumbled and blushed.... After the moment when her lips touched mine, when we knew we had transgressed, there was no road to travel back.”
Esti, it turns out, is now married to Dovid, Ronit’s favorite cousin and Rav Krushka’s hand-picked successor as spiritual leader of the congregation. Esti was also chosen by the Rav as a wife for Dovid. She is, the Rav explains to his heir, “someone who sees to the heart of things, someone who hears the voice of Hashem in the world. Someone capable of silence.” Esti’s “silence,” however, baffles the community: can such a strange, quiet person, the lashon hara (evil tongue) voices of Hendon whisper ungenerously, become their next rebbetzin?
Ronit storms into this “closeted,” gossipy world seeking to appall, to shock. In her heart, however, she remains less secure. Ronit wants, above all, to reclaim her mother’s Shabbos candlesticks-“wreathed in flowers and foliage,” the “one actual thing[,] that I did still want from England”-but after days of sifting through her father’s belongings, which include thousands of gilt-covered religious volumes bound in swirling patterns similar to that of the candlesticks, Ronit’s deepest need remains unfulfilled.
The subsequent action of Disobedience involves the charged re-encounter (personal and, it turns out, sexual) between the ex-lovers and what appears in the end as the therapeutic “lifting” of repression, enabling Ronit, Esti, and even Hendon to “move on” and regain, perhaps, a sense of spiritual balance.
Ronit, in this respect, looms as a study in uncompleted mourning. Her habitual sass and itch to offend mask her need to assuage profound loss: between daughter and father the mother loomed as “the aching, absent heart at the middle of our lives.” Ronit longs for the symbolic candlesticks (“the only thing I remember really clearly”) as well as an altered relation to her sternly silent father. “I knew him by his words,” she confesses, about her vexed memories of her father, gleaned from reading his published books. By the end of Disobedience Ronit will know her father by his heart: by a prophetic gesture of love, revealing the Rav’s profound understanding of his daughter, including, perhaps, knowledge of her forbidden relationship with Esti.
Significantly, in this drama of a complacent Orthodox world troubled by women falling in love, Esti becomes an agent of memory, therapeutically enacting for Ronit “a completed circuit linking the past to the present.” Esti, we might even say, completes this generational circuit, bonding father (and, ultimately, mother) with the estranged but needy daughter.
At the same time, Ronit’s habitual “disobedience” enables Esti, as a partner in spiritual leadership with Dovid, to voice publicly the truth of her own conflicted heart: “’We should not be afraid of words, or of speaking openly,’” she tells Hendon, assembled in communal celebration of the Rav’s life. “’I am not afraid to speak the truth. [new par] I have desired that which is forbidden to me. I continue to desire it. And yet, I am here. I obey the commandments. It is possible’-Esti smiled-‘as long as I do not have to do so in silence.’”
In the end, Hendon looms for Ronit as an inescapable site of longing. “There’s something fierce and old and tender about that life that keeps on calling me back, and I suppose it always will.” Like Ronit, Naomi Alderman keeps faith with the world that has indelibly shaped her, even while demystifying its “closed worlds of rules and rituals and passwords to belonging” (as she said in an interview with the Guardian). With Disobedience, we can hear a new tone in Anglo-Jewish writing: loud and confident, deep with Jewish learning. The voice of a new generation.
Donald Weber teaches English at Mount Holyoke College and is the author of "Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to the ’The Goldbergs.’" JBooks.com