The Rebel Who Came Home

Naomi Alderman is Orthodox and lives in Hendon, in north London. Her prize-winning novel is a love story of two Orthodox women.

Shiri Lev-Ari
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"I could have stopped being Orthodox, but I can't stop being Jewish," says the heroine of Naomi Alderman's book "Disobedience." Alderman, 31, has written her first book and for it she has won the 2006 Orange award for new writers of fiction. She was born and raised in the Orthodox Jewish community in suburban Hendon, London. She still lives there today, after having published a book that throws down the gauntlet to the preconceptions in the milieu in which she grew up, a book from which presumably most of her neighbors in the community keep their distance as though from fire.

It is with good reason that she gave the book the title "Disobedience." The novel tells the story of a love between two Jewish women who grew up together in the Orthodox community in Hendon: Ronit, the daughter of the community's rabbi, leaves the religious life and moves to New York. When her father dies she returns to Hendon and there she meets Esti, the love of her youth. Esti has already married and become established and has chosen to live a heterosexual life. Alderman's novel deals with the fraught subject of lesbian and homosexual relationships among Orthodox Jews.

Alderman began to write the book [which was published recently in Hebrew by the Opus press in a translation by Yael Echman] after a number of years of living in Manhattan, like the heroine of the novel. There she also happened to meet quite a number of lesbian and homosexual Jews. This subject aroused her interest.

Kosher feminist

Her father, Geoffrey Alderman, has a regular column in The Jewish Chronicle. She did a B.A. in general studies at Oxford and afterwards a master's degree in creative writing at East Anglia University. In her free time she designs computer games. It is apparent that her Jewish identity is important to her. She has written an entire book that is set in the Jewish world, quoting from prayers and providing explanations of Jewish rituals and customs. She has also chosen to return from Manhattan to the bosom of the Jewish community in Hendon.


"I have a lot of people here whom I love," she says. "I think it's important to live near the people you love and care about. Of all the reasons to live somewhere - this is probably the best one. But I'm probably not the typical Hendon resident."

Who is the typical Hendon resident?

"Probably somebody who is less questioning about religion than I am."

What causes you to ask questions about your religiousness?

"I guess it's a human characteristic, and the Jewish culture is about asking questions. That's the way I was brought up, and that's what it means to be a human being, ask questions about the world and about the things in front of us.

"I was brought up in an interesting way, my parents are very questioning people, I went to a non-Jewish high school, which very much encouraged my academic side, I had a degree from Oxford and there I had a lot of questions to ask, and being an intelligent woman in a religious world makes me question."

On the one hand, Alderman maintains a religious way of life ("I have a kosher kitchen," she says, "I don't drive a car on Shabbat, I keep the Shabbat not perhaps to the extent I was brought up to keep, but I do observe Shabbat"). On the other hand, she has a feminist worldview.

How does an Orthodox way of life concord with feminism and women's rights?

According to Alderman, this is very difficult. "They can't be combined. They have two different systems of thought. It has caused a lot of problems in my life, trying to combine the two of them, sometimes you become angry about stuff, it becomes exhausting and confusing, and then I come back to it and try again," she says, adding that she does not have a clear answer to this question.

To the question of whether she has thought about a different Jewish way of life, she replies: "Once you're growing up with something, it's not that easy to put it aside."

Coming-of-age ritual

Are there autobiographical elements in the book?

"Not really, it depends on what you mean by autobiographical. Certainly the book is about places I have been in my life, so I have lived in the Orthodox community in Hendon, I have worked in Manhattan. But the events of the book didn't take place in my life, my parents are still alive, my father isn't a rabbi, and I'm afraid I've never had an affair with a married woman."

Could a lesbian love story like this have happened in the community where you grew up?

"It could happen. I don't know if it has happened but I'm sure that there have been lesbian relationships in the place I come from - whether it happened in this exact way I don't know."

What do you think of the Orthodox attitude towards homosexuals and lesbians?

"I think it's very problematic. I can certainly understand where the Orthodox approach comes from. The Torah says what it says, you can't change it. At the same time there is more room for compassion than there has been and Orthodoxy could benefit from recognizing where it has elements that cause tremendous pain to people."

Is Judaism's attitude towards homosexuals different from its attitude towards lesbians?

"That's for sure. Orthodoxy doesn't really have a lot to say about female relations. In a way it makes it easier because lesbianism isn't considered such an avera (transgression) as male homosexuality. I think it would have been a different book if I wrote it about two men, instead of two women."

The heroine of the book, Ronit, says at one point that in this community marriage is not just a religious right or a legally committed relationship, or even something that you do because you want to live with someone you like - it's a coming-of-age ritual. What does Alderman think about marriage?

"I'm not married, but I think I would like to be married at some point," she says. "For me it's important to become mature before I could even consider wanting to be in married life."

You have chosen a happy end for the novel, in which the characters are at peace with themselves and able to declare who they are, but this doesn't look like a realistic ending.

"I don't know. I would say it's an optimistic ending. It's the best ending that this story could ever have. I thought about ending it differently, that something horrible happens, but I have a certain degree of hope in my community. The community is made up of good individuals, people are warm towards each other and care about each other, and I wanted to write a book that has some love and some optimism which are the nature of the community I come from. I thought it was not impossible - I know Orthodox Jewish gay and lesbian people who had found acceptance."

British Jewry's worry

And if we are talking about community, in fact it was The Jewish Chronicle, the largest Jewish newspaper in Britain, where her father works, that published an uncomplimentary review of the book.

"Of all the reviews it has received, The Jewish Chronicle's review was the most unpleasant. However, when I walked down the street in Hendon people mostly said what a great book I wrote, which is nice."

In the book Alderman writes about the profound difference between the Jews of the United States and the Jews of Britain.

"American Jews are confident in their Judaism, in themselves, in the ability to say whatever they want to say about the world from a Jewish perspective, and that is fine. The Jewish perspective really exists, it's okay to be a famous Jew in America.

"Somehow in Britain the Jewish community doesn't have that confidence, that feeling that if you talk about Jewish things people will understand, the feeling that it's okay to be Jewish and talk about your Jewish life. Jewish people in Britain were very worried about the fact that in the British edition of my novel I use a lot of Hebrew, of Yiddish words and don't translate them. British Jewish people were quite concerned about it."

Do you think about the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Europe?

"I don't really think about it. There is anti-Semitism everywhere in the world - it's part of being a Jew. I am far more disturbed by anti-feminist sentiments than I am by anti-Semitic sentiments."

Alderman has visited Israel many times; she says that she loves the country. "Though they talk loudly in the streets, are angry most of the time and curse at a stoplight, to walk down the street and feel that nearly everyone around you is Jewish is wonderful. That feeling of not being different. The very idea of Israel's existence amazes me."