Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Jewish Lesbians

...as I put down Naomi Alderman's book 'Disobedience' for the last time I picked up the Guardian's interview with Charlotte Mendelson who it seems writes about much the same topic. What a coincidence, as the father in Muriel's Wedding used to say every time he bumped into his lover. Couldn't remember where I had picked up Alderman's book, since I had not been to an English-speaking country for a while, and then it came to me - it was in one of the British bookshops in Vienna (Mariahilfer Str).

'Disobedience', Alderman's first book, is about a young woman from not just any Jewish Orthodox household in Hendon, North London, but one where the father was the 'Rav' which appears to be a particularly high class, visionary, leading kind of rabbi. Much like the girl in Abraham's 'The Romance Reader' reviewed here. And perhaps the pressures on children are the same in the very strict Christian/Muslim/other households where the head of the household is a community leader in that particular faith.

The young women in both stories rebel against the very tightly controlled lives they are supposed to lead, starting with strict rules about clothing and ending in very tight expectations on what kinds of life they should leave. Alderman's main protagonist Ronit, whose mother died when she was very small, leaves the family home as a young adult and makes a new home and successful life for herself in New York (though she does attend a therapist - or does that mean she is particularly successful that she can afford one). When her father dies, in London, she returns home and then all sorts of old wounds burst open again, relationships are re-inflamed, some more positively than others, and she reviews her position in relation to her religion.

The book has a very interesting structure; each chapter is preceded by a quote from a Jewish prayer, which is then followed by what seems like a brief rabbinical discussion of the meaning of various aspects of life, such as 'marriage' or 'secrets'. After this events in the lives, current or past, of the two other main characters take place, told in the third person singular, followed by Ronit's description of what happened to her and what she was thinking, written in the first person singular, and printed in a different font. This must have given the writer a very nice little discipline, and for those of us who know little about judaism, it's very interesting. In passing also rituals, such as those around burials, and those of the Sabbath, are described in great detail (there appears to be a dish called 'potato kugel' - I wonder if that is the same as the Lithuanian 'kugelis', a rather heavy kind of potato cake, baked in the oven).

The book could perhaps have been a little more complex - it seems to travel along a rather straight line, and there are not that many surprises when you turn a corner; but after all, it's a First Book. It's quite funny, especially when Ronit talks, who on the one hand looks rather wryly at the life she has left behind, and on the other hand is still very familiar with it. Her description of one of the character's headaches (which the author suffers herself) is stunning - much like the headaches, I suspect.

This edition concludes with a rather unnecessary interview with the author ('what did you find most difficult about writing 'Disobedience'?'), followed by recipes for the sabbath from Claudia Roden's 'Book of Jewish Food'. One of these is a chicken soup recipe - I'm a great believer in Jewish chicken soup for moments of stress, weakness, and especially post travel sickness. The book offers a variety of additions to the chicken soup. I like to boil a thick slice of lemon in it, together with some minced chili from a jar; that really spices it up and gives it a far eastern flavour - as a Korean violinist confirmed who I had to feed the soup when she was suffering from the flu during the Heifetz competition. (Perhaps not ideal for dodgy stomachs, though).