I have been a fan of Naomi Ragen for many years. With the publication of her eleventh novel, An Unorthodox Match (St. Martin's Press, 2019), I finally worked up the nerve to contact her and ask her the questions I've been thinking about as I read her other ten novels.
Her latest book is about Leah, formerly known as Lola, who has embraced Orthodox Judaism and moved to the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her mother, who had abandoned the strictures of religion as a young woman, is very critical of Leah's choice. And the neighborhood only accepts Leah up to a point - definitely not to marry one of their own. The book explores both the good and the bad about living in an insular community, and (SMALL SPOILER), the book ends happily, but not without the foreshadowing of future challenges for Leah.
Since Naomi is currently touring in the United States, we exchanged questions and answers via email:
As they say on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, many of your works are "ripped from the headlines." Jephte's Daughter (Warner Books, 1998), Sotah (St. Martin's Press, 1992), The Sacrifice of Tamar (Crown Books, 1994), The Tenth Song (St. Martin's Press, 2010), and The Devil in Jerusalem (St. Martin's Press, 2015) are all based on real-life stories. I know you asked people for their real-life experiences when you wrote An Unorthodox Match. Is the book based on someone's specific experience, or a conglomerate of the responses you received? Are any of your own experiences included in the book?
I myself came from a non-observant family, but was sent to a Hebrew Day School when I entered second grade. So the idea of a Ba'alat Teshuva is one with which I have a great deal of experience. But because my experiences happened to me when I was a child and my character is an adult when she becomes observant, I wanted to talk to others who became observant as adults. Leah is a conglomerate of all I know and all I've learned from others.
I loved Leah's mother Cheryl as the "very interesting" "devil's advocate." Is she based on a real character? Do you fell her message came through despite or because of her quirky personality and life choices?
I wanted Cheryl to serve the function of a Greek chorus. She is the one who says what many readers are thinking when they hear Leah's story. She is also a conglomerate of many secular parents whose children become observant about whom I've read and I have met. The details of her life are totally imagined.
There is a strong sense of place in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Did you live there or travel there to do the research?
I attended the Sarah Schenirer Teachers' Seminary in Borough Park when I was eighteen and lived there for close to a year. I also visit Manhattan almost every year, so I know it well.
An Unorthodox Match is being touted as your first book about those who choose to become more religious. It seems like Leah/Lola gets pretty much the same treatment other characters in your novels have gotten when they don't conform to the norms of the community. Did you find a difference between the newly religious versus non-conformists within the community as far as how they are treated? It seemed like people were somewhat accepting of the match between Leah and Yaacov because he was a widower who had cut back on his learning to get a real job, sort of moving from the "A" list to the "C list." Thoughts?
I don't agree that they accepted the match, because the way ba'ale teshuva are treated is pretty harsh and unfair. But what motivates me are stories of injustice, so you are right that there is a common thread in all my books about Haredim -- the idea that the world which should be striving for good is undermined by very human faults that need to be acknowledged and accepted.
Critics are rather harsh in saying you have "a bone to pick" with the Orthodox Jewish community and "air dirty laundry" by publishing with a secular imprint. From my perspective, I think you point out the incongruity between what the Torah dictates and how people behave. Two questions: How do you respond to these critics, and why is this social criticism in all your novels?
My novels are a mirror -- an honest and loving reflection of the religious world as I experience it. If they don't like what they see, don't complain to the mirror, change the face.
[In answering this question, Naomi reminded me of Rose in The Sisters Weiss. Known, and criticized for her photographs of the Haredi community, "her defense had been simple. 'I'm a mirror,' she'd said in response. 'If you don't like your face, change it, Don't complain to the mirror. I show what's there. You created your world, I just document.'"]
And continuing from above, orthodox imprints used to only publish stories about "perfect" families. They have evolved somewhat, and they are now publishing books about people with "issues." What do you think of this, and would you consider publishing with an orthodox imprint?
I think my books pioneered a way forward when Feldheim and Targum were writing fairy tales about all the perfect tzaddikim in their perfect world. Frum Jews were not used to reading the truth, and now they are, so the religious publishers are catching up with their readership. That's great, but I am happy where I am. When I started writing, no religious publisher would touch my books. Everything was strictly censored, and it still is.
I read Devil in Jerusalem (about a charismatic cult leader who convinces a woman to abuse her children - again based on a true story), and while it was a riveting read, it was so sad, I kind of wish I hadn't read it. When the real story appeared in the news, people were horrified. What compelled you to write this story?
I felt it was a very vital and important story. There are so many predators around the watering holes of religious piety and hundreds of religious cults in Israel. Religious people are often naive, and backdoor idol worship, with amulets, holy men, etc., is very common today. The book is hard to read, and it was very hard to write, but necessary.
On your website, I noticed comments from people who don't like your politics, so they are not going to buy your book. Is "cancel culture" a new phenomenon for you? (Of course, there were people who like your politics and are buying two books!)
We live in an age of intolerance and ignorance. I'm not going to be intimidated.
I loved The Saturday Wife (St. Martin's Press, 2008), which is based on Madame Bovary. Can your fans look forward to any more contemporary books based on classics?
Who knows what the future will bring? My books choose me, not the other way around.
What is your next project?
A sequel to An Unorthodox Match.
Thanks to Naomi Ragen for answering my questions so thoughtfully. Instead of the Real Cats of Israel, we have The Real Naomi Ragen: