Tag Archives: Orthodox

“Run You Down,” by Julia Dahl

  • Minotaur Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $24.99.

This page-turner of a mystery, set in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community, brings a mother and daughter together at last.

It would be hard for author Julia Dahl to match the impact of her novel from last year, Invisible City, let alone provide a fresh experience with a story that mines a similar milieu: the mysterious death of a woman in New York’s Hasidic community. However, she has done it — in part by having left the door open for a continuation of the earlier work’s underplot: a young woman’s quest to find the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
One would suspect that Run You Down was in development even before Invisible City was published. In the later book, tabloid stringer Rebekah Roberts, a half-Jewish woman raised in Florida by her Christian father, Brian, has taken a step up the ladder at the New York Tribune. She’s doing rewrite, an indoor job, rather than chasing around the city investigating possible stories. Rebekah is also fighting a severe bout of depression in the aftermath of her first major assignment.

Her roommate, Iris, is pushing her to get help.Rebekah meets with her friend Saul, a retired policeman and the one person of her acquaintance (besides her father) who’d known Aviva, her mother. Aviva had contacted Saul about possibly getting in touch with her daughter. Saul passed on the message, but Rebekah’s nerve failed when it came to picking up the phone; too much fear and anger, too many unknowns.While wrestling with this problem, which is pulling her into a dangerous withdrawal state,

Rebekah agrees to meet Levi, a man from the Haredi (extreme orthodox) world. Levi’s young wife, Pessie, has recently died, but he suspects something has gone wrong with the investigation of her death. (Echoing the circumstances in Invisible City, Pessie was rushed to the funeral home without an autopsy being done.)Levi can’t find out how she died . . .

Read the entire review at: Run You Down | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Tradition and defiance war in culturally insightful novel

The Sisters Weiss, by Naomi Ragen. St. Martin’s Press. 336 pages. Hardback $24.99.

This bestselling novelist has carved an intricate tale out of the lives of two sisters, at one time inseparable, but later living in separate and incompatible worlds. Rose and Pearl Weiss are born into a caring, rule-bound ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn family. Rose, the older by three years, has the kind of curiosity that is dangerous in this kind of community – dangerous because it cannot be satisfied without stepping out of the cocoon and risking ostracism.  SistersWeiss

Befriended by a girl whose French immigrant family is at the margins of acceptance by this community, Rose finds herself captivated by art photography found in a book in the girl’s father’s library. She is allowed to borrow the book, which she knows she must hide. However, she soon aspires to becoming a photographer – which clearly means she aspires to seeing things in her own way. In several seemingly inevitable steps, Rose finds herself at odds with all that has been built to comfort and protect her. At seventeen, she runs away from an arranged marriage, disgracing her family and cutting herself off from the only world she has known. 

Slowly but steadily, she builds a new life, eventually establishing herself as a prominent photographic artist. To her family and community, she is an object of scorn and a source of shame.  Pearl is left to be the model daughter, her behavior fitting the mold of her community. The family scandal severely narrowed Pearl’s matrimonial choices, but she has made the best of her situation.

Forty years after Rose’s self-exile, her daughter Hannah, a fledgling graduate school student, receives a barely literate note from a teenager named Rivka. Rivka is Pearl’s daughter, and she is desperate to escape from a future that affords no hope for her individual happiness or growth. Rivka is seeking temporary shelter with cousin Hannah. Weiss family history seems to be repeating itself. When Hannah reveals the note to her mother, Rose warns her not to get involved. No good can come of it. But then Rivka simply shows up!


Somewhat reluctantly, Hannah offers her temporary shelter. She is impressed by Rivka’s gratitude and how she gives the apartment a thorough cleaning without being asked. Still, Rivka acts like an immigrant. It’s as if the community she left behind is a foreign country. She is unprepared for the new world.

Hannah asks her friend Simon to tutor Hannah toward a GED, but before long that relationship becomes a torrid romance. Hannah’s hidden feelings about Simon are wounded by his succumbing to Rivka’s advances. She feels that Rivka betrayed her, though Rivka had no knowledge of Hannah’s supposed claim on Simon.

Rivka disappears and reappears a couple of times in response to the stresses and strains of her situation.

Before long, the inevitable happens. Imagining what Pearl and her husband must have been going through since Rivka’s disappearance, imagining what her own parents had gone through forty years earlier, Rose works to negotiate some kind of communication, if only so that Rivka’s  parents can stop worrying and know that their child is okay.

 A guarded, fragile rapprochement is set in motion, the distance between the sisters’ lives narrowing and widening as attempts to heal keep running into the decades’ old habits of intolerance and animosity.

Ms. Ragen’s skill at crafting all the emotional nuances of this tentatively wished-for reunification between the sisters, and between child and parents, is convincing and suspenseful. Readers are reminded of the need people have to stand their ground, the ground of values and ingrained behaviors, and how understanding and compassion are always crippled by the need to be the party that is uniquely in the right.

To learn how and to what extent these issues and conflicts are resolved, how Rivka survives the risks she has taken, requires, dear reader, that you take your own journey into this powerful, wise book. I think you will find The Sisters Weiss very much worth your while. You will discover a provocative study of how identity is formed and reformed. You will witness the tug of war between nature and nurture, between loyalty to self and to others, and between sophistry and sincerity. This is a most thoughtful and passionate entertainment.

This review appears in the November 2013 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Seeking to reconcile Judaism and Feminism through art

Whatever is Contained Must Be Released, by Helène Aylon. The Feminist Press. 287 pages. Trade paperback (oversized). $29.95.

Helène Aylon’s astonishing book balances the two dimensions of her life that are expressed in its subtitle: “My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist.” It’s a magical book, not nearly as egocentric or “in your face” as one might expect at first glance. Thoughtful, properly proud, and modestly grateful for the distance she has traveled on her unusual journey, Aylon mixes facts, feelings, and meditation. Over and over, she adjusts the tension between these two identities, identities which paradoxically poison and nourish one another. Aylon Cover

Young Helène loved her traditional household in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. Even when she was feeling stifled or misperceived, which was often, she knew that her parents loved her deeply and had her best interests at heart. While her mother lacked the worldliness that this young girl craved and eventually attained, there was no doubt about her mother’s essential goodness and the depth of her passionate caring.

This particular Orthodox community invested significant resources in the education of its young females. Helène absorbed an abundance of Jewish learning; however, there was little – as a female – that she could do with it. And she had plenty of questions that would not be truly heard or respectfully answered. Before she knew what feminism was, she was asking feminist questions. At bottom, the question is: how can a woman belong to a religion that disrespects (or seems to disrespect) women in its sacred writings and in its traditions?

Helène married young (a successful arranged marriage), had children young, but was already drifting toward the educational opportunities that would stimulate her self-creation as an artist. This self-creation involved selecting her own last name. When her husband, a rabbi, died in his thirties, the young mother could not continue to wear her partly hypocritical mask of Orthodoxy. She admitted to, and began to act out her “post-Orthodoxy” self, moving more and more into the world of art and artists.

She liberated herself socially and intellectually, while never forgetting the warm enclosure of her childhood home and community. Fighting with Jewish attitudes toward women, especially their place (or lack thereof) in ritual life and in scriptural modeling, she found a second religion in Feminism – and in time she became a strong force in this arena. Her artworks, primarily multi-media installations, expressed this theme, as well as those of environmentalism and anti-war activism.

A major part of her journey as an artist took place in California, where she encountered many kindred spirits and forged mutually supportive relationships. However, Boro Park remained in her thoughts, as did her love-hate relationship with Jewish wisdom and – as she felt it – Jewish misogyny.

In what is roughly the second half of the book, Aylon’s discussion of her artistic experimentation and growth is bolstered by a generous array of photographs that give readers some idea of the power of her installation art. Over and over again, her particular post-Orthodox feminism combines with her other themes in highly original, powerful, and daring visual compositions, works that are challenges both to her and to those who behold them. Some are inspired by Kabbalah, the mainstream of Jewish mysticism. Others involve technologies and materials that allow the installations to undergo change over time. Still others enact curative processes, such as redeeming the earth (in Jewish tradition, Tikkun Olam).


Many of these projects, — like the sequences that assemble sacs of sand, stone, and earth – required not only visionary insight and purpose, but also physical exertion and potential confrontation. Her Earth Ambulance project, carried out near nuclear power facilities and military sites, expressed and connected anti-war and conservationist perspectives. For Aylon, such battles are truly women’s work: housekeeping, nurturing, and healing on a grand scale.

More and more, her achievement was recognized with well-received gallery exhibitions and exhibitions in public spaces. However, finding display venues for installation art is often far more difficult than finding space on a gallery wall. Often, Aylon means to be shocking – shocking enough to wake people out of their slumbers and force them to confront major issues.

The ongoing, mutating story of Helène Aylon’s relationship with her mother and her Orthodox heritage binds together the passages of this attractive, uplifting, and powerful memoir.

This review appears in the February 2013 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).

Reprinted with a new title in February 21, 2013 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly: Florida Weekly – Aylon


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