Orthodox Israeli Women Novelists

Over the past two decades, new authors take on the tension between tradition and autonomy.

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Esther Ettinger

Peleh Laylah, (Night Wonder) a recent novel by the poet Esther Ettinger depicts the "coming of age" of a religious adolescent in Tel Aviv. There are many autobiographical elements in the work. Ettinger’s parents came from Eastern Europe before the war, and lost many relatives in the Holocaust. They were part of the Yiddish-speaking business community in Tel Aviv in the 1950s. The line between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox was not clearly drawn at that time, and she was sent to a Bais Yakov school.

In her novel, Ettinger juxtaposes the Bais Yakov education of the protagonist Atara Henig with the girl’s attraction to the music, movies and fashion of Tel Aviv. Her teacher, Raizl, is a very pious survivor of Bergen-Belsen who espouses the teachings of the founder of Bais Yakov, Sara Schneirer, in an attempt to cleanse the young women of "foreign influences."

Ettinger cleverly weaves passages from Sara Schneirer's writings into the novel, and depicts the tension between home and school, on the one hand, and Tel Aviv, on the other. Ettinger contends that the conflict between art and religion in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man served as a model for her. It percolated many years, says Ettinger, who is married and has four married children. In spite of the tension between art and religion, Ettinger claims that the language of religious texts serve her well.

“The language is very much part of me, and becomes an organic part of my writing. It’s true that religious education inhibits the writer, but it also enriches her work. I feel freest when I write, but the writer must impose internal aesthetic limits on the work.” Realizing this, Ettinger also accepts the religious limits she imposes on her writing.

"Yet there are literary ways to accommodate these limits, through 'drash, pshat, and remez,'" she explains.

Hannah Bat-Shahar

In contrast to Esther Ettinger, Hannah Bat-Shahar has, until recently, retained a strict division between her work and her personal life. The daughter of a well-known rabbi and wife of a rosh yeshiva, Bat-Shahar wrote under a pseudonym.

Only recently has she revealed her identity in the media. Her many short stories and novels are beautiful, densely written works, depicting the seething, internal world of a female protagonist. The language itself projects the sense of claustrophobia of a woman seeking to break out of a closed world. Certain patterns repeat themselves in Bat-Shahar’s work. The woman often has romantic longings for a man who is inappropriate for her. At the same time, the long shadow of a father-figure hovers over the protagonist throughout her life.

In the three novellas that make up Sham, Sirot Hadayig (Look, the Fishing Boats), Bat-Shahar moves from depictions of her tightly closed internal world to portray wider social interactions in religious circles. She depicts an upper class ultra-Orthodox world where the men are, by and large, businessmen constantly crossing lines between America, Europe and Israel.

In general, there is often real doubt about the credibility of Bat-Shahar's female narrators. They are romantic to the point of being crazed in their judgments, frozen in a circumscribed world from which they yearn to flee. Bat-Shahar's work, however, should not be perceived as a realistic depiction of the whole haredi world, but as a literary, psychological vision of a certain type of neurotic woman in this milieu.

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Rochelle Furstenberg

Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic. She has written extensively on Hebrew literature in a variety of books and periodicals, and has a regular column on Israeli life and culture in Hadassah Magazine.