Orthodox Israeli Women Novelists

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

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In this respect, Govrin herself is very much like Amalia; a bridge between different groups. Coming from a secular Zionist home, she is married to an observant French–Jewish mathematician, and has two daughters. She does not see herself as belonging to any defined group. "I prefer to move from one to the other. And I hope the book leaves that kind of open space to readers to do the same, to find their own answers."

Mira Magen

Mira Magen also prefers not to be pigeonholed as religious or secular. Magen, who is shomeret Shabbat, prefers to straddle the fence, depicting the various options that Israelis from religious backgrounds might choose between. She grew up in an observant family in Kfar Saba, was for many years a nurse in Hadassah, and has written four novels. In an early novel, Al Takeh B'Kir (Do Not Strike the Wall) she traces the emergence of a young woman from a religious moshav to the big world. Her love for a young widower on the moshav leads her to delve into the exotic life of his dead wife. But it culminates in marrying the widower, who is himself grounded in tradition and a connection to the land.

In her later work, B'shachvi U B'kumi (Love, After All), Magen moves farther away from the religious framework. In this novel, Zohara Shiloh is a single mother, an unmarried nurse, who has left behind the religious kibbutz where she grew up. She is a "Jewish mother" in the sense that her concern for her son Evyatar dominates her life, until she falls in love with Mishael, a sophisticated high-tech businessman. In choosing Mishael, she opts for a more adventurous lifestyle.

In Magen's family chronicle, Malachim Nirdamu Kulam (Her Angels Have All Fallen Asleep), five siblings wrestle with their religious upbringing, each taking a different direction in his or her life.

For the authors discussed in this essay, the options of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken, are ever present in their writing, as they are in the life of many Orthodox men and women. Some might see this as undermining the veracity of religious life decisions. Yet, it is exactly this existential doubt with which the contemporary religious woman struggles daily, realizing the contingency of all life choices. It is this that gives these works the tension and depth that are often absent from the works of many secular Israeli women novelists, who generally depict an everyday life with less metaphysical struggle.

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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.