Naomi Alderman: Disobedience

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In pre-Vatican II Australia, most of the people we knew were Catholic, most of the women were stay-at-home wives and mothers, and there was a strong code of conduct especially for anything to do with sex.  So I’m familiar with a society bound tightly by the rules of religion, but the world Naomi Alderman describes is on another level entirely. Disobedience is the story of Ronit Krushka, rebellious daughter of a revered rabbi who is the central figure, you could almost say the guru, of an orthodox Jewish group in Hendon. Ronit returns from New York, where she has lived for a decade, when her father dies. She’s immediately confronted by the verson of Judaism that’s practised here:

But the way Jews are here… it just makes me want to kick over tables and shout…. 

In New York she’s become accustomed to

People who want to talk about, write about, think about Jewish things.   And who know, confidently, that people who aaren’t Jewish will be interested in what they have to say too. Who aren’t afraid to use Jewish words, or refer to Jewish holidays or Jewish customs, because they trust their readers to understand what they’re talking about.  You don’t get that here. It’s as though Jews, in this country, have made an investment in silence. There’s a vicious circle here, in which the Jewish fear of being noticed and the natural British reticence interact… (55) 

Alderman walks a fine line between her frustration at the restrictions placed on individuals, especially women, and a respect and love for Judaism.  This isn’t an angry book, but one that struggles to bring many different emotions into some balance. The book’s structure reflects that, with each section starting with Torah verses and a reflection on them that seemed to me to be the wise voice of the revered Rav Krushka. Then we see how those ideas play out in Ronit’s life and in the life of her childhood friend Esti, who has conformed to the rules even though her inner self calls out for something different. Who can say, in the end, which one is happier?  

In the end, it’s not the literal content or the ritual form of the religion but the spirit in which it’s practised that matters.  There are mean-spirited, unimaginative and bullying people here, but there are also people capable of grace and generosity even towards those who offend their beliefs. Something of that grace and generosity rubs off on Ronit, rebellious though she remains.   She can’t be an observant orthodox Jew like those in Hendon, but all the same

She has come to recognise that there is a tiny, tenuous area where good sense intersects with fundamentalist religion. She’s trying out how it feels to live in that area…Sometimes she even prays.  Although she calls it “having words with God” and it’s not clear that her soul is humbled by it.   

6 thoughts on “Naomi Alderman: Disobedience

  1. Must read it . Was made into a film a few years ago. Worth searching out sensitive and beautiful tale of love and limitations imposed by society.

    1. It would be interesting to see the weight the film gives to Ronit and Esti’s sexual relationship, because that didn’t seem to me to be all that significant in itself. The cover of the book certainly highlights it, but that was only one of the constraints on
      them, which went much deeper and broader. Or so it seemed to me.

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