The evolution of novelist Naomi Ragen

The Sisters Weiss by Naomi Ragen, St. Martin’s Press, 2013, ISBN 9780312570194; 336 pgs., $24.99,

By Eva Trieger

ENCINITAS, CaliforniaRebel or conformist?  Sheep-like follower or mindful maverick, Naomi Ragen, in her ninth novel, contends that our life’s journey reveals our nature at the soul level. The Sisters Weiss is a tale of an ultra-Orthodox family living in Brooklyn in the 1950s.  Two sisters grow to become radically different women in their quest for adulthood.  The story tracks their life choices and the families they create while exploring the nuances and repercussions of these decisions.  At the novel’s end, Ragen cautioned me that it will be the reader’s conundrum to determine which sister is more fulfilled, the one who fled or the one who remained within the fold.

Naomi Ragen has made her own sojourn with regard to finding her place on the Jewish spectrum.  She began her formal education at a religious school, and became very devoted to observing halacha and keeping all of the mitzvoth.  Her mother’s model as a religious woman provided the groundwork, but Naomi’s older brother must have found the observance of Shabbat somewhat onerous.  When asked to make a Kiddush on Friday night, he balked, “All of these rituals just for a piece of greasy chicken?”

Ragen attended seminary and continued to frequent the synagogue which she found “enchanting, warm, mysterious and beautiful.”  At the same time that her Yiddishkeit was growing, academic pursuits were moving full throttle.  Ragen was attending college and earning degrees.  While other ultra-Orthodox  girls in her world were studying Chumash and navi, Ragen was reading John Donne and D.H. Lawrence.  She felt somehow ostracized and alien in the sea of long skirts and long sleeves.

In 1971, Naomi and her husband arrived in Tel Aviv and moved into an immigrant absorption center at Kfar Chabad.  This was not remotely like Boro Park, and while she felt she was becoming part of the fabric, Ragen also noted the stark contrast between the haredim and herself.  This was made evident when she asked to see a doctor to confirm her pregnancy.  She was told that the “Rebbe says we don’t talk about it for the first three months.” Her request was denied.

Other differences cropped up and Ragen began to see inconsistencies and a “stifling” in the lives of many of the ultra-Orthodox women in her community.  One horrid event left a significant impact on Ragen, and became the impetus for a novel.  A neighbor suffering at the hands of an abusive husband took her own life.  This further opened Naomi’s eyes to the strictures and limits set on women in this world.

Ragen has some harsh critics, and she stated that the “most vociferous critics have never read my books.”  On other occasions religious men have told her that since reading her books they have greater insight into their wives’ sensibilities and struggles.

Experiences such as these, Ragen shared with me, made her realize that the ultra-Orthodox are not homogenous.  As in any group, there exists every type of person.  Today, Naomi Ragen considers herself a modern Orthodox woman and she paraphrased Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in her view of a global definition.  “Judaism should not be looking for segregation; it should not be looking for assimilation, but a Judaism that embraces the world.”

This book tour has been traveling the country and has been very warmly received by audiences on both coasts.  The Sisters Weiss will encourage and allow Jewish women to think about subjects that haven’t before been brought to the fore.  Call the JCC today for your tickets to hear this insightful, powerful author share her latest novel. Tuesday, October 29th at 7:30 pm at Temple Solel in Encinitas.

Trieger is a freelance writer specializing in coverage of the arts.  She may be contacted via [email protected]

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