Sexuality meets spirituality in British novelists debut

Every year during the High Holy Days we ask the question, “Has there been a living together but a growing apart?” Inspired by the spirit of tshuvah we seek to become whole again, on individual and communal levels, confident that the first step in healing is to find the words for our pain.

In Naomi Alderman’s startling debut novel, “Disobedience,” Ronit, the rebellious daughter of a famous rabbi, returns to her father’s Orthodox Jewish community in London on the occasion of his death.

A graduate of Oxford and the esteemed creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, Alderman now lives once again in Hendon, the small London Orthodox community where she grew up and where this polished, engagingly disobedient story takes place. By experimenting with form and voice, Alderman weaves her own brand of tshuvah. She manages, through unabashedly sincere characters, to avoid both religious and secular clichés.

Traditional Orthodox communities let out very little in the way of literary takes on their own lives. This is partly because of an intentional insularity and commitment to “appropriate silence.” In “Disobedience,” silence is taken to both holy and destructive extremes.

Each chapter begins with a Jewish legend, often taking the form of a communal “we,” as in, “Shabbat is simply to take our hands from the wheel and let it spin … For if we cannot be distracted by our actions, our creation, we must, at last, come to ourselves.”

After each theme has been illuminated and, often, turned on its head, the narrative leaps into a first-person account of Ronit’s thoughts. The story jets ahead like this, delving deeper and deeper into her thoughts and the secret life of tradition, until the reader can feel the living, breathing pulse of Jewish legend in Ronit’s body.

Until her father dies, Ronit thinks that she has left her restrictive past behind. She is living a high-powered, secular New York life and tells herself that she is only going back to get her mother’s special Shabbat candlesticks. But is it soon clear that she has come to free both Esti, her childhood friend and lover (now wife of Ronit’s cousin Dovid, a loving, headache-prone man and the unwilling successor to the rabbi), and herself.

When she visits the hydrangea bush where she and Esti used to meet, we get a glimpse of Alderman’s metaphorical and spiritual aims: “It was one of those places that seems obvious to children, hidden to adults. A secret place. In winter it was nothing: the bush was bare. But every summer the little room bloomed again.” Sexuality and spirituality intertwine.

Alderman’s characters are thoroughly believable and her language, at its best, strikes a resonant chord. However, she also makes generalizations that, although perhaps meant to let non-Jewish readers into her story with ease, come across as a misdirected.

If the characters in “Disobedience” were fruit trees, they would all be torn down, replanted and blossom again with their own strange fruit by the final pages.

Overall, like the “living books” in Ronit’s father’s study, in “Disobedience” the pages turn themselves.

“Disobedience” by Naomi Alderman (240 pages, Touchstone, $24).