In seven popular novels, the American-born Israeli author Naomi Ragen has offered readers an insider’s access to the world of the haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews. Using the conventions of romance, historical novels, and even thrillers, she steeps her books in the rituals, customs, and tensions of insular communities buffeted by the outside world.
She is also widely known for her political commentary, which evinces a deep mistrust of the Mideast peace process as well as scorn for Israel’s religious establishment.
Herself Orthodox, Ragen grew up as the daughter of non-observant Jews in Far Rockaway, Queens, attended an Orthodox day school, and made aliya in 1971. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband, as do three of her four grown children and seven of her 12 grandchildren.
With her eighth novel, The Tenth Song, in bookstores, she will address TBS University, the adult learning program at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, on Sunday, Nov. 14.
She spoke with NJ Jewish News on Nov. 2 from a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, at the start of a two-week book tour.
NJJN: What is The Tenth Song? What does the title mean?
Ragen: It comes from the Talmud, in a saying that “the world has 10 songs to sing and has already sung nine of them.” There is always something left that can be transformative.
The book is about a nice Jewish family in Brookline, Mass., very well-to-do, that stands to lose everything when the father is accused of doing a terrible crime, financing Arab terrorism. A family who thought they had everything then has nothing. They lose their friends. They lose their money. This transforming situation comes about and they have to see the world as it really is.
NJJN: You have very little faith in the peace process?
Ragen: I don’t believe the Palestinians want peace. The people who want peace are afraid to open their mouths, because the people in charge will murder them. There are Palestinians who want peace. I’ve met them. They want to see a situation where we can live together as neighbors. But if they were to come out for that publicly they would be murdered. We’re not talking about the Democrats and Republicans. We’re talking about the Middle East. It is a useless thing to talk to people who are interested in a jihad and a Judenrein east Jerusalem and a Judenrein West Bank.
NJJN: What do you see for the future?
Ragen: You have to look back and say, “What did you see for World War II?” You were facing an enemy that was uncompromising and wanted to take over the world. Israel is not the only one being targeted. Mr. Obama is going around trying to make a deal with Iran. What happened when people tried to make a deal with Hitler? Czechoslovakia got eaten up, and then he invaded Poland. The West has to defend itself.
NJJN: You’ve said that Sarah Palin is “a girl after my own heart.”
Ragen: I love Sarah Palin and I don’t care who knows it. She tells it like it is. You see professors at universities who are moral idiots. I’d rather have somebody who may not be very smart and doesn’t know facts and doesn’t know geography, but she is at least a moral person.
NJJN: You’ve written several novels about the haredim.
Ragen: They connect with my feeling about the way they treat women. I am an Orthodox Jew. I love the Torah and I love God. One of the most important lessons the Torah teaches is to pursue justice.
The haredim are not a homogenous community. You have people with different points of view. The leadership, the people who have the power, are evil. They are completely removed from the Torah. They are completely removed from any sense of justice. They are leading the haredi community off a cliff. They won’t prepare haredi men to have jobs to support their families and they are becoming more extreme in their attitude toward women, which is really like the worst parts of the Islamic world. It has no part in Judaism. They have inordinate power in the Israeli government. They hold the Israeli government hostage.
NJJN: What should be done?
Ragen: A lot of haredim are very unhappy. They would like to work. They would like to serve in the army. They are very unhappy about being called “parasites.” But because of their leadership, the minute they try to change anything in that community they will be ostracized. You need some courageous people to speak out publicly, maybe in the Modern Orthodox community.
NJJN: What is your opinion of the latest conversion bill, which critics say would put more power in the hands of the rabbinate?
Ragen: I think the whole situation with conversions is a disaster. I feel awful for converts. In many cases haredi rabbis have cancelled their conversions retroactively. This is unheard of in Jewish law. It is a travesty.
NJJN: How do you feel about the Women of the Wall, the group that organizes women’s prayer groups at the Kotel?
Ragen: I personally don’t feel the necessity to wear a tallis or read the Torah at the Wall, but I think they have the right to do this. It is wrong to say the Wall belongs to the haredim and other groups are not allowed to participate in something meaningful to them. But the Wall is after all, incorporated as a synagogue. You can’t walk into an Orthodox synagogue and decide where people are going to sit.
NJJN: Some might label your foreign policy views as conservative and your opinions of the haredim as liberal. How do you reconcile the two?
Ragen: The motivating force behind everything I do is justice. All of my novels have at their base a sense of outrage against injustice, whether it be against the haredi world or Arab terrorism.