Jewish Lesbians! Has that caught your attention?? Well "Disobedience£ the award winning but controversial debut novel by Naomi Alderman is about them but it is about so much more!. Its is also about identity, roots and community.
Disobedience is mostly in Hendon in the Jewish heartland of north west London (an area I know fairly well as I have friends there and like some of the restaurant and cafes there. I adore Carmellis in Golder's Green and Piazza pizzeria) and revolves around its close knit Orthodox community. The book begins with the anticipation of the death of community leader and highly respected Rav Krushka and follows the consequences of his death, as his estranged daughter Romit arrives from New York to mourn her father. Her arrival back in Hendon scandalises the community and also brings past secrets to life that will haunt her and two important people in her life, her cousin Dovid (the new Rav) and his wife Esti, who happens to be Romit's childhood friend and ex love.
Judaism has a particular interest for me. Growing up in south west Scotland I had no contact with Judaism. My knowledge was scant and limited to Bar Mitvahs, circumcision, Holocaust and the lack of bacon sarnies on a Sunday morning. However now I am in London I've accidentally become an honoury Jew after being befriended by a circle of friends of friends from various Jewish backgrounds. Some stricter than others. However none of them are frumers (traditional or strict) and thus I have only had fleeting glimpses of the black hats that symbolise to me the orthodox community not just in in the North West of London but also in Gateshead and in notch Manchester and Salford. .Disobedience opened my eyes to this community and the strict rules and rituals followed by them. This is a community where men and women are separated in the synagogue, where women dress modestly, cover their heads and have large families after marrying. Food is prepared to the strictest standards of Kosher where milk and meat never meet on the same plate or in the same pan. However it is also family orientated and sympathetic with the community gathering together in times of need.
The book is quite unusual in its style. Each chapter starts off with a quote from Jewish text and then a short paragraph or two linking theqsubject of the quote in with the action of the story. I liked this as it subtly introduced and addressed issues without getting away too much from the main plot. The book is also unusual in its style, as it mixes first person and third person narratives within the same chapter. Esti and Dovid's story alongside other lesser characters such as Hartog the community leader are told in the third person whilst Romit's is told in the first. It was easy to follow who was the main centre of focus as the type facer for Romit's sections were different from the third person narrative so it did not become confusing.
Our heroine Romit is the classic rebellious clergyman's child. She's the naughty girl at school who later rebels by going against everything her community approves of as feminine. She smokles, she wears trouser and tight skirts, she's unmarried and a career girl. It seems she has rejected everything and the clash between her and the community when she returns can be quite humorous in parts. Her attitude to her religion and community is interesting She seems to have rejected her community but it is ingrained in her and deep down she longs for approval and acceptance whilst still trying to shock. . However the relationship between her and Esti is treated sensitively and subtlety so there is nothing sordid or trashy about their old love affair.
I was fascinated by the different customs and rituals especially around marrige and death from the women's Mikvah (a bath taken before marriage and after a women finishes menstruating so he is allowed back n the marital bed, almost like a baptism each month) to the preparation of the dead body for burial and the mourning process that followed.
The one thing that may put people off is the terminology used. I feel my vocabularyis quite good and understand things like Yom Kippor, Shabbat and various Yiddish words such as mazel toff (congratulations) and schul (another word for the synagogue) but at times I did find the book hard going due to the amount of Yiddish and Hebrew words and terms used that I was unfamiliar with. I found myself keep asking my Jewish friends "what's this festival" and what does that mean? I think a glossary of terms at the back of the book for easy reference would have been a good idea.
At first glance of the blurb Disobedience may seem sensationalist due to its subject matter but look further than the lesbians and you will be rewarded by a fascinating , very readable novel about the hidden world of London's orthodox Jewish population.
I managed to pick my copy up for £3 in the works. A real bargain.