JOFA Book Corner: Author Alyse Fisher Roller
By Janet Dolgin
Alyse Fisher Roller describes her book, The Literary Imagination of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Women, as an exercise in “cultural poetics.” Roller set out to examine the world of “ultra-Orthodox Jewish women” by examining the “literature” in English produced by such women. The project, she promises, will reveal “who these women are as well as what their literary contribution is.” Unfortunately, the book fulfills neither promise.
We do not learn much new about “who these women are” because Roller never clearly delineates and describes the essential assumptions that define the world she seeks to understand. She presents three “main theses”: that ultra-Orthodox women’s literature is a “reactionary… response to liberal feminist and Jewish feminist arguments”; that ultra-Orthodox women’s “literature” offers a unique medium through which to understand these women, who have largely been misunderstood in “critical writing” about them; and that the “voice of baalot teshuva [returnees to Judaism] is distinct from the voice of women born into ultra-Orthodox homes. But she is more concerned with reiterating these theses than with looking carefully at the social and cultural implications of the writing she presents.
Moreover, Roller fails to establish the character of the “literary contribution” she considers. Much of the first half of the book focuses on literary criticism, secular women’s writing, and analytic studies of ultra-Orthodox women. When Roller turns to the creative literature of ultra-Orthodox women, the results are unimpressive. Chapters six through ten examine, in turn, personal narratives, anthologies, holocaust testimonials, self-help literature, and fiction. The array is dizzying. Within a few pages Roller moves, without explanation—or organizational reason—from prosaic “poetry” about women braiding challot to deeply painful testimonials about the shoa (Holocaust) to a novel about a conflicted baalat teshuva. In each case, we learn more about the authors’ literary contributions and about their varied worlds from the excerpts Roller quotes than from Roller’s own commentary.
Roller deserves credit for imagining ultra-Orthodox women’s writing as a literary genre, fit for cultural analysis. Her project, however, is more impressive as imagined than as designed and actualized.
Janet Dolgin is a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University School of Law, and she is an anthropologist as well as a lawyer. She and her family reside in West Hempstead, NY.