In the Courtyard of the Novelist: An interview with Ruchama King Feuerman

I’ve got a treat here today: an interview (conducted via email) with award-winning author, Ruchama King Feuerman. Her latest book, In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, just came out in September as an ebook. Recently, she signed a contract to expand the release to paperback. I became acquainted with Ruchama through Tablet Magazine online, where both of us have published essays. She was gracious enough to send me a copy of her new book and even more gracious to answer a few questions the novel left me with.

R.K. – In your first book, Seven Blessings, the central figure is a very strong female character. In this new book, you primarily follow two male, unmarried characters. What was that like for you as a married woman?

new book from Ruchama King Feuerman

In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist, now out from NYRB LIT

R.K.F.I prefer writing from the male point of view. This way I don’t worry about slippage, about parts of  my personality leaking into my characters, it’s just cleaner — what’s me is me, and what’s them is them.  I feel much freer to invent and have fun when I write as a man.  I do tend to prefer singles maybe because they are inherently dramatic. Continue reading

Just when you think the world is going to heck in a handbasket…

Here are links to two articles with wonderful examples of how people can support one another despite sectarian differences.
A modest-clothing blogger who is a member of the LDS church bonds with the evangelist Christian, Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim women who visit her website.
Two Muslim cabbies from Pakistan buy out a struggling Jewish owned business and vow to keep it kosher.
And yes, I found the articles when wasting time I was supposed to be working on my novel.

Interesting perspective on modesty

Tzniut, or modesty, is an important topic for those who adopt a Torah-true lifestyle. I was attracted to Randa Abdel-Fattah’s book, Does My Head Look Big In This?, because it addresses this very issue from the Muslim perspective. I thought it would be interesting to see how a Muslim writer handled it as opposed to the Jewish writers I’m already familiar with.

Amal, a teenager in Australia, decides to begin to wear the hijab (traditional Muslim headcovering) full-time even though she attends a very White prep school. The saga of how her choice impacts more and more of her life flows logically. Amal is a very likable narrator and explains the ideology behind the hijab and other Muslim practices beautifully, and they are very much in harmony with the views of traditional Judaism. I appreciated that we see both the ups and downs along Amal’s journey, and that she stays firm on her decision at the conclusion of the book.
Amal, like most teenagers, is OBSESSED with movies, television, Cosmo, celebrity gossip, etc. We see Amal’s parents telling her that these pop-culture icons are nonsense, but we don’t see her very moved by this. Amal never seems to really get that celebrity culture and fashion magazines are completely the opposite of what the hajib stands for. Some of the trouble she must deal with is actually created by her involvement in mainstream culture. She keeps watching “Friends” even though the characters make life decisions incompatible with Islam, and she compulsively does Cosmo quizzes and uses the magazine’s advice to flirt with boys even though she will not date them. I wish the book would have been more insightful about how our society feeds into immodesty, and how it’s healthy to step out of that largely-immoral media mix.

Most Orthodox Jews would tell you that the solution is to retreat from secular media, to varying degrees. It’s common to monitor our children’s television viewing (or ban it from the house altogether), restrict what movies they see, limit internet access, and the like. Many frum children aren’t permitted to use cell phones, or the phones do not have text access. And many Orthodox Jews send their children to schools with separate girls’ and boys’ departments, if not entirely separate schools. I know that many Muslims adopt such strategies (none of which is perfect, but which help)…what puzzles me is that Ms. Abdel-Fattah doesn’t bring them up (except that Amal’s parents disapprove of Cosmo, so she has to sneak it into the house).
There are fleeting mentions of political beliefs that most Jewish readers will disagree with (there are a couple references to the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma); however, none of these are obnoxious, argumentative, or deeply offensive. There is mutual respect between all sorts of characters (it’s very nice that Jewish characters are portrayed favorably, with a marked distinction between politics and religion, although as an Orthodox Jew, I flinched when the Jewish kid falls for a non-Jew). 

Two things cause me to hesitate from recommending Does This Make My Head Look Big? to every Bais Yaakov girl, though: 

I was surprised that there is some swearing in the book (no F-bombs, though, I think), and there is some frank talk about how Amal’s beliefs address sexuality and women’s body image, although nothing graphic. However, I think that this book would be a very good read for many young women or even teachers/parents of young women. I think that the book has a lot of insights that are unlikely to be found in a YA novel published by a frum publishing house, and I think the fictional format is particularly useful in approaching this audience. I hope this book’s pro-modesty message will reach teens that wouldn’t normally pick up an Orthodox Jewish book.