Writer Naomi Ragen has many reasons to celebrate. Chains Around the Grass (Toby Press, $26.95), her autobiographical novel about a New York Jewish family of modest means and its struggle to survive when tragedy strikes, was recently released. The Ghost of Hannah Mendes (St. Martins Griffin, $14.95), her 1998 novel about Sephardic Jews, has come out in paperback. And Ragens popular earlier novelsSotah, Jepthes Daughter, and The Sacrifice of Tamarabout womens struggles against repression and abuse in the ultra-Orthodox worldhave been reissued (Toby Press, $14.95 each). In June, her first play, Minyan Nashim (A Womans Minyan), will open at Habimah, Israels national theater. She is also known for speaking out about womens rights and Israels coverage in the media.
Did your experiences growing up as one of the few Jews in a low-income housing project in New York give you the fortitude to go against the grain?
Ive always had the sense of not being part of the mainstream. I was an outsider: I was a poor girl among rich girls at school; I lived in a neighborhood that was black and I was white; and I lived in a country that was predominately Christian when I was learning how to be an Orthodox Jew. When I eventually decided to move to Israel, it was because I felt that there I would be more of an insider. But when I got here, I discovered that I was always going to be the American. And when I tried to be part of the ultra-Orthodox world, which I did when I first got here, I realized that I was not part of that world either.
All of the decisions in my life came from within. When I decided to be religious, it wasnt because my family insisted upon it or because my school forced me to do it. It was something that I decided made sense, and it took me years to come to that decision.
How have you managed to keep a foot in both the United States and Israel?
My books really do straddle both worlds. Ive lived in Israel, but my books have been written in English and published by American publishers. American Jews were really big fans, but no one in Israel had any idea that I was a writer until the books came out here about four years ago. The first one to be published in Hebrew was Sotah. It became a huge bestseller93 weeks on the bestseller listand sold over 100,000 copies. When the other books were translated, they also went on the bestseller list. All of a sudden, I became well known in Israel. In a recent survey of Israelis favorite writers, I came out number two or three, even though Im not an Israeli and I dont write in Hebrew.
Youve lived in Israel for over three decades. What changes have you observed in the way women are treated?
Israel is always 10 or 15 years behind America when it comes to any movement, and womens liberation is no exception. Every single year that Ive been here, Ive seen progress. Im very happy to have been part of that, especially in the religious world, [because my books] have brought the problems to the fore about how religious women are treated. When my books came out in Israel, there was denial in the religious community, [and they said] that what I wrote was not true. Now there are shelters opening up for battered ultra-Orthodox women and homes for battered religious children.
How did you happen to write The Ghost of Hannah Mendes?
When you write a book, you dont really choose the subject matter, the subject matter chooses you. I had a chance encounter in a bookstore with the book Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi, by Cecil Roth. I just happened to pick it up and found this fantastic story about a Renaissance businesswoman, Gracia Mendes. I thought what a fantastic book it would make. I wanted to deal with the dangers of assimilation and intermarriage and Jews forgetting their heritage and their roots. I thought this would be a wonderful way to do it, to take this woman who risked her life because she loved her heritage and make her the ancestor [of someone in] the new generation.
What is the mood like now in Israel?
There is a great deal of frustration. Yet everybody is recognizing that they love this country and that this is our home. No one is going to talk us out of being here. Well just have to figure out survival techniques. Were waking up from the long sleep of Oslo to a new realism, a new sense of what needs to be done. We are just questioning the best way to do it.