James Joyce Ruined Me for Orthodox Judaism

It was ‘Dubliners’ versus 15th-century rabbis in a battle for my soul

When I was 5 my teachers refused to read the Beauty and the Beast book I eagerly brought in for read-aloud because Belle’s cleavage was too prominent. When I was 12, they claimed I couldn’t compose a book report on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because of its illicit content on witchcraft. When I was 18, they crossed out lines in Hamlet that alluded to penises. Teachers received these orders from rabbis, because rabbis know this: literature can stretch and shrink and shape the whole human mind.

So instead of secularist literature, I did this: At 5, I read what 15th-century rabbis said about Sabbath. At 12, I read what they said about modesty. At 18, I read what they said about existentialism. And at 19, I flew to Jerusalem for a year to read what they said about everything. Especially marriage.

Did you know the Talmud says that if a young man isn’t married by 18, “God waits for him until he’s 20, and if he’s not married by 20, then God says ‘blast his bones’?” If God is so vengeful with the young man, you can only imagine how He is for the young woman.

Rabbis know this: literature can stretch and shrink and shape the whole human mind.

After Jerusalem, I enrolled in a local Orthodox all-female college, and watched as other girls attended class with locks of unruly Jewish curls straightened to punishing submission and eyes carefully lined. There were no guys in class, of course. But at 19, these Shoshanas, Chanas, and Leahs became beauty-conscious just in case they crossed paths with a matchmaker.

I spent the money I didn’t have on Lancome makeup and keratin hair treatments to be like those girls. I, too, hoped to catch a man who could maneuver through office politics as deftly as he could through the twisting logic of a Talmudic text. What did I dream for us? To caress each other, beside the shadow of Sabbath candles, with the quick eagerness and slow tenderness of a couple who were virgins before marriage (as Jewish law required us to be). And what did I dream for me? For a baby’s warm breath on my breast while flipping leisurely through kosher recipe magazines. This life — oiled to wheel smoothly across the spheres of family and religion — is what we Orthodox girls prayed passionately for.

And so I hurtled myself through dates: with men who said I was too observant because I refused to hold their hand through Central Park (God’s rule, not mine), and with those for whom I was not observant enough because, over bowls of ravioli, I championed reproductive justice. There were also months of silence when matchmakers didn’t phone to suggest a date, and I caught myself doodling crying faces on the corners of college notebooks.

At 20, the weddings were all the same. I sat across from former high school acquaintances who self-consciously flipped their new wigs, symbols of having crossed the great beyond to marriage. They clinked glasses of weak Moscato politely during dinner, clicked their heels delicately during dancing, and gossiped over talks of in-laws during the reception. Meanwhile, bachelors at the wedding couldn’t catch a peek at my then-svelte figure in Spanx because they were shepherded away from women for religious reasons. Another single girl commented, “You look like Rose in Titanic. You know, from that scene where she’s having dinner in first-class. Right before she tries to jump off the ship.” Perhaps, in that moment, when trumpets echoed hollow across the ballroom, we were mirrors of each other. We both knew oppressive alienation when it was there.

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At this time, I was still in the all-girls Orthodox college but, in a teeny-tiny rebellion, I switched from Brooklyn to its Manhattan campus. There were no boys, booze, or cannabis on campus and so my brother’s “Be careful of the types of girls in dorms,” was vacuous at best and laughable at worst. There were a handful of pants-wearers. The rest of us still nervously adjusted the length of our skirts in front of male professors.

But as those 15th-century rabbis, the ones whose words I highlighted obsessively in Jerusalem, would caution: It’s not the girls you need to be wary of, Rebecca. It’s the goddamn literature. (Rabbis. They swear when it matters.)

As those 15th-century rabbis would caution: It’s not the girls you need to be wary of, Rebecca. It’s the goddamn literature.

“This semester, we’ll start with Dubliners, James Joyce’s collection of short stories,” said Professor Budick. His voice soft, his eyes sharp. “Here’s one word that I want you to know before we read it: paralysis.”

“Paralysis in literature,” he continued, “means that you cannot change yourself spiritually, socially, or politically even if you’re insides are clawing and begging you ‘Move, fool. Move.’”

Circular journeys haunt characters in Dubliners. By the end of their stories, they return to a staid life, thus choosing stagnation over movement. From boy to middle-aged man, each character shakes with desperate melancholy. The kind that feels palpable only because it reminds us of our own fear of battling the unknown.

Joyce’s writing is so stupidly moving. Sprawled across Central Park’s Great Lawn, I digested all of his realistic dialogue and descriptives over and over. But the story in Dubliners most responsible for changing the course of my sails, the one the 15th-century rabbis are surely tearing up in heaven, was “Eveline.”

The story in Dubliners most responsible for changing the course of my sails, the one the 15th-century rabbis are surely tearing up in heaven, was “Eveline.”

Eveline is about a 19-year-old girl who, at the story’s opening, reflects on the heavy parts of her existence. Ever since her mother and older brother passed away, her father turned abusive and threatened to beat her. Eveline also becomes responsible for providing for her living family members. This does not come easy as her job is dull, difficult, and with no promise of mobility.

But hope arrives in Frank, a sailor whom she loves and who promises to take her to Buenos Aires. Of course, conflict seizes her: “She had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question. In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her.” There is that strange comfort of predictability in Ireland. There is also the memory of her mother. The night before she finally decides to escape with Frank, she hears a melody on the street that played on the day her mother died. Eveline finds it “strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could.”

So far, this story seems Romeo and Juliet-esque; there’s poetic symbolism and the wrenching romantic conflicts of an adolescent — but where’s the punchline? “Wait,” said Budick. “We’ll read that tomorrow.”

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And we did. On this day, we learned why “epiphany” is such a Joycean theme, and then we embarked on Eveline’s very own: As Eveline “mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being — that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness. She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence: ‘Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!’ She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live.”

After Eveline’s epiphany that she must escape, readers pray that she will join Frank in Buenos Aires, not because he — a mere man — is the answer to happiness, but because her risk-taking is the solution to paralysis. And so, as ten Orthodox girls held their breath in our intimate English class, Budick reads this moment of truth aloud:

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her.

“Come!”

No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amind the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

“Eveline! Evvy!”

She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

There has never been another writer who has terrified me more with words than Joyce has in this scene. I wondered: am I destined to be Eveline?

Did I inherit “passivity, like a helpless animal” as I did the wide set of my mother’s nose or father’s thick glasses prescription? Epigenetics may answer “yes.” My female ancestry from Azerbaijan seem to have passivity drawn with permanent marker on their double X chromosomes. Cursed by one of the loudest brands of patriarchy, girls hung up sheets post-wedding night to prove they were indeed virgins with freshly broken hymens, trickles of blood and all. These women were stronger workers, fiercer nurturers, and better cooks than I will ever be. But they didn’t stage an uprising. Instead, patriarchy followed mothers to America where they berated their daughters for spending a day on the beach with a new man, fully clothed and barely touching. Am I destined to be Eveline?

Did I inherit “passivity, like a helpless animal” as I did the wide set of my mother’s nose or father’s thick glasses prescription?

Did I inherit passivity through my religion? Oh, there is female baddassery in Judaism! Yael and Judith dashed the brains out of evil anti-semites with tent pegs. But my own cohort of women who wish to revolutionize, seem too afraid to feel empowered as a single woman or wear a shorter skirt for fear of snickering neighbors. Am I destined to be Eveline?

I enjoyed religion, in spite of its laws about minuscule things, like how to tie your sneakers. In high school, I wrote diary entries earnestly headed with “Dear God,” and signed off an even more earnest “Your Servant, Rebecca.” I counted tear stains on prayer books like the bragging rights they were. Each morning, that unknowable, unnameable transcendence was mine to claim. But itches are meant to be scratched. Especially when you grow up and the biblical texts that once excited you feel dry on your tongue. You are estranged in a home you once thought was yours.

Right now, my religion is openness to experience. And my Satan? Stagnation. At 24, I broke a Jewish law and kissed a boy. At 25, I slipped on a pair of pants. At 26, I swayed my hips to music in a way that is necessary to release sadness and also in a way that Orthodoxy forbade. My version of God can flow with the river too.

At 24, I broke a Jewish law and kissed a boy. At 25, I slipped on a pair of pants. At 26, I swayed my hips to music in a way that is necessary to release sadness and also in a way that Orthodoxy forbade.

For my irreverence, I was fined with anguished fights, aggravated silences, and “your grandmother rolls in her grave”-isms. But unlike Eveline, I will take all of that instead of carrying the unbearable weight of paralysis.

The rabbis probably didn’t suspect that it’d be a dead Irishman who’d be my undoing. Ever since I brought in that cleavage-ridden Belle book to school, they probably thought smut and erotica would be the genres to unwound me. But that’s the thing about literary power. It’s unpredictable. And even the most unlikely stories can pour icy water on your back when you expected to struggle under heat for the rest of your life.

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