Interview with Yael Unterman, The Hidden of Things –her new book of short stories

In my current pursuit of all knowledgeable Jewish reflections on Hinduism, I went searching for contact information for Rabbi Dr. Alan Unterman who years ago had written on the interface of the two faiths. In the process, I came into contact with his daughter the fascinating author Yael Unterman. Most of my readers know her from her award finalist book, the over 600 page labor of love Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar. Moving from non-fiction to fiction, Unterman has a recently published book of short stories about Orthodox singles life The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing.

Hidden of Things

She is also coming to town for some speaking engagements At “Love in a Time of Conflict – Contemporary Fiction Set in Jerusalem.” She will speak with fellow author Ruchama King Feuerman (author of In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist) Next week Tues May 6th, 8 PM, at the Carlebach shul, 305 W 79th St, NY. Entrance $25-$35 includes a signed copy of both books. Yael will also be scholar in residence in the Carlebach shul over the weekend of 2nd-3rd May. Yael can be contacted, and her books ordered, through her website

The first eight questions of the interview are on her new book and in the last few questions I made her return to her earlier book on Nehama Leibowitz.

1) Why is your book called The Hidden of Things?
I am quite obsessed with what is hidden and what is revealed in our lives. This is true for the interpersonal level, in terms of interactions and dress, and for the media, in terms of revealing of secrets and lack of boundaries.

Today’s cultural climate does not reward modesty and reticence, with all the talk shows and candid memoirs and therapeutic language that pervade the air; but on the other hand, the professed values of traditional Jewish society can fall too far along the other extreme, leaving too much unsaid, sometimes to terrible effect.

I am prone to chronically wondering to what extent God is revealed to us today, is there ongoing revelation in every moment, and if so how can we make ourselves sensitive to receiving the divine, or is it all concealed within the tzimtzum through which we were created?

The act of writing a book reveals things ordinarily hidden from view – the nuances of characters’ private feelings and motivations. Writing such as this can resonate with the hidden inner parts of the readers, who might have previously believed themselves completely alone in certain thoughts or feelings that you, the author, have now articulated – and that’s liberating.

2) Why do you call yourself “unorthodox orthodox”?
It implies that freethinking and individualism is allowed, even within Orthodoxy. Generally the label “modern orthodox” does not seem to sufficiently cover who I am, so I like to add something to it to spice it up – calling myself, for example, “Neo-Hasidic postmodern Orthodox” or “Paradox” (the latter slightly tongue-in-cheek!).

People seem to need labels, which can be helpful when trying to ascertain the existence of common assumptions; and the fact remains that I have held onto the label “Orthodox”, while some friends of mine have jettisoned it altogether. Nevertheless such brandings also divide, constrain and mislead. I live in that tension, between embracing and rejecting labels. I have even called myself “Post-denominational Orthodox”, which is nonsense logically, but expresses how I feel.

3) What is the role of Orthodoxy and social criticism of the Orthodox in your writings?
I write about Jewish and universal topics, aiming at a wide range of readers. But my characters do tend to belong to the modern Orthodox world; for it is there that the most interesting creative tensions and clashes occur, leading to inner drama, angst and growth, the materials that spawn my writing.

As to the social criticism – to my mind, the best critics are those who are deeply in love with a system and yet don’t relinquish their critical minds. I reject one-dimensional writing about religious life, preferring to present a range of people whose attitude towards religion diverge and who are more nuanced and individual.

I am interested in books that present faith struggles in an intelligent fashion (e.g. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a convert to Judaism – a book that had a profound effect on my theological outlook). I’m bored by criticism of Orthodoxy from outsiders or from bitter former insiders; Orthodoxy easily lends itself to being a punching bag and target of ridicule if one wishes to, you don’t have to be clever to do that. My hope is that my critical voice might be used as a springboard for positive change from within. And that my love for traditional Judaism comes through in equal measure.

4) Who are your models in general literature or in contemporary Orthodox literature?
I learned a lot about the short story form from the materials presented during my MA in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University – authors such as Babel, Mansfield, Gogol and Joyce. I also admire excellent science fiction writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Orson Scott Card, and the aforementioned Mary Doria Russell.

In terms of good Orthodox literature (a small, through growing, category) I find Potok compelling, and I like to read my contemporaries Tova Mirvis and Ruchama King Feuerman, as well as Naomi Regan and other lesser-known Orthodox writers (such as Rabbi Shlomo Wexler who authored The Daughters Victorious, on the Bnot Zelophchad story). In general I believe and hope that Orthodox writing, if we can get past certain moralistic tendencies and a lot of bad writing in the community, will develop to a more sophisticated, imaginative, daring mode.

5) What should we be reading in Orthodox literature right now?
Ruchama King Feuerman’s In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist was nominated finalist in the 2014 National Jewish Book Awards (I am doing a joint book event with her– see above for details). There are many new authors, most of whom I have not yet had a chance to read, and this is an exciting time of emergence for this population.

In Hebrew, I highly recommend Emunah Elon’s novel Bemuflah Mimeni, a delicate, moving modern version of the Resh Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan story, with a Sliding Doors theme. Additionally, Michael Schonfeld has written Hahok Lemeniyat Habedidut, overlapping with some of my themes around singles and loneliness.
My story “Dateline Manhattan 2029” presents a dystopian future in which the gedolim enact a series of rules in the 600-page volume Ozer Dalim to address the so-called “shidduch crisis”, including mandatory parties, dating coaches, singles ghettoes and more. Intriguingly enough, Schonfeld presents a similar idea, whereby in Israel of 2020, the Knesset is considering passing laws penalizing singles.

6) Does your book fall into the chick-lit genre?
There is a resemblance, but I wouldn’t use that category per se for my book overall; despite much humour and light-heartedness, it’s ultimately darker and more layered and symbolic writing than this genre allows.

I do engage with issues concerning modern womanhood: relationships, emotions, self-image, etc; and my female characters support each other through traumas such as broken relationships, the Intifada and the challenges faced by English-speaking immigrants to Israel. Yet the themes of spiritual search and longing are also present for men, and my stories featuring male protagonists. I’m even rejecting to a large degree the prerequisite chick lit/Hollywood happy ending – the neat conclusions (engagements/ marriages) I included were actually at my publisher’s insistence, and they come in the form of a play, such that my characters are a bit like puppets. Still, we Jews do believe in happy endings (see Kohelet and Iyov) so I am glad they are there to give hope and joy.

7) More than one rabbi has proposed that Orthodox writers should submit their work to them for an halakhic OK. How would you respond?
My gut reaction is a no – I prefer self-censorship and would hate for this to become another area where a kashrut symbol is necessary. Having said that, kashrut in its best sense is a service to the consumer to inform about standards and indicate what is inside, like movie ratings. Book ratings by an objective body might not be such a bad thing.

I did have one haredi reader who objected to the language employed by some of my characters, remaining unmoved by my argument that manner of speech was true to the characters, or my defense of my integrity as a writer (I offered to refund her money…) Had there been a rating system, my book would likely have gotten a PG, (not a G or U) and then she would have known in advance not to buy it.

8 ) How is the writing of literature for you an expression of your religious life?
In a course at Bar-Ilan University with Professor Susan Handelman entitled “Religion and Literature”, I discovered that literature carries a great deal of spirituality, where spirituality implies connection with self, others and God.
As an author, you hold your readers in your hands for a significant number of hours, often consecutively – something few rabbis can boast. You get to choose where to take the reader: the illuminative moment, the high drama, the laughter, the tears, the surprise twist. A good writer’s voice enters the reader’s head and lingers there even once the book is closed.

So I feel that through my book I can provide relaxation and pleasure – badly needed in today’s hectic world – and oneg Shabbat, in the words of more than one reader. I can also aspire to teach Torah in vivid ways; to exercise the reader’s faculty of empathy for unfortunate others, or make those who are the unfortunate ones feel validated and less alone; and even to awaken the yearning for G-d. Personally when I finish a good book, I sigh and feel that the world is a wonderful place and I am in love with G-d’s creation. Hopefully some of my readers will feel the same.

9) How did you come to write your first book Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim, 2009 – National Jewish Book Award finalist)?
In 1998, Tzvi Mauer of Urim Publications envisioned printing Modern Jewish Lives, a series of biographies of great Orthodox personalities whose open and un-stereotypical nature meant that the more right-wing Orthodox printing houses would not touch them with a ten-foot pole. I was privileged to be commissioned, though young and inexperienced, to write the book intended to launch this series (I say ‘intended’ because the project took ten years instead of the projected two – a combination of Nehama Leibowitz’s multi-faceted nature and long life, and my perfectionism – and it ended up third in the series instead of first).

The act of documenting someone else’s work, though, is one requiring tremendous amounts of self-effacement, which is a trait I aspire to but in which I do not naturally excel. By the end it was somewhat draining I was very ready to put it behind me and turn to the words, ideas and characters that were bursting to be born from my own mind..

10) What do you admire most and not-admire about Nehama Leibowitz?
Despite all of her talents, erudition and fame, Nehama remained a very warm, caring, genuine, unpretentious and modest person who spoke her truth and kept to her moral standards. She innovated without trumpeting it about, and was dedicated to Torah. She was a mensch, nurturing others, but also courageous and true to herself – for example, she married her uncle when she was just 25 and he 54 years of age. She did this against the wishes of everyone around her, including her family.

Nehama’s teaching style was quite forceful and rigid in many ways, and I don’t think she was able to truly hear everything her students wished to bring into the class, if it did not fall within her perspective. Indeed, I don’t believe Nehama would have understood the kinds of issues I want to raise, had I been her student. I see myself as a person with 21st century consciousness, while Nehama was a person of her time, of the 20th century, and would have been unwilling or unable to follow me to the places I wished to go. This saddens me, both personally and also in terms of the limitations it places on her work.

She also did not change very much throughout her life, teaching the same Torah throughout, while I am a person of change. And lastly, she tended to reject religious experience in favor of doing mitzvot as the fundamental of Jewish living. A rationalist, most likely influenced by her family – father, husband and brother – she did not incorporate Hasidic or kabbalistic teachings, aside from the rare piece of Zohar, in her work. For me, these two corpuses carry traditional Judaism into the postmodern age, and resonate deeply. Hence, their absence is a lacuna, though Nehama’s passion and poetry do a lot to make up for it.

I guess, if I am to answer honestly, my greatest fear is that despite my own love of teaching Torah and making it vivid, Nehama would not have understood or approved of me. I would not have met her high standards and my existential questions would have been classified as unnecessary navel-gazing, an act she did very little of. This, along with her shutting the door on biblical criticism, freed up lots of energy for bringing people to love Torah.

Questioning and doubt sometimes seem to me like spilling precious energy on the ground, Onan style. Yet I cannot help my existential bent. Ultimately I am different from her and have to be authentic to myself. My second book, and any meaning and pleasure it gives to people, would not have been written by Nehama Leibowitz. We each have our unique path to take in life.

11) Can you say something about Nehama’s poetics?
For the most part, Nehama’s approach closely approximated the methodology of the New Critics, an approach to literature spearheaded by T.S. Eliot and others. They read the text closely, and were interested only in what was written and not in its historical background.

Nehama’s goal was to counteract the habit of “reading the Bible like a madly galloping war-horse,” to force the reader to slow down, pay attention to nuance, structure, layers, word order, tone and rhythm. For her, one small detail might contain an entire philosophy or a crucial moral point. No repetition was redundant – indeed, a favorite tool of hers was to undertake thorough comparisons of two texts that appear to overlap, checking similarities and differences. The literary context was also all-important for this type of reading.

Nehama disliked biblical criticism, believing it to be with riddled with ignorance and anti-Semitism, and only quoted critical scholars on rare occasion. She was extreme in her rejection of realia, namely the archeological, anthropological, geographical, zoological, and botanical aspects of biblical research, and in this differed from – and argued vociferously with – some of her Orthodox colleagues in later years, most prominently Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun. Reportedly though, towards the end of her life she openly wondered if she had been too extreme in her stance.

One response to “Interview with Yael Unterman, The Hidden of Things –her new book of short stories

  1. So I feel that through my book … I can also aspire to teach Torah in vivid ways>/blockquote>
    Echoes of Haim Sabbato’s writing. BeAfapei Sha’har can be seen as a running commentary on parts of Massechet Berakhot, and yet it doesn’t feel preachy in the least. Just a pleasure to read and take in the beautiful language.

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