Naomi Ragen: A Remarkable Journey

The Sisters Weiss

Naomi is an unusual Ba’alat Teshuva (returnee to Orthodox Judaism). One might think that Orthodox Jewish women are quiescent and tend to their homes.

Naomi is different.

She is multifaceted leader and bestselling authoress. In Israel, Naomi has been one of the most important Orthodox feminists in a community that prefers to live their lives quietly as though they were still living in the 19th century Shetel.

Last night, she spoke about her personal journey and odyssey at Temple Solel as part of the 2013 San Diego Book Fair.

Having lost her father at a very young age, she looked to her mother for inspiration and strength. Raising three children on Long Island in the fifties was a daunting challenge and for young Naomi, her formative Jewish experiences proved to be a rite of passage—especially given the fact that she had not grown up in a traditional Jewish home.

Her mother spoke to the principal and Rabbi about allowing her children to attend his ivy league day school. Her mother gently reminded the rabbi that the Torah teaches us to act compassionately toward the widow and her children—they are the apple of God’s eye.

Orthodoxy in the fifties was different. Nobody at the school she attended coerced her to become “religious.” The atmosphere was laid back and comfortable. She observed that in today’s Orthodox world in Israel, the yeshiva would insist that one be totally committed to Orthodoxy, or else, the child would never be accepted.

With boldness of spirit, Naomi slowly came to love her newly discovered Orthodox faith. Shabbat was a special time for young Naomi and she  bonded with her Shabbat host family and developed many friends among her peers. Her mother’s busy schedule did not permit her to prepare a Shabbat meal; she often arrived home after dark. Yet, even as a young woman, Naomi took it upon herself to prepare a Shabbat meal for her family. Celebrating the Shabbat created the peace that her home lacked.

Her brothers were so deeply moved by the Shabbat experience, they eventually became Modern Orthodox Jews and sent their children to yeshiva—an obvious tribute to Ragen’s winsome personality.

On one occasion, her mother had a vision of seeing her deceased husband and father at the Shabbat table shortly after she made Kiddush. Rituals have a way of connecting us with our family histories—they help define who we are as people and as Jews.

One of Ragen’s favorite activities as a young teen was writing.

Ragen’s love for Israel inspired her to make aliya to Israel. After arriving, Naomi and her husband decided to become “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews and they believed that their closed society would never suffer from the problems that afflict secular society.

Her friendships with other Ultra-Orthodox women suddenly gave her a perspective that she never expected to find. One married lady, in particular asked her if Naomi could assist her in obtaining a passport to return to the United States. Her reasons shook and shattered Ragen’s naiveté about Orthodoxy: the woman’s husband was a wife beater and also physically abused his children! Yet, paradoxically, her husband was considered to be a “Torah scholar.”

This was not the only experience that shook her beliefs.

There was a lovely Belgium blondish woman—a prize for any young Torah scholar. Despite the appearance of looking “religious”, her learned husband was a sexual predator and molested his young own daughter. Desperately,  she appealed to her father, but her father encouraged her to stay in the marriage for the child’s sake. One evening, she and her daughter jumped from a high-rise apartment in order to free themselves from the daily abuse.

This is why Ragen wrote her first novel, Jephte’s Daughter, which illustrates how a Hassidic father sacrificed his daughter’s happiness by arranging a marriage to someone who was totally inappropriate for her. With tenderness and insight, she takes her readers on an imaginative and unforgettable journey inside the hidden world of women in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

After writing her book, Ragen felt surprised by the negative reactions she received from her book. Paradoxically, the worst criticism came from people who never even bothered to read her books! Yet, on other occasions, she discovered that many Ultra-religious men read her books so that they could better understand their wives—feelings and emotional struggles.

Like a skilled therapist, Ragen’s books provide an important mirror to help the religious community look at themselves through the eyes of the Other.

After listening to her talk, I found that her presentation carried a poignant message about the struggles of being an Orthodox feminist in Jerusalem. Appearances are not always what they seem. I was surprised to learn that many Ultra-Orthodox young men want to join the army—despite the protestations of their yeshiva teachers. 

In her newest book, The Sisters Weiss, she narrates the lives of two sisters, who grew up in a very strict Orthodox world. After a series of unexpected developments, Rose becomes estranged from her parents and her sister. Forty years later, Pearl’s daughter discovers how her aunt has become a renowned photographer. Now, she wants to bring peace  and reconciliation to her family—but the heroic journey toward wholeness and reintegration  is not without its difficulties!

Her social activism among Ultra-Orthodox women has helped led to the formation of women’s shelters and counselling services. Fortunately, Orthodox women no longer have to sit in the back of the bus because of women like her, who have stood up against the Haredi bullies.  Fortunately, the Israeli government is slowly forcing the  Ultra-Orthodox world to embrace modernity. For the first time, Orthodox women are re-discovering their spiritual and Jewish voice–largely because of Naomi Ragen.


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