My friend Yael Levy just published a novel called Brooklyn Love, based on the “shidduch scene” in Brooklyn. According to the Kirkus review: “The novel begins at a chatty smorgasbord before a prearranged Orthodox wedding; Levy makes the occasion as effective as an Edith Wharton ballroom scene, using it to set up a deceptively clever story.”
I met Yael when she lived in Petach Tikva while her husband attended medical school in Tel Aviv. The family now lives in Atlanta.
Where did you get the idea for your book? Why did you set it in Brooklyn? I started working on Brooklyn Love when I lived in Petach Tikvah after our mother- baby groups (Remember?) I was writing articles for City Lights (The weekend edition of The Jerusalem Post) and my editor at the time asked me for an article on how Orthodox Jews date.
Trying to find the right angle for the article, I thought about– which Orthodox Jews? It was not a homogenous group. I started playing around with different “types,” creating various characters and how they would approach marriage. I realized pretty quickly that I couldn’t do the topic justice in one article—what I had to write, was a book.
Did you grow up and date in Brooklyn? How much of the book is based on your own experience and familiarity with the community? I set it in Brooklyn because at the time I wasn’t much older than the characters, I’d dated in similar circumstances and felt very strongly that the “system” was in terrible shape. I also loved living in Israel but despite its “shtick,” I missed the community I was raised in. Recreating the world I grew up in took away the alienation of living so far away from everything I knew. And finally, as much as I loved the people I grew up with, after living in Israel and experiencing the vibrancy of Jewish life in a Jewish country– it struck me that Brooklyn Jewry was on borrowed time: That even if there were no particular physical threats–the social, emotional and spiritual problems in the community would ultimately destroy it from the inside out. I wanted to commemorate my community for posterity.
What has changed since you were in the dating world? Is it really harder than it was then? The book was initially set in the late 1980’s– I had to make it contemporary for editorial concerns– but if I’d written a novel that was truly contemporary–it would be even worse. For reasons of maintaining sexual purity, so they don’t go “off the derech” and so that parents don’t worry that their kids will be left behind in the marriage game– Orthodox young adults are under extreme pressure to marry young. However, there is tremendous conflict because like other Americans their age, most young adults aren’t ready for marriage at nineteen. They don’t know themselves, have had little opportunity to understand the opposite sex and are told to marry the right type– not the right person. They are told to marry without love because supposedly it will grow– when everywhere in Western media the ideal of “true love” seeps in to everyone’s consciousness. So if they marry without love and don’t build love and they meet someone at work whom they do love– then what?
There is no way to promote this image of “how it was in the shtetl” while living in contemporary New York.
I’ve worked as a volunteer matchmaker more recently, and the superficiality and rigidity of the “system” has only gotten more dysfunctional: The lack of emotional maturity for marriage is problematic, the mothers are more competitive and the “friends” could be the worst enemies. For any Orthodox Jews to have a successful marriage in this day and age– it is truly a miracle.
Do you write primarily for the Jewish community? I would have been happy to publish this with a Jewish publisher–but nearly every one I approached heard what I had to say on a personal level, but “Mrs. Levy– you know there’s no way we could publish this.”
There is little intellectual honesty in the community I grew up in and it is much easier to blame the other (the T.V., the goyim (non-Jews), the internet, etc.,) than actually take a look at what the problems are and think about solutions to fix them– and how to properly educate our children to deal with life.
I don’t write for the Jewish community though my main characters tend to be Jewish, if not Orthodox. I am by training an artist and have a need to express truth as I see it.