Ragen, Naomi 1949–

views updated

Ragen, Naomi 1949–

(N.T. Erline)

PERSONAL:

Born July 10, 1949, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Louis (a cab driver) and Ada (a secretary) Terlinsky; married Alex Ragen (a systems analyst), November 24, 1969; children: Bracha, Asher, Rachel, Akiva. Education: Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, B.A. (cum laude), 1971; Hebrew University of Jerusalem, M.A., 1975. Religion: Orthodox Jewish.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Ramot, Jerusalem, Israel. Agent—The Harry Walker Agency, Inc., 355 Lexington Ave., 21st Fl., New York, New York 10017. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Israel Environmental Protection Service, Jerusalem, publications editor, 1975-79; freelance writer, 1979-81; University of Santa Clara, Santa Clara, CA, director of development communications, 1981-82; San Jose Hospital Foundation, San Jose, CA, development coordinator, 1982-84; fiction writer, 1984—; Jerusalem Post, Israel, columnist, 1998-2001.

MEMBER:

International PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Jephte's Daughter, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1989.

Sotah, Crown (New York, NY), 1992.

The Sacrifice of Tamar, Crown (New York, NY), 1994.

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.

Chains around the Grass, Toby Press (Jerusalem, Israel), 2002.

The Covenant, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2004.

The Saturday Wife, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2007.

OTHER

(Editor, under pseudonym N.T. Erline) Baruch Halpui Epstein, My Uncle the Netziv, Targum Press (Southfield, MI), 1988.

(Editor, under pseudonym N.T. Erline) Baruch Halpui Epstein, Recollections: The Torah Temimah Recalls the Golden Age of European Jewry, translation by Moshe Dombe, Targum Press (Southfield, MI), 1989.

Minyan Nashim (play; title means "A Quorum of Women"), produced in Tel Aviv, Israel, at Habimah, 2002, published as Women's Minyan, Toby Press (New Milford, CT), 2006.

Columnist, Jerusalem Post, 1998-2001. Contributor to Periodicals, including Hadassah, Environmental Management, and Features from Jerusalem.

SIDELIGHTS:

Naomi Ragen's Novels explore individual struggles within ultra-Orthodox Jews' faith and traditions. Ragen once told CA: "My writing is deeply reflective of the philosophy, idioms, and values of the Old Testament, the Talmud, and related sources. D.H. Lawrence was a model, as well as E.M. Forster, Irwin Shaw, and Leo Tolstoy, who was also a deeply religious writer. Good and evil, their definition and interaction, interest me.

"My first novel, Jephte's Daughter, deals with the modern-day world of Chassidic Jews in Jerusalem. It is the coming-of-age story of a young Chassidic woman who struggles to reconcile deeply felt religious teachings with her own desire for freedom and growth. My character's education is very similar to my own Orthodox upbringing. The main difficulty was to demonstrate convincingly that religion can enrich as well as suffocate, depending on its interpretation. Though I was aiming for a mass readership, I didn't want to achieve popularity by embracing the easy, cliché road of having her abandon religion and embrace modern secularism. It was vital to me that my character find her freedom without abandoning her religious beliefs—to show that the two are not mutually exclusive.

"I wanted the reader to identify with her love for her religion, to feel compassion for her suffering despite the foreignness of her lifestyle. I wanted the reader to step into her shoes, to understand her reasoning, to see the world through her eyes. I tried to achieve this through vivid, accurate detail."

Jephte's Daughter tells the story of Batsheva, a young woman from a prosperous Orthodox Jewish family in Los Angeles, when she is transplanted to Jerusalem following a marriage arranged by her father to a Talmudic scholar who turns out to be abusive. She must escape with her son to seek a new life. "Despite eloquent writing and vivid characters," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic, the story "falters under convenient plot machinations that compromise the full development of its religious and emotional themes." New York Times Book Review contributor Katrina Blickle noted that while the portrayal of Batsheva is "sympathetic and realistic," the novel fails to overcome "repetitive, breathless prose … ridiculous plot … and sophomoric theologizing." In contrast, a Kirkus Reviews assessment described Jephte's Daughter as an "emotionally potent book" that is "written with welcome, no-nonsense clarity, and resolutely surely sure of its subject matter."

Ragen' second novel, Sotah, "continues her exploration of orthodox Jewish life in [a] story of a woman accused of adultery," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. The woman, Dina, lives among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem; as a result of the accusations, she leaves for New York. "This readable, but at times simplistic novel … [is] a stronger work of fiction than Jephte's Daughter," determined a Publishers Weekly critic, who praised Sotah's ability to hold "the reader's attention throughout." According to Rapport reviewer John R. Carroll, Sotah "is rich … rich in history, rich in characterizations, rich in details and rich in [religious] tradition…. [outlining] for the non-Jew a world that may seem foreign and distant, but remains very very real." Carroll wrote: "One does not have to be Jewish to appreciate Dina's story." According to Ragen, this is the ultimate compliment.

Ragen once explained to CA her goal in writing: "Bruno Bettelheim wrote in Surviving the Holocaust that ‘this ability of our imagination to suffer with and for our fellow human beings is the best, possibly the only protection against another catastrophe such as the one Hitler's Third Reich brought about.’ A novel that reaches out to readers and draws them into an alien culture, a new environment, allowing them to exercise and extend their compassion toward fictional characters is a humanizing experience. If my work has achieved that even once with even one reader, I'd consider it a success."

The Sacrifice of Tamar, Ragen's third novel, once again expounds on her belief that, as a Kirkus Reviews contributor reported, "fulfillment can be found outside the rigid boundaries of community but within the teachings of the commandments." In this story Tamar, a married Orthodox Jewish woman, is raped by a black man and subsequently becomes pregnant. Unsure if the rapist or her husband is the father—her child was born with white skin—Tamar discloses the attack only to two close woman friends but is plagued by her secret for decades. "Despite an awkward, self-conscious opening, this rewarding novel gradually endears itself to the patient reader," remarked Glen Gerhart in Rapport. Gerhart called the novel "a satisfyingly poignant story…. a chronicle of the moral and spiritual quest we all must make," but noted that at times Ragen's extensive discussion of religious and cultural customs interferes with her storytelling. A Publishers Weekly critic also found this aspect of the book tedious and complained that the novel presented few new revelations about the "insular and provincial world that she has chosen to portray." The reviewer concluded that Ragen's "plots are becoming hackneyed" despite her being "an able storyteller" and her facility for dialogue. A Kirkus Reviews contributor summed up The Sacrifice of Tamar by calling it "cliché-ridden and predictable, but also strangely affecting."

Ragen's The Ghost of Hannah Mendes is a historical novel in which a dying woman named Catherine de Costa, prompted by the ghost of Hannah Mendes, sends her granddaughters in search of a medieval manuscript that once belonged to the spirit but has vanished. While the two girls split up to accomplish their task, they ultimately reunite, having learned of their own Sephardic Jewish roots and gained an appreciation for their heritage. Readers learn of the life of Hannah Mendes through the girls, as they develop a full understanding and appreciation for the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Ragen also succeeds in weaving together past and present in an intriguing tapestry that helps to illustrate the ways in which current times rely on the actions of one's past. In a review for Library Journal, contributor Barbara Maslekoff remarked that "Ragen … beautifully articulates what Jews must do to survive in every generation." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly stated that Ragen "succeeds in driving home her message about the value of hanging onto cultural identity through maintaining a connection with history."

In her next book, Ragen mines her own childhood growing up in a diverse housing project in New York, telling the story of the Markowitz family. Patriarch David, a Russian Jew who lives with his wife and children in New Jersey, believes that being American means becoming successful, so he uproots his family and moves them to a less expensive New York housing project so that he can funnel his money into his new business as a cab driver with dreams of managing an entire fleet. However, a new acquaintance cons him into bad investments, and David ends up losing everything, ultimately dying abruptly during surgery and leaving his family destitute. Ruth, his widow, is left to fend for herself and to raise their three children alone, trying to instill the good Jewish values she believes are important while still keeping their heads above water. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews found the book "more a detailed portrait than a riveting tale of a family caught in the undertow of a fatal obsession." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented of Ragen: "Working with familiar characters, plot and setting, she crafts a comforting if somewhat shopworn tale of family, hope, religion and the dark side of the American dream."

The Covenant combines history and modern-day politics in a carefully woven story of promises and community unity. During World War II, at Auschwitz, four women swear to be loyal to each other and to always come to each other's aid if it is in their power, if only God lets them survive the horrors around them. Many decades later, one of the young women, Leah, now living in America, gets a frantic call from her granddaughter Elise, who is living in Israel. Elise's husband Jonathan and their daughter Ilana have been taken hostage by militant Arabs. Leah turns to the women whom she relied upon so many years before and calls upon their covenant in an attempt to help her grandchild. Marika Zemke, writing for Library Journal, called Ragen's book "a fast-paced thriller that eerily echoes reality." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews remarked: "A deft mix of past and present, the story's as much political thriller as conventional tale about the ties of family and friendship."

In The Saturday Wife, Ragen tells the story of Delilah Goldgrab, a young woman whose Personality very much fits her last name—she desires wealth and prominence. She succeeds in marrying Chaim, a young rabbi, and then, disappointed with his quiet congregation, manages to convince him to apply to take over at a far more upscale synagogue, known for its wealthy Members. However, the parishioners are also a troublesome lot, divided in their attitudes, and Chaim has bitten off more than he can chew in seeking to guide them in religious matters. In turn, a healthy number of the congregation turn against Delilah, seeing her for what she is and not at all impressed with her false piety. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews remarked that "for the non-Orthodox crowd, the scandals will seem tame, but the culture exotic. For those enmeshed in Ragen's culture, this book may stir up some controversy." Booklist reviewer Barbara Bibel declared: "Ragen tells this story with insight and humor" and dubbed her effort "Jewish chick lit with a message."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, June 1, 2007, Barbara Bibel, review of The Saturday Wife, p. 42.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1988, review of Jephte's Daughter, p. 1559; August 1, 1992, review of Sotah, p. 943; August 15, 1994, review of The Sacrifice of Tamar, pp. 1080-1081; November 15, 2001, review of Chains around the Grass, p. 1574; September 1, 2004, review of The Covenant, p. 831; June 15, 2007, review of The Saturday Wife.

Library Journal, July, 1998, Barbara Maslekoff, review of The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, p. 138; November 1, 2004, Marika Zemke, review of The Covenant, p. 77.

New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1989, Katrina Blickle, review of Jephte's Daughter, p. 28.

Publishers Weekly, October 28, 1988, review of Jephte's Daughter, p. 63; August 31, 1992, review of Sotah, p. 64; September 12, 1994, review of The Sacrifice of Tamar, p. 81; December 17, 2001, review of Chains around the Grass, p. 65.

Rapport, March, 1993, John R. Carroll, review of Sotah, p. 27; May, 1995, Glen Gerhart, review of The Sacrifice of Tamar, p. 21.

ONLINE

Naomi Ragen Home Page,http://www.naomiragen.com (April 5, 2004).