Igniting A New Genre: Orthodox Romance
By Rochelle Maruch Miller
For Yael Levy, writing a romance novel about dating within the frum community was perfectly natural. Having dabbled in shadchanus in her own Orthodox neighborhood, she had experienced firsthand the intricacies involved in the dating culture, with many a story to tell.
In Brooklyn Love (September 2012; Crimson Press), the author delicately weaves some of these tales into a charming work of fiction she hopes will give those readers unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism some insight into our culture.
Brooklyn Love is a story about mothers and daughters in the Orthodox community. Brooklyn comes alive through the eyes of 19-year-old art student Rachel Shine and her friends, all searching for love and wanting to pursue their dreams while trying to remain true to their rich tradition.
All that Rachel’s mother wants for her is to see that she marries well. This is where the rich, Columbia University-educated lawyer comes in. The problem is, Rachel has already found her bashert, but he is a rabbi. Although Rachel clearly shares her soul mate’s altruistic convictions, her mother is convinced a struggling rabbi can never give her daughter the security she deserves.
Hindy has always envisioned being married to a Torah scholar; the problem is, she is attracted to an appealing Orthodox young man whom she works with. How long can she continue saying no when her heart says yes? Will she be able to adhere to her values despite her growing attraction to her colleague?
Leah dreams of becoming a doctor, but her mother insists she study computers, despite Leah’s lack of interest in that field. A struggling immigrant, Leah’s mom harbors preconceived and fixed notions regarding the course to success and marriage—which does not include any of Leah’s wishes. Will Leah persevere, despite her mother’s objections, and follow her dreams?
Author Yael Levy beautifully walks the fine line between giving a fair look at her own beliefs and cramming each page full of romantic drama. It is a simple story of three girls breaking free. Ms. Levy writes with a light touch and an authentic sensitivity to the unique nuances of Jewish life. With wide crossover appeal to teens and their mothers, fans of Pride and Prejudice will find a new story in Brooklyn Love where family status determines a woman’s choices.
A freelance illustrator and journalist, Yael has been published in numerous venues, including the Jerusalem Post, during her three-year stay in Israel just east of the bustling city of Tel Aviv.
She holds a degree in illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology. But it’s the questioning journalist inside her that has launched a new career in writing literature. Her debut novel, Brooklyn Love, homes in on her interest in the underlying thoughts and expressions of the Orthodox Jewish culture.
Charming and congenial, Yael Levy shares her thoughts with the 5TJT.
RMM: What inspired you to write Brooklyn Love?
YL: I was writing freelance articles for City Lights, the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine, when my editor asked me for an article on how Orthodox Jews date. I realized I couldn’t do the topic justice in just one article. I had to write a book. It took four years to write the first draft—when my kids were asleep early in the morning and late at night—another four years to rewrite and polish my craft, and six years to learn about the business.
RMM: Are any of your characters based on anyone you know?
YL: Although it is fiction, the characters and stories are based on the community I grew up in. Many people and true events inspired the creations of my characters . . . but more in a communal sense; no one character is modeled after anyone specific. I knew I did a good job of re-creating my community when a friend of mine mentioned she saw Hindy (a fictional character) on a train and wished there were more people like her in the world. (There are! They just tend to be more modest and go under the radar!)
RMM: You were also an ex-pat in Israel. How did that experience influence your writing?
YL: Though I moved to an Orthodox community in Israel, the cultural nuances were different from Brooklyn. I felt alienated and was able to take a step back and compare and contrast the New York experience to the life I was living in Israel. The flip side to feeling lonely [and yearning] for what I knew was experiencing the wholeness and lack of narcissism living as a Jew in a Jewish country. It was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before or since. It made me think that historically, all great Jewish communities outside of Israel eventually wane, if not disappear. While currently vibrant, New York Jewry will probably go the way of every other community in the Diaspora, and I felt compelled to commemorate the experience of a certain culture at a specific time and place.
RMM: Like The Secret Life of Bees, the book has crossover appeal to adults in addition to teens. Who do you hope to reach with the story?
YL: While the context and rules of the world are different in Brooklyn Love, most of the themes and issues are universal. I hope people with different outlooks will enjoy comparing and contrasting the world I’m showing in the book to their own. Women interested in how different communities deal with love and marriage, or how a culture based on rabbinic Judaism differs from their communities, might enjoy this book.
RMM: You thank your father for his stories, told during Shabbat meals. What were those stories like?
YL: Wow! That question could get me in a lot of trouble! My father retired as an auditor for the State of New York, so I’m not at liberty to share those stories (while we didn’t hear names or specific details, the experience of seeing the world through an auditor’s perspective certainly influences my work, especially my next book, a light romantic romp with a touch of mystery, Starstruck.)
I loved to hear the stories about growing up Orthodox in Williamsburg with his four brothers during WWII. It was another world! Or his haunting recollections of Holocaust survivors moving into Williamsburg after the war. Or his hilarious stories about dealing with nudniks. His best stories revolved around how he dated and married my mother. The Shabbat table can be an incredible forum for imparting life lessons and values to the next generation in a fun and loving way.
RMM: Are the messages you learned at the Shabbat table the same you’re hoping to share in your books?
YL: Ideally, I’d like readers to come to understand Orthodox Jews not as the “others” as portrayed in misleading headlines, but as people with much of the same yearnings, dreams, and feelings as everybody else!
I also feel it important to note that while certain similarities exist across observant Judaism, every Orthodox community is different. I didn’t, for instance, portray Chassidic or Modern Orthodox communities, because the dynamics, especially pertaining to dating and marriage, would be expressed differently than the community described in Brooklyn Love.
Orthodox Judaism is often all lumped together in the media. But the observances and cultural nuances could be as varied as, say, an Amish lifestyle might be from a Catholic or Southern Baptist.
RMM: Brooklyn Love is leading a new genre of contemporary romances about Orthodox Jews. Is that the genre your upcoming book Starstruck fits as well?
YL: Starstruck is a very different book! While they both have Orthodox characters, Brooklyn Love is a thoughtful, nuanced book which introduces readers into that world, while Starstruck is pure entertainment, like a Jewish take on Tina Fey’s Date Night, a funny, romantic romp with a bit of a mystery. But yes, even though they have such different styles and context, they both fit into the genre of contemporary Orthodox romances. v