To some, the eighties might be remembered as a time of big hair, big shoulders, and Molly Ringwald pouting on movie screens across America. For me it was all those things—as well as a time of great upheaval in the community in which I was raised.
Rain pelted my hair as I stood at the funeral for Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on March 23, 1986. Throngs of souls stood for hours, paying respects to one of the last great leaders of a generation. His death marked the loss not only of a Torah scholar—but of the traditional Lithuanian leadership of the entire Orthodox Jewish community. Bereft of leadership and afraid of a secular culture that spoke openly about premarital sex, AIDS and drug abuse—there were few leaders to guide normative Orthodoxy through the challenges of living a religious life in a secular society. Without the tools to navigate a seemingly threatening world, thousands of religious Jews worldwide proclaimed a silent retreat to insulate the community from the ills of modern society– to separate and hide.
On October 6, 1943, my grandfather joined more than four hundred rabbis on a march in Washington, to plead with President F.D.R. for intervention on behalf of the European Jews, who were being butchered by the millions. Though his calendar was free, F.D.R. refused to meet with the rabbis, tacitly allowing for the continued wholesale slaughter of my people. Could I live and work in a world that made it clear my people were unwanted? Could I express myself in a world that, at best, tolerated the religion of my birth? The pulsating music of Madonna and the fun Cyndi Lauper squealed that all girls just wanted to have, sparred with my own sense of responsibility to my community. Could I be a Material Girl—when my religious high school repeatedly encouraged a retreat into ascetics, to eschew all material comforts in support of marrying a Torah scholar? Dare I dream to pursue my passion for the creative arts—when only yesterday my people were fashioned into lampshades and soap?
The void left from Reb Moshe’s death saw thousands of Jews mired in fear. This fear impacted my community and I was constantly surrounded by it as I journeyed through adolescence into my adult years. The purpose of dating in such a world was very clear: it existed solely to orchestrate marriages, which main function was to propagate future generations of the Jewish people. Romance was not part of the vocabulary and again as a girl living in 1980’s America, I found myself conflicted. Who in the United States doesn’t marry for love? These experiences served as inspiration for my novel BROOKLYN LOVE, in which Orthodox girls who are dating find themselves in the midst of a culture clash and must choose who they want to be– and how they want to love.
My community’s fear was well justified: We were survivors, or descendants of survivors. But living in fear is killing us, slowly. Through my writing, I have learned that my community must stop their silent retreat from contemporary society and instead open ourselves to the world around us, to our neighbors and learn to balance our traditions with love. This is the only way to grow, the only way to live. The tension between fear and love; traditions and contemporary values drives all of my work.
This is why I write.
A freelance illustrator and journalist, Yael Levy has been published in numerous venues, including The Jerusalem Post during her three-year stay in Israel just east of the bustling capital city of Tel Aviv.
She holds a degree in Illustration from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. But it’s the questioning journalist inside her that has launched a new career in writing literature. Her debut novel Brooklyn Love (Sept. 17, 2012, Crimson Romance) hones in on Levy’s interest in the underlying thoughts and expressions of the Orthodox Jewish culture.
A native New Yorker, Levy currently writes for The Times of Israel about her experiences as a Jewish mother now living in Atlanta. She is also studying for a Masters in Law at Emory University.
For any young woman, it can be hard to follow the rules … especially when you’re falling in love. But for Rachel, Hindy, and Leah, it’s especially hard. Because as Orthodox Jews, they live by a whole different set of rules. No touching a guy—any guy!—before marriage. No dating—unless they are considering marriage—and then, only marrying a man who rates high on their parents’ checklists.
In Yael Levy’s Novel, Brooklyn Love, three Orthodox Jewish women who are caught between crushing guilt of defying their mothers and their desire to be “normal” are there for each other as they try to figure out who they really are … and what they really want.