Naomi Ragen’s passion for telling compelling stories in her bestselling novels can be traced back to her childhood. At six, living in a housing project with her widowed mother and two brothers, she determined that one day she would write a book about her life – a goal she achieved as an adult in a fictionalized version called Chains Around the Grass.
This month, Ragen was in Toronto, Winnipeg and Detroit as part of a speaking tour, and in Windsor, Ont. as a faculty member for an international writers’ conference. She is best known for her books set in the haredi community, and her email list about Israel, which has 10,000 subscribers.
The 65-year-old Brooklyn-born, Jerusalem-based author, who made aliyah with her husband in 1971, was personable and forthcoming when discussing the differences between her life and that of some of her fictional characters in a recent wide-ranging interview.
“I have the nicest husband in the world!” she exclaimed, raising her hands and shaking them slightly in disbelief at the idea that people sometimes think otherwise, assuming that she’s writing from experience rather than empathy.
Her first published novel, Jephte’s Daughter, the story of a young haredi woman who flees an abusive marriage, was inspired by events in the ultra-Orthodox community that Ragen lived in as a young bride. The story does not reflect her own happy union of 45 years, she emphasized.
Naively, she believed initially that the ultra-Orthodox community would thank her for bringing difficult issues to light. Without acknowledging problems, she explained, “you can’t make progress.”
Ragen, who became observant as a student at an Orthodox day school, said the Orthodox milieu in which her novels are set is her world. “I care about the people in it.”
She believes that three lawsuits against her for copyright infringement are related to animosity on the part of haredim who object to the way she has portrayed their community.
She noted that some haredim are “the most wonderful, open-minded, kind, giving, charitable people” she has ever met, while others are “close-minded and dogmatic and violent and oppressive, and you can say the same thing about every society.”
One lawsuit was dismissed, she appealed another with partial success, and the third was decided while Ragen was here, when she was ordered to pay around $21,000 to Sudi Rosengarten, who had written a memoir about her son’s shidduch.
In the most recent case, Ragen said she based part of one chapter in her novel, The Sacrifice of Tamar, on Rosengarten’s story. “I don’t use more than two or three ideas from her story. I don’t use the language in her story… I don’t think I did anything wrong,” she said. “Every fiction book depends on non-fiction material.”
Her mistake, she said, was not acknowledging that she’d been inspired by Rosengarten’s story at the time.
Ragen, who grew up on the works of Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, and Charles Dickens, said the topics of her books choose her, not the other way around. “They grab me, they hold me by the neck, and they say, ‘You’re going to write me.’”
Writing The Covenant, her 2004 novel about the Hamas kidnapping of a Jewish doctor and his young daughter, was particularly difficult for her. “I did not want to write that book,” she said, recalling the anguishing week she spent with her friend and neighbour, Esther Wachsman, when Wachsman’s son Nachshon was kidnapped, then murdered in 1994.
It became clear that Ragen could not avoid the topic after she and her family survived the Passover massacre at Netanya’s Park Hotel in 2002.
Speaking to The CJN the same day as the recent Har Nof synagogue attack, Ragen said there can be “no answer” until Palestinians give up their weapons when entering Israel, and are re-educated to stop hating.
Despite an erosion of hope in the years since she moved to Israel, she said there is still “a thread of normalcy that I think is stronger than any incitement.” Just recently, she noted, she saw an Arab man and a man with a kippah, together with their children at a park, interacting and laughing and smiling.
Although she often writes about bleak situations, as an Orthodox Jew she believes there is always hope.
Her 2013 book, The Sisters Weiss, which just came out in paperback, is the story of two haredi sisters who take divergent paths. “I talk about how this tears families apart, and what a tragedy that is, and how it’s not necessary.”
Her next book, which she expects will be published in November 2015, addresses the issue of cults in the haredi community. Related news stories involving abuse of children horrified her, and inspired the book. The book – like all her books – represents “an attempt to understand why these terrible things happen, and what we can do to prevent them.”
For a reader, she believes, a book should “leave you a different person. You’re supposed to know things about life, and about yourself, that you didn’t know before.”