On Relevance and Faithfulness (Or, Tomato, Potato)

As I (continue to) procrastinate writing the climax, denouement, and conclusion to my second novel, I’m getting great feedback from specific beta readers. One in particular read Angels just for the Jewish POV and info. Having been raised Orthodox, and gone to yeshiva, I’m no stranger to my religion, but one might be surprised as what can get forgotten over the years. And it’s important that I get this right because I’m realizing that Angels is almost perfectly written to be read by a frum (religious Jewish) audience. There are recurring tropes in how the religious are portrayed (including this movie, the latest involving Orthodox women “trapped” by their religion).

So when she pointed out that she didn’t think the word sheitel [wig] meant what I thought it meant, I was puzzled.

“No,” she said, looking at her iPad notes, “you meant to say tichel [head kerchief], right?”

I engaged in a spontaneous facepalm. And wrote the first of several notes that’ll become part of the next draft of the book.

I might “know the rules,” but not having lived the life, conflating the two into one word, instead of using the two correct words isn’t surprising. And, to a non-Jewish reader, this would fly right over their (presumably uncovered) head. But getting it right, really right, means as much as possible. Like the carpenter who sands and finishes inside corners of pieces even though no one with ever see it. I’ll know it’s the right word, and a religious woman or man reading it will understand and be less likely to snort, think “that idiot doesn’t really know how we live,” and consign it to the misguided Jewish lit pile.

One of my favorite authors wrote a book including scenes in a Temple (which is what non-religious synagogues are sometimes called in America). The names of the rabbis? John, Paul, and Mary. {crickets} Sure, it’s a fantasy novel, and so what if magic was the theme of the scene, but still: why get something basic wrong if you can help it?

Being faithful to the culture respects it, its members or adherents, and, ultimately, respects the reader as well. Because a writer wants to suspend disbelief only as much and for as long as necessary to make the scene work.

To get more info on the wig/kerchief issue, check out Rivki Silver’s blog post on sheitels, and this whimsical but accurate post regarding tichels by Andrea Grinberg in her store’s, The Wrapunzel, blog.

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