CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 31. . . .April 11, 2014
The World Outside.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2014.
232 pp., hardcover & ebook, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88776-981-8 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-88776-982-5 (ebook).
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Jenice Batiforra.
"Are you learning with Yossi just because of me? Don't you see the beauty and the rightness of what he's trying to teach you? It's the Rebbe's wish that he reach out to you!"
He stood up and faced me. "I can see what Yossi is doing, but mostly I just want to see you."
He must really, really like me, sang my brain. But then I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. I had to make him understand somehow, for his own sake.
"Don't you see that Yossi is teaching you what Hashem wants for us?"
"I realize that your beliefs come from your heart," said David. "As do Yossi's. It's my religion too." He leaned toward me. "But your lifestyle isn't for everybody, Chanie. It's beautiful and pure, but it's not for me. I couldn't follow all your rules and regulations. I don't even want to."
"Hashem wants us to! Living a Torah life binds us closer to G-d, to Hashem. Nothing is more important than that." As I said these words I felt at peace, whole, as if I were a frothy wave in a vast and beautiful sea.
He stepped so close that I could see every pore on his face. "There's more to life than you know, Chanie," he said. He pointed toward the City, toward the faint outline of the tall buildings straining toward the sky. "There's more out there than you can imagine. There is music there! Think about it. Music!"
And, for a moment, I did think. I thought of a world full of possibilities. A world full of sound. But then I moved away from him and was back in Prospect Park.
Chanie Altman is a Lubavitcher Hasidic girl living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In 1991, Chanie is 17 and chafing beneath the restrictions of her faith. Having lived an insulated life, she longs to see what is outside of Crown Heights. While the rest of the country is ushering in the Grunge Era and is held in thrall by Nirvana, Chanie is restricted to Avraham Fried and religious music. She longs for more: to understand the pain behind Rigoletto's voice, to read non-religious texts, and, most of all, to sing in public. When she meets David, a non-Hasidic Jewish boy, she begins to make tentative steps out of Crown Heights.
Rather than exploring the world outside, as the title suggests, Eva Wiseman provides a glimpse inside the lives of teenaged Lubavitcher girls. Told through the first-person narrative of Chanie, the secular world and its freedoms are described in sharp contrast to Hasidic traditions. Wiseman frames Chanie's laments as those that any teenager could relate to - chores, curfew, and arguments over clothes and music. However, the reader can't help but sympathize with Chanie given how conservative her transgressions are: singing a religious hymn in front of a family friend; reading Jane Eyre; buying a dress with transparent long sleeves; and meeting David at a public park. Furthermore, the reader will likely side with Chanie when she argues with her mother as Mrs. Altman's harsh rebukes are often illogical and inconsistent, at times sounding like a narrow-minded shrill. As Mrs. Altman pulls the reins ever tighter to make Chanie conform, Chanie pushes the limits of the rules imposed upon her by exploring secular books and entertaining thoughts of a future outside of a married life and seminary school.
In The World Outside, Wiseman tacitly asks the question as to why one would choose to live in a fundamentalist community. While religious communities are often portrayed in the media as extremist societies that oppress women, Wiseman explores the subject with respect. Instead of shying away from the pervasive and, at times, controversial influence of religion over daily life, Wiseman supplies a cast of characters to give Chanie a well-rounded reflection. Through Chanie's interactions with her older brother Moishe and her mother, Wiseman expresses the sense of belonging and close familial bonds that tie Lubavitcher communities. Mrs. Altman can be forgiven her harsh words given how her generosity of heart and love for her family shine through her actions: reaching out to a neighbour during a tragedy; the devotion with which she cares for Moishe and Baba; and her absolute will in protecting her daughter. Baba is a Holocaust survivor, and her memories of Auschwitz remind Chanie of the tragedies that Jews suffered in order to practice their way of life. In Yossi, one can see that Lubavitcher men are just as restricted as women as their adult lives are devoted entirely to religious study.
Meanwhile, Chanie's friendships show the tension between the Lubavitcher community and the world outside. Through Chanie’s outreach work with Devorah Leah and Faygie, readers learn of what is expected from Lubavitcher women: modesty, a life separate from men and a committed abandonment of worldly things to make the Torah the centre of their lives. Chanie's friendship with Faygie disintegrates as she becomes friends with Jade, a young African-American woman from Boston. Her relationship with Jade makes readers aware of the rising tensions between the African-American and Lubavitcher communities in Crown Heights. Chanie's foray into the secular world finds its entry with David, a non-Hasidic Jewish boy. It is through her budding romance with David that Chanie expresses her love of music and her desire to pursue studies at Juilliard. It is also through her time with David that readers see Chanie's strength of character and intelligence as she reflects upon her religious beliefs and finds the voice to both question and answer her own doubts.
Wiseman's prose is clear and honest. So honest at times that I had to put down the book as her portrayal of Lubavitcher life frustrated me to tears - particularly when Chanie would ask questions about why something is done in a particular way, only to be told (essentially): “You don't need to know why - only that it is forbidden." Yet, despite these frustrations and however much I disagreed with some of the opinions expressed, I found the novel to be meaningful and heartfelt. Wiseman voices Chanie's doubts and questions critically but gently whilst beautifully describing the Altman family's faith in their beliefs and their reverence for their traditions as well as the peace and sense of belonging that one feels when they feel whole.
Jenice Batiforra was previously a Branch Head Librarian at the Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, MB.
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