Normal Like Me: The Backstory| October 3, 2018
For more than a year, Mishpacha readers have followed the gripping saga of a motley crew of broken people wanting nothing more than to belong: Sara’le the shawl lady-turned- skeptic, Itzik the embittered social misfit, and Joe and Bernadine, the Papuan siblings conflicted by the opportunities they’ve been afforded by Western civilization.
With the closing of the serial, Ruti Kepler takes us behind the scenes and shares an inside view of the crafting of and reception to her unique plot and characters.
How did you get your inside information on the Shawl Ladies? Can they really be defined as a cult?
Four years ago, a “Shawl Lady” was shot by police at the entrance to the Kosel, because she panicked and tried to run away when they stopped her for a search. When I read about the incident, I smirked a bit and had this fleeting thought that she got what she deserved for her stupidity. It was subtle, but it was there. And it bothered me. Why did I feel that way?
Then the editor of the Hebrew-language Mishpacha asked me if I’d like to write an article, or a series of articles, about the phenomenon of the Shawl Ladies. I knew I didn’t want to write anything in the nature of an investigative report, trying to uncover the “motivations behind this disturbing trend.” But I had a different idea: I asked for a full-length serial. I wanted to elicit a different response than the knee-jerk “she deserved it.” After all, a gunshot wound isn’t something to be callous about.
So I decided that my fictional Shawl Lady wouldn’t get shot until the middle of the story, after the readers had come to know and love her. Whatever the issues with the group’s philosophy — and I don’t deny those issues — I wanted people to feel for her as a broken individual, not to smirk as I did. I wanted the bullet that scorched her skin and crushed her bones to be painful for the readers, too. That was how it all began.
First I read the leaflets that some of the Shawl Lady groups were distributing. I looked closely at them in the street, and listened to them talking among themselves. Then it was time to take the big step and do a mental switch — to see them as human beings, as individuals, as Sarah, Rivkah, and Leah, not just as “Shawl Ladies” or a “cult.” Only after I changed my perception of them could I get in closer. Together with a good friend, I started going up to women in shawls and asking if I could speak with them. To be honest, my friend asked — I didn’t have the courage. One of them agreed to talk with us, and even brought us into her home.
I want to make it clear that in no way is the story meant to represent the incident at the Kosel. I never spoke with the woman who was shot or with her family. Sara’le is a totally fictional character, developed after conversations with other Shawl Ladies, and with their families. The story is also not meant to excuse or dismiss the truly problematic and at times abusive behavior of some leaders or members.
Certainly, the Shawl Ladies can’t all be lumped together as a cult. There are many different groups who wear the shal, and some women who made that choice on their own, without belonging to a group. They aren’t united under a single leadership. In fact, that is a serious issue — they don’t seem to have any official united rabbinic authority willing to take responsibility for their actions.
Did you get backlash from friends, relatives, and neighbors that you were normalizing something extreme and outside of the consensus?
Yes, I got some negative feedback here and there. Especially at the beginning, before the readers started to connect with Sara’le and get to like her. A friend of mine was all up in arms when she heard I was going to write a story about Shawl Ladies. “Don’t you dare!” she wrote to me. “Don’t you dare make us connect with them or like them!”
Is Papua New Guinea today really as primitive as you present it in the story? Are all the details about the local traditions and culture accurate? How did you access all those details — was it all Internet research, or did you have other sources?
When I built the plot for my story, I was looking for a foreign culture with a traditional community going through a period of crisis in the face of technological advances. I considered the Australian aborigines, but Australia is mostly desert, and I wanted a richer landscape and a more colorful culture than the aborigines. Beyond that, their culture is mostly extinct. So I thought further, trying to find an unfamiliar country that the white man reached only recently (that left out Africa), and that faces an ongoing struggle between the native culture and modernization, with all the problems that entails.
Papua New Guinea was a perfect fit. Yes, it is primitive — very primitive. I asked travelers who had been there to lend me their travel journals. Ohr Ellison was happy to let me have his journal, and Raz Cherblis, who’s a tour guide and Papua New Guinea’s representative in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, gladly contributed his articles, photos, and the video footage he’d filmed there, as well as answering my thousand-and-one annoying questions. (“How do they close a shidduch in Papua?”)
The more I researched this beautiful jungle land, the more it fit into my plot. The Papuan government, in perfect timing with the story, even set up a mobile network along the river in 2015. And by the way, there really are Papuan students studying here in Israel under international sponsorship programs, and they are great admirers of Am Yisrael. And that’s how Joe and Bernadine came into the story.
Just like the Shawl Ladies, the tribes of Papua New Guinea also include many different groups with varied customs. It’s not one uniform culture, but the general picture is the way I described it in the story.
Was it really necessary to include so much detail about these pagan tribes?
I actually saw Joe and Bernadine as literary tools to help us understand ourselves and our own society. Precisely because they are so very different from us, they allow us an outsider’s view of all those things we consider “normal,” without the usual emotional baggage.
Usually, when we try to discuss things like the cost of fitting into society, or the price of technological advances, or the tension between individual identity and public image, the discussions get very heated and don’t often stay on topic. It devolves into “our way versus your way, our community versus your community, our OTD problem versus your OTD problem, our normal versus your normal” — well, actually, I’m not sure about the last one, because everyone thinks they have a monopoly on “normal.”
But when you take all those issues and conflicts and plunk them on a beautiful, quiet island, add a few crocodiles and some exotic face paint, suddenly you can discuss the issues themselves without all the usual emotional baggage.
What happened to Tzadok in the end? We didn’t get any closure on him in the story.
True. That’s because my genre is realistic fiction, not fantasy… and in the real world, people like Tzadok don’t usually achieve closure.
So what’s happening with him now? He’s in and out of the hospital, and he tries to comply with his medical protocol, as much as his illness allows. Sometimes he walks the streets of Jerusalem, singing in his white robe, with a shofar in his hand. And his wife, Miriam, is still by his side. After all, she has five kids at home, and she truly cares for her husband. She might not admit it aloud, but closure isn’t really a realistic goal.
Between the lines of the story you included some criticism of the media, the way they draw conclusions without really getting to know the humans they are describing. Is that the way you honestly feel? Can you explain why or why not?
“A bit” of criticism? I’d say it was a lot of criticism.
A few years ago I interviewed Aryeh Boim, the CEO of the Osher Ad supermarket chain (known as Bingo in America), for Mishpacha, and he said to me, “The media doesn’t report on the current reality — they create a new reality.”
It took me a few years to understand what that meant, and to understand it on a personal level. The way I see it, the output from the secular media — and I’m sorry to say, from some of the chareidi media, too — has nothing to do with the truth, or with what’s actually happening. It’s all about loud, attention-grabbing headlines. The most trivial events get top headlines. That’s not transparency, it’s delusion and distortion. In my story, I took the opportunity to register my own modest protest against this trend.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 729)
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