On November 15th, we will release Perle Besserman’s latest offering, Yeshiva Girl Stories. A collection of linked stories, Yeshiva Girl explores the little-known world of American Orthodox Judaism from a young girl’s perspective. A feminist coming-of-age story paralleling the experiences of Chaim Potok’s yeshiva boys, Besserman’s collection depicts the limited intellectual and social expectations, and stunted future promise, of precocious girl-children like Pnina, who, from her earliest days in a strictly orthodox, all-girl yeshiva (Jewish parochial school) finds herself first questioning, and gradually rebelling against, family constraints as she seeks to forge a new identity in the secular (gentile) world outside her community before ultimately coming to terms with her own.
Perle Besserman’s books have been translated into over ten languages. Her most recent books of creative non-fiction are A New Zen for Women and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger. Perle holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. She currently divides her time between Honolulu, Hawaii and Melbourne, Australia.
When asked what inspired her forthcoming work, Yeshiva Girl Stories Perle reflects:
I’ve been writing and publishing Yeshiva Girl stories over the years but didn’t think of collecting them into book form until recently. The immediate stimulus was a piece I read in the NY Times about the Taliban-like assault on an eight-year-old orthodox Jewish yeshiva girl on her way to school by a gang of ultra-Orthodox men on a Jerusalem street. Although she was dressed according to orthodox standards: long sleeves, long skirt, no bare skin showing, these guardians of female Jewish “modesty”
took it upon themselves to enforce their own stricter version of the female apparel code by beating and spitting on the child. Something visceral stirred in me on reading this piece, something I’d long set aside (or so I thought) or creatively worked out of my system through my writing. Though based on my own experiences growing up in a “modern orthodox” home, Yeshiva Girl is not a memoir but a picture of what life was like for so many of the girls and young women I went to school with: burdened with shame and guilt merely for being born female, yet at the same time obliged to fulfill the schizoid standards of a patriarchal religion demanding that God’s damaged female creation achieve an oddly Jewish form of sainthood by negating herself for Eve’s sin. Not that there are any saints in Judaism, but something of the Christian penchant for martyrdom—especially of women—must have seeped through the cracks in the doors of their Jewish neighbors. After all, blossoming from the same root, living so closely for centuries on the same contested turf, how could it have been otherwise?
The eponymous narrator of these linked stories, sometimes called Pnina, sometimes Penny, sometimes Annie, is actually a compilation of traits and experiences set mostly in post-World War II Brooklyn but varying in places, times, and settings that reflect the girl’s fluidly changing identities. Anachronisms abound from story to story; the same characters appear in different guises, only to die or disappear and reappear on the stage of a drama perpetually under construction in the mind of a girl prone to “overdramatizing everything,” as her childhood best friend sees it. And truly, in this world of heightened tension, overseen by a volatile God perpetually poised to punish the slightest infraction of His Law, can this girl child be blamed for doing so?