Monday, April 14, 2014

An Intimate Look at the World of London's Ultra-Orthodox

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris


If Chani Kaufman doesn't find a husband soon, it may be too late. Although she's only 19, that is a fact of life in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community! But so far, no one thinks she's suitable, mostly because of her outspoken curiosity, which has landed her in trouble many a time. Then Baruch Levy saw her, and was immediately smitten and determined to meet her. When he does, he is undaunted by her spunk, her lack of money or any objections from his family. But as Chani prepares to take the plunge into adulthood and married life, she can't get straight answers out of her mother, and the training from her Rebbitzen (rabbi's wife) isn't any more enlightening. What is in store for Chani and what secrets lay beneath the forced order of the Golder's Green Jewish community? This is "The Marrying of Chani Kaufman" by Eve Harris.

This novel might seem a bit daunting to those readers who are unfamiliar with the ultra-orthodox Jewish world. In fact, some modern Jews might not understand many of the colloquialisms included here, either. Thankfully, the end of the book has a good glossary to help those who will feel almost immediately clueless. (This will be a huge disadvantage for those reading this novel on an eReader, as it will be very inconvenient to flip back and forth.) But if you can get past all that, what Harris has given us a peek into a world that is so closed off and isolated, you wonder how these people can even exist in this century. Yet exist they do, despite how terribly clueless they all seem to be about so many things, because in some areas they're very adept at surviving and even thriving. You could think of it as the Jewish version of the Amish, and you wouldn't be all that far from the truth.

But beneath all the tradition, special dress, prayers and strict rules for just about everything, lies a community that lives and dies, eats and sleeps, works and rests, loves and hates almost just like any other. And this is what Harris has attempted to portray through her characters. Aside from Chani with her large and struggling family (of eight daughters) and Chani's fiancé Baruch with his wealthy and snobby one, we also get two other major characters. These are Avromi, the son of the rabbi, and his wife, known as the Rebbitzin. Avromi's story is that he's been allowed to go to a real university to read Law, and he falls in love with a non-Jewish girl and has an affair with her. That's something beyond the pale for anyone in the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) world. What he doesn't know is that his parents have an almost equally scandalous past. Although both are Jews, they were from secular homes. They met in Israel where they fell in love and together, they slowly became more and more religious.

So in reality, we have several stories this going on in the book, and you might wonder if there isn't a little too much. This was my first problem with this novel. What I was expecting was the major focus to be on Chani and her getting married. In fact, the focus veered away from Chani through large portions of the story, and at one point I wondered if a better title for this novel would have been "Chani and the Rebbitzen." Not that all that all this isn't interesting, because it actually is - I was just a touch disappointed that so many of these other elements kept upstaging Chani and her story.

One of the other things that bothered me was that, most "born again" Jews aren't usually looked upon too favorably within the Haredi community. But this can be somewhat overlooked, if we take into account that these two spent many years in Israel before returning. This is the only way that they could have kept their pasts a secret. The other thing that didn't sit completely right with me were a few instances where Harris included things that were particularly Sephardic (meaning, from the Spanish/North African Jewish culture) in what seemed to be a generally an Ashkenazi (meaning European Jewish culture) community.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy this book. I actually found almost all of the characters to be sympathetic. Despite so many of them being central to the story they were mostly well fleshed-out and realistic. Furthermore, Harris writes in a very engaging style that feels personal, even with the third-person point of view. However, there were some sub-plots and minor characters that could have been eliminated or at least played down. All told, if you've ever wondered about the ultra-orthodox community of London, this is certainly a novel I can recommend as a primer for that world. I think that Harris has made a very good first effort here, and she deserves just a bit more than three out of five stars.
"The Marrying of Chani Kaufman" by Eve Harris published by Grove Press, Black Cat (a division of Grove Atlantic) on April 1, 2014 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This review originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network and on my Times of Israel Blog. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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