The Marrying of Chani Kaufman
A Novel by Eve Harris
2013 / 350 Pages
Chani Kaufman is only 19 years old, but she already has major responsibilities. She was raised in a very conservative Jewish family in London, and between her religious duties and her job as an art teacher’s assistant, poor Chani barely has time to prepare for her wedding. Chani and Baruch went on just four dates before he proposed, which is apparently typical of Jewish dating customs, and now Chani oscillates between feeling lucky and blessed and completely terrified. Mrs. Kaufman already has 7 other children to care for, so she barely has time to answer her young daughter’s questions about life and marriage. Chani attempts to gain answers from The Rebbetzin (The Rabbi’s wife), but she has just suffered a terrible miscarriage at the age of 44 and is therefore grief-stricken and preoccupied. Their religious customs prohibit Chani from speaking too openly about intimate things like sex, marriage, childbirth, and birth control, so she must do what the women before her have done – become a wife and figure it all out little by little.
But as the wedding day approaches, we see that it is not just Chani who is frightened by the prospect of rules, regulations, duties, and change. It appears that everyone in Chani’s life – including her fiance – is unimaginably distressed by living against the grain of society. And as we hear from various members of their small orthodox Jewish community, it is apparent that Chani and Baruch are not the only ones who are suffering. It seems that the entire community is quietly aching from the relentless burden of duties, rituals, and expectations.
But upbringings are hard to overcome and harder still to accept. Chani is horrified at the notion of living life the way her parents have – a brood of 8 kids, a boring marriage, and the never-ending duties both at home and within the community. And despite the fact that thriving, bustling London is right on their doorstep, Chani and Baruch must resist the secular world and maintain decorum and composure. As the community’s elders say, the modern world is “not for us.” But you know what they say about forbidden fruit, and it seems that each member of Chani’s community has a few secrets about their involvement in the secular world. Whether it be a forbidden kiss, a non-Kosher meal, or a hidden television, such secrets run a deep well of shame throughout their society – enough so that communication and trust has practically disappeared. Buy Chani is young, curious, and desperate to please her family, so she and Baruch plan a lifetime together without any practical knowledge of marital responsibilities.
Told from various perspectives, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is an eye-opening peek into the lives and responsibilities of conservative Judaism in London. Non-Jewish readers should be prepared for a great deal of Yiddish words and phrases, as well as a casual discussion of religious and domestic customs. Luckily, Eve Harris has included a glossary of terms and phrases so it isn’t difficult to keep up. The novel feels fresh and unique in its perspective, but unfortunately, the themes are all too familiar. Coming-of-age in an oppressive and contradictory environment is extremely challenging no matter the outside forces at play. While it is certainly difficult to grasp the level of self-control and discipline it takes to live in such an environment, Chani’s anxiety, confusion, and discomfort is neither surprising nor uncommon.
Even so, Eve Harris did an amazing job in describing the personal and collective struggle of an orthodox community to be content with their lifestyle in spite of the daily temptations. And while each character certainly has a few secrets to keep, Harris presents a faithful, obedient group of men and women who are devoted to God, honor, family, and rituals. The modern world tends to view highly-conservative religious people as simple, unintelligent, and slightly masochistic, but this novel shows a society of great discipline and self-control, and even greater faith and conviction. Religious upbringing can be an incredibly strong aspect of our identity, and for Chani and Baruch, the challenge is not to overcome their religious identities, but to learn how to merge them – to honor their holy union while still allowing themselves to achieve personal happiness and fulfillment. The examples of marriages in their community do not exactly push the couple toward an optimistic outlook, but youth is powerfully resilient, and if anything, Chani and Baruch have youth, hope, wonder, and curiosity to cling to.
This review was simultaneously published on Typographical Era on 8/23/2013