The Marrying of Chani Kaufman
A Novel by Eve Harris
So, I’ve spent the past few weeks knee-deep in the Frum (Orthodox Jewish) world. That’s basically what Eve Harris’s The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was. It took me forever to read this. I’m usually a speedy reader, and this? This I had a hard time picking up. It’s not that it was a bad book; it just lacked any excitement for me.
Harris depicted the insular and oppressive world of Orthodox Judaism in England in modern times. This could, however, be anywhere: London, Brooklyn, Jerusalem, and really, nearly any time period as well. I myself am Jewish, and found myself rather familiar with much (though not all) of the terminology – often in Yiddish form. However, I imagine if you weren’t familiar, the glossary at the back (especially in e-book form) did little to help you decipher certain things.
Judaism has three basic levels (though there are others as well): Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. I grew up reform, though live rather secularly, while still maintaining an active role in the Jewish community. I don’t observe Shabbat. I eat pork. I don’t fast at Yom Kippur. I DO eat bagels and lox with friends and family to “break the fast” of Yom Kippur. I do know how to read Hebrew and I do partake annually in a family Passover seder. We have a Christmas tree. We also have a menorah. I married a Catholic and will be celebrating Jewish and Christian holidays. (My point here is that not all Jews are this strict. And like most religions, not everyone who defines themselves as a certain religion is always going to follow the typical or popular path or the one you think of when you think of that religion – if you are reading this, none of this is probably news to you.)
ANYWAY, back to the book. The novel wends unevenly through time around the courtship (the 3 or so requisite dates prior to engagement) of Chani and Baruch. At the same time, we delve into the inner sanctum of Rebbetzen Zilberman, the Rabbi’s wife; also known more familiarly as Rivka. She has just miscarried and instead of being cared for by her community, she is, more or less, socially shunned; to be whispered about and mocked. Her husband, Chaim, is not nearly as supportive as he should be because his role as Rabbi has strict codicils, that he prioritizes over his wife. We learn of Rivka’s and Chaim’s non-Orthodox history and conversion into this world. We eventually go down a path (I was relieved to see this) of her questioning whether this is the life for her going forward.
Chani and Baruch themselves, while giving all hints of continuing to lead a Frum life, don’t play by all the rules. I have hopes for them not to fall into the trap that the Rebbetzen did. Though I wish Harris explored this more thoroughly.
If Harris wanted to give an equal voice to the Orthodox community, I don’t think she did. It mostly (though not entirely) painted a grim, confining, and demanding community. For me, orthodoxy of any stripe: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheism, and so on, is suspect. I don’t follow rules unless I see the virtue in them. I believe what I want to believe and I want to be able to question. This is not the case in Harris’ (and I am pretty sure much of the rest of the Orthodox world). Though, I can say I know of variants of Orthodox Judaism that are less stringent, they are called “orthodox” for a reason.
I just don’t know what I think of this book. It showed a slice of life not often showed. Harris brought the characters to life quite well, painting this world with terrific colors that brought you right into the fold. But beyond that, I found it wanting. I found the bouncing point of view occasionally jarring, and all-in-all, the story was a bit boring.