Eve Harris’s first novel entitled The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a very difficult book to make any comment upon. For myself, I absolutely loved it! However, it is placed centrally in a world of which a great many people will have no experience, and a few more will have had only peripheral knowledge. The front cover is a complete giveaway, which is in itself a very good thing.
This book has a very slight touch of something the author needed to get off her chest; that said, it is at times very funny, at times palpably sad and finally entirely revealing. Quite simply put: it is a novel about Orthodox Jewish life in London, around which the young people in the story are struggling to conform within the mores of their parents and contemporaries; at the same time as trying to make sense of the responsibilities of adult life (Orthodox Jewish families marry very young) and the demands and enticements of the 21st Century.
You have it all here, Chani and Baruch want to get married, they have only glimpsed each other at a wedding. They still need parental consent, Rabbinical consent and the help of the matchmaker…
[Non-Jewish people may not know that at social functions and weddings a mechitzah (often a white cloth) is hung between the celebrating families, dividing the men from the women after the ceremony and it is only during the frantic dancing that is traditional that the young couple, raised by their friends on chairs, see each other over the top; they will not know either, that before the wedding ceremony takes place the groom, his father and the Rabbi will come to the Bedeken Room to ‘view’ the bride to make sure that the bride’s family have not substituted one daughter for another as Laban did with Leah and Rachel. LP Hartley wrote, in The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, well not in Orthodox Jewry – they still check their brides after several thousand years because Jacob, one of their great forefathers, was tricked by Laban into marrying the elder daughter Leah when he had asked for, and intended to marry, Rachel. A mistake for which he was forced to work for Laban another seven years before he got the right girl.]
This is Chani’s story, but it is also the story of the community, the manipulative mother of Baruch and Rebbetzin Zilberman (the Rabbi’s wife) who is also having severe problems. Not only has her older son become involved with a non-Jewish woman, but her own losses have piled up behind a dam of her conformity and suddenly it has all come undone. There are some shockingly painful scenes between her and her Rabbi husband, Chaim, a man who has become more and more rigid in his practice.
On account of its cover, which shows the Seven-Branch Candlestick with the two young people sitting back to back, it is pretty obvious that this is a Jewish story. But it is not a comedic send-up in the style of Berenice Rubens, nor the more satirical approach of Howard Jacobson; this book is a more straightforward look at what life in the Orthodox community is like some of the time. If your only exposure to Jewish life is the BT advertisement with Maureen Lipman playing Aunt Beatie (or was she the grandmother, it doesn’t really matter) then this book will show you a rather different perspective, the mothers may be just as protective and ambitious but their influence is a great deal more powerful. Don’t think, Coen Brothers – A Serious Man, there are some of the same issues but this book is way more blindingly accurate.
I love this book because I have lived and observed all this from the fringes. If you are living this life already then you might learn something if you are very sheltered and quite young, if you have been through this mangle of anxiety and ignorance then there is much for you too, if on the other hand you know absolutely nothing about this way of life this book may lead you to a greater understanding. I was privileged to work in an observant household, I learned a great deal from it. Hopefully through this book, you will too.