A review of the debut novel The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

The Story: 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! Her poor background and outspoken curiosity seem to make her unsuitable. That was until 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. As Chani prepares to take the plunge into adulthood and married life, she can’t get any straight answers to what is in store for her, not from her mother, and not even from their Rebbitzen. What’s more, there are secrets lying beneath the forced order of the Golder’s Green Jewish community.

My Review:

Cover art courtesy of http://www.groveatlantic.com/

Cover art courtesy of http://www.groveatlantic.com/

Beneath all the tradition, special dress codes, prayers and strict rules for almost everything, lies a community that lives and dies, eats and sleeps, works and rests, loves and hates almost just like any other. This is what Harris is attempting to portray through her large cast of characters. These include Chani with her large and struggling family (eight daughters) and her fiancé Baruch with his wealthy and snobby one. We also get two other major characters. These are Avromi, the son of the rabbi, and Avromi’s mother, the rabbi’s wife, known as the Rebbitzin. Avromi’s story is that he’s been attending a real university to read Law, where he falls for a non-Jewish girl and has an affair. What he doesn’t know is that his parents have an almost equally scandalous past. They were both secular Jews, who fell in love when they met in Israel and while searching for meaning in their lives, they eventually became Haredi.

All this just means that we have several stories 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 this wasn’t interesting, because it actually was – I was just a touch disappointed that so many of these other elements kept upstaging Chani and her story.

Another thing that bothered me about this book was the “born again” Jews element. I know that chozrim betshuva are the second-class citizens of the Haredi community. Yet here, they were practically among the elite. 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 secular pasts a secret. The last thing that didn’t sit completely right with me were a few instances where Harris included things that were particularly Sephardic in what seemed to be a generally an Ashkenazi community. However, my London born, previously orthodox husband tells me that this isn’t very unusual, and that there the lines are more blurred between Sephardim and Ashkenazim than they are here or in the US. What’s more, this novel will probably be daunting to those unfamiliar with the Jewish ultra-orthodox world. In fact, some secular Jews might not understand many of the colloquialisms included here, either. Thankfully, the end of the book has a good glossary to help the clueless (a huge disadvantage for the eBook version readers).

Despite all this negativity, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this book. I actually found almost all of the characters to be sympathetic. What Harris has given us is 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. Even though Harris gives us so many of them as being central to the story, they all were well fleshed-out and realistic. Furthermore, Harris writes in a very engaging style that feels personal, even with the third-person point of view. I can recommend this book if you’ve ever wondered about London’s ultra-orthodox community, as this novel is a good 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.

NG Apple_NetGalley Health Rev 3The Marrying of Chani Kaufman” by Eve Harris was published by Grove Press, Black Cat (a division of Grove Atlantic) on April 1, 2014 (available on iBooks). I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

(This is a revised version my review which originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Voices.)