Title: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman.
Author: Eve Harris.
Genre: Fiction, religion, Judaism, romance, family.
Publication Date: 2013.
Summary: Nineteen-year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger. The rabbi’s wife teaches her what it means to be a Jewish wife, but Rivka has her own questions to answer, for back when she had been Chani's age, she made the transition from a care-free secular life to the strict Orthodoxy of being Rebbetzin, the rabbi's wife. Soon buried secrets, fear, and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice; not to mention what happens on the wedding night.
My rating: 8/10
My review: I thought this was a lovely novel, and what I enjoyed most about it is the balance, and the compassionate poignancy with which the author approached every situation and character in the book. It's tough to find a novel about an insular community that is not heavily biased, or in many cases just incorrect. Eve Harris seems to have a deep understanding of the ultra-Orthodox life. She understands those who are unable to abide by the life, despite their best efforts, like the Rebbetzin, as well as those who realize the lifestyle means to much to them, even as they try to leave it, like Avromi.
The only glaring problem I had with this book can probably not be put at the door of the author, and that is atrocious editing. It's hard to believe an editor could let this novel through like this - thousands of missing commas and grammatical mispunctuation, plus an enormous amount of typos. It's disappointing, because a thing like that can really ruin the perception of the book.
♥ Chani nodded and sank deep into the mikveh. She knew that when a woman prays underwater, her prayer flies to HaShem immediately.
♥ Baruch had grown up warm, comfortable and loved. For all his materialism, Mr Levy was a doting father. Baruch appreciated his father's efforts and had never lacked for anything. Nor had he ever wanted for anything. Apart from the freedom to choose his own path.
♥ Marriage was a never-ending business. The young men wore the same dark suits and white shirts, and the same anxious, fearful expression. They sat on the edge of the plastic chair and listened intently to his words. He was a broken record, intoning the same advice each week.
Rabbi Zilberman wanted to lunge across his desk and grab each young hossen by the lapels, look him in the eye, and say: "Love her, listen to her! When she needs you, run to her. Give to her with your whole heart for in time, if you're lucky, she will be more than a helpmate. She will be your best friend. Forget about talking too much to her! Talk to each other all day and all night if you need to. You must give even when you don't feel like giving. For this is what it means to truly love another."
But he restrained himself. Instead he spoke of duty and moderation. And felt like a fraud.
♥ A little longer, that was all he could bear, for to love is to give even when the giving feels like a burden.
♥ He cycled faster trying to outstrip his thoughts. The cold air stung but the speed matched the tumult of emotion coursing through his veins. Her voice reverberated through his head and he heard the halting rhythm of her speech above the roar and grind of juggernauts, buses and cars. Each turn of the pedal pushed the nagging doubts to the back of his mind. He felt like he was flying, encased in his own bubble, protected by the intensity of his feelings for a girl he barely knew.
♥ She didn't think she believed in God, but nor could she fully deny His existence, frightened that when she needed His help He would not offer it. Instead she wandered in a spiritual no-man's land, too cynical to believe fully, yet too fearful to cut herself off completely.
♥ But here at this strange, ancient site, she felt something different. It was as if the Wall was a symbol of - and a connection to - a people. Her people. She hadn't thought of them like that before. The Wall was all that remained of their holy place and she understood then that it was not enough just to survive. One had to return.
♥ Yet there was something here for her in Jerusalem, something that stirred the blood and ignited her senses however much she doubted God's existence. The city throbbed with a thousand different voices, a thousand different yearning souls: Muslims, Jews, Christians. Its walls vibrated with God's names. It beguiled and teased her, revealing a new face here, but then twisting away, revelling in the confusion it caused. Light and darkness. Knowledge and ignorance. These religious Jews in the black garb repulsed and fascinated her. What were they so sure of? What secrets had been revealed to them? She envied their peace and sense of place. They belonged. She had caught a mere glimpse and had been left unsatisfied.
♥ In the midst of the Old City, in the narrow, blood-stained streets that had been fought over for centuries, in the darkness of a musty café, where the tables were sticky with Coca-Cola and the air buzzed with radio static and the harsh rattle of Arabic, he felt at peace. To him, it was the eye of the storm.
♥ Each had their part to play and marriage was a serious business. For a successful match to be struck both families must come with equal goods to the table. Should one basket be fuller than the other, an imbalance would occur and a myriad of awkward situations would result, beginning with the payment for the wedding itself. The bride's family would usually provide, with the groom's side oiling the financial wheels where necessary. But should one side struggle so much as to feel beholden to the other then the wealthier party would influence all future decisions, whether their impoverished relatives liked it or not. It was unusual for a match of such obvious differences to proceed.
♥ Matchmaking was a challenging and exhausting profession. Unaware of their own mediocrity, young people demanded perfection in a spouse.
♥ Little white lies - the currency of diplomacy.
♥ The place stank of stale booze and lost student nights.
♥ Mr and Mrs Levy were lost. Their darling son was malfunctioning and they had no idea what to do. So they blamed each other.
♥ "Shola, I don't want to sound patronising, but when you're ready, you'll find someone else, more suitable and from your own world."
"Maybe, but he won't be Avromi." How would she ever find a boy as unique and fascinating as him? Or as considerate and gentle? She wished she could throw her arms around him, pull him close and dissolve against him, just one last time.
"No, he won't be. But I hope he will allow you to stay as you are."
♥ "When you visit the mikveh after your bleeding has stopped you are performing a great mitzvah: the protection of your husband's soul. To have relations when you are niddah would be a terrible sin, Chani - you would both be considered "kareth" - cut off from HaShem and all things spiritual. You would be lost. When you bleed, the blood you shed is a little like a small death. Instead of a baby growing inside you, your body is empty and it is ridding itself of the blood it no longer needs for the baby's survival and so this blood is considered "tamei", ritually impure; not because it's dirty or you are dirty but because this blood signifies a type of lifelessness, where once it had the potential to sustain life. It is like a corpse when the soul has flown."
♥ She was expected to return to the fold, to carry on as normal. To keep smiling and praying. To return to the mikveh and her husband's embrace. To do HaShem's bidding. What for? What was the point? One was expected to be happy, to celebrate HaShem's presence in all things at all times. The drug of spiritual bliss had worn off and she had little appetite for the next fix. HaShem had His reasons. She had hers.
♥ The woman had stared straight through her. There had been no dawning of recognition, no greeting uttered. The Rebbetzin felt invisible, a ghost of her former self. She drifted on, perturbed yet relieved. Perhaps since she was no longer dressed in frum attire, she no longer existed for her community; they only saw what they wanted to see. In her jeans and loose hair, she was not of their ilk and therefore unimportant, merely another obstacle to negotiate as they progressed along the street. She may as well have been a lamppost. What a strange, blinkered world they inhabited.
♥ He became lost in a sea of Chani. Enmeshed by her soft, slender limbs and silken flesh, he kissed, licked, stroked, fondled, nuzzled and probed. He became only fingers, mouth and tongue. His universe began and ended, marked by the parameters of the small, delicate frame beneath him.
♥ An onlooker could have just made out the familiar rigidity of her back and shoulders under her husband's old raincoat, her hair fluttering as she walked. And then her figure grew gradually smaller until finally she became an indistinct blur, one of the masses, alone in her ordinariness, pursuing her freedom.