Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman: Eve Harris (Israel)

19 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. 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…

This delightful mid length book (350 pages) tells the story of seven orthodox Jews, all of whom are interrelated by either marriage or friendship. Baruch, who is the son of Rabbi Chaim, and his wife Rivka sees Chani at a wedding and decides that the two should meet with a view to arranging a match of their own. His mother, the snobbish and irrepressible Mrs Levy, has other ideas, as no woman, least of all Chani, who comes from a less monied background, could ever be good enough for her son. She as the mother knows best. When she attempts to bribe the matchmaker Mrs Gelbman to put her son off, this backfires spectacularly, as Mrs Gelbman turns the tables. She also pressures Chani, who determinedly digs in her heels, in more ways than one, and so against all the odds, the match is sealed.

The other characters are Avromi, the groom to be's best friend, who stifled by his orthodox upbringing enrols at a secular university. He soon embarks upon a relationship with a non Jewish girl who introduced him to more secular ways. Torn by his conflicting emotions, he ends the relationship and enrols instead in a religious college in Jerusalem. Then there is the Rabbi (Avromi's father), who is to officiate at Baruch and Chani's nuptials, and his wife Rivka. We see flashbacks of their life together in Jerusalem where they met as students and their gradual move towards orthodoxy with the restrictions that this brings, most of all to Rivka.

The wedding eventually goes ahead, with both parties very nervous about the wedding night, as neither (unlike the groom's best friend, or as it turns out his parents before they married) have any knowledge about sex. Predictably it is a complete disaster, but out of that disaster comes communication and understanding, which eventually leads to freedom. These three words are if anything, the theme of the book, for each of these like the characters themselves are inter related. As Baruch and Chani, and indeed Chaim (the Rabbi) and Rivka start to communicate honestly and openly about what they both want and expect from the other, an understanding develops, which ultimately leads to freedom for both of them.

Although I know a little about the lives of orthodox Jews, having been to Israel twice, this provided for me a fascinating insight into their world.

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