The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann by Eve Harris
Published in 2013 by Sandstone Press
My copy: Library
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 book follows Orthodox Jewish families in north London as they prepare for the marriage of Chani and Baruch – two virtual strangers. Alongside the build up to their marriage, we get a few flashbacks and find out more about the lives of other characters, mainly the Rabbi’s wife, who is finding herself struggling in her own marriage.
Although I’m not religious myself, I am interested in the cultures and traditions of others, and this book was a real eye-opener and taught me a lot about the conservative values of ultra-Orthodox Jews in North London. The novel is told from varying viewpoints, so we see how the strict aspects of this culture affect a range of characters.
Told with humour throughout, this story mainly focuses on Chani and husband-to-be Baruch, who find themselves on the verge of marriage despite being virtual strangers. They know nothing about each other – or what to do with each other on their wedding night, which is a theme that runs through the novel.
I found this a really interesting book which taught me a lot about this particular community. The regimented way of life can seem stifling, but there is a closeness among the family members which is touching at times. I also liked the author’s use of language, which was littered with Yiddish words, giving the book a very authentic feel – and helped greatly by the glossary at the back! I loved the juxtaposition between the orthodox Jews and the grimy streets of North London (which is where I grew up) and you can see how there is a certain tension between the Jewish community and those around them – especially the young people who stand out in certain parts of the city in their modest and traditional clothing. The story is told in a very humorous way, and their are also some quite comical characters, including Baruch’s mother who disapproves of the marriage and tries a variety of ways to stop it happening.
One problem I did have with the book was that I did think that Chani and Baruch were perhaps a bit too naïve – Chani is 19 yet knows nothing at all about sex, and even says at one point that she doesn’t know why Christmas is celebrated. Perhaps this was simply an accurate reflection of just how isolated and protected the Orthodox Jewish community is, but it did seem somewhat extreme to me, especially as the characters are growing up in London so must be exposed to some aspects of real life. I also felt the book was perhaps a little too long and could have been edited down a bit to keep the story flowing better.
Also I think it is important to mention that this book was criticised by the Orthodox Jewish community as containing a lot of inaccuracies about their religion, so it may be that this is a very extreme portrayal of the culture.
Despite this, I still found this a really interesting and enjoyable read overall.