Genre: Literary Fiction
Opening line: “The bride stood like a pillar of salt, rigid under layers of itchy petticoats.”
Chani Kaufman is a 19-year-old bride in an ultra-Orthodox community in London. She has never touched a man before, and she’s both terrified and curious about her wedding night. This book starts on Chani’s wedding day, then back-tracks to tell the story of how she met and became engaged to her soon-to-be husband, Baruch. It’s fascinating to hear about how, even in modern London, there are communities where parents and matchmakers decide the fates of their children. Her story is one of watching the women around her—her sisters, mother, and the Rebbetzin—trying to find her identity, and learning to love someone she’s never met.
The Rebbetzin, the Rabbi’s wife, is another central character in this story. She and her husband converted to Judaism when they were in college in Jerusalem. Really, Rivka did it for him, and for all of these years she’s been living a “frum” life because she loves him. But when she has a miscarriage and they find out that their son has been seeing a secular girl, Rivka questions her faith and her marriage.
This isn’t the most well-written book. The characters aren’t particularly well-developed, though they are very relatable. And yet I couldn’t put it down, mostly because I was curious about the lifestyle portrayed. So many things are forbidden. One woman, Chani, wonders what that forbidden life is like. The other woman, Rivka, knows exactly what it’s like—and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. Deep questions about how we should live out our faith are raised: Is it fair to hold others to our moral standards? What is the benefit of all of the restrictions?
I did feel that the book was one-sided; we didn’t get the chance to hear the stories of any women who were happy in a frum life. But I do think the author did a good job of explaining one of the appeals of a religion steeped in ritual and tradition:
[His faith] came and went, but he found in carrying out the mitzvot, in saying the blessings, it intensified. By doing, even if his belief meandered, he could restore the connection for which he was searching.
That’s exactly why those rituals are in place. Doubt is wearying, and those rituals allow you to rest, heal, and slowly rebuild your faith.
Recommend? No; I suggest instead that you read I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits.