By Eve Harris
Black Cat, 371 pages
Long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman” by first-time novelist Eve Harris takes the reader behind the scenes and into the lives of 19-year-old Chani Kaufman, her fiance, Baruch Levy, and Rabbi Chaim and Rebbitzin Rivka Silbermann, who counsel the young couple on the practical and spiritual aspects of their impending marriage.
The story begins on Chani and Baruch’s wedding day but moves backward, tracing the couple’s brief courtship and examining the religious journeys and marital relationship of the rabbi and rebbetzin, who were both raised in nonreligious families.
Harris, who is of Israeli-Polish descent and a secular Jew, was inspired to write the book after she found herself teaching in an ultra-Orthodox girls school in Northwest London — a world that was entirely new to her and unfamiliar to many secular and non-Jews.
Chani and Baruch met only four times before their wedding, and the novel explores their fear and excitement in the days and months leading up to the celebration. Through the rabbi and rebbetzin, who met in Israel during the 1980s, we see what attracted the once-secular Jews to an Orthodox lifestyle and discover the problems that can arise when individuals question or defy their community’s mores.
This is an extremely readable novel with memorable and sympathetic characters. It provides a window into a culture that will most likely fascinate those not knowledgeable about haredi culture.