No one writes about observant Jews as well as Naomi Ragen, and her new novel, “An Observant Wife,” follows Leah Howard and Yaakov Lehman, a story that Ragen began in “An Unorthodox Match.” This sequel, which works as a stand alone book, begins with their Orthodox Jewish wedding, where we learn a lot just by reading that Leah’s mother, wearing a red dress with shockingly high red patent leather heels, walked her up the aisle. To say the least, Leah does not come from an Orthodox background.
In the first chapter, Ragen gives us what we need to know to understand the family dynamics of the Lehman family. Yaakov’s first wife, Zissele, died shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. Scandalously, she killed herself after suffering from severe postpartum depression. Both Yaakov and his mother-in-law feel much guilt about not having gotten Zissele the treatment she needed, mostly because of fear of the community response to someone being hospitalized for mental illness. Yaakov’s new wife, Leah Howard, was not born to an Ultra-orthodox family. To the contrary, her mother ran away from her conservative Jewish family and raised Leah with no religion, no rules, and little guidance. As a result, Leah searched for a place that would allow her to celebrate her desire to be close to God, and she thinks she’s found it with the Ultra-orthodox Jews in Boro Park, and with Yaakov, a good man with impeccable morals with whom she’s fallen in love. She also fell in love with his children when she babysat for them to help in the household while Yaakov was at temple studying.
This story centers around three women: Leah; Shaindele, who is Zissele’s seventeen-year-old daughter; and Fruma Esther, Zissele’s mother, who still sorely misses her daughter. Each of the three will have to make difficult decisions over the course of the novel about what is the right thing to do, whom to trust, and how to go on after doing things they each regret. Most of the problems that the three must endure result from the insular nature of the Boro Park Ultra-orthodox Jews. While Leah had envisioned a special place where because of their special relationship with God—clearly demonstrated by how the community scrupulously follows all of God’s rules—her eyes are opened to the fact that the Jews of Boro Park are just like Jews everywhere. And Jews everywhere are just like people of all religions everywhere. Some people are good, moral, just people who are kind and loving and generous. Others are petty, vindictive, gossiping, and cruel. Boro Park and the Ultra-orthodox community are no different from other places Leah had lived.
But as we read about each woman’s struggle, we learn that they all feel loneliness, doubt, and a desire to be loved. We also see that family and the love they have for each other can, indeed, conquer that which is negative and seeks to destroy the family. Ragen’s writing is incisive, and her commentary about religious Jews is often quite revealing. She shares with us through Fruma Esther’s eyes the difference between a man’s funeral and a woman’s funeral. ‘Unlike a man’s funeral, where one could go on and on about all the public offices and communal activities of the deceased, when a woman died, the relatives had to be content with talks praising her “modesty, hard work, and love of Torah.”‘ We learn that the best one could say about a departed woman is that she never said a bad word about anyone. “Silence was a virtue for women, as well as not rocking the boat.” Fruma Esther wonders what will be said about her, and thinks that the best eulogies are from the grandchildren who were spoiled by their grandmother. Children, on the other hand, were not spoiled but rather raised with rules and stern regulations as were necessary to keep them from straying, so their grief was “perhaps more conflicted.”
The three women represent three different generations, and each woman’s problems are unique. Shaindele is still suffering from the loss of her mother and fear that she will suffer the same depression her mother did. Both Shaindele and her grandmother are slowly learning to overcome their prejudice at Yaakov marrying an outsider, because while on the surface, the Ultra-orthodox Jews welcome newcomers, the hidden fact is that the outsiders are never seen as “real” Orthodox Jews no matter how scrupulously they adhere to the regulations and rules — perhaps because of how hard they try. What Ragen forces us to consider through the journey that Yaakov and the three women in his life take is this: at what point do we take a stand for that which is right even if we know that we will personally suffer as a result of that stand? We also are forced to conclude that no matter where we live or what religion we practice, the absolute power of those who are in charge of any religious group is easily corruptible. Whether Jew or Catholic or Muslim, power corrupts. We’ve seen evidence of that in the news, and while the Ultra-orthodox don’t often make the news, we can be assured that they are no different.
“An Observant Wife” joins the list of Ragen’s books about Jewish life that will stand the test of time and become classics. They stand as a testament to the fact that we are all alike, no matter the religion we practice or, indeed, how stringently and strictly we practice that religion. We all suffer from prejudice, even the biases of those in our own religion, if we choose to show our devotion to God in a manner different from what is prescribed by a sect or organization. Freedom of religion? Or should that be freedom from religion — to practice, or not, one’s devotion to a higher being as one chooses. As a wise man once said, we learn a lot about truth and morality through fiction, and this book has much to teach us.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.