Naomi Ragen first brought us “Jephte’s Daughter,” which is listed as one of the hundred most important Jewish books of all times, and now with “An Unorthodox Match,” she pulls back the curtains on the insular lives of the New York Ultra-orthodox communities, and how people, no matter their apparent piousness, are the same everywhere. We meet Leah Howard, a woman brought up like many Jews (myself included), with no formal Jewish traditions and a decided lack of any real religious training. Her mother literally ran away from her parents and their conservative Jewish lifestyle, and Leah was raised with total freedom from religious strictures.
However, raising a child with that kind of total freedom doesn’t provide a child with a sense of power. Rather, children who have no limits to their behavior often don’t know what to do and how to behave, and as a result are less secure and more anxious than their “traditional” counterparts. Leah is no different, and she had longed for tradition and rules her whole life. So now, wanting to enter the ultraorthodox community of Boro Park in Brooklyn, she is hoping for the sense of security and peace that living a life devoted to God’s word would provide.
We also meet Yaakov Lehman, a widower whose grief over his wife’s death a year earlier is driven by many factors, not the least of which is guilt. With five children to care for and days spent learning and interpreting Torah, he doesn’t know how to manage his children, their household, and the bills. Ragen tells Leah and Yaakov’s story through a third person narrative that is perceptive, emotional, and empathetic. We really like both Leah and Yaakov, and we want them to be happy in spite of several forces that are uniting to keep them apart.
Leah’s past causes much suspicion on the part of the Boro Park haredi (Ultra Orthodox Jews). They don’t trust newcomers and believe that as easily as they pick up the coat of orthodoxy, they will shed it when it becomes inconvenient to follow the strict rules and regulations. We learn that when it’s time for young people to get married, they don’t go out on dates to meet kids their age of the opposite sex. Instead they rely on matchmakers, highly specialized people who, for a fee, will set up meetings between like-minded people. However, the matchmakers also investigate the families and backgrounds of those looking to get married, and only the finest families with the purest histories will get the best matches, that is, those with a groom who comes from a wealthy family and who is planning on Torah study instead of working, and a woman whose wealthy family is willing to support their daughter and her family so that the groom can spend his days hard at work interpreting the words of God and rabbis and scholars.
Leah is in her 30s, and her life has had its share of tragedies; Yaakov is in his 40s, and likewise has experienced tragedy. They meet because Leah offers to help the Lehman household when Yaakov is at work as a Talmud scholar. Leah babysits the two youngest children, who grow to love her, and she cooks and cleans their home. Yaakov’s oldest daughter, Shaindele, however, is hostile and resistant to Leah. She understands how Leah’s outside status could harm the family’s reputation. And in this community, a family’s reputation is virtually more important than anything else.
Ragen helps us observe the discrimination that exists even in such communities, and that while Leah and Yaakov are pious and sincere, their affection for each other is not so easily consummated. Will they be able to overcome the gossip and possible retribution that being together might cause? We ponder the answer.
Read “An Observant Wife” to keep updated on Leah’s life as a married woman.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by St. Martin Press, the publisher, for review purposes.