She heard the men singing. Their shouts of ‘lai-lai-lai!’ rolled down the dusty synagogue corridor. They were coming for her. This was it. This was her day. The day her real life started. She was nineteen and had never held a boy’s hand. The only man to touch her had been her father and his physical affection had dwindled since her body had curved and ripened.
Chani Kaufmann, brought up in a large impoverished Jewish family in North West London’s large orthodox community, has become engaged to gauche and bookish Baruch, despite the not-so-subtle sabotage attempts by his socially-ambitious mother. She is nervous and exhilarated by the idea that marriage would actually lift the “bell jar’’ under which she lives her life, or at least, having someone to share it with.
Eve Harris’s debut novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann , is essentially two stories running in parallel, occasionally merging before going their separate ways again. For Chani is not the only one struggling to understand and conform to the strict religious and social mores of orthodox Jewish life. The Rebbetzin, Rabbi Lieberman’s wife, has been instructing her in the rites and obligations of marriage, but the process revives painful memories of her own romance and introduction into the Jewish life in Jerusalem and gradually makes her question everything about the daily rhythms of life that have directed her for years. For her the “drug of spiritual bliss’’ had worn off.
Her husband remains the good and kind man she had married the “model Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) husband’’ but that is no longer enough. For her nothing about her life is “real” any more.
Although most of the story is set in London, the lives Harris describes are every bit as alien to the average reader as if she were writing about a foreign country. We are excluded by the strict cultural and religious rules, even the language, as effectively as any visa or passport control. There is little, if any room for compromise. What little individualism is allowed is strictly for behind doors, and then usually only when the witness is your husband or wife.
For Chani, a large shopping centre is her “earthly paradise’’, her “portal through which she peered at the wider world … What was it like to roam freely in the world and not have to think about your every action and its spiritual consequence?”
The basic storyline of The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann is not new but Harris does effectively create the almost cloying sense of suffocation that exists in the close-knit community. One of the most agonizing sub-stories is of Avromi, Rabbi Zilberman’s good, devout, son, the dedicated scholar, the one destined to become a rabbi. He is tested almost to personal destruction after falling in love with a non-Jewish girl at University. His agony as he is torn between the physical and emotional attraction and the sense of doing what is right, what he lives as and lives for, is palpable.
There are some lovely vignettes too, most surrounding the forthcoming wedding night. Chani and Baruch’s fear over even the most basic aspects of sex is a touching, often funny, antidote to today’s more common tell-it-all (indeed, sometimes tell way too much) approach. And it is their ultimately optimistic view of their future together that provides a welcome, lingering element of hope.
On a picky note, Harris sometimes struggles to integrate the actual language of Jewish life into the narrative. The explanations can prove a slightly irritating interruption. And she’s prone to occasionally drift off into banal descriptions (Chani’s mind ‘’boggled’’).
I can see what attracted the Man Booker judging panel to The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann and why it was included on the long list. But I’d be surprised if it makes the cut when the short-list is announced later this month.