From the publisher:
In this rich and compassionate novel, An Observant Wife, Naomi Ragen continues the love story between newly observant California-girl Leah and ultra-Orthodox widower Yaakov from An Unorthodox Match.
From the joy of their wedding day surrounded by supportive friends and family, Yaakov and Leah are soon plunged into the complex reality of their new lives together as Yaakov leaves his beloved yeshiva to work in the city, and Leah confronts the often agonizing restrictions imposed by religious laws governing even the most intimate moments of their married lives. Adding to their difficulties is the hostility of some in the community who continue to view Leah as a dangerous interloper, questioning her sincerity and adherence to religious laws and spreading outrageous rumors.
In the midst of their heartfelt attempts to reach a balance between their human needs and their spiritual obligations, the discovery of a secret, forbidden relationship between troubled teenage daughter Shaindele and a local boy precipitates a maelstrom of life-changing consequences for all.
I didn’t realize that this was the sequel to An Unorthodox Match until I started reading it and the characters seemed familiar. I loved that book and I was happy to revisit Boro Park and see how Leah and Yaakov were doing. It is unnecessary to read An Unorthodox Match to enjoy this book, but it does give a better perspective of their lives leading up to their marriage.
Leah and Yaakov are Orthodox Jews living in a part of Brooklyn that is a community of people just like them. Except that Leah wasn’t brought up Orthodox; her mother shed the rigors of that life and Leah grew up in California. But when everything in her life goes bad, she seeks refuge in this strict community where they are supposed to welcome those who have “returned” to orthodoxy. The reality is that maybe the rabbis treat her that way, but her neighbors do not. They are suspicious of her different upbringing, and rumors abound.
But Leah loves Yaakov and his children. She loves her Orthodox life, for the most part. She isn’t thrilled about not having sex for half the month, though. This is actually the first time I’ve seen Orthodox sex discussed. I found the “rules” and explanations fascinating. That said, there are no sex scenes in this book. The closest it gets is when they push the twin beds together.
The oldest boys have been sent to study at a Yeshiva and live with their uncle in Philadelphia. The eldest at home is Shaindel, a fifteen year old who is not thrilled with her new stepmother. The first wife suffered from debilitating post partum depression, and the way this Jewish community handled it contributed to her death. This has greatly affected Shaindel, while the younger children are babies and not really aware. They love Leah, and Leah tries hard with Shaindel, and they form a fairly good relationship.
But Shaindel has a rebellious streak, and when she sees the principal’s son working at a kosher pizza place, she starts hanging out there everyday after school. The boy is good looking, and he notices her. He convinces her to meet him after dark in local parks, and they do some kissing and more, which is completely unacceptable in this community. The boy has been thrown out of his father’s school, he is not a good kid. In this society, boys and girls do not talk, touch, and are never left alone. Matches are arranged for them, usually when a girl is 18 or so. They meet, they marry – more or less.
When the school finds out, they threaten expulsion. Shaindel wants to be a teacher like her mother was, and is devastated that a stupid mistake could bring such shame. But Leah defends her and convinces the principal to let her remain. He agrees but only if she will go see a counselor of his choosing. The man he sends her to is Hassidic and very well respected. But when Shaindel goes, he makes her very uncomfortable, to say the least. He is a sexual predator, and how the family and the community deal with that is at the heart of this story.
I really like Naomi Ragen’s books, I like learning about the different culture she writes about. Even though I’m Jewish, I am not Orthodox, so it is a lifestyle much different from my own. Ragen is a terrific storyteller, and the story and these characters really drew me in. If you haven’t read her, this is as good a place to start as any. That said, I think her best books are her older ones, particularly The Sacrifice of Tamar and Jephte’s Daughter. They should be available at your local library.
9/2021 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
AN OBSERVANT WIFE by Naomi Ragen. St. Martin’s Press (September 14, 2021). ISBN: 978-1250260079. 352 pages.