From the publisher:
An Unorthodox Match is a powerful and moving novel of faith, love, and acceptance, from author Naomi Ragen, the international bestselling author of The Devil in Jerusalem.
California girl Lola has her life all set up: business degree, handsome fiancé, fast track career, when suddenly, without warning, everything tragically implodes. After years fruitlessly searching for love, marriage, and children, she decides to take the radical step of seeking spirituality and meaning far outside the parameters of modern life in the insular, ultra-orthodox enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn. There, fate brings her to the dysfunctional home of newly-widowed Jacob, a devout Torah scholar, whose life is also in turmoil, and whose small children are aching for the kindness of a womanly touch.
While her mother direly predicts she is ruining her life, enslaving herself to a community that is a misogynistic religious cult, Lola’s heart tells her something far more complicated. But it is the shocking and unexpected messages of her new community itself which will finally force her into a deeper understanding of the real choices she now faces and which will ultimately decide her fate.
I am Jewish; a Reform Jew. My parents were Jewish, my mom had little or no religion in her upbringing, my father was brought up Orthodox. He left that behind as soon as he left home. My own upbringing was sporadic Judaism at best. My son lives in Crown Heights, parts of which pits the Modern Orthodox contingent against the Lubavitch Chasidim. Growing up in NY, I am somewhat familiar with these groups. I am familiar with some Yiddish, but not to the extent used in this book. No worries, there is a lengthy glossary at the end of the book, and most of it you can figure out by the context, or it is translated on the page for you. That said, this felt like the most Jewish book yet from probably the most popular author of Jewish family fiction. According to the acknowledgments, Ragen spent a year in Boro Park doing her research and writing this book. The authenticity cannot be denied.
Just an observation: after reading the digital galley and then seeing the cover, I can tell you it is wrong on more than one level. But who cares, it’s only the cover.
Lola leaves behind her mother and her name and becomes Leah, a frum (devout or pieous) Jew. Her journey to this point is fraught, and she questions a lot. But once she starts volunteering to help this recent widower’s family, one thing becomes certain; Leah loves these children, at least the younger ones. The teenager is resentful and hateful, not a big surprise. Leah doesn’t meet their father for quite some time, and meanwhile, the local matchmakers are hard at work, setting her up on dates (shidduch) with one sad loser after another. Jakob is having the same spate of bad shidduchs. Leah is considered “Baal t’shevah,” meaning one who has returned, because she wasn’t a practicing Orthodox Jew until adulthood. There are lots of rules, and one of the most important, and most ignored, is to accept converts and those who return as if they are even better than those born to the religion. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it is explained thoroughly, as are many of the rites and rituals of ultra-Orthodox Jewish life. If you’ve ever been curious about it, this book should satisfy that curiosity.
It slowly becomes obvious that Leah and Jakob belong together, but it takes most of the book for them to get to that point. An ultra-Orthodox romance precludes almost everything typically found in a romance novel. Ultimately, this is a story about family and love, in an unusual setting. There is some humor, and lots of drama, making this a very engrossing read. Ragen fans, (and I am one,) will love it.
10/19 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
AN UNORTHODOX MATCH by Naomi Ragen. St. Martin’s Press (September 24, 2019). ISBN 978-1250161222. 336p.