HORRIBLE covers! Thy trivialize a good story. Ignore these covers.
“My Torah is also the greatest,’ said the rav, ‘but those who are mean-spirited have yet to use it.”
In college I learned about Judaism from dear friends. She had immigrated to Israel at 16, he was born on Israeli independence day and had lost grandparents to the Holocaust.
Since then I’ve been fascinated by all kinds of legalistic religions, cultish religions. The more legalism, the more it interests me. Weird dress. Strange undergarments, Bring it. All seem to benefit the men while making women into baby machines. Not fair? Maybe. That’s my view. Amish, Mormons, their off-shoot, the FLDS, Hasidim, far right Muslim, American Quiverfull IBLP/ATI–yes, I’ve studied them all and more. And by “study” I don’t mean I’ve just watched t.v. I’ve dug deep.
I had An Observant Wife on my list of new books for last year, but when I got it I saw it was a sequel, so I sent it back and waited in line for the first book. I’m so glad I did.
Lola/Leah is a young woman who was raised by her single mother to embrace freedom. Her childhood could be summed up as “no rules, just right.” After losing her fiance in a freak accident, she eventually turns to all that her mother rejected–Orthodox Judaism. Not the Hasidim, but the “ordinary” ultra-orthodox Jewish life. Men are scholars. Women work to support them and the many children they will have. A husband who is a Talmud scholar is the be all -end all. Just like having a husband who is a Returned Missionary is a big deal to Mormons. She takes classes for those want to live the Orthodox life but coming from secular or reformed Jewish homes. She learns to dress modestly, to say the prayers, to observe the rituals. And. she learns to stay on the right side of the community’s approval.
Meanwhile in Boro Park, Brooklyn, a widower and his five children are living in grief and chaos. The two eldest sons have been sent to Yeshiva in Baltimore where the father, Jacob’s, brothers teach. Their 16-year-old sister cannot cope with the demands of the family’s preschooler and toddler. Even their Grandmother is exhausted. Leah is recruited as a volunteer to help the family in their time of need. She bonds with the little ones and….. [No Spoilers].
“I understand that you are learning new things, seeing a different way of life and because you are you, you’re full of enthusiasm. But let the mother you think knows nothing and is pretty much useless tell you this: people are just people. Nobody is a bigger saint than the next one; they just hide their true selves better. Sooner or later, you’ll figure out for yourself that this community you’re madly in love with and want so much to be a part of is just like the rest of the world.”
This was such a well-told story! I was captivated from the first chapter. Of course, I’ve needed light, happy, books lately. (No spoilers, but this book does have a dark story line, too), While I guessed the big secret, it did not lessen my enjoyment of this book. Leah’s efforts to adhere to the rules of her new life, her enthusiasm for taking care of the two little ones, and her sympathy for the 16-year-old. were all just what I needed.
People are always saying that religious people are “hypocrites.” Well–of course they are–they are human! But in among that there are many sincere people of all faiths, trying to be better human beings and trying to leave the world a better place. Leah was one of those. I can’t wait to read the sequel.
My only criticisms were that we never found out why there were famed jigsaw puzzles on the walls (and if Shaindele liked the puzzle) and the teenage sons were all but forgotten in the story. I enjoyed this book and can’t wait to read the sequel.
Also by Naomi Ragen
My review from my old blog:
Orthodoxy in any faith puts limits on women and consigns them to the role of wife and mother. In this book, the Sisters Weiss, are ultra-Orthodox Jews. Freedom and happiness or happiness and family? An engaging story that shows how hard it is to be “black and white” in thinking about these questions.