The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
Grove Press, Black Cat; 2014; 384 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
“Her feet on firm ground once more, Chani lost herself to the delights of dancing. She forced herself to jump and whirl and spin and jig and clap even though the weight of the dress proved cumbersome and exhausting […]
She was safe her amongst the women. Her mother shuffled forward to dance with her and Chani slowed down to accommodate her. Her mother’s paws dripped with sweat making them difficult to grip. They rotated as a gentle pace. Her mother’s eyes were warm and bright and when the time came for them to part, Chani did not want to let go.”
In The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, debut author Eve Harris provides a sharp, insightful look into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of modern-day London. Throughout the novel, the unfamiliar is explained, the author detailing observances such as Shabbes, the mikveh, and sitting shivah. For these brief pages, the reader is granted access into the world of Chani Kaufman and Baruch Levy. The view is unrestricted at times, and yet one often feels like an intruder, an observer only, permitted to enter a shul or visit the Wailing Wall just this once.
The novel centers on the marriage of Chani and Baruch, a union begrudgingly agreed upon by Baruch’s parents and supported by Chani’s parents; the local matchmaker, Mrs. Gelbmann; and the Rabbi Zilberman. Becoming engaged after only four dates, both Chani are Baruch are hopeful yet unsure of what to expect in their new life together. Meanwhile, the Rebbetzin, the Rabbi’s wife, questions her own purpose and marriage to Chaim, whom she fell in love with in Jerusalem in 1982.
Not originally Orthodox, the Rebbetzin slowly starts to resent her husband and his confining beliefs, mourning her loss of independence. She chooses, at least momentarily, to leave her husband, her family, and her Orthodox lifestyle behind in favor of a life she may select for herself.
Writes Harris: “She [the Rebbetzin] fell into a fitful sleep in which she dreamt of her husband and children. They were walking down Brent Street, coming towards her, but they made no sign that they recognised her. She called out to them but they remained deaf to her cries. They walked straight past her as if she were a ghost.”
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is ultimately a novel about choices. For the ultra-Orthodox community, some of these choices appear predetermined. Most Jews within this community do not question their religion or its practices. But for others—Chani; Baruch; the Rebbetzin; and her son, Avromi—these choices remain unclear. This novel asks questions about tradition and faith in the face of modernity. These are questions Chani—arguably the liveliest character in this novel—and her husband Baruch must ask themselves.
Entertaining and thoughtful throughout, the novel only occasionally offers overly explicative dialogue or text. Other reviewers have already likened Harris’ work to Jane Austen’s. While this is an overstatement in some ways, it is not an entirely unfounded one. Harris offers a biting yet refreshing look at ultra-Orthodox Jewish culture. The result is a highly inviting text, one that will provide new insights to readers, even if these insights are provided by an outsider looking in.