Novelists, more often than not, are tourists in their own stories. They travel to unfamiliar places and commit minor transgressions, from comically butchering the local tongue to ignoring the customs and traditions of the place they’re visiting. The ugly tourist, the one with very little regard for the place they’re visiting, only impressed by the scenery and the exoticism of someplace unfamiliar, has a literary match in the ugly novelist: one who picks a place or culture for their own artistic gains and totally fails to write an adequate representation.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is a complex world that has long been a source of fascination for outsiders, as well as one that has been repeatedly misrepresented in print. The only way to adequately understand this closed-off world is to be truly be familiar with it; in order to write about the ultra-Orthodox community, one must to do the research, observe their ways, and grasp their lexicon.
As a teacher in an all-girls’ ultra-Orthodox school in England, author Eve Harris was granted a great deal of access to the world she writes about in The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. As a result, she took what she knew and learned and turned it into the rich and warm story about 19-year-old Chani Kaufman’s march to stand below the chuppa.
The thing about ultra-Orthodox Judaism is that hardly anybody completely understands it as a whole, as there are so many different groups and sects. Are you Black Hat or Hasidic? Are you a Lubavitcher or a Satmar? These questions might be a little easier to understand if you have any familiarity with the Jewish world, but differentiating between the groups and understanding their worlds is a herculean task. Harris smartly doesn’t get caught up in a lot of the semantics, instead relying on a somewhat unspecific corner of the ultra-Orthodox world set in the quaint London suburbs where Chani resides. Harris as a writer would have done herself a disservice trying to enlighten her readers about the community, a pitfall many writers before her have fallen into; instead, she wisely sticks to telling the story of Chani and the people around her, making the book simultaneously relatable and unfamiliar. It’s a tough balancing act, but Harris pulls it off.
“How could she bleed from down there each month? The thought was making him nervous.” Chani’s husband-to-be Baruch wonders this to himself while contemplating something that is totally unfamiliar to him: the female body. Although the couple are soon to be wed, they’ve only met a few times, and due to the Orthodox laws of modesty, both Chani and Baruch are babes in the woods when it comes to sex, as well as the opposite sex. This type of old-world prudishness that is so important to their people has been a source of ridicule and misunderstanding so many times in the past — arcane traditions that even the most conservative among us might not totally understand. The niddah laws that forbid a husband from touching his wife while she’s menstruating and the ritual of the mikveh bath to cleanse oneself aren’t dwelled upon; Harris eases these things into the story, explains them with a storyteller’s touch instead of launching into a sociological exploration, and moves on.
The book unfolds backwards, telling us about the time leading up to the wedding, as well as the backstories of the Rabbi and Rebbetzin (the rabbi’s wife) who are helping to advise the young couple before, during, and after their marriage. The marriage isn’t without its complications, as Chani is different. In the ultra-Orthodox world, different isn’t always great. She’s smart, headstrong, and self-aware. Chani doesn’t exactly take on the world, challenge the system, or do anything that out of the ordinary; she, like her future husband, is simply curious about the “modern” world (a term many ultra-Orthodox to describe the world the rest of us live in). She knows and understands tradition, and Harris doesn’t write her main character to be an iconoclast. Chani is, instead, a smart woman in a world where most women are relegated to birthing child after child and maintaining a household while the husband makes the money, studies the Torah, and prays. Chani isn’t a revolutionary; she is a deep and wonderful character with whom the reader can’t help but connect. She lives in a world that might be unfamiliar to most, but with the help of a writer of great ability like Eve Harris, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is the type of novel that ventures into an unfamiliar place with the ease of a seasoned traveler.