At its heart, Eve Harris’ The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a love story. 19 year old Chani Kaufman has never had a boyfriend but must now marry a man she barely knows. Fortunately, she and future husband Baruch are actually attracted to each other, and the conflict has more to do with his disapproving mother and both characters’ apprehension about the wedding night, rather than with any actual distaste for the marriage. Parallel to this story is that of the rabbi’s wife Rivka, who is charged with training Chani how to become a Jewish wife and yet who begins questioning her own decision to leave behind her own relaxed religious background and adhere to the strict rules of her husband’s. Can Chani and Baruch overcome both his mother and their nervousness about sex and relationships to find true love? Can Rivka reconcile her love for her husband with her growing discomfort with his way of life?
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was referred to by its publisher as an Orthodox Jewish Pride and Prejudice, and while Chani and Baruch never actually went through the will they/won’t they love/hate cycles that made Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s romance so popular, they still face opposition from family due to class differences. Both books also take a somewhat bemused perspective of their characters’ societies, employing sharp wit and gentle humour to present the foibles of various social traditions. One big difference though, and the reason Chani Kaufman perhaps falls short, is that while Austen seemed fully immersed in her society and her pointed jabs at its conventions still reflect the exasperated affection of an insider, Harris’ narration sounds like it’s coming from the outside looking in.
To be honest, I am completely unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism and its customs, and as someone who has taught at an Orthodox Jewish school, the author is certainly far more familiar with this society than I am. So I’ll take her word that all the customs she describes and all the details she includes are accurate.
That being said, there’s an almost gossipy tone in the descriptions that, to my ear, present the customs and traditions as exotic and at points almost absurd, which seems at odds with the insider’s perspective the book purports to present. While reading, I had a strong sense of the characters wanting to break away from tradition, but little sense behind the desire for these traditions in the first place. Characters like the rabbi and ultra-Orthodox neighbours are presented as one-dimensional and unreasonable, clinging on to outdated notions and deaf to any thought beyond their rules.
I grew up Catholic, and while there are many Church teachings I disagree with and certain traditions I’d be hard-pressed to explain to non-Catholics or even to non-Filipino Catholics, part of me will always find a sense of beauty in the intention behind these traditions. It is this sense of beauty that I found lacking in Harris’ novel — traditions were presented with amusement and at times annoyance, but rarely with affection or understanding.
The book is an enjoyable, amusing read, a broad-strokes comedy and light-hearted romance with a nice parallel story of a woman looking for a change in her life’s direction. My only hesitation is that Harris gives the impression of eagerness in presenting Orthodox Jewish culture, a task I fully support, and yet I don’t think she quite pulls it off. It may well be accurate, but I wish it had been presented with more nuance.
Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.