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13 March 2015

Eve Harris: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Strange story of strange people
I have seen many TV clips of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in black hats, bushy beards and side ringlets but know very little about the religion, especially the role of women. This book opened my eyes to this strange religion and how they live.

In THE MARRYING OF CRANI KAUFMAN Eve Harris calls on her experiences of teaching in an ultra- Orthodox school to tell the story of 19 year-old Chani who lives in an ultra- Orthodox Jewish community in North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, and via a matchmaker she is engaged to be married to Baruch Levy. They have never had a date or kissed and both have little knowledge of marital relationships because sex education was not taught at their schools. All Chani has been told by her mother and mentor is that her wedding night will be painful (which increases her anxiety) and that she must submit to her husband.

Eve Harris takes us into the strange, but mainly peaceful life of an ultra-Orthodox community which basically rejects modern secular culture and lives according to their fairly radical interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. To my eyes it is a bit like having a community of Amish people in the suburbs of London. They shun television as "an open sewer in the living room" and on her way home from school Chani often stops and stares into the window of the local TV retailer.

Women seem to be treated as second class citizens. They follow the religion but can only worship at the Synagogue in the females gallery. Married women must cover their hair and can only show it to their family. There is a touching scene where the wife of a Rabbi is miscarrying and his main thought when she is being taken into the ambulance is to make sure that her hair is covered.

All in all I learnt a lot about this strange religion but I can't say that I was absorbed by the book, especially as the main theme of the book fizzled out with an anti-climactic ending. While the book was longlisted for the  2013 Man Booker Prize I really don't think it deserved that honour. It was well written and easy reading but it rambled a lot and I found myself flipping pages to get to the ending, which, as I said, was anti-climatic.

A few weeks ago I reviewed another book with a religious background - THE FIFTH GOSPEL by Ian Caldwell featuring the Vatican and the Catholic Church and commented that I was not sure if Caldwell wrote it to show an understanding of Catholic religious life or as a criticism of Catholic ways. I find myself in the same position with this book - is it meant to educate people about ultra-Orthodox Jewish life or to highlight the problems of following that faith. My reaction is the latter but I may be wrong.

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