Jepthe’s Daughter by Naomi Ragen, Warner Books, New York, 1989, 368 pp., $18.95.
Once I began Jephte’s Daughter, I knew I had to finish it in one sitting — I sensed the impending tragedy of domestic violence — a story with which I am too familiar. I wanted to see how Naomi Ragen would describe the progression of this disease, and if she could find the happy ending that so many Jewish women seek in vain.
The story begins with the vow of a wealthy man to preserve his family’s rule over a Hasidic dynasty by marrying his pampered daughter to the most brilliant Talmud scholar in Jerusalem. Bathsheva goes eagerly to Jerusalem to fulfill her fantasies of a happy marriage in which she would continue her studies at Hebrew University, explore Israel with her new Leica and discuss Talmud with her handsome husband. Her expectations are quickly dissolved by her husband’s sexual ineptness and cruelty, the unrelenting rigidity of his religious practice and the hostility of his family. Pleas to her father for help are not only met with disbelief, but he extracts from her a promise to maintain shalom bayit (peace in the home), and raise her anticipated child as heir to the Ha-Levy religious aristocracy.
The contrived romantic ending is a sharp contrast to the horror of the beginning. Ragen’s portrayal of family disintegration and community denial is painfully accurate. Many women will identify with Bathsheva’s dilemma; for others, this novel will introduce them to the possiblity of dysfunction in even the most respected Jewish families.
Marcia Cohn Spiegel is a frequent lecturer, workshop leader and participating founder of Alcoholism Advisory Board of Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles.