Sects and Sex in Religious London

18467798This debut novel by Eve Harris, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Grove, $12), climaxes on the wedding night of an innocent young couple, though it’s set not on Chesil Beach in the sixties but in the frum community of London’s Golders Green neighborhood in 2008. Here 19-year-old Chani Kaufman stands “like a pillar of salt, rigid under layers of itchy petticoats” awaiting her equally chaste and untried groom Baruch Levy, whom she has met just four times on dates arranged by their matchmaker and their mothers. Like McEwan’s newlyweds, both are ignorant about the facts of life, and their wedding night is nearly a disaster.

But in this compulsively readable novel, we don’t get to the wedding night until 300 pages later, because Harris brilliantly circles back to the circumstances of Chani and Baruch’s courtship, weaving in the story of the peripheral characters who serve as foils to the young match. Chani is the fifth of eight daughters in a poor rabbinic family, a girl who has had trouble meeting the right man because of her “liveliness”; Baruch, born into a rich and illustrious family, is bound for a prestigious Jerusalem yeshiva. Baruch’s mother, the formidable Mrs. Levy, cannot bear the thought of her son marrying a girl beneath his station and stops at nothing to thwart the marriage, even ambushing her future daughter-in-law in a non-kosher café. Meanwhile, Chani is under the tutelage of the rabbi’s wife, Rivka Zilberman, whose own marriage is falling apart in the wake of a devastating miscarriage — in one of the novel’s most tragic and hilarious scenes, the neighborhood women rush to cover Rivka’s head as she lies on the stretcher bleeding: They can’t bear the thought that the rebbetzin’s hair is uncovered in public, but the medics are equally horrified that they are pulling a sheet over the head of a woman who is still very much alive! Flashing back to her own courtship in Jerusalem of the 1980s, when Rebecca-turned-Rivka fell in love with her husband and with Orthodox Judaism simultaneously, the novel explores the pull of religious faith and its sometimes frightfully fleeting hold — not just on the rabbi’s wife, but also on her son Avromi, who attends university against his father’s wishes and falls into bed with a half-Nigerian girl named (not Shula but) Shola.

Harris is a master at blending humor and pathos, innocence and daredevil spunk. She does not shirk away from tackling some of life’s greatest challenges headlong in her prose: the death of a toddler, a crisis of faith, a collapsing marriage. Though set in a similar world as Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience and Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman offers a more engrossing, ambitious, and sophisticated glimpse into the dating scene in religious London, where marriage and money, sects and sex, and religion and rebellion are inextricably intertwined.

 Ilana Kurshan works in book publishing in Jerusalem.