Naomi Ragen’s new work is a brave and thoughtful sequel to her popular novel, An Unorthodox Match. That book dealt with the phenomenon of ba’ale teshuva—formerly secular Jews who adopt the strictures of Orthodoxy — and their often-fraught interactions with the FFB (“Frum From Birth”) crowd. The protagonists are Leah (once called Lola), a vivacious California redhead now living in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and Yaakov, an Orthodox widower and father for whom Leah babysits. Despite general shock and disapproval, Leah falls in love with both Yaakov and his children, particularly the two youngest, still toddlers (there are five in all, including two yeshiva boys who live away at school, and Sheindele, a moody, vulnerable teenager). Reciprocating her feelings, Yaakov exits a period of despair and begins life anew — or attempts to.
In An Observant Wife, we follow Leah and Yaakov through their first years of marriage, made difficult not only by life’s usual travails but also by the ultra-Orthodox community’s refusal to accept the vivacious, loving Leah as a legitimate member of their tribe. They watch her every move, tutting at each perceived mistake (are her stockings too thin? Her sleeves too short?) and delighting in gossiping about her occasional missteps. The pressure of their judgments dampens Leah’s newlywed joy:
She hurried, trying not to allow hatred to fill her heart
as she looked at the strangers passing her by, the people
who either ignored her or looked her brazenly up and down
and finding fault…She felt besieged and friendless among
This malevolent group shunning is a recurrent theme in the novel, affecting not only Leah but her husband and his children. Indeed, for each mistake (or perceived mistake) Leah makes, the matrimonial prospects of Yaakov’s children diminish. Sheindele, meanwhile, is ruining her own prospects by secretly meeting with a boy without a formal shadchan brokering the match.
As Leah’s challenges begin to include helping Sheindele, the plot thickens. We encounter a seedy “therapist,” sanctioned by Leah’s school and the Hasidic community that refers all “rebellious” girls to him. When this predator’s behavior around Sheindele becomes questionable, we learn about the harsh insider politics that seem to demand that such abusers be protected from criticism and the law.
Amidst these polarities, the qualities that stand out most in Ragen’s book are her commitment to fairness, honesty, and bravery. While clearly loving the textures of haredi and Hassidic life, and revering the principles behind most of their practices, she persistently questions the lapses in ethics that at times besmirch these communities. Whether policing trivial behavior (such as dancing to pop music, even at home), judging outliers harshly, or protecting a predator, Ragen sees nothing spiritual about these behaviors. She boldly exposes them, questions them, and — through the characters of Yaakov and especially Leah — forces us to see that it is not only the non-Orthodox who have to make teshuvah.
Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford graduate, is the author of five books, including the acclaimed “second generation” memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, and the novel, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, People and The Chicago Tribune, she is currently working on a novel about the Zohar, the mystical source of Jewish transcendence.