An Unortho­dox Match

  • Review
By – August 12, 2019

Read­ing Nao­mi Ragen is like hav­ing a warm vis­it with an old friend, com­plete with tea and rugelach. Whether based in B’nai Brak or Boro Park, her sto­ries wres­tle with the chal­lenges of ultra-Ortho­dox life, as well as its endur­ing val­ue amidst the trends of our ephemer­al world. It would be hard to find a more haimish writer — one who invites us to par­take in Shab­bat din­ners and eaves­drop on jad­ed match­mak­ers — or one more hon­est about nav­i­gat­ing the intri­ca­cies of the Hare­di world.

In her lat­est book, An Unortho­dox Match, Ragen depicts the strug­gles faced by a ba’alat t’shuva —a Jew­ish woman, raised sec­u­lar­ly, who is now drawn to the world of Boro Park’s reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty. Lola was born to an unmar­ried, athe­is­tic moth­er who now cohab­its with an Indi­an Sikh. As a trib­ute to a past sex­u­al rela­tion­ship, she sports a con­spic­u­ous tat­too on her arm. Hun­gry for the bound­aries, mean­ing, and kin­ship of the frum world, Lola finds a kind, wel­com­ing rab­bi, and becomes Leah. She length­ens her sleeves and skirt, dons thick stock­ings, and slow­ly com­mits to the stric­tures of a pious life. When she tries to ful­ly fit in, how­ev­er – to find a shid­duch and start a fam­i­ly – Leah is hurt to dis­cov­er that the world she has been allowed, even encour­aged, to join, will nev­er ful­ly accept her. Match­mak­ers pair her with the obese, the elder­ly, and the severe­ly autis­tic. While vol­un­teer­ing to babysit for Yaakov, a schol­ar­ly wid­ow­er rais­ing three young chil­dren, Leah becomes the sub­ject of hurt­ful gos­sip by the yen­tas. Even lit­tle girls in grade school gos­sip about her, tut­ting that her very pres­ence is a taint on Yaakov and his fam­i­ly. Hasn’t she been with men (prob­a­bly goy­im)? Eat­en traif with them? Should such a woman be left alone with a pious man and his inno­cent chil­dren? While Jew­ish law for­bids mali­cious gos­sip and com­mands one to hon­or the con­vert (let alone the Jew­ish pen­i­tent), the com­mu­ni­ty falls bla­tant­ly short of the mark.

Ragen is won­der­ful at see­ing both sides of the sto­ry. Unerr­ing­ly knowl­edge­able about the cus­toms of Judaism and the com­mu­ni­ties who strict­ly fol­low them, she also defends per­son­al rights — the right to feel, love, protest, or even stray from the strict man­dates of the Hare­di world. While ele­giac about the beau­ty of tra­di­tion­al Judaism, she is also refresh­ing­ly frank about the cru­el­ties inher­ent in a closed group — the harsh words and reject­ing deeds uttered and done by those who con­sid­er them­selves beyond reproach.

In An Unortho­dox Match, as the title implies, a lit­tle rebel­lion goes a long way, and Ragen deft­ly guides us through these moral quan­daries. Whether love or the law pre­vails, her nov­el and its con­clu­sion is a wor­thy study in the rich­ness and vari­ety of our endur­ing people.

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.

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