After writ­ing twelve nov­els, I have final­ly writ­ten my first sequel. An Obser­vant Wife comes out this Sep­tem­ber from St. Martin’s, and is the fol­low up to An Unortho­dox Match. What was there about An Unortho­dox Match that I just couldn’t let go?

To explore this, I think I’d have to start with The Dev­il in Jerusalem, my nov­el based on the har­row­ing, true sto­ry of a fam­i­ly of Amer­i­can Olim destroyed by a so-called kab­bal­ist in Jerusalem. After immers­ing myself into the sto­ry of this hor­rif­ic cult of child abusers — some­thing I felt com­pelled to do — I remem­ber think­ing that for my next book I deserved to be trans­port­ed to a kinder, sweet­er place. And what could be more sooth­ing and gen­tle to a writer’s psy­che than a love story?

At that time, I had come across a news­pa­per arti­cle writ­ten by a woman who had become famous in Israel sev­er­al years pre­vi­ous­ly when she pub­lished a book describ­ing her tran­si­tion from glam­orous TV per­son­al­i­ty to reli­gious wife and moth­er in an ultra-Ortho­dox, Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood. And here she was now — some ten years and many chil­dren lat­er — lament­ing how she and her fam­i­ly had been treat­ed by their reli­gious neigh­bors, who had nev­er for­giv­en their crime” of once being sec­u­lar Jews.

In my own mind, those two things clicked: A love sto­ry about a girl who gives up her suc­cess­ful sec­u­lar life to find new mean­ing and love among ultra-Ortho­dox Jews. My char­ac­ter Leah (for­mer­ly Lola) is a thir­ty-some­thing sin­gle woman, who has despaired of find­ing a hus­band among Jew­ish men in New York; this sen­ti­ment was an echo of many con­ver­sa­tions I had had with such women around the coun­try and the world. It seemed a com­mon refrain.

All these con­cepts were float­ing around in my head. But in order to write a nov­el, you real­ly have to under­stand your char­ac­ters on a fun­da­men­tal lev­el that you can’t get from a brief news­pa­per clip­ping. As a dear friend, and for­mer New York Times edi­tor, once told me: You have to know what they eat for break­fast and what tooth­paste they use.” I was cer­tain­ly not there yet with Leah. There were so many unan­swered ques­tions: Why leave a per­fect­ly good sec­u­lar life for the restric­tions of Ortho­doxy? What was the best part, and the hard­est, of going from a sec­u­lar to an Ortho­dox lifestyle? And how did the com­mu­ni­ty treat you when you made your choice?

I dis­tilled a fas­ci­nat­ing pro­file of not only what Leah ate for break­fast (rab­bini­cal­ly approved, low-fat gra­nola) but what she dreamt of and what her great­est fears were. 

With the tool of the inter­net, and the mag­ic of Face­book, how­ev­er, I was soon able to gath­er togeth­er a group of vol­un­teers — all baalot teshu­va — who gen­er­ous­ly agreed to answer these ques­tions and many more. From their respons­es, I dis­tilled a fas­ci­nat­ing pro­file of not only what Leah ate for break­fast (rab­bini­cal­ly approved, low-fat gra­nola) but what she dreamt of and what her great­est fears were.

The love sto­ry itself came to me from nowhere, the char­ac­ter of Yaakov sim­ply land­ing on my men­tal doorstep like a deliv­ery from a fairy god­moth­er. I imag­ined a young wid­ow­er, a fer­vent Tal­mud schol­ar, try­ing and fail­ing to cope with the real­i­ty of sin­gle par­ent­hood after a life­time of being cod­dled and tend­ed to by all the women in his fam­i­ly, so as to leave him free to pur­sue his sacred studies.

The Divine­ly-ordained col­li­sion of these two lives com­prised An Unortho­dox Match.

But when I got to the inevitable place in the nov­el where I need­ed to take leave of my cre­ations, send­ing them off like a kind par­ent to live their lives, I real­ized that, for the first time in my life, I just couldn’t bear to part from them! Not yet, at least. I had so much more I want­ed to explore.

Unlike writ­ers of fairy tales, I couldn’t rely on hap­pi­ly ever after, not with a mod­ern woman — how­ev­er in love — and a man deeply com­mit­ted to ancient rules and laws, some of which were medieval when it came to a wom­an’s place in the world. How was it going to work out for Yaakov, forced to leave the yeshi­va and earn a liv­ing, a tran­si­tion no less fraught than Leah’s? What about Shain­dele, the trou­bled teenage daugh­ter, who had been so opposed to the mar­riage? Where was she headed?

When my unhap­pi­ness deep­ened, I real­ized that — unlike all my pre­vi­ous books where I was con­tent to leave the future of my cre­ations in the hands of my read­ers — I felt com­pelled to see the sto­ry through, per­haps because I, like Leah, went from the sec­u­lar to the reli­gious world. In a way, it was a sum­ming up of my own life and my own expe­ri­ence. It deserved a book of its own.

And so my first sequel was born. An Obser­vant Wife fol­lows the love sto­ry of Yaakov and Leah from its pas­sion­ate begin­nings to the far more com­plex and pro­found rela­tion­ship they share as hus­band and wife. Cer­tain things cer­tain­ly sur­prised me as the sto­ry unfold­ed. (Yes, an author can be shocked at what char­ac­ters decide to say and do! As Tol­stoy once wrote: To my utter shock, Vron­sky took out a gun and tried to kill him­self.”) But I think the char­ac­ter that sur­prised me most of all was Shain­dele; as she tran­si­tions into young wom­an­hood, she under­goes a shock­ing expe­ri­ence that tears the whole fam­i­ly, and the entire com­mu­ni­ty, apart. I cer­tain­ly didn’t see that coming.

Nao­mi Ragen is an award-win­ning nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist and play­wright. Her first book, Jephte’s Daugh­ter, was list­ed among the one-hun­dred most impor­tant Jew­ish books of all time. Her best­selling nov­els include Sotah, The Covenant, The Sis­ters Weiss, and Dev­il in Jerusalem. An out­spo­ken advo­cate for women’s rights, and an active com­bat­ant against anti-Israel and anti­se­mit­ic pro­pa­gan­da through her web­site, she has lived in Jerusalem since 1971. The Ene­my Beside Me is her four­teenth novel.