The Marrying of Chani Kaufmanby Eve Harris
A debut novel longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is an insightful portrait of faith and love in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London.
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a debut originally published by a small independent Scottish press that is already garnering significant attention worldwide.
London, 2008. Chani Kaufman is a nineteen-year-old woman, betrothed to Baruch Levy, a young man whom she has seen only four times before their wedding day. The novel begins with Chani wearing a wedding dress that has been passed between members of her family and has the yellowed underarms and rows of alteration stitches to prove it. All of the cups of cold coffee and small talk with suitors have led up to this moment. But the happiness Chani and Baruch feel is more than counterbalanced by their anxiety: about the realities of married life; about whether they will be able to have fewer children than Chani’s mother, who has eight daughters; and, most frighteningly, about the unknown, unspeakable secrets of the wedding night. As the book moves back to tell the story of Chani and Baruch’s unusual courtship, it throws into focus a very different couple: Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and his wife, Rebbetzin Rivka Zilberman. As Chani and Baruch prepare for a shared lifetime, Chaim and Rivka struggle to keep their marriage alive—and all four, together with the rest of the community, face difficult decisions about the place of faith and family life in the contemporary world.
“Eve Harris spent years teaching at an Orthodox girls’ school, and is clearly intimately familiar with the social nuances of that culture. . . . she gives readers a fresh perspective on an obscure community, depicting its humanity in both its beauty and its flaws. With its keen tongue-in-cheek observational humor and classic love story format, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman reads like an Orthodox Pride and Prejudice with fearless, witty Chani taking the lead as a spunky, Jewish Elizabeth Bennett. This stunning debut, which was deservedly nominated for the Man Booker Prize in England, is a rewardingly delightful read.” —Renate Robertson, Bust
“Simultaneously relatable and unfamiliar. . . . [Chani] is a deep and wonderful character with whom the reader can’t help but connect. She lives in a world that might be unfamiliar to most, but with the help of a writer of great ability like Eve Harris, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is the type of novel that ventures into an unfamiliar place with the ease of a seasoned traveler.” —Jason Diamond, Flavorwire (book of the week)
“[An] engaging debut . . . A readable, compassionate portrait of roles, especially women’s, in a Haredi community.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Intelligent, revealing characters who command conviction and connection; the tug between the old ways and modern life; and the universal themes of desire, guilt, manipulation and submission will resonate with readers from all backgrounds. Harris’ debut is as deeply melodic and exciting as her depiction of Shabbat in Jerusalem, and will linger after the last page.” —Publishers Weekly
“A restrictive, claustrophobic world emerges from the pages of this astonishingly impressive first novel. Yet, there is tenderness and compassion too which irradiates the struggles of the various characters as they negotiate their way through the demands of religion, duty and personal desire. Terrific.” —Elizabeth Buchan, bestselling author of Consider the Lily
“One of those books you cannot put down . . . Some of the women (the story is mostly told from a female perspective), could have been created by Jane Austen or Mrs Gaskell. . . . Eve Harris looks but does not judge. . . . an optimistic, compassionate story.” —Sunday Express
“Eve Harris’s remarkable debut novel offers access to [a] hermetic realm. . . . Harris—born to Israeli-Polish parents in London—focuses on the separate plights of two women and captivates us with her compassionate character studies and gripping set pieces. . . . Harris renders her characters multifaceted by fleshing out faults and finely orchestrating emotions. . . . Harris also keeps us rapt by altering her tone and imbuing scenes with rich humor. . . . The Marrying of Chani Kaufman shines a light on a topic and a people rarely seen in fiction.” —Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Harris writes of this closed world with knowledge and understanding, and highly observant, slightly acidic humour. Deservedly longlisted for the Man Booker.” — Times (UK)
“Like a surgeon cutting into human flesh for the first time, Eve Harris audaciously dissects a community defined by inscrutable social mores; her profound reverence for her characters in no way hinders her intrepid plunge into the murky viscera of this complex world. Readers will be mesmerized by Harris’s unforgettable voice; this powerful debut novel is a startling and effervescent contribution to a canon much in need of enrichment.” —Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox and Exodus
“The book introduces readers to a little-known way of life and asks us to consider the role of faith and family in today’s world. Anyone interested in relationships will enjoy this fascinating take on the subject; in fact, Jane Austen fans will find much that is familiar in the well-developed characters and the social conventions they must navigate.” —Barbara Bibel, Booklist
“Not just love and tradition, but rules and expectations shape the relationships of two couples from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, in a British novelist’s engaging debut. . . . A readable, compassionate portrait of roles, especially women’s, in a Haredi community.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Engages from the very first page, slipping the reader deep into the orthodox Jewish community, beyond the rituals and prayers, the constraints and the hair-covering wigs, into the secrets and emotions beneath, illuminating the story of Chani’s journey from schoolgirl to bride and revealing the lives of others around her besides. This novel is beautifully done and highly recommended.” —Daily Mail
“Like a surgeon cutting into human flesh for the first time, Eve Harris audaciously dissects a community defined by inscrutable social mores; her profound reverence for her characters in no way hinders her intrepid plunge into the murky viscera of this complex world. Readers will be mesmerized by Harris’s unforgettable voice; this powerful debut novel is a startling and effervescent contribution to a canon much in need of enrichment.” —Deborah Feldman, author of Orthodox and Exodus
“Compassionate and witty . . . The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman is about more than an innocent girl in a rigorously controlled community hoping for a soul mate while being paraded before husband material (Jane Austen has done that already). At the heart of the book is the theme of identity and the glue that fastens us to communities, be they religious, racial or social. . . . [It has] the emotional and thematic complexity needed to raise the story to a Booker contender.” —Independent
“The serious subject at its core—the semi-arranged marriage of two young Haredi Jews—is belied by the warmth of the writing. There are demons here, but they do not terrify. . . . Humour abounds, but so do pathos and anger. . . . Harris’s eye for suburban social mores is wickedly acute, as is her evident relish in describing both the sensual life and its absence. . . . Has the potential to be that rare thing—a crowd-pleaser about Orthodox Judaism.” —Guardian
“Depict[s] the claustrophobic anxieties of a young heroine locked within a powerful family hinterland. . . Readers seeking genuine Jewish characters have no need to search for the latent beneath the manifest here. . . . [The Marrying of Chani Kaufman] has received the British literary establishment’s seal of approval. It deserves it.” —Jewish Chronicle
“Harris evokes the community’s insular nature, she also suggests the sense of comfort and belonging that it confers, offering a sympathetic window on a way of life little glimpsed in contemporary fiction.” —Financial Times
“Confidently done, a romantic comedy at ease with its own lightness. Its setting, northwest London’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community, is small and devoutly separate, and reading about such enclosure is pleasantly consuming. . . . Harris is humorous and clement throughout with her characters.” —Sunday Times
“Judaism may be the setting but Eve touches on universal themes. It’s about being true to ourselves when even our closest friends seem at odds with our chosen lifestyle. It’s about forging a set of values when everything around us, locally and globally, seems to encourage the antithesis. It’s about being human. It’s about being alive and I adored it.” —The Bookbag
“[The Marrying of Chani Kaufman] is set in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Hendon and Golders Green . . . The chapters shift from Chani’s point of view to that of her equally anxious betrothed, Baruch, as well as his best friend who is secretly dating a shiksa, and his mother Rivka, the rabbi’s wife who is supposed to prepare Chani for marriage but is herself grappling with the religious way of life.” —Haaretz
“Harris is tender and sympathetic as she reveals the intricacies of acceptable behaviour and anathema in this group of Orthodox families. This lively and thought provoking novel makes a significant contribution to the contemporary literary scene.” —The Bay
“A lovely, very funny and touching account of a marriage in orthodox Jewry.” —Spectator
Longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize
A B&N Discover Great New Writers Selection
An Amazon Best Book of the Month (Literature/Fiction)
The bride stood like a pillar of salt, rigid under layers of itchy petticoats. Sweat dripped down the hollow of her back and collected in pools under her arms staining the ivory silk. She edged closer to The Bedeken Room door, one ear pressed up against it.
She heard the men singing. Their shouts of “lai-lai-lai!” rolled down the dusty synagogue corridor. They were coming for her. This was it. This was her day. The day her real life started. She was nineteen and had never held a boy’s hand. The only man to touch her had been her father and his physical affection had dwindled since her body had curved and ripened.
“Sit down, Chani-leh, show a little modesty. Come, the Kallah does not stand by the door. Sit, sit!”
Her mother’s face had turned grey. The wrinkles gleamed as the make-up slid towards her collar. The plucked brows gave her a look of permanent surprise. Her mouth was compressed into a frosty pink line. Mrs Kaufman sagged under the weight of her mousy wig. Beneath, her hair was grey and wispy.
An old woman at forty-five: tired. Chani was her fifth daughter, the fifth to stand in a Bedeken Room, the fifth to wear the dress. Nor would she be the last. Like Babushka dolls, three younger daughters had emerged after her.
Chani remained at her post. “Shouldn’t they be here by now?”
“They’ll be here soon enough. You should be davening for all your single friends. Not everyone’s as lucky as you are today, Baruch HaShem.”
1. Discuss the role religion plays in the lives of the different characters in the novel.
2. Compare how Eve Harris fleshes out the male and female characters. Do you think she does a better job with one gender? Why do you think she chose to tell the story from the mostly female perspective?
3. Discuss the significance of Avromi. What is his role in the story? Discuss your thoughts about the outcome of his affair with Shola. What do you think of Avromi’s decision to drop out of law school and go to Jerusalem?
4. How does Mrs. Levy serve as a foil to Chani? Who, if anyone, fills that role for Baruch?
5. What part does Mrs. Levy play in the story? Does her character change over the course of the novel? Explain your answers.
6. How is sexuality and identity explored in the novel?
7. How does Chani’s wedding dress function as a character in the story?
8. Why do you think Eve Harris chose the title The Marrying of Chani Kaufman?
9. How do Chani and the Rebbetzin question the traditional roles of women in the Charedi community? Where have you seen similarities between how women are treated in this country and within your own communities?
10. How does Chani’s imminent marriage make the Rebbetzin question her own place and marriage in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect?
11. Discuss the novel’s settings.
12. Chani has a complex relationship with Mrs. Kaufman, her mother. Do you think that Mrs. Kaufman is a good mother? Why or why not?
13. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is not only about Chani and Baruch’s impending nuptials but the long marriage of the Rebbetzin and Rabbi Chaim. Why do you think Eve Harris chose to focus on the Rebbetzin and Rabbi Chaim’s marriage to parallel that of Chani and Baruch’s?
14. Do you think there is any significance to why the Rebbetzin takes Chani to the mikveh, or ritual bath, instead of Mrs. Kaufman? Explain your answer.
15. What do you think the author is trying to say about what the key to happiness is?
16. Why does Baruch Levy choose to court Chani against his parents’ wishes?
17. After many years of marriage and children, why do you think the Rebbetzin comes to feel suffocated by her religious beliefs and lifestyle?
18. Explain why the young Rebbetzin, Rebecca, finds the Orthodox Jewish religion in Jerusalem so appealing.
19. Discuss the author’s decision to structure the plot from several different points of view. Was this an effective way to tell the story? Did it help you to feel closer to the characters? Explain your answers.
20. Baruch means blessing in Hebrew. Do you think that is what Baruch represents to Chani? Why or why not?
21. What point do you think the author was trying to make about the place of faith and tradition in the contemporary world?
22. Why do you think the Rebbetzin’s miscarriage serves as the catalyst for the end of her marriage and the start of her questioning her faith?
23. While Chani is mostly the central character of the story, why do you think the author decides to end the novel with the Rebbetzin?
24. Discuss whether you think Chani and Baruch’s marriage will “fare better” than that of the Rebbetzin’s.
25. What are some of the similarities between Chani and Baruch? What are some of the differences?
26. Give some examples of why Chani might not be considered an “instant wife” or a good “Yiddisher girl.”
27. What did you think of Rabbi Zilberman’s indecisiveness during his wife’s miscarriage? Did his actions change your opinion of him? Why or why not?
28. Why do you think the author chose not to name Rabbi Kaufman and Mrs. Kaufman until several chapters into the novel? Does knowing their names change your views of who they are as a couple? Why or why not?
29. Discuss the many ways that religious belief and conviction help the characters in the novel to survive life’s adversities. How has it helped you in your life?
30. How does Rabbi Chaim’s feelings for the loss of Yitzchak, his firstborn son, reflect on his relationship with the Rebbetzin and Avromi? Why do you suppose the author waited until almost the end of the novel to share this detail about their marriage?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits; Visible City by Tova Mirvis; The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century by David Laskin; Unchosen: The Hidden Life of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston; Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander; Hush by Eishes Chayil; The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens