By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Every community has unwritten rules which people live by, even if they can’t necessarily articulate exactly what they are. However, it’s always clear when a line has been crossed and punishment or ostracism is required. Children learn these rules without specific lessons: they are part of the air they breathe. But they are not the same for every community as can be seen by two recent novels, “An Observant Wife” by Naomi Ragen (St. Martin’s Press) and “The Family” by Naomi Krupitsky (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). However, for each, breaking the rules can have lasting repercussions.
“An Observant Wife” is a sequel to Ragen’s “An Unorthodox Match,” which looked at Leah, a ba’al teshuvah (a secular person who becomes Orthodox), and her attempts to become part of the religious community of Brooklyn. It also explored her growing connection to Yaakov, a widowed man with five children, one of whom greatly opposed their relationship. (To read The Reporter’s review of “An Unorthodox Match,” visit www.thereportergroup.org/past-articles/feature-book-review/feature-book-review-stream/book-review-stream/off-the-shelf-novels-about-the-orthodox-world-by-rabbi-rachel-esserman.) The new novel opens at Leah and Yaakov’s wedding, a wedding many in the Orthodox community do not approve of (although not openly), even though Yaakov’s daughter, Shaindel, now welcomes the woman who has made her life easier.
Although Leah and Yaakov love each other, problems arise. Leah is not welcomed by the women of the community and feels lonely. She also has difficulty following some aspects of the community’s strict practice, which leave her feeling further from, rather than closer to, God. Yaakov has left the yeshiva for secular work in order to repay the loans that accrued after his first wife died. He misses his studies and the interaction with people, rather than numbers. It does surprise him, though, to learn that there are kind people outside his previously narrow world.
To complicate matters, Shaindel is doing her own exploration. The loss of her mother has made her question her faith and leads to behavior that could threaten the family’s standing in the community. Her interest in a local boy – one who left his studies, but whose father is a rabbi – creates additional problems. But it’s what happens when Shaindel sees a therapist that brings matters to a head, and shows Leah and Yaakov how their community has strayed from the religious laws that should form the core of their lives.
As Leah learns to her chagrin, “There is the law, and then there is the law people live.” Make one mistake and the gossips condemn a person, something almost impossible to stop because people think it’s in the best interest of the community. Yet, they ignore the laws against lashon harah (evil speech) because gossip is how the community controls its members. Unfortunately, they also find it nearly impossible to believe that someone born to their community could secretly cause great harm. The worst part of what happens to Leah and Yaakov is based on real life, which will be clear to those who have followed the news over the past decade.
Ragen portrays this religious community showing all its warts and problems. Yet, she clearly loves the religious life as seen in her portrayal of Leah and Yaakov. The author advocates for those who seek to obey the law without all the unnecessary trappings placed on it by unwritten rules that destroy the spirit of observance. The desire to live by that spirit is what gives Yaakov, Leah and readers hope.
It feels odd to compare the community found in “An Observant Wife” with the one in “The Family,” but both have unwritten rules that outsiders find difficult to understand. But, while Leah and Yaakov face much unpleasantness when they step across a line, the results are far worse for those breaking the Family’s rules. Once a member of the Family, you are always a member of the Family. Follow the rules and the Family will protect you for life. Attempts to break the rules or leave the Family result in death. That’s because the members of the Family are related not only by blood, but by ethnicity; in this case, Italian Catholic.
The novel takes place from the late 1920s-40s, with Sofia and Antonia growing up in the shadow of the Family. Sofia’s father Joey runs a protection racket in Brooklyn and Antonia’s father Carlo was once his best friend. It quickly becomes clear that Joey is part of a loose-knit Italian mafia that labels itself as protecting others, even as it becomes clear the harm they do.
Why did the PR people market this book as Jewish to Jewish newspapers? About 100 pages into the novel, readers are introduced to Saul Grossman. Saul is a German Jewish immigrant who feels lost in the U.S. The Nazis made life miserable enough that his mother encouraged him to travel to America for safety. Yet, he pines for his mother, who remains in Germany, and longs for a place that feels like home. When Joey decides Saul would be good for business, even though he is Jewish, Saul is happy to be wanted. It takes him a while to understand exactly what will be expected of him and, by that time, it’s too late to do anything but accept his fate. His interactions with Sofia – and Sofia’s desire for her own life – help move the plot, as does what Antonia discovers about being connected to the Family.
What makes “The Family” interesting is the ethical dilemmas that occur just before and during World War II. In addition to its regular protection activities, the Family helps immigrants fleeing Europe by giving them fake papers so they can stay in the U.S. Even though they have to pay for the privilege (and sometimes pay dearly), the Family helps them escape destruction and death. Yet, once the war is over, the Family must look for new income sources and that creates ethical problems for readers who may (and should) find it difficult to sympathize with what Joey, Sofia and Saul do. However, readers will also find themselves quickly turning pages toward the novel’s end in order to discover what happens.