Off the Shelf: Novels about the Orthodox world by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I looked at the novels and books of short stories on my to-read pile, I was surprised to see three works written by Orthodox women. Each author successfully portrays the beauty of their community, even as they acknowledge its flaws. What’s interesting is that, although the books have very different plots, all of them speak to the problems that can occur when arranging a marriage – either for yourself or your children.

“An Unorthodox Match”

At first, Leah Howard idolizes the religious community she recently joined. In Naomi Ragen’s “An Orthodox Match” (St. Martin’s Press), Leah, who comes from a secular background, finds meaning and purpose in her life as part of a tight-knit Orthodox community in Brooklyn. She doesn’t yet know how her world will change after she meets the family of Yaakov Lehman. Yaakov is a Talmud scholar and well respected in the community, although his wife’s death has left him grief-stricken. His household has fallen into disarray and his teenage daughter, Shaindele, is unable to cope with the housework and taking care of her two younger siblings. Yaakov is soon forced to acknowledge he may have either have to stop his Talmud study and find a job to replace the income his late wife brought into the house, or marry again.

Leah visits the Lehman home as part of her chesed (loving-kindness) volunteer work. Yaakov’s two youngest children fall in love with her, although Shaindele resents her presence, even though it makes her life easier. However, for a long time Leah and Yaakov don’t meet: he leaves the house before Leah arrives and returns after she is gone. When they do, though, they find themselves drawn to each other. This creates problems: Leah is a baal teshuvah (a returnee), which means that someone of Yaakov’s family heritage shouldn’t marry her because of the negative effect it would have on his children’s choice of marriage partners. Shaindele is particularly disturbed by the possibility they might marry, as is Yaakov’s mother-in-law. The characters find themselves considering the question,”Are baal teshuvah full members of the community or will they always been considered untrustworthy outsiders? 

Ragen does a wonderful job creating interesting and flawed characters who are surprised to learn that some members of their religious community are as prejudices as anyone living in the secular world. However, it’s also clear that Ragen loves Orthodox values – that she understands that if people truly embrace them, then the community offers love and acceptance, at least for those willing to live within its restrictions. I found the ending of “An Orthodox Match” surprisingly moving in that I’d become more involved in the characters’ stories than I expected. This is a perfect novel for book clubs since it could open interesting dialogues between members of all branches of Judaism.

“On Division”

What happens when spouses keep secrets, especially ones that could change the nature of their relationship? In Goldie Goldbloom’s “On Division” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Surie Eckstein learns she is pregnant with twins. Normally that would be considered a blessing in her Brooklyn Chasidic community. However, Surie is 57 and already a grandmother. Embarrassed and ashamed, she keeps the pregnancy a secret from her husband, Yidel, who doesn’t understand why his loving wife is acting so distant. Her oldest daughter thinks her mother is getting fat and hints that Surie should eat less and watch her weight. There is no one she can confide to because Surie knows that there are no real secrets in her community.

To complicate matters, the midwife who delivered her other children tells Surie she has to visit the hospital for weekly checkups. Surie pretends to Yidel that she is visiting the sick so she won’t have to reveal the true reason she is traveling to Manhattan. This is not completely a lie. The midwife recruits Surie to help with the other Chasidic women visiting the hospital. They feel more comfortable talking to someone who speaks Yiddish and understands their community. Surie is encouraged to become a nurse and is tempted to step outside her circumscribed world, although the books she must study are forbidden works because they contain diagrams of the human body. It’s not that Surie is completely unhappy, but another secret – what really happened to her late son, Lipa – also creates feelings of pain and despair. If the truth were known, it would affect not only the marriage prospects of her unmarried sons, but those of the next generation.

“On Division” portrays imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Surie and her family are redeemed by the love they feel for each other, even as they realize they’ve made harmful decisions. The novel’s ending will disturb some readers who will be distressed with Surie’s actions. However, her decision shows how she has come to terms with all that has occurred – the good and the bad.


How difficult is it to make a match in the Orthodox world? The excellent “#ShidduchCrisis: Short Stories” by Penina Shtauber ( is filled with funny, sad and poignant stories, as its characters search for their bashert (soul mate). She defines the shidduch crisis as “a commonly observed and discussed phenomenon in the Orthodox Jewish community whereby eligible single persons, especially women, have difficulty finding a suitable spouse, or shidduch.” People are introduced by matchmakers and friends, and are expected to date only for a short time before deciding whether or not to wed. Men and women create shidduch resumes, making looking for a spouse similar to searching for a job.

All the stories in Shtauber’s work are told in the first person, which creates an immediate intimacy with its characters. The technique works because, although the characters try to present themselves in the best light, it’s easy to read between the lines and understand what’s really happening – whether they’re blaming someone else for a bad date or taking undeserved credit when a meeting went well. 

The 260-page book contains 29 stories and it’s difficult to single out particular stories since they were all very well done. Some of my favorites, though, include the following:

  • “My Parents Knew His Parents,” which is narrated by a young woman whose marriage is arranged for her parents’ benefit, rather than her own. 
  • The non-Orthodox narrator of “False Name, True Love” falls for a woman he meets on Facebook, the one place she can be her true self.
  • Another story, “Ridiculous,” features a narrator who has difficulty accepting that the woman he loves may not share the same values. 
  • The narrator in “Mr. Perfect” discovers the reason the perfect young man she meets is not married. What occurs will surprise some readers and distress others.
  • What do you do when you are engaged to be married and then discover your fiancé has an unpleasant past? That’s the dilemma the narrator of “Anonymous Post” faces. Should she risk never marrying or hope for the best and become a bride?
  • “Slim Chance” shows the dangers of weight consciousness in a world where thin women have the best marriage opportunities.
  • After too many boring dates, the narrator of “Black Magic” finds love in an unexpected place.

Shtauber does an amazing job capturing her characters’ idiosyncrasies. Even though all the stories focus on dating and marriage, their circumstances vary widely so they never become boring or repetitive. Whether or not readers are familiar with the shidduch crisis, they will find much to enjoy in this work.