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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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The lives of Jewish girls and women

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The Marrying of Chani Kaufman  
Eve Harris.  
(House of Anansi)

The recent election campaign in Quebec and its lead-up discussion of the Parti Québécois’ “Secular Charter” placed an unusual amount of attention on popular opinion regarding the religious habits and dress of women. These discussions have plagued western European countries such as France and Germany, where they are often a cover for deeper discontent surrounding substantial immigration from North Africa. 

In Montreal, no such recent immigration history exists, but there is a long history of confrontation in the city’s Outremont neighbourhood, where myths associated with the area’s essential Frenchness collide with a burgeoning chassidic population.

The finer points of Jewish religious life – the character of chassidic culture in contrast with other forms of modern Orthodoxy – are likely beyond the realm of public discussion.  But publishers have spotted a niche subject with provocative potential, and in recent years have brought out a number of novels and memoirs by women, which aim to depict observant Jewish communities while addressing their relationship to mainstream culture.

Eve Harris’ The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is the most recent among these. It garnered a large readership and substantial reviewer response in England, where it was first published.  In Canada, House of Anansi, one of the country’s prestigious independent publishers, will bring it out this spring.

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman operates on two levels, foremost as a kind of pop ethnography of the lives of Orthodox girls and women, providing a specifically English portrait by delineating the impact of class and education in varied London Jewish neighbourhoods. British reviewers, with their own particular attention to the English literary tradition, pointed to Harris’ ability to transpose famous scenes from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to a contemporary Jewish context. Romeo and Juliet comes to mind as well, as another likely influence, as Harris’ young would-be marrieds, Chani and Baruch, are set upon by the self-serving elders who would keep them apart.

The novel’s second and arguably more serious subject is the potential for female independence and self-respect in rigorously religious communities. To address this subject, Harris introduces the Rebbetzin Zilberman, who is entangled with the novel’s other characters but has a unique story of her own. The rebbetzin’s family background is secular and detached from questions of Jewish identity, but a youthful year in Israel leads her to marry an equally adventurous partner, who, as the guiding figure in their marriage, turns her toward religious observance when the couple returns to London.

If the novel’s attention to young Chani Kaufman’s engagement and marriage is its comic side, the tale of the Rebbetzin Zilberman courts tragic outcomes.  But it points, as well, toward what Harris views as the hopeful possibility of a woman who chooses to leave the commitments of family and community in favour of an undefined and new sense of freedom.  Having abandoned her modest clothes and wig, the rebbetzin walks on the High Street of her familiar neighbourhood:

“The woman had stared straight through her.  There had been no dawning of recognition, no greeting uttered.  The Rebbetzin felt invisible, a ghost of her former self.  She drifted on, perturbed yet relieved.  Perhaps since she was no longer dressed in frum attire, she no longer existed for her community; they only saw what they wanted to see.  In her jeans and loose hair, she was not of their ilk and therefore unimportant, merely another obstacle to negotiate as they progressed along the street.  She may as well have been a lamppost.  What a strange, blinkered world they inhabited.” 

Harris, unlike other writers who have approached these themes, has not left the fold, abandoned family, or chosen a secular life over religious responsibilities.  As a child, she recalls her Holocaust survivor father rejecting faith.  As an adult, she taught for a time at a private religious girls’ school, and it is this experience that placed her near to the kinds of lives she portrays in her fiction.

One of the novel’s flaws is its unwillingness to clarify whether it means to explore contemporary chassidic culture or the broader range of Orthodox communities. In one family scene we encounter a portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and on a couple occasions Harris favours the adjective “Hassidisher” to describe a character’s behaviour.  But the novel makes no effort to explain the meaning of such things (its glossary offers a definition of “Hasid” without relating the term to the novel’s characters). In this way, Harris contributes to the vague unreliability of popular ideas associated with Jewish religious life.

Harris’ British reviewers were not troubled by this. A glance at the web sites of London papers that reviewed the book reveals an indiscriminate use of photographs of both chassidic and non-chassidic Jews on London streets.  It may be that the novel’s publisher was aware of the book’s open-ended approach, allowing reviewers and readers alike to feel, as did some writing for major London papers, that The Marrying of Chani Kaufman provided a generic portrait of “Orthodox Jewry.”

Although Harris’ novel offers a colourful and detailed fictional portrait, it risks contributing to the failed discussion of religious life among non-religious people, in which the latter group, reflexively, tells women in the former group they must change.  

Political feminist groups expressed such views in the press as well as in political forums in Quebec during the past year.  Although the PQ and its “Charter” were rejected, it was not clear that any greater understanding arose from an often dispiriting discussion regarding women’s roles and religion.  With its Romeo and Juliet-style standoff, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman can be read simply for fun. But its examination of women’s rights and religious expression fails to address the particularities of Jewish communal life and the place of women in it.

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