An Obser­vant Wife: A Novel

By – December 13, 2021

Nao­mi Ragen’s new work is a brave and thought­ful sequel to her pop­u­lar nov­el, An Unortho­dox Match. That book dealt with the phe­nom­e­non of ba’ale teshu­va—for­mer­ly sec­u­lar Jews who adopt the stric­tures of Ortho­doxy — and their often-fraught inter­ac­tions with the FFB (“Frum From Birth”) crowd. The pro­tag­o­nists are Leah (once called Lola), a viva­cious Cal­i­for­nia red­head now liv­ing in Boro Park, Brook­lyn, and Yaakov, an Ortho­dox wid­ow­er and father for whom Leah babysits. Despite gen­er­al shock and dis­ap­proval, Leah falls in love with both Yaakov and his chil­dren, par­tic­u­lar­ly the two youngest, still tod­dlers (there are five in all, includ­ing two yeshi­va boys who live away at school, and Shein­dele, a moody, vul­ner­a­ble teenag­er). Rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing her feel­ings, Yaakov exits a peri­od of despair and begins life anew — or attempts to.

In An Obser­vant Wife, we fol­low Leah and Yaakov through their first years of mar­riage, made dif­fi­cult not only by life’s usu­al tra­vails but also by the ultra-Ortho­dox community’s refusal to accept the viva­cious, lov­ing Leah as a legit­i­mate mem­ber of their tribe. They watch her every move, tut­ting at each per­ceived mis­take (are her stock­ings too thin? Her sleeves too short?) and delight­ing in gos­sip­ing about her occa­sion­al mis­steps. The pres­sure of their judg­ments damp­ens Leah’s new­ly­wed joy:

She hur­ried, try­ing not to allow hatred to fill her heart

as she looked at the strangers pass­ing her by, the people

who either ignored her or looked her brazen­ly up and down

and find­ing fault…She felt besieged and friend­less among

hos­tile strangers.

This malev­o­lent group shun­ning is a recur­rent theme in the nov­el, affect­ing not only Leah but her hus­band and his chil­dren. Indeed, for each mis­take (or per­ceived mis­take) Leah makes, the mat­ri­mo­ni­al prospects of Yaakov’s chil­dren dimin­ish. Shein­dele, mean­while, is ruin­ing her own prospects by secret­ly meet­ing with a boy with­out a for­mal shad­chan bro­ker­ing the match.

As Leah’s chal­lenges begin to include help­ing Shein­dele, the plot thick­ens. We encounter a seedy ther­a­pist,” sanc­tioned by Leah’s school and the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty that refers all rebel­lious” girls to him. When this predator’s behav­ior around Shein­dele becomes ques­tion­able, we learn about the harsh insid­er pol­i­tics that seem to demand that such abusers be pro­tect­ed from crit­i­cism and the law.

Amidst these polar­i­ties, the qual­i­ties that stand out most in Ragen’s book are her com­mit­ment to fair­ness, hon­esty, and brav­ery. While clear­ly lov­ing the tex­tures of hare­di and Has­sidic life, and rever­ing the prin­ci­ples behind most of their prac­tices, she per­sis­tent­ly ques­tions the laps­es in ethics that at times besmirch these com­mu­ni­ties. Whether polic­ing triv­ial behav­ior (such as danc­ing to pop music, even at home), judg­ing out­liers harsh­ly, or pro­tect­ing a preda­tor, Ragen sees noth­ing spir­i­tu­al about these behav­iors. She bold­ly expos­es them, ques­tions them, and — through the char­ac­ters of Yaakov and espe­cial­ly Leah — forces us to see that it is not only the non-Ortho­dox who have to make teshu­vah.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of St. Mar­t­in’s Press

  1. All three main char­ac­ters, Yaakov, Leah, and Shain­dele, under­go trans­for­ma­tions that change their life’s tra­jec­to­ry. When think­ing of each character’s jour­ney, in your opin­ion, who faced the most dif­fi­cult challenges?

  2. How would you describe Shaindele’s tran­si­tion from trou­bled teenag­er to young adult? What spe­cial fac­tors aris­ing from her com­mu­ni­ty and reli­gious beliefs com­pli­cat­ed this development?

  3. Did Leah make a mis­take when she left behind her sec­u­lar life to join the Ortho­dox Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty? Or did she make the best deci­sion of her life? Please explain.

  4. How does Yaakov’s life change when he is forced to leave yeshi­va and earn a liv­ing? Describe the pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive aspects. In your opin­ion, was his life enriched by these chal­lenges, or impoverished?

  5. Describe Shaindele’s romance” with Duvie. Was she a victim?

  6. If you were writ­ing the life sto­ry of Duvie Halpern, how would it end?

  7. What fac­tors helped Shain­dele to defy Yoel Grub that his oth­er vic­tims lacked?

  8. Was Rav Alter’s response to Yoel Grub and the attacks on the Lehmans appro­pri­ate, inad­e­quate, or genius? Giv­en the soci­ety, what do you think he could, or should, have done differently?

  9. What aspects of the hare­di com­mu­ni­ty allow sex­u­al abuse to go unchal­lenged? What steps could be tak­en to strength­en the community’s response to sex­u­al crimes?

  10. Yaakov has a moment of pan­ic when approached by a female work col­league at a bar. What does his reac­tion reveal about him? Did it make you view him in a more pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive light?

  11. Do you think reli­gion has a place in the bed­room? In what way can reli­gious stric­tures be help­ful in encour­ag­ing inti­ma­cy and in what way destruc­tive? In the long run, do you think the forced sep­a­ra­tions between Yaakov and Leah helped their rela­tion­ship, or hurt it?

  12. Did you find the romance between Rav Alter and Fru­ma Esther sur­pris­ing, or inevitable? Was it real­is­tic? In your opin­ion, does the need for romance and con­nec­tion have an age limit?

  13. While Folke­stone is a fic­tion­al place, towns just like it exist all over the Unit­ed States. In what way is Folke­stone dif­fer­ent from Boro Park? Why were these dif­fer­ences so vital to Leah and Yaakov?

  14. How does Leah’s rela­tion­ship with her moth­er grow and trans­form over the years? What are the fac­tors that allow or deter inti­ma­cy between par­ents and chil­dren who have cho­sen rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent lifestyles?

  15. What was the moment of truth in Leah and Yaakov’s rela­tion­ship? How did they resolve it? Could it have gone very differently?

  16. The Obser­vant Wife is a sequel. If you read the first book, An Unortho­dox Match, are you hap­py or unhap­py with how the sto­ry unfold­ed? If you were the author, what would you have done dif­fer­ent­ly, and what would you have left the same?