Reading Naomi Ragen is like having a warm visit with an old friend, complete with tea and rugelach. Whether based in B’nai Brak or Boro Park, her stories wrestle with the challenges of ultra-Orthodox life, as well as its enduring value amidst the trends of our ephemeral world. It would be hard to find a more haimish writer — one who invites us to partake in Shabbat dinners and eavesdrop on jaded matchmakers — or one more honest about navigating the intricacies of the Haredi world.
In her latest book, An Unorthodox Match, Ragen depicts the struggles faced by a ba’alat t’shuva —a Jewish woman, raised secularly, who is now drawn to the world of Boro Park’s religious community. Lola was born to an unmarried, atheistic mother who now cohabits with an Indian Sikh. As a tribute to a past sexual relationship, she sports a conspicuous tattoo on her arm. Hungry for the boundaries, meaning, and kinship of the frum world, Lola finds a kind, welcoming rabbi, and becomes Leah. She lengthens her sleeves and skirt, dons thick stockings, and slowly commits to the strictures of a pious life. When she tries to fully fit in, however – to find a shidduch and start a family – Leah is hurt to discover that the world she has been allowed, even encouraged, to join, will never fully accept her. Matchmakers pair her with the obese, the elderly, and the severely autistic. While volunteering to babysit for Yaakov, a scholarly widower raising three young children, Leah becomes the subject of hurtful gossip by the yentas. Even little girls in grade school gossip about her, tutting that her very presence is a taint on Yaakov and his family. Hasn’t she been with men (probably goyim)? Eaten traif with them? Should such a woman be left alone with a pious man and his innocent children? While Jewish law forbids malicious gossip and commands one to honor the convert (let alone the Jewish penitent), the community falls blatantly short of the mark.
Ragen is wonderful at seeing both sides of the story. Unerringly knowledgeable about the customs of Judaism and the communities who strictly follow them, she also defends personal rights — the right to feel, love, protest, or even stray from the strict mandates of the Haredi world. While elegiac about the beauty of traditional Judaism, she is also refreshingly frank about the cruelties inherent in a closed group — the harsh words and rejecting deeds uttered and done by those who consider themselves beyond reproach.
In An Unorthodox Match, as the title implies, a little rebellion goes a long way, and Ragen deftly guides us through these moral quandaries. Whether love or the law prevails, her novel and its conclusion is a worthy study in the richness and variety of our enduring people.
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.