The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Grove Press, Black Cat  2014

 

Chani and Baruch do not know one another, but they are about to wed.

Baruch Levy is obedient and religious, and makes his parents proud with his keen Torah study, until the day he announces the name of the girl he’d like to court. A quick forbidden glance to the women’s section enthralled him with Chani Kaufman, and he won’t take no for an answer.

Nineteen years old and increasingly frustrated with the obligations of her Ultra-Orthodox community, Chani follows the only permissible route of escape—getting engaged. Though she finds Baruch attractive in his earnest, if fumbling, attempts at courting, she has no idea what to expect next.

As the couple navigates their path of parents, matchmakers, and mikvehs, their closest confidants and friends explore the romantic and sexual relationships possible within and without marriage. Rebbetzin Zilberman remembers the sacrifices she made for the man she loves, while Avromi explores a world previously forbidden. On the outside, these characters are obedient and true to the traditions they value, but from inside passions ignite and regrets long hidden are reawakened, no longer willing to be ignored.

Long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Harris’s book offers a voyeuristic look at a realistically imagined Ultra-Othodox community and how it approaches love, marriage, and individuality. Her characters elicit sympathy and display color where our perception is often only in black and white. While her take can be harsh—for example, “bovine” housewives are seen buried under the weight of unplanned families— Harris also offers glimpses of beauty in the core family values, soothing relationships, and generous hands that bolster Chani in her moments to shine.

The intertwined story lines offer varied approaches to the main themes. However, while the characters’ interactions with each other— the Rebbetzin agreeing to comply with her husband’s request that she not ride a bicycle, or Chani battling the strident Mrs. Levy—are touch¬ing, funny, shocking, and overall emotionally evocative, the players’ inner lives remain a mystery. Each move seems predetermined, and we are not given enough access to understand why each chooses the small and major paths they do. Ultimately, the removed narrative voice and mysterious pivotal choices confirm that the novel is written by, and for, outsiders.


Related Content: Read reviews of other Man Booker Prize finalists and winner: The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson 

Read Eve Harris's Visiting Scribe Posts

A Glimpse into the English Charedi School System

The Things I Miss About Israel

Interview

Find Shira Schindel's interview with Eve Harris here.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Grove Press;  Reading Group Guide by Keturah Jenkins

1. Discuss the role religion plays in the lives of the different characters in the novel.

2. Compare how Eve Harris fleshes out the male and female characters. Do you think she does a better job with one gender? Why do you think she chose to tell the story from the mostly female perspective?

3. Discuss the significance of Avromi. What is his role in the story? Discuss your thoughts about the outcome of his affair with Shola. What do you think of Avromi's decision to drop out of law school and go to Jerusalem?

4. How does Mrs. Levy serve as a foil to Chani? Who, if anyone, fills that role for Baruch?

5. What part does Mrs. Levy play in the story?  Does her character change over the course of the novel? Explain your answers

6. How is sexuality and identity explored in the novel?

7. How does Chani's wedding dress function as a character in the story?

8. Why do you think Eve Harris chose the title The Marrying of Chani Kaufman?

9. How do Chani and The Rebbetzin question the traditional roles of women in the Charedi community? Where have you seen similarities between how women are treated in this country and your own communities?

10.How does Chani's imminent marriage make the Rebbetzin question her own place and marriage in the ultra Orthodox-Jewish sect?

11. Discuss the novel’s settings.

12. Chani has a complex relationship with Mrs. Kaufman, her mother, do you think that she is a good mother? Why or why not?

13. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is not only about Chani and Baruch's impending nuptials but the long marriage of the Rebbetzin and Rabbi Chaim. Why do you think Eve Harris chose to focus on the Rebbetzin and Rabbi Chaim's marriage to parallel that of Chani and Baruch's?

14. Do you think there is any significance to why the Rebbetzin takes Chani to the mikveh, or ritual bath, instead of Mrs. Kaufman? Explain your answer.

15. What do you think the author is trying to say about what the key to happiness is?

16. Why does Baruch Levy choose to court Chani against his parents’ wishes?

17. After many years of marriage and children, why do you think the Rebbetzin comes to feel suffocated by her religious beliefs and lifestyle?

18. Explain why the young Rebbetzin, Rebecca, finds the Orthodox Jewish religion in Jerusalem so appealing?

19. Discuss the author's decision to structure the plot from several different points of view. Was this an effective way to tell the story? Did it help you to feel closer to the characters? Explain your answers.

20. Baruch means Blessing in Hebrew, do you think that's what he represents to Chani? Why or why not?

21. What point do you think the author was trying to make about the place of faith and tradition in the contemporary world?

22. Why do you think the Rebbetzin's miscarriage serves as the catalyst for the end of her marriage and the start of her questioning her faith?

23. While Chani is mostly the central character of the story, why do you think the author decides to end the novel with the Rebbetzin?

24. Discuss whether you think Chani and Baruch's marriage will "fare better" than that of the Rebbetzin's.

25. What are some of the similarities between Chani and Baruch? What are some of the differences?

26. Give some examples of why Chani might not be considered an "instant wife" or a good "Yiddisher girl."

27. What did you think of Rabbi Zilberman's indecisiveness during his wife's miscarriage? Did his actions change your opinion of him? Why or why not?

28. Why do you think the author chose not to name Rabbi Kaufman and Mrs. Kaufman until several chapters into the novel? Does knowing their names change your views of who they are as a couple? Why or why not?

29. Discuss the many ways that religious belief and conviction help the characters in the novel to survive life's adversities. How has it helped you in your life?

30. How does Rabbi Chaim's feelings for the loss of Yitzchak, his first born son, reflect on his relationship with the Rebbetzin and Avromi? Why do you suppose the author waited until almost the end of the novel to share this detail about their marriage?

Suggested further reading:

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits; Visible City by Torva Mirvis; The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century by David Laskin; Unchosen: The Hidden Life of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston; Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander; Hush by Eishes Chayil; The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

Book Trailer



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