Fic­tion

The Mar­ry­ing of Chani Kaufman

By – March 13, 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.

Shi­ra Schin­del is the Direc­tor of Busi­ness Devel­op­ment & Author Engage­ment at Litographs and for­mer­ly the head of Con­tent and Acqui­si­tions at Qlovi, an edu­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy start­up accel­er­at­ing lit­er­a­cy in K-12 class­rooms. Before that she worked in the lit­er­ary depart­ment at ICM Part­ners, and stud­ied Cre­ative Writ­ing at Colum­bia University.

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?