After writing twelve novels, I have finally written my first sequel. An Observant Wife comes out this September from St. Martin’s, and is the follow up to An Unorthodox Match. What was there about An Unorthodox Match that I just couldn’t let go?
To explore this, I think I’d have to start with The Devil in Jerusalem, my novel based on the harrowing, true story of a family of American Olim destroyed by a so-called kabbalist in Jerusalem. After immersing myself into the story of this horrific cult of child abusers — something I felt compelled to do — I remember thinking that for my next book I deserved to be transported to a kinder, sweeter place. And what could be more soothing and gentle to a writer’s psyche than a love story?
At that time, I had come across a newspaper article written by a woman who had become famous in Israel several years previously when she published a book describing her transition from glamorous TV personality to religious wife and mother in an ultra-Orthodox, Jerusalem neighborhood. And here she was now — some ten years and many children later — lamenting how she and her family had been treated by their religious neighbors, who had never forgiven their “crime” of once being secular Jews.
In my own mind, those two things clicked: A love story about a girl who gives up her successful secular life to find new meaning and love among ultra-Orthodox Jews. My character Leah (formerly Lola) is a thirty-something single woman, who has despaired of finding a husband among Jewish men in New York; this sentiment was an echo of many conversations I had had with such women around the country and the world. It seemed a common refrain.
All these concepts were floating around in my head. But in order to write a novel, you really have to understand your characters on a fundamental level that you can’t get from a brief newspaper clipping. As a dear friend, and former New York Times editor, once told me: “You have to know what they eat for breakfast and what toothpaste they use.” I was certainly not there yet with Leah. There were so many unanswered questions: Why leave a perfectly good secular life for the restrictions of Orthodoxy? What was the best part, and the hardest, of going from a secular to an Orthodox lifestyle? And how did the community treat you when you made your choice?
I distilled a fascinating profile of not only what Leah ate for breakfast (rabbinically approved, low-fat granola) but what she dreamt of and what her greatest fears were.
With the tool of the internet, and the magic of Facebook, however, I was soon able to gather together a group of volunteers — all baalot teshuva — who generously agreed to answer these questions and many more. From their responses, I distilled a fascinating profile of not only what Leah ate for breakfast (rabbinically approved, low-fat granola) but what she dreamt of and what her greatest fears were.
The love story itself came to me from nowhere, the character of Yaakov simply landing on my mental doorstep like a delivery from a fairy godmother. I imagined a young widower, a fervent Talmud scholar, trying and failing to cope with the reality of single parenthood after a lifetime of being coddled and tended to by all the women in his family, so as to leave him free to pursue his sacred studies.
The Divinely-ordained collision of these two lives comprised An Unorthodox Match.
But when I got to the inevitable place in the novel where I needed to take leave of my creations, sending them off like a kind parent to live their lives, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I just couldn’t bear to part from them! Not yet, at least. I had so much more I wanted to explore.
Unlike writers of fairy tales, I couldn’t rely on happily ever after, not with a modern woman — however in love — and a man deeply committed to ancient rules and laws, some of which were medieval when it came to a woman’s place in the world. How was it going to work out for Yaakov, forced to leave the yeshiva and earn a living, a transition no less fraught than Leah’s? What about Shaindele, the troubled teenage daughter, who had been so opposed to the marriage? Where was she headed?
When my unhappiness deepened, I realized that — unlike all my previous books where I was content to leave the future of my creations in the hands of my readers — I felt compelled to see the story through, perhaps because I, like Leah, went from the secular to the religious world. In a way, it was a summing up of my own life and my own experience. It deserved a book of its own.
And so my first sequel was born. An Observant Wife follows the love story of Yaakov and Leah from its passionate beginnings to the far more complex and profound relationship they share as husband and wife. Certain things certainly surprised me as the story unfolded. (Yes, an author can be shocked at what characters decide to say and do! As Tolstoy once wrote: “To my utter shock, Vronsky took out a gun and tried to kill himself.”) But I think the character that surprised me most of all was Shaindele; as she transitions into young womanhood, she undergoes a shocking experience that tears the whole family, and the entire community, apart. I certainly didn’t see that coming.
Naomi Ragen is an award-winning novelist, journalist and playwright. Her first book, Jephte’s Daughter, was listed among the one-hundred most important Jewish books of all time. Her bestselling novels include Sotah, The Covenant, The Sisters Weiss, and Devil in Jerusalem. An outspoken advocate for women’s rights, and an active combatant against anti-Israel and antisemitic propaganda through her website, she has lived in Jerusalem since 1971. The Enemy Beside Me is her fourteenth novel.