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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Jephte's Daughter - Naomi Ragen

I don't know where I was when this book first came out, but I missed it then. In this new edition, Naomi Ragen includes a foreword about the experience of writing it - her first published novel - and the fallout that occurred post-publication. It deals with the topic of domestic abuse, and is set within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world. While the issue is now beginning to be addressed, with avenues available to individuals suffering abuse becoming more accessible, at the time it was a matter that was not really acknowledged, and there were few places the women and children could go for help.
The title refers to the story in Judges 11:31-35:
And Jephte vowed a vow unto God, and he said, "If you will give the Ammonites completely into my hands then whatever comes forth from the door when I return in peace I shall sacrifice to God." ... And when Jephte neared home, behold his daughter, his only child, for he had no other son nor daughter, came out to greet him with dancing and drums. And when he saw her, he ripped his clothes and said: "Alas, my daughter, you've undone me and now you are undone. For I have opened my mouth unto the Lord and cannot take it back."
Abraham Ha-Levi is the last of a Chassidic dynasty, his father and brothers, along with the rest of his extended family, having perished in the Holocaust. Unlike the rest of his family, Abraham is no scholar, and having survived, wants nothing more than to rebuild his life and live well, safely and comfortably...but for the vow he made to his mother when she threw him off the train bound for Auschwitz - that he continue the chain of leadership to their faithful followers.

When the story opens, Abraham's only child, his eighteen year old daughter Batsheva, is finishing her education at an exclusive girls' seminary in New York. She dreams of college and travel, and an opportunity - stifled in her ultra-Orthodox seminary - to discover the world for herself. However, back in her luxurious Californian home, she finds that her father has been taking the first steps towards finding her a husband - the means by which he sees that the dynasty can be continued as, feeling inadequate to the task, he has refused to take on the responsibility to lead the Ha-Levi Chassidim. On the surface, she doesn't see this as a real issue - she knows marriage, and an arranged marriage, is what she can expect, but she worries about her freedoms and choices once she has a husband in the mix, rather than her indulgent and loving father. Her mother, Fruma, who has always taken a back seat in decision making in the family is hesitant to see her daughter married so young but feels powerless to stand in the way of Abraham's quest. He heads to Israel to consult with heads of yeshivot in Jerusalem to find a scholar worthy of marrying his daughter and becoming father to the heir of the Ha-Levi dynasty.

He finds Isaac Harshen, a young scholar with a brilliant academic reputation, who is also good looking and, seemingly, personable, and makes arrangements for his rosh yeshiva (principal) to accompany him to California to meet Batsheva to see if a match can be made. Batsheva, meantime, has spun a web of fantasy about being married. Her upbringing has been sheltered, and although her father has allowed for contemporary literature and art to be part of it - not condoned by her school - that just exacerbates the fantasy element of her ideas of what a marriage could be and mean for her. She has had no experience at all of meeting boys, and while Jewish Law states that she can't be married off if she is unwilling, she knows that if she refuses Isaac, there will just be more candidates until she does say yes. Even their meeting is coloured by all her fantasies and guesses as to how he perceives her, and her family. Her tutor, Elizabeth, who may have been able to provide an alternate viewpoint, has been paid off by Abraham, and has left to go to university in England. The rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Magnes, has some concerns about the balance of his student's personality. Certainly, the young man is brilliant, but under the brilliance, he's a little worried that the hothouse learning environment of the yeshiva has hindered him from becoming a well-rounded individual. However, it's been the same for all the boys in that environment, so he dismisses those concerns, sure that like most young couples, Isaac and Batsheva will work things out over time and achieve a good marriage - if they hit it off. Isaac is taken both by Batsheva's beauty and what is on offer if this marriage goes ahead - traditionally, the highest calling for a Chassidic man is to be able to continue to study, which requires that living expenses be funded by generous dowries and, in the event that those are not sufficient, that their wives work to support the household. Abraham Ha-Levi is prepared to be very generous indeed, both to ensure that his daughter and potential heir are taken care of and that the young man can continue to study and be worthy of his place as the temporary head of the Ha-Levi Chassidim.

As is traditional, once Batsheva agrees to marry Isaac, everything happens very quickly and any reservations she still may have are obliterated in the the arrangements for a big wedding in Jerusalem and setting up the house her father buys for them. Isaac's family, many generations in Jerusalem and living on the edge of poverty like so many Chassidic families - their finances eroded over time providing for children, sons in law, grandchildren, etc - watch on in bemusement, pleased for their son's good fortune, but not overly enamoured of the glamorous young American-educated girl and worried about how she's going to fit into the life of Meah Shearim - one of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox enclaves.

From the very beginning, things are rocky - the wedding night is a disaster. Isaac is just as ignorant of how to consummate the marriage as Batsheva, and is doubly hampered by years of repressed emotions and anger. In the morning, he accuses Batsheva of having been with another man, so to add to her confusion and mixed emotions of the previous night's events, she is mortified and furious. He visits a doctor, who soothes him, and sends him back to Batsheva with some practical advice, but the damage is done. She further compounds the dynamic between them by impulsively joining in his Talmud discussion at one of the nightly dinners that is customary for a week following the wedding - traditionally, women do not join in with any kind of teaching, and he is furious that his bride should behave in such an unseemly fashion. By the time Abraham and Fruma are ready to return to America, leaving Batsheva to begin her new life as a married woman, Batsheva is starting to feel as if she's made a huge mistake - turning on her, albeit gently, Abraham makes sure she's left in no doubt that she has to grow up now, and if there are issues, to discuss them with Isaac and work them out.

Things steadily go from bad to worse. The house has everything that opens and shuts, and a maid, so there's nothing to do - even if Batsheva had been brought up learning the ways of a household, which she wasn't. Bored, she looks for things to do, and bringing out her much loved Leica, she starts making excursions to take photographs all over the city, clad in culottes and a headscarf - items not deemed sufficiently 'modest' for a young woman of her status. Coming home late one day, she finds that Isaac has started reading some of her literature, that she'd just started to unpack. Incensed already by her clothing, and the stories he's been told of her roaming the city alone, he is provoked into even greater rage by the books, and seizing them all, dumps them in the bath and sets them alight. Batsheva flees the house and calls her father. But, Isaac has already spoken to him by the time she calls, and tells her she must go home and work it out. Instead she takes herself to the King David Hotel and checks in there, joining a bus tour of the country the next day. She travels all over - from Eilat in the south, to Sfat in the north, discovering people and sights she'd not known about, only to arrive back at the hotel to discover her parents, parents-in-law and Isaac waiting for her, her room checked out. Outraged, and strengthened by her time alone, she stands up to them all, only to have her father collapse in front of her eyes. Later, in the hospital, he sends Fruma from the room, and tells Batsheva of her older brother, Yerachmiel, named after their grandfather, who died before she was born when he was three, falling on the steps of the shul on Yom Kippur. He tells her also of the vow he made to his mother, and that he has done everything he can to ensure that the family will continue, that the Ha-Levi Chassidim will have continuity of their line, and she must go back and do her part.

Months later, Elizabeth, now living with her professor in England, receives a disturbing letter from Batsheva, in which the girl sounds so unlike herself Elizabeth insists on going to Israel to see her and find out what's going on. Graham, the professor, goes with her - more to keep the peace than from any conviction of his own. Batsheva sees them, spends a couple of days sightseeing with them - which she keeps from Isaac - but does little, despite her best efforts, to truly settle Elizabeth. But it is Graham who accidentally discovers the hidden bruises when her skirt rides up - choosing not to tell Elizabeth as he senses that the now pregnant Batsheva still won't leave.

Almost three years on, Batsheva has a son, Akiva. She and Isaac have reached a point of mutual disdain, coloured by hatred, which they keep stifled in front of Akiva. Batsheva no longer has access to money - Isaac has taken her name off their accounts, she has only what he doles out for housekeeping. But, she has a friend in Gita, wife of Rabbi Gershon Kessel, and their three year old daughter, Dina. Isaac doesn't like it, but cannot block this friendship with the wife of an eminent and respected rabbi. She is starting to learn that not all ultra-Orthodox marriages are like hers. However, things are about to change, as on Akiva's third birthday, he will start at the yeshiva - and when Batsheva learns that he is to go to the same hard line yeshiva that so damaged Isaac, something in her breaks. On his birthday, he receives his first, ritual haircut, leaving only the long sidecurls, or payot, and he is wrapped in his father's tallit to be taken to the yeshiva. He is terrified, but despite Batsheva's pleading, he is taken to begin school. Part one ends with a missing persons report, followed up with a second report that clothing belonging to Batsheva and Akiva has been fished out of the Mediterranean off Tel Aviv. The Ha-Levi Chassidim go into deep mourning - the heir and his mother are dead.

Part Two - London. We find Batsheva and Akiva, both disguised with blond wigs, looking for accommodation and for Batsheva, some way of earning a living once the money she got selling an heirloom necklace is gone. She knows Elizabeth would help her, but feels that is the first place she would be looked for, and that she might be judged, and is too fragile to risk either. Eventually, she attends a lecture, urged by a neighbour, and Elizabeth is the lecturer. Elizabeth is still mourning her young friend, believing her to be dead. She is shocked, but supportive, and helps Batsheva start a business as a photographer - giving her back the precious Leica Batsheva had given her in Jerusalem. Batsheva, for the first time in her life, has to negotiate normal social situations, and finds them challenging. She is no longer living in an ultra-Orthodox enclave, and comes face to face with anti-Semitism and prejudice for the first time. And then, at a party of Elizabeth's she meets the brother of Elizabeth's soon to be fiance - David. A charismatic, troubled and conflicted man who is studying for the Catholic priesthood - and yet, there is an immediate attraction on both sides. He is initially of the mind that to bring her peace, she must accept Christianity, but slowly comes to understand that she IS at peace, religiously. They attempt to fight it. David's superiors, fearing they will lose him form the church decide to fight it by sending him away from London - to Jerusalem, on a study trip. Among his teachers is Rabbi Gershon - husband of Batsheva's friend Gita. David, still struggling with the church, his faith, and his love for Batsheva, embarks on a course of Jewish studies - trying to come to grips with the foundations of his own religion. Back in London, Batsheva, try as she might, can't forget him, and knows that if there was a way for them to be together, it would bring her life completion.

David, doing research into his family, discovers that his mother - his father's first wife - was Jewish, making him, by Jewish Law, also Jewish. She had escaped the Holocaust, just, and wanted him never to have to face what she'd gone through, so he was never told. However, given recent events, his father tells him everything. Overjoyed, he rings Batsheva to tell her. However, to be together, she will have to face Isaac, Jerusalem, and her family, and get a religious divorce - risking losing Akiva in the process.

The end of the book is riveting - both times I've read it I've been torn between going slowly because I don't want it to end, and rushing through because the level of tension it generates is fierce. The beit din, religious court, sits for days. Isaac attempts to pull a proper, forgiving and learned stance - and fails spectacularly. David is questioned. Akiva is questioned. And still it all hangs in the balance until, finally, Abraham stands up and makes clear his part in driving Batsheva to the desperate move she made to escape.

This is a truly gripping book - even if you don't know anything about ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, and especially if you only know a little. Ragen deeply loves this culture, and seeks not to destroy it - although, some of the fallout when the book was published accused her of doing so, I believe - but to open it up so that it can be seen as any community should be seen, with transparency. It is when things are hidden and people are repressed that issues become toxic.

Coming, as I do, from the other end of the Jewish spectrum, there is a sense of the exotic about the setting. In the progressive Jewish world, there are those who condemn what they see as rigidity and limitations imposed on people, particularly women and girls, in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities. The flip side of that is that there is also a lot of security and peace living in a world where expectations and roles are understood and respected. Batsheva's wedding, and the esteem in which her family is held - those dynasties of Chassidic leaders - they're real. Just this year there was a huge wedding in Jerusalem of the heir of one of the sects that attracted 25,000 people - you can look at a slide show of that HERE. There is a groundswell of change beginning in the Orthodox world, and some of it is coming courtesy of the feminist movement. In America, the first Orthodox women rabbis have been ordained - not with the title rabbi, but all have gained jobs in congregations in North America. The Women of the Wall - a group of Jewish women from all denominations - reached their 25th anniversary of praying at the Western Wall every Rosh Chodesh (new moon), fighting for equality in prayer at what many consider to be Israel's holiest site. The hardest fight - as is so often the case - is against entrenched traditions - traditions, as opposed to laws, traditions that have come over the years to hold the force of laws. Equally difficult for these communities is breaking the code of silence when there is abuse, cruelty and injustice - and no way for victims of being heard.

This is a very powerful read. Ragen doesn't pull her punches, but there is nothing gratuitous in the way she presents her stories. Her characters are very real people - flawed, imperfect, struggling, each in their own way, to make their way through what look, at times, like impossible situations.
There are two more novels in this 'set' - she didn't start out looking to write a trilogy, and they're not really one - the other two are quite separate stories. The common ground is the setting within the ultra-Orthodox world, in America and Israel. I'll get to those in due course as well, but if you're looking for them, they are The Sacrifice of Tamar and Sotah.

4 comments:

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    1. I really don't know how it took me so long to find them - apart from the fact that I now know they're not in just any regular bookshop!

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  2. I'd like to comment but I find my own religion hard enough to deal with.

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    1. I had to laugh when I read your comment, Georgina! I know the feeling all too well. I've worked within organisations that were part of various religious traditions, and the conversations have always been interesting, and sometimes contentious.

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