We will find out any day now if this debut novel makes the Short List but The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris is an ideal book for Reading Groups. Full marks to the Sandstone Press up in the Highlands for picking this up and running with it. (I wonder if anyone has ever sent them a novel about the Wee Frees: I fear it would not have the same quality of humour.)
Harris tells the story of two Golders Green couples from different generations, linked by belonging to a strongly Orthodox Jewish sect, the Charedi. It relates with a light and always sympathetic touch the struggle of Baruch to marry the girl of his choice and of Chani to overcome the snobbish objections of her future mother-in-law and the disparity in worldly wealth between the groom and his self-chosen bride.
Their story is contrasted with that of the Rebbetzin, wife of Rabbi Zilberman, and her passionate encounter with her future husband while they are in Jerusalem but then the steadily deepening religious observance of Chaim Zilberman.
Weaving in and out of these stories is the tragic-comedy of Avromi Zilberman, their son and Baruch’s best friend, and his encounter with a beautiful Gentile.
Like every good novel, a new, strange and sometimes wonderful world is opened up for the reader’s inspection. This one takes us into the mind-set of a community feeling, much of the time, under threat from the outside world and seeking to maintain its God-given standards and its commitment to prayer and observance in the face of ignorance and incomprehension from those who can have no knowledge or feeling for their traditions. There are also internal battles to fight. The rule is no television but, for a while, the Zilberman family bond in front of a tiny TV in the bedroom where they sin by watching football together. Alas, when the Rabbi is promoted in his synagogue he feels the TV has to go. The novel asks how far the contemporary world of colour and cross-pollination of ideas can be allowed into a religiously-observant life without risking possible fatal damage to many centuries of faith and tradition.
Above all, the humanity and reality of the main characters comes through while the character actors, like the mother-in-law and the matchmaker, are picked out in the fine detail that allows the reader to feel for them as well.
This is a book in the tradition of Issac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok, so, to Eve Harris, we say mazel tov! And every good wish for the Booker Prize in 2013. 8 out of 10.