Skip to main content

An Observant Wife

Review

An Observant Wife

No one writes about observant Jews as well as Naomi Ragen, whose first novel, JEPHTE’S DAUGHTER, is considered one of the 100 most important Jewish books ever written. Her new work of fiction, AN OBSERVANT WIFE, marks the return of Leah Howard and Yaakov Lehman, whom readers first met in AN UNORTHODOX MATCH. This sequel, which works well as a stand-alone, begins with their Orthodox Jewish wedding, where Leah's mother --- wearing a red dress with shockingly high red patent leather heels --- walks her up the aisle. To say the least, Leah does not come from an Orthodox background.

In the first chapter, Ragen gives us what we need to know to understand the dynamics of the Lehman family. Yaakov's first wife, Zissele, died shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. Scandalously, she killed herself after suffering from severe postpartum depression. Both Yaakov and his mother-in-law feel much guilt about not having gotten Zissele the treatment she needed, mostly out of fear of the community response to someone being hospitalized for mental illness.

"AN OBSERVANT WIFE joins the list of Ragen's books about Jewish life that will stand the test of time and become classics. They are a testament to the fact that we are all alike, no matter the religion we practice or how strictly we adhere to its beliefs."

Yaakov's new wife, Leah, was not born to an ultra-Orthodox family. To the contrary, Leah’s mother ran away from her conservative Jewish family and raised her daughter with no religion, no rules and little guidance. As a result, Leah searched for a place that would allow her to celebrate her desire to be close to God, and she thinks she has found it with the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Boro Park, Brooklyn, and with Yaakov, a good man with impeccable morals with whom she has fallen in love. She also fell in love with his children when she babysat for them while he was at temple studying.

AN OBSERVANT WIFE centers on Leah; Shaindele, Zissele's 17-year-old daughter; and Fruma Esther, Zissele's mother, who still sorely misses her daughter. Each will have to make difficult decisions over the course of the novel about what the right thing to do is, whom to trust and how to cope with regrets. Most of the problems they experience result from the insular nature of the Boro Park ultra-Orthodox Jews. While Leah had envisioned a special place where the community scrupulously follows all of God's rules, her eyes are opened to the fact that the Jews of Boro Park are just like Jews everywhere. And Jews everywhere are just like people of all religions everywhere. Some are moral, kind and loving, while others are petty, vindictive and cruel. Boro Park and the ultra-Orthodox community are no different from other places Leah has lived.

As we read about each woman's struggle, we see that they all feel loneliness, doubt and a desire to be loved. But family and the love they have for each other can conquer that which is negative and seeks to destroy them. Ragen's writing is incisive, and her commentary about religious Jews is often quite revealing. She shares with us, through Fruma Esther's eyes, the difference between a man's funeral and a woman's funeral: “Unlike a man's funeral, where one could go on and on about all the public offices and communal activities of the deceased, when a woman died, the relatives had to be content with talks praising her ‘modesty, hard work, and love of Torah.’”

The best one could say about a departed woman is that she never said a bad word about anyone: "Silence was a virtue for women, as well as not rocking the boat." Fruma Esther wonders what will be said about her and thinks that the best eulogies are from the grandchildren who were spoiled by their grandmother. Children, on the other hand, were not spoiled but rather raised with rules and stern regulations as were necessary to keep them from straying, so their grief was "perhaps more conflicted."

Leah, Shaindele and Fruma Esther represent three different generations, and each of their problems is unique. Shaindele is still coping with the loss of her mother and fears that she will suffer the same depression that Zissele did. Both she and Fruma Esther are slowly learning to overcome their prejudice when it comes to Yaakov marrying an outsider. Ragen forces us to consider this: At what point do we take a stand for what is right, even if we know that we personally will suffer as a result? We must conclude that no matter where we live or what religion we practice, the absolute power of those who are in charge of any religious group is easily corruptible. We've seen evidence of this, and while the ultra-Orthodox don't often make the news, we can be assured that they are no different.

AN OBSERVANT WIFE joins the list of Ragen's books about Jewish life that will stand the test of time and become classics. They are a testament to the fact that we are all alike, no matter the religion we practice or how strictly we adhere to its beliefs. We all suffer from prejudice, even the biases of those in our own religion, if we choose to show our devotion to God in a manner different from what is prescribed by a sect or an organization. Is it freedom of religion? Or freedom from religion --- to practice (or not) one's devotion to a higher being as one chooses? As a wise man once said, we learn a lot about truth and morality through fiction, and this book has much to teach us.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on September 24, 2021

An Observant Wife
by Naomi Ragen

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250260078
  • ISBN-13: 9781250260079