An Observant Wife
An Observant Wife
by Naomi Ragen
Published September 14, 2021
by St. Martin’s Press
Rating: 4 Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Genre: General Fiction (Adult); Jewish Fiction
From The Publisher:
From the joy of their wedding day surrounded by supportive friends and family, Yaakov and Leah are soon plunged into the complex reality of their new lives together as Yaakov leaves his beloved yeshiva to work in the city, and Leah confronts the often agonizing restrictions imposed by religious laws governing even the most intimate moments of their married lives. Adding to their difficulties is the hostility of some in the community who continue to view Leah as a dangerous interloper, questioning her sincerity and adherence to religious laws and spreading outrageous rumors. In the midst of their heartfelt attempts to reach a balance between their human needs and their spiritual obligations, the discovery of a secret, forbidden relationship between troubled teenage daughter Shaindele and a local boy precipitates a maelstrom of life-changing consequences for all.
An Observant Wife is an excellent sequel to An Unorthodox Match (published in 2019). It’s a deep dive into Jewish culture (especially Orthodox Judaism), along with romance, grief, abuse of minors, hypocrisy, community pressure and a slew of other issues. This book follows the main characters from the first book, Leah and Yaakov, starting with their wedding. The author did not sugarcoat the attitudes of so many Orthodox Jews as it relates to outsiders or people who have converted to Judaism or, to those who, although born Jewish, are trying to become more observant – which is the case with the main female character, Leah. To many of the Orthodox Jews of Boro Park, Brooklyn, New York (where I grew up as a secular Jew, before it became so ultra-religious), nothing they do will be good enough. But luckily, not everyone feels that way, as Ragen makes clear. Leah and her husband Yaakov face a lot of struggles in this book, from Yaakov having to leave his life of full-time “learning” (Talmud study) to make a living as an accountant, to Yaakov’s oldest daughter, Shaindele, who is still reeling from her mother’s untimely death and chafing under the community’s rules, acting out in rebellion. One thing that I did not care for – Ragen ends so many chapters with warnings of doom, that it cast a bit of a pall over the story. Statements like “…neither dreaming about the far-reaching and unimaginable consequences of this decision” could have been left out and just let the action proceed, with better effect, in my opinion.
I loved the character of Fruma Esther, who is Yaakov’s children’s grandmother, his dead first wife’s mother. She lent the book a feeling of warmth, humanity and unbounded love, reinforced by her strong Jewish faith.
There is so much Jewish content here that I truly don’t know how someone outside Judaism will feel about it, but from reviews of An Unorthodox Match, it seems that it will work for non-Jews as well as secular Jews. Many Yiddish and Hebrew words and phrases pepper the text. Generally, you can figure out the meaning from the context if the author doesn’t translate it directly, but note that there’s a helpful glossary at the end of the book.