An Unorthodox Match is a powerful and moving novel of faith, love, and acceptance, from author Naomi Ragen, the international bestselling author ofThe Devil in Jerusalem. California girl Lola has her life all set up: business degree, handsome fiancé, fast track career, when suddenly, without warning, everything tragically implodes. After years fruitlessly searching for love, marriage, and children, she decides to take the radical step of seeking spirituality and meaning far outside the parameters of modern life in the insular, ultraorthodox enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn. There, fate brings her to the dysfunctional home of newly-widowed Jacob, a devout Torahscholar, whose life is also in turmoil, and whose small children are aching for the kindness of a womanly touch. While her mother direly predicts she is ruining her life, enslaving herself to a community that is a misogynistic religious cult, Lola's heart tells her something far more complicated. But it is the shocking and unexpected messages of her new community itself which will finally force her into a deeper understanding of the real choices she now faces and which will ultimately decide her fate.
I have to say, this book definitely grew on me. As Leah attempts to find a role for herself in her new community, she begins to understand that sometimes the "piously stringent were vicious". She finds herself a victim of the rumor-mongers among the most orthodox, and to be found wanting for her appearance, her newness to the community, and her past. While Leah had been tired of the dominant culture, of being ogled by men, at the casualness about sex, now she finds that the opposite values can be just as harmful and hurtful. She faces judgementalism, rigidity, and arrogance. At one point she says "I used to think religious people were kinder, nicer, had better character". She sees now that too often that is not the case.
But there are still those in this community that truly want to practice their faith, to be accepting, to show love. There are several quotes from the Torah that remind us that we are to "not oppress or ill treat the stranger" or even "to love the stranger among us", and other quotes that lay bare the wrongness in how Leah has been treated and perceived.
This was at it's heart a love story, but the author encases the romance of the story within an exploration of an ultra orthodox Jewish community, and a look at the often buried meanings of faith.
“An Unorthodox Match” is set in Borough Park, Brooklyn, home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside Israel. Yaakov, a devout Talmud scholar, is struggling to care for his five children after the death of his beloved wife. Recognizing that he is not coping well at all he finally accepts that he must look for a new wife so he contacts the local matchmakers.
Leah feels like a fish out of water in Borough Park. Understandable as she grew up as Lola, a secular Jew, knowing very little about the traditions of her faith. But after the death of her fiancé she turns to the faith she learned from her observant Jewish grandparents and decides to become a baal teshuva, a returnee to the faith, and joins the ultraorthodox neighborhood in Borough Park. She is looking for the structure the ultraorthodox lifestyle provides. Leah has many obstacles to overcome – primary being her mother’s insistence that she is ruining her life, and the non-acceptance by the Borough Park residents. As an act of mercy she volunteers to go to Yaakov’s home to care for the younger children and to tidy their home.
When Yaakov and Leah finally meet they are immediately attracted to each other but their match is considered – well, unorthodox. The matchmakers disapprove. Yaakov’s 15-year-old daughter Shaindele resents Leah’s visits to their home. Ragen’s portrayal of Shaindele is truly heart-breaking. After her mother’s death, Shaindele’s childhood is over. She must now take care of the younger children, clean the house, do the laundry, and do some cooking. And she still must attend school and do her homework. Shaindele resents that Leah can do all this and she couldn’t. The mother-in-law disapproves of Leah. So how can Yaakov and Leah possibly be together? I loved Yaakov and Leah so much I wanted them to just ignore all this, but that they could not do that.
I found this is be a complex story, as life itself is complex. Ragen dishes up the good, bad, and the ugly. While presenting the beautiful side of Orthodox Judaism she also exposes the ugly side. Like any community, those are those who are cruel and judgmental, and those who are kind, loving, and generous. This was an intimate look inside a very insular community, a community that follows a very strict code of conduct. I am sure that some readers will probably be offended by the rules of the community, but this is their way of life. This book is full of great characters, some being very minor in the story. Ragen writes of the parent-child upheavals after the death of one of the parents. The struggle Yaakov and Leah have with their faith and their community was poignant. Above all, a well written book should evoke emotions in its reader. This book did just that – I felt compassion, anger, fear, and joy.
Note: The cover has nothing to do with the story inside. This is a clean romance between two Orthodox people.
Thank you to Jordan Hanley at St. Martin's Press for the advance reading copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
Ragen describes the good and bad of both the secular and religious worlds, allowing some of the characters to act as 'the critical judges.' Cheryl Howard, Leah's mother is the judge against the
The path from secularlism to orthodoxy is not for the weak. One has to be passionately committed to learning a remarkably new way of seeing the possibilities of the world; to changing one's life-style, behavior, dress, food, and more.
It takes Leah years to make this committment.to the ultra-orthodox way of life where she hopes to find a loving husband and start a family. But the cynical, hypercritical matchmakers match her up with awful candidates that insult her intelligence, embarrass and anger her. Why did they even bother; did they think she thought herself as worthless as they considered her?
But Leah attracts many friends and supporters who help her reach her well-deserved goals.
I definitely recommend this book!
The story is about a a young widower, Yaakov, with five children. After a year of struggling emotionally and financially since his young wife's untimely death he realizes that he needs to find a new wife. In his community lives a young unmarried convert (although born Jewish) to orthodoxy, Leah. After losing her fiancé in an accident Leah is trying to find her life's purpose in that Orthodox community in Boro Park, Brooklyn where Yaakov resides. She too needs a new partner and strongly desires to be a mother. She volunteers to help others and becomes the part time baby sitter to Yaakov's youngest two children. They adore her. But also living in the home is a sixteen year old daughter who resents Leah and does whatever she can to sabotage the arrangement. Also figuring prominently (and a bit humorously) in the story is the role and purpose of the shadchan (matchmaker) in the orthodox community. And then there is Yaakov's mother-in-law, who wants Yaakov to remarry but lives with regret and self blame for her family's woes.
Regan explores the many forces that are against Yaakov and Leah coming together. She also inserts a bit of a mystery as to what actually lead to the death of Yaakov's first wife and skillfully deals with the issue towards the end of the book. Regan, as she always does, enhances her work with a more general exploration of faith in god and religious purpose. It is beautifully written and a compelling read.
You will find a glossary at the end that defines the many Yiddish terms used throughout the book. If I have any quibble it is that a number of terms were not included, despite being italicized in the text. Since I read an early review copy, perhaps the final glossary will be expanded. Although I knew many of the terms, I knew far from all, so the glossary was very helpful.