An Unorthodox Match: A Novel Book Review

It has been said that sometimes when things go bad, they are actually blessings in disguise.

Naomi Ragen’s new novel, An Unorthodox Match: A Novel, was published last fall.

Leah (previously known as Lola) Howard and Yaakov Lehman are both going through tough times. Leah was raised by a Jewish mother who was Jewish by history, but consciously rejected the standard middle class life that she was raised in in Brooklyn. Growing up in California, Leah was raised as a neo-hippie. Yaakov is a recent widower with five kids who life has fallen apart since his wife’s death. He is falling behind on his bills, his oldest daughter has taken on her mother’s role and his life is an overall wreck.

They meet in the Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park. Leah is a baal teshuva, needing a new direction in her life after the death of her fiance. Yaakov needs someone to watch his younger children during the day. In the world of Orthodox Jews, a potential marriage is not ideal between Leah and Yaakov. But Leah and Yaakov are a perfect fit. Will this couple meet each other at the chuppah or will gossip and judgement tear them apart?

I’ve been a fan of Ms. Ragen and her books for quite a few years now. What I love about her books is that though they are set in the world of Orthodox Jewry, her characters are thoroughly human. One does not need to be Jewish or even an Orthodox Jew to get sucked into her writing.

As a reader, I felt for her main characters. Both Leah and Yaakov are lost and looking for something or someone to anchor themselves to. I also felt frustrated because this couple was potentially going to be torn apart not by circumstance, but by outsiders who believed that they knew better. In calling out the bullshit within this community, Ms. Ragen is challenging both her characters and her readers to not be so quick to judge others because they are different.

I absolutely recommend it.


The Devil In Jerusalem Book Review

Sometimes, we make a choice and we never know where that choice will lead.

Several months ago, author Naomi Ragen released her newest book, The Devil In Jerusalem.

The novel starts off with two intertwining stories that slowly become one.

Two young boys are taken to the hospital with severe injuries. Detective Bina Tzedek is assigned to the case. The boy’s mother, Daniella Goodman, does not have the normal reaction that the reader would expect from a mother whose children are in the hospital.

The novel then flashes back to earlier stages  in Daniella’s life. She starts off the novel as a young woman, having just met the man she will marry. Shlomie and Daniella marry young and go on to have 7 children.  Wanting to become more religious, they decide to make Aaliyah (emigrate) to Israel.

And that is where the problems start.

Shlomie is more interesting in studying Torah than supporting his family. Daniella goes along with her husband’s wishes, but it soon becomes apparent that their marriage is in trouble. Trying to repair their marriage and provide for their children, Daniella and Shlomie join the ultra-religious communities in Jerusalem. Their problems go from bad to worse, leading to their youngest sons hospital stay and the police interest from Bina.

Can Bina find out what happened to the boys or will the truth stay hidden?

This book is nothing short of riveting. As I got further into the story, I kept wondering what kind of mother Daniella was to allow her children to go through what they went through. The ending, while partially predictable halfway through the end, was just shocking enough.

I recommend it.



Jephte’s Daughter Book Review

Religion,in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It creates a connection between this life and the next life, creates a connection between generations and gives life meaning.

The issue (at least my issue with religion) comes when it is the be all and end all of your existence. Especially when it contradicts with modern life.

In Naomi Ragen’s 2010 novel, Jephte’s Daughter, Batsheva Ha-Levi is the pampered daughter of a Hasidic businessman living in Los Angeles. Just after her 18th birthday, Batsheva’s world is turned upside down. Her father has secretly arranged for her marriage to a man she has never met in Jerusalem. Tied down by rules that feel foreign to her, Batsheva must choose not just between three men, but between tradition and freedom.

What I liked about this book, was not just the struggle between tradition and modernity, but Batsheva’s struggle to find her own identity in a world which is more black and white than grey.

I recommend it.


The Sacrifice Of Tamar Book Review

Life is full of difficult choices. Sometimes, we make a difficult choice and we hope for the best.

In Naomi Ragen’s 2010 novel, The Sacrifice Of Tamar, Tamar Finegold has it all. She is a happily married newlywed whose husband is gaining respect in their insular ultra-religious Jewish community.  The only thing that would make her life complete would be a child.  Then she is raped and discovers that she is not pregnant by her husband, but by the man who raped her.  Deciding not to go to the police, Tamar does not know that the decision she makes will have a lasting impact on her family a generation later.

I found this book, among all of the books of  Ms. Ragen’s that I have read, to be the most riveting. To be a young newlywed in Tamar’s shoes, to experience what she went through and than have to make a decision with severe consequences no matter what you choose is heartbreaking.

I absolutely recommend it.


Sotah Book Review

In the Talmud, a Sotah is an adulteress, a woman who strays from her marriage.

In Naomi Ragen’s 2009 book, Sotah, Dina Reich is like many young women in her community. Raised in an ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem, Dina knows what is expected of her. She will soon marry, produce children and continue a lifestyle that women in her community have lived for a very long time.

But Dina wants more than that. The man she wants to marry is not the man she ultimately marries. Her only outlet is an affair with a married man. When her affair is discovered, Dina is exiled to New York City. The exile from her home and family is designed to be a punishment, but it turns out to a blessing in disguise. Making friends with a woman named Joan, Dina’s world will expand in new and different ways. Can Dina mingle her past with her present or will she forever carry the burden of being a Sotah?

I read this book a long time ago.  Sometimes, we make decisions and the consequences of those decisions are not always happy ones. But, that does not mean that a bad decision is going to haunt us for the rest of our life.  Sometimes a wrong choice leads us to answering questions that we really needed to answer, but for whatever reason, chose not to answer.

I recommend it.



Chains Around The Grass: The Ups and Downs Of Life

Life is never smooth, nor is it predictable. Sometimes the moment when we think we have hit the lowest moment in our lives, that is actually the moment that we have begun to pick up the pieces of our lives.

Naomi Ragen’s 2002 novel, Chains Around The Grass, is about just this.  In the early 1950s, six year old Sara has just lost her father.  Her mother, Ruth, is left to raise three young children by herself.  Ruth must find the courage and strength within herself to raise her children without her husband.

I enjoyed the novel. Ms. Ragen takes the reader in quickly to the world of this family. The loss of their father and husband is potent to the reader.  My only criticism is in the description of the novel, Sara is named as the main character. When in reality, if there is a main character, it is Sara’s  father whose absence creates a hole in the hearts of his family members that can never be truly filled.

I recommend this novel.


The Tenth Song- Life’s Twists and Turns

Life is never simple. Our path’s are never straight and narrow. Sometimes the greatest trials we endure lead us to the future we didn’t think of, but when we get to that future, it’s where we were meant to be.

Four years ago, Naomi Ragen broken from her standard storytelling (A young women who rebels from a religious Jewish family) with The Tenth Circle.

She opens the book with  a tell tale line “It happened, like all horrible things happen, at the most inconvenient time”.

Abigail Samuels is living the perfect life. She and her husband, Adam, a successful accountant have three children.  Their youngest daughter, Kayla is in her final year at Harvard Law School, recently engaged to a doctor. When Adam is arrested, accused of funneling money to a terrorist organization, their lives are turned upside down.  Not knowing how to deal with the sudden changes in her life, Kayla drops out of school and flees to Israel.

In the Israeli desert, she meets a mystical religious guru who changes her life. When Abigail is sent to Israel to bring her daughter back to America, she begins to heal from the sudden changes and pain in her life.

I loved this book.  I couldn’t put it down.  Ms. Ragen took a risk, and it was well worth it.  The journey of this family and the changes that they are forced to make felt so real to me.  I could feel their fear, the pain, the agony of not knowing what would happen.

The Tenth Song- A Good Book

The Sisters Weiss Book Review

There is always something about an ultra-religious insular community that always seems to intrigue the less religious, more modern secular world.

Naomi Regan has made a career of writing about women in the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities of Israel and New York. I’ve read Jephte’s Daughter, Sotah, and the Sacrifice of Tamar, but it’s been a few years since I’ve delved into the her novels.

Her latest novel, The Sisters Weiss, tells the story of two sisters and the very different paths their lives take.

Growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1950’s, Rose and Pearl Weiss are raised in a loving ultra-orthodox family. At the beginning of the book, Rose is the good girl, favored by her parents over her  younger trouble making sister. When Rose meets Michelle, she is exposed to the outside world and begins to slowly rebel from her parents and her community.  The night before Rose is supposed to marry a boy chosen for her, she runs away, affecting everyone in her family, including her younger sister.

40 years later, Pearl’s youngest daughter, Rivka is eager to experience the world and runs away. Her mysterious and unknown Aunt Rose seems to be the best person to run to. Rose has been exiled from her family. Because of Rivka’s actions, both Rose and Pearl must not only deal with the world they were raised in, but also the consequences of their actions.

Since it’s been a number of years since I’ve read Ms. Ragen’s books, I’ve forgotten what an incredible writer she is.  These characters could be very stereotypical, but they aren’t.  The relationship between the sisters seemed real, no different than any other sibling relationship.  I could understand Rose’s rebellion, but I also understood Pearl’s need to cling to the life and the beliefs that she was raised with.

You don’t have to be religious or Jewish to enjoy this novel. I highly recommend it.

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