Ragen, Naomi. “An Unorthodox Match”, St. Martin’s, 2019.
Faith, Love and Acceptance
In Naomi Ragen’s new novel, we meet Yaakov, a good man, a man of God, a father, a Talmud scholar, and now a widower. He was unable to save his wife’s life and is now struggling both financially and spiritually. We also meet Lola, a secular woman who has had to deal with terrible tragedy and hardship in her life this far. In the hope of finding what is missing in her life, she looks to God and Orthodoxy in Brooklyn. She changes her name to Leah. Both of the characters are in need and both look to religious Judaism to help them better navigate life. They both need partners and while they find chemistry with each other, they also find drama and prohibition. Otherwise they seem to be a perfect match.
I am not new to Naomi Ragen but I must admit that I always thought of her writings as Jewish “chick lit”. I felt that if she had gone one step further, she would satisfy what I looking for in a Jewish writer. The intellectualism of Saul Bellow is gone as is the wonderful truth and humor of Bernard Malamud. We have lost Grace Paley and it has been a while since we have heard from Maggie Anton. I needed a writer who would take me places I do not ordinarily go and to be there for my questions. I was surprised that writer I found was Naomi Ragen. I wanted a Jewish book that managed to be light and serious at the same time. I did not need lectures, I needed literary heroes. Sure enough, I got those heroes in Yaacov and Leah.
I was raised in the world of religious Judaism and while I am no longer in that world, I have strong memories. Ragen did her research well and she shows us that kind of Judaism as it really is.
We feel for Lola/Leah Howard right away. She has had bad luck with men, first losing her fiancé to a freak accident and a serious boyfriend to infidelity. She turns to Orthodoxy with the hope of finding some kind of balance in her life and for healing. We are with her as she arrives in Boro Park, Brooklyn and begins volunteering to help the family of Yaakov Lehman, a recent widower. Several times a week she tidies his home and cares for the children. She learns about Yaakov through clues; by what she sees in the home and by what the children say. Soon she is intrigued by him and when the two finally meet, there is instant chemistry that they both deny. The possibilities for them to be together are indeed slim. He comes from a well-respected family in the community and she is an outsider who has not followed the dietary laws, has not kept the Sabbath and has lived in a totally different world.
The readers know how this story will go but we really have no idea how we will get there and in that is the fun of the book. We learn about the religious community in Boro Park both in the plot and through Ragen’s commentary. In this insular community, things are very different than in the larger world. Not only do we learn but the traditions, we learn how they became traditions I many cases.
We explore the challenges that Leah and Yaakov face as they each look for a meaningful relationship. The characters struggle to be true to their faith in a rich and meaningful way and we are with them on their journeys of explorations. We see Leah as a strong person in terms of faith and the world.
Ragen looks at Orthodox Judaism from a different perspective than I am used to and so I gained a new perspective of Judaism and it is fascinating to see Judaism from an Orthodox man’s perspective or from an Orthodox child’s. The explanations we get are not critical other than live and let live.
. There is a great deal to learn about Orthodox Judaism and its tenets, customs, holidays, ups and downs and we learn it painlessly. It’s a beautiful read and I have the feeling that this will be a very big book this year.