The Sacrifice of Tamar

The Sacrifice of Tamar

by Naomi Ragen


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The Sacrifice of Tamar by Naomi Ragen

Tamar Finegold is twenty-one years old, the happy, beautiful bride of a rising young Rabbi in one of Brooklyn's insulated, ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Having married the man of her dreams and taken her place as a wife—and hopefully soon-to-be mother—in her community, Tamar feels as though the world is at her feet. But her secure, predictable existence is brought to an abrupt end when she is raped by an intruder. Fearing the unbearable stigma and threat to her marriage that could result from telling the truth, Tamar makes a fateful decision that changes her life forever. Her feeling that she did the only thing she could under the circumstances explodes when years later a shocking, undreamed of turn of events finally forces her to confront her past, once and for all

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312570224
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/20/2010
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 560,957
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Naomi Ragen is the author of novels including The Tenth Song, Sotah, The Covenant, and The Saturday Wife. Her books are international bestsellers, and her weekly email columns on life in the Middle East are read by thousands of subscribers worldwide. Ragen attended Brooklyn College and earned her master's in English from Hebrew University. An American, she has lived in Jerusalem since 1971. She was recently voted one of the three most popular authors in Israel.

Read an Excerpt


Orchard Park, Brooklyn, 1970

A few hours before it happened, Tamar Finegold stood smiling at herself in her bedroom mirror. With the shades drawn and her husband gone, she stomped around the room doing the "mashed potato," like a sixties teenager or an Indian, right there, a dance of happiness and excitement.

She was humming an old Neil Sedaka song to herself as she brushed her pretty, curly blond hair toward her high cheekbones, giving herself what she believed to be a seductive look, at least as seductive as a very devout rabbi's wife from Brooklyn imagined she could look. And as she studied herself, her lovely gray eyes began to sparkle and her cheeks grew warm.

It was mikvah night, the night the halacha, religious law, permitted her to go to the ritual bath and bathe away the spiritual uncleanness of menstrual blood, sending her back into her husband's arms after two maddening weeks of total physical estrangement. It was more than not sleeping with him, she often thought while suffering through the long days of separation. It was being forbidden to touch him, to feel the casual brush of his hand against hers as he handed her a cup or sat companionably beside her on the couch, reading.

And even though she knew Josh was simply following strict rabbinical decrees meant to prevent casual contact from turning into uncontrollable passion, still, irrationally, his distance made her feel unloved. But there was nothing to be done. She might as well have tried to convince him to commit murder as seduce him to hold her hand.

They had never touched at all before their wedding night. Under the wedding canopy he'd looked so severe in his dark black suit and hat, his austerely trimmed beard and mustache reminding her of old pictures of Prussian generals. It had terrified her a little. But soon enough she had experienced the startling revelation that men, deprived of their outer trappings, in the secret sexual cosmos of their relationship to their women, were as vulnerable as the frailest baby. In that cosmos, the wrong word, the smallest hesitancy on her part, could utterly crush him. And once she had learned this, she understood the mysterious smiles of women secreted behind the synagogue partition as they watched the men bluster and propose and direct the service to G-d like kings.

This was not to say that nothing of the Prussian general remained in Josh. As several minor but frightening incidents in their short marriage had taught her, when it came to adherence to halacha, he could be as harsh and uncompromising as any sergeant lambasting a raw recruit. Quite aside from her own sincere religious convictions, there was nothing Tamar Finegold had come to dread more than being found out in some infraction of religious duty by her husband.

This quality in him didn't overly disturb her. Women were not taught the halacha the way men were, and it was the men's responsibility to steer them straight, to ensure no hint of sin blemished the family's good name. Had not her father and grandfather been the same?

But tonight, sanctioned by halacha, she would unwrap herself to him once again like a bride. Fresh, desirable, and immaculately clean, she would reach out to him, and he would lay aside his Talmud and devote himself entirely to pleasing her.

She was twenty-one years old and very eager for the night to begin. She loved him.

She loved his hands, eager and considerate; his temperate voice; his unending compassion for friends and neighbors. She loved his intelligence and uncompromising righteousness that had earned them both success and status in the yeshiva world. She loved him and had never ceased to be amazed at her incredible luck in meriting such a husband. After all, he could have done so much better.

A little thrill went through her, remembering the unbearably dainty scrounging for husbands that had gone on among her classmates at the Ohel Sara Seminary for Young Women. A scholar of Josh's caliber, with the potential to one day head his own Talmudical academy, was the Lincoln Continental of matches, a genuine commodity. He was the kind of son-in-law for whom Orthodox parents were eager to burden themselves with serious debt so that his learning might continue unimpeded by material cares.

Josh could have had any one of her classmates — and a free apartment in a two- or three-family house in Orchard Park, a new Pontiac, and four years of uninterrupted, fully financed yeshiva studies.

Instead, he'd chosen her. "I don't want the spoiled daughter of the rich. I want a woman who is willing to sacrifice to reach the highest levels of holiness. A woman who will share my life and not complain of the hardships," he'd told her frankly. "A woman who'll let me learn in peace."

Yes, any one of her classmates would have been thrilled to accept such a proposal, to share the life of such a man! A life that ensured the most elevated status imaginable in the ultra-Orthodox world of Orchard Park and a golden reward in the World-to-Come. Any one of them, she breathed deeply, proudly, with a secret little smile.

Well, almost any one of them.

She rubbed the bridge between her eyes reflectively, her pleasure tarnished, as it always was when she thought of Hadassah. But then, no one had been good enough for Hadassah. She thought of her friend/enemy with love/hate and, finally, pity. So many years later, her story was still sending shock waves through the community. Her father — the Kovnitzer rebbe, heir to the century-old Hasidic dynasty founded in Kovnitz, Czechoslovakia — had nearly died of a heart attack, and her mother — always such a youthful, pretty rebbetzin — had grown haggard and old overnight.

Who would have imagined such a fate for Hadassah?

She gave an involuntary cringe. Then she smiled again into the mirror. And who would have predicted such a fate for herself, the pretty, plump child of financially strapped Orthodox immigrants who had survived Hitler's nightmare? The shy, self-deprecating young woman who had grown up in the shadow of a dazzling older sister who got everything perfect? Even the matchmaker, her own aunt, had been shocked that things had worked out.

But from the first moment, Josh had never made her feel that he was doing her a favor, overlooking things he had a right not to overlook. She remembered the young men who had turned over her parents' china to read the brand name, who had asked her point-blank if their home was rented or owned.

Josh had never asked. He had always treated her like some precious, rare find. He had been looking for a modest, sincerely devout young woman of impeccable reputation, a woman with no taint on her character or activities or desires. And he had found her.

She looked over her nails, taking out manicure scissors and paring them down mercilessly until her fingertips were almost raw. She had no choice. Either she could cut her nails off, or the mikvah lady — that powerful inspector of female bodies who ruled the ritual bath, without whose approval no female flesh was allowed to enter its purifying waters — would cut them off for her. Besides, not preparing yourself properly for the mikvah was a sure way to start tongues wagging. This thought, more than any other, slapped her into submission. For despite all the noble halachic restrictions against gossip, gossip was the lifeblood of Orchard Park. People were quick to judge and incredibly slow to forgive and forget.

She sighed, vowing once again that the moment she got pregnant and thus liberated herself from a year's worth of mikvah inspections, she would let her nails grow and grow and grow, polishing them with shiny lacquers with names like Passionate Red, Tropical Dream, and Tawny Amber.

When she got pregnant ...

Every single time she'd gone to the mikvah in the last two years, she'd prayed she wouldn't have to go again for nine months. She wanted a baby so badly, so badly ... It was something almost physical, a yearning that came up from her bowels and stomach and heart like a wave of purest desire. She had hailed prayers on G-d, begging, pleading, demanding, making rash promises, and proposing various deals. She'd received blessings from numerous rabbis and purchased amulets. She'd visited numerous gynecologists. Everyone had promised she would have a child.

But when ... when ... when?

Every time she saw a woman with a baby carriage, every time she saw a mother cat with kittens, her heart gave that wretched little skip of despair and envy. But the worst part was watching Josh's face at the circumcision ceremonies of friends and relatives as yet another son of some G-d-favored couple was welcomed into the Jewish people. For the past two years, she'd seen his wistful longing grow sadder and more desperate. Sterility was a curse; fertility a blessing. To be childless, according to the Talmud, was akin to being dead. It was also a sign that G-d was not pleased with the union of a certain man to a certain woman.

A chill crept up her spine. What wouldn't she give to hand her husband the most powerful proof of all that G-d approved of their marriage — a son for him to teach everything he had learned, a kaddishul to pray for his soul when he died? Or a daughter, she thought reluctantly. She had nothing against girls. Just — every religious couple looked forward to a bechor, a firstborn son. Let it be a healthy child, she told herself. That would be more than enough.

She rubbed her forehead, feeling tension crease the smooth young skin between her brows. "Relax," she could almost hear her friend Jenny say in that serene, strangely decisive and encouraging way of hers. "Just relax. G-d in his own good time will answer your prayers. You've been to doctors. There's nothing physically wrong with either of you. Just trust. He will bless you ..." Such calm, beautiful faith. From Jenny, of all people ...

She bit her lip, aware that it was wrong to question such things. Tamar Finegold believed, at that moment and long afterward, that when the wind blew, G-d's hand was personally involved in turning every leaf on every tree in the direction He desired. And so, she should not have found it remarkable that Jenny Douglas, daughter of two assimilated Jews — an Ethical Culturalist mother who liked bacon with her eggs and an atheist-Communist father — had become — next to Josh — the most deeply faithful, scrupulously observant Jew she knew.

But would her faith be quite so perfect if she were married and childless? Tamar comforted herself with uncharacteristic cynicism. A moment later, though, her mood changed. For as long as she could remember, Jenny had been her best friend and a really good person. Her faith was solid and real. And perhaps she was right. Relax, just relax. Have faith.

She brushed her hair back and twisted it into a tight knot that she pinned down as flatly as she could. Then she took out an elegant new wig of almost identical color and pulled it carefully over her head, mercilessly concealing every errant wisp bent on escape. Turning her head from side to side, she admired it, feeling her heart once again stir with joy.

This was surprising. For of all the many religious laws she was bound to obey as an Orthodox Jewish woman, she found covering her hair the hardest, and harbored a secret resentment toward the wigs, tichels — head scarves — and hats that hid the glory of her own sunlit mane. Besides, it never failed to remind her of one of the worst "incidents" with Josh.

After three months of marriage and constant wig wearing, she'd noticed her beautiful hair going as dull and matted as an old doll's. In a panic, she'd run to the hairdresser and had it washed, rinsed with blond highlights, and blow-dried.

"I wish my husband could see it this way just once before I put the wig back on and ruin it," she'd told the hairdresser wistfully.

"Why not put on a hat instead?" the sympathetic woman had suggested.

She'd hesitated. Even though she'd been scrupulously careful to hide all her hair since her wedding day, she knew the halacha had a more lenient interpretation. Many religious women, including her own mother, believed it was enough to cover most of, not all, your hair. Her mother always wore hats. With this in mind, she'd tried on a little hat and looked at herself. What harm could it do? she'd wondered. After all, it was just a few minutes' walk to the house. Besides, everyone would probably think it was the wig underneath, not her own hair. It looked exactly the same. She'd walked home with the wig in a bag, feeling pleasantly wicked and joyfully young.

Of course, some yenta had immediately informed Josh.

His reaction had been terrifying. "How could you defy the halacha that way?!" he'd said, his face frighteningly red. "How could you be involved in such a display of pritzus, such wantonness, like some cheap shiksa!!!"

His harshness had stunned her. "But the halacha isn't so clear ... My mother always wore hats!" she'd defended herself weakly.

"The halacha is perfectly clear!!" he'd roared — he, who had never once raised his voice. "It says to cover your hair! If G-d tells you to do something, you do it completely, with all your heart and soul. And if you're not sure, you always do more, never less than the letter of the law!! Our parents' generation was lax. This is no excuse ..."

"I just wanted to be pretty for you ..."

"Pretty! How could you be so incredibly stupid?! Don't you know that if I want to be a rav in this community, it is not enough for people to look up to me. They have to look up to you as well! One thoughtless act ... I can't understand it! You could ruin our lives!"

She'd wept hysterically, full of remorse, demolished more by the unrelenting unhappiness in his suddenly hard eyes, his offended air of having been undeservedly wronged, than by anything he'd said. Indeed, what had broken her heart most of all had been the realization of his capacity to be so unkind.

With the wild exaggeration of a young bride after her first fight, she'd imagined divorce, disgrace, banishment. But three days later, she'd come back from the mikvah, and his passion had been overwhelming. "You're young and foolish, but you meant no harm. I've been unfair to you," he'd whispered tenderly. "Forgive me." And a great wave of relief had washed away the soft newly wedded bliss, replacing it with a warmer, more tempered passion that included a wariness and a clearer understanding of limits: she had learned that it was not only G-d who was to be loved and feared. And that her marriage should never be taken for granted.

She adjusted the new wig, admitting to herself that most of her joy was not in how flattering it looked, but in how cheaply she had purchased it. Sixty percent off! Better than wholesale!

For Tamar Finegold, every bargain-basement sale, closeout, or discount properly exploited was a victory not only in making ends meet on her husband's ridiculously low salary, but also in showing all of Orchard Park that the brilliant, esteemed young Rabbi Finegold's dubious choice of bride had been the right one. It proved that he had been right to overlook the small dowry, the undistinguished family name — that he had married a true prize, a genuine eshes chayil, as tightfisted and shrewd as she was pious.

She kept in mind, however, that it was a minor victory in a never-ending war to reconcile two opposites. For in the world of ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn Jews into which she had been born, nothing was more disdained than the pursuit of material wealth — except the appearance of poverty. It was a world where learning, good character and spiritual growth were held as supreme goals; and where not having nice clothes, a fine home and the ability to provide a dowry and support a son-in-law were indelible black marks. A world where no one looked beneath the surface, as long as the surface looked right.

A world where appearances were everything.

She started to get dressed, buttoning an exquisite long-sleeved white blouse, struggling with the little pearl buttons. It was pure silk. She had found it on a rack in Lord & Taylor where some careless salesperson had accidentally mismarked the price. She remembered the long, fierce argument with the manager, who'd had no choice but to let her have it at the ludicrously low price. As every talented New York shopper knew, that was the law. Her chest tightened pleasurably at the memory.


Excerpted from "The Sacrifice of Tamar"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Naomi Ragen.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Tamar Finegold is twenty-one years old, the happy, beautiful bride of a rising young Rabbi in one of Brooklyn's insulated, ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Having married the man of her dreams and taken her place as a wife—and hopefully soon-to-be mother—in her community, Tamar feels as though the world is at her feet. But her secure, predictable existence is brought to an abrupt end when she is raped by an intruder. Fearing the unbearable stigma and threat to her marriage that could result from telling the truth, Tamar makes a fateful decision that changes her life forever. Her feeling that she did the only thing she could under the circumstances explodes when years later a shocking, undreamed of turn of events finally forces her to confront her past, once and for all

1. The social code of the ultra Orthodox world serves not only as the background for The Sacrifice of Tamar, but as one of its most controversial elements. How would you define that code, and in what way is it a catalyst for the behavior of the characters?

2. In discussing this book, the author said portraying Tamar sympathetically was extremely challenging. In what way does Tamar's behavior evoke antagonism in the reader? What events and information does the author supply that help evince sympathy for her decision and her plight?

3. Describe Josh. What do you think his reaction would have been had Tamar told him the truth immediately?

4. Tamar hides the truth. How would the community have reacted had Tamar let the truth about the rape be known? Her family? Was Tamar's sacrifice in vain?

5. Tamar's cousin Zissel appears only briefly in the story. Why is Zissel important to the story?

6. At the beginning of the book, Tamar has the simplistic belief that "God treated you the way you treated others." What happens to this belief by the end of the book? Is it still intact? Has it changed? In what ways?

7. What, exactly, is the sacrifice Tamar makes? Or is it Tamar herself who is sacrificed? What does she gain from her behavior, and what does she lose?

8. The Sacrifice of Tamar has an important racial element. Is Tamar a racist? How does the book portray racism?

9. In Tamar, Jenny, and Hadassah, the book presents three models of religious adherence. What are they? How would you describe the positive and negative role religion plays in each of their lives?

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The Sacrifice of Tamar 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
camiller More than 1 year ago
Although The Sacrifice of Tamar is fictional,it holds your attention so strongly that you do not want the story to end. Having to hide a situation most of Tamar's life is quite an emotional roller coaster for her and presents so many questions to the reader. I would definitely recommend this book with high ratings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a Reform Jew and learned alot about Orthodoxy from this novel. While the story in itself is hard for me to relate to, it was an engaging story. I liked it better than 'Sotah' which I read many years ago.
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USF1970 More than 1 year ago this book and I got it free from the public library. LOVE the library and it's free books.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read a few of Naomi Ragen's novels, and this one is by far the best. The writing is eloquent and places the reader into the life which the characters are living, and includes a few plot twists that totally caught me off guard and drew me in that much further. I never wanted to put this book down and was sad when it ended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Another great work from an extraordinary writer. Naomi- we want more!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
wonderful book with a completely unexpected twist