London, 2008. Nineteen-year-old Chani Kaufman is betrothed to Baruch Levy, a young man she’s seen only four times before their wedding day. All the cups of cold coffee and small talk with suitors have led up to this moment. But the happiness Chani and Baruch feel is outweighed by their anxiety about the realities of married life; about whether they will be able to have fewer children than Chani’s mother, who has eight daughters; and about the frightening, unspeakable secrets of the wedding night.
Through the story of Chani and Baruch’s unusual courtship, we meet a very different couple: Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and his wife, Rebbetzin Rivka Zilberman. As Chani and Baruch prepare to share a lifetime, Chaim and Rivka struggle to keep their marriage alive—and all four, together with the rest of the community, face difficult decisions about the place of faith and family in the contemporary world.
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and selected as an Amazon Best Book of the Month, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a “deeply melodic and exciting” story that “will resonate with readers from all backgrounds” and “linger after the last page” (Publishers Weekly).
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November 2008 — London
The bride stood like a pillar of salt, rigid under layers of itchy petticoats. Sweat dripped down the hollow of her back and collected in pools under her arms staining the ivory silk. She edged closer to The Bedeken Room door, one ear pressed up against it.
She heard the men singing. Their shouts of 'lai-lai-lai!' rolled down the dusty synagogue corridor. They were coming for her. This was it. This was her day. The day her real life started. She was nineteen and had never held a boy's hand. The only man to touch her had been her father and his physical affection had dwindled since her body had curved and ripened.
'Sit down, Chani-leh, show a little modesty. Come, the Kallah does not stand by the door. Sit, sit!'
Her mother's face had turned grey. The wrinkles gleamed as the make-up slid towards her collar. The plucked brows gave her a look of permanent surprise. Her mouth was compressed into a frosty pink line. Mrs Kaufman sagged under the weight of her mousy wig. Beneath, her hair was grey and wispy. An old woman at forty-five: tired. Chani was her fifth daughter, the fifth to stand in a Bedeken Room, the fifth to wear the dress. Nor would she be the last. Like Babushka dolls, three younger daughters had emerged after her.
Chani remained at her post. 'Shouldn't they be here by now?'
'They'll be here soon enough. You should be davening for all your single friends. Not everyone's as lucky as you are today, Baruch HaShem.'
'But when will they be here? It feels like we've been waiting forever.' Chani let out a long, bored sigh.
'When they're ready. Enough now, Chani-leh.'
From mother to daughter, from sister to sister, the dress had been a faithful friend, shrinking and growing with each bride's need. The silver embroidery and countless pearls concealed a thousand scars and jagged seams that chafed the skin. Every alteration marked another bride's journey, delineating her hopes and desires. The yellowed underarms that had been dry-cleaned so many times, spoke of her fears. The cold prickle of anxiety, the flash of white sheets and the enormous waiting bed loomed in each bride's mind. How will it be? How will it be? The question pulsed inside Chani's head.
She stumbled across the carpet. Parting like the Red Sea, her mother and sisters shifted their ample backsides to make room on the divan for her small, neat bottom. Her bride's white prayer book was gently pushed into her hands. The women whispered and mumbled as the prayers rose and fell in time with the rhythm of their breathing, the beat of their hearts. The Hebrew poured out in gentle, female gasps. Chani imagined the words floating up, up, up — winged letters melting into the ceiling.
The hot air throbbed with the mingling of perfume, masking the stink of body odour and stale breath. Their parched mouths were sticky with drying lipstick, their rumbling stomachs hidden under layers of clothing. Some wore two-piece suits consisting of long skirts with matching jackets buttoned up to the hilt. Others paired the compulsory long skirt with a white high-necked shirt underneath a plain navy blazer. The colours were purposely dull, enlivened only by a small brooch, or perhaps cream piping around the pocket. A self-imposed uniform, lending a dowager air to even the youngest in the room.
Like Mrs Kaufman, the married women wore their best wigs — heavy, shiny locks that hid their hair from the opposite sex, the false hair inevitably more luxurious in texture and hue. Young single women announced their state by going bareheaded, although even the most glorious mane was tamed and tied back or cut into a tidy bob.
The rounded backs and shoulders of those who had been brides before her swayed back and forth, their knees cracking as they bowed low. They prayed and sighed for Chani, for the marriage to be good and true, for HaShem to look kindly upon her and her husband. Chani's eyes burnt with tears at their loyalty and kindness.
But where was the Rebbetzin? After the lessons had ended, she had promised to be at the wedding. Chani blinked and scanned the room once more before allowing disappointment to set in. She comforted herself with the prospect that the Rebbetzin was already inside the shul watching from the women's gallery. Chani vowed to look up before she entered the chuppah.
Instead, she had her prospective mother-in-law for company. Chani caught her eye and immediately regretted not being immersed in prayer. Mrs Levy sat resplendent in a dark turquoise silk suit. A matching pillbox hat finished off the ensemble, giving her the air of a glittering, bourgeois kingfisher. She sidled over and breathed noxiously in Chani's ear.
'Lovely dress, Chani — although a little old-fashioned for my liking. Still, very pretty all the same. It suits you, my dear.'
Her mother-in-law's hat had tilted, giving her a jaunty air. Chani suppressed a smirk. Mrs Levy's extravagant copper wig had been coaxed and teased into poker-straight curtains beneath, framing her wily smile. A leopard grinning before it pounces. Chani knew better than to trust it. She stood her ground.
'Thank you, Mrs Levy, it's a family heirloom. My grandmother got married in this dress. I feel honoured to wear it.' She smiled pertly and turned towards the divan, leaving Mrs Levy staring in her wake. Having got this far, she would not let the woman rile her now. In time, they would have to learn to tolerate each other. The loathing was mutual, but it was Chani who had carried the prize and this day was hers.
The dress creaked as she sat down. It flowed over her knees and sank in sheeny billows around her feet. The only bits of Chani left free to breathe were her face and hands. The dress crept over her collarbones and clutched at her throat. The silk pulled tight, giving her an elegant long neck. Over her small, high breasts, flowers and birds bloomed in arcs of silver, traced and retraced in a spidery web over her torso. Her spine was forced upright; the stays were laced so tightly, her ribs screamed for release. A double row of pearl buttons climbed up her back like a ladder. Below her waist, the dress swelled over her hips. Silver leaves unfurled on branches, as the embroidery inched towards the hem.
Her feet jigged in satin ballet shoes and her toes wriggled in the sweat of her stockings. Thick cuffs of seed pearls, a thousand lidless eyes stitched through their very pupils, imprisoned her wrists. She was a truly chaste bride, her clavicle, wrists and ankles expertly hidden from the male gaze. The dress clung to her girlish curves though, hinting at the unexplored flesh beneath.
The dress was her passport, her means of escape from the sticky door handles and eternal chaos of her parents' home in Hendon. She had never had her own room or an abundance of new clothes. Everything was always second hand. Like the dress. Even the love she received was of the hand-me-down kind.
* * *
He couldn't remember her face. A slight problem. Baruch had come to identify his bride, to ensure he was marrying the right girl. Not to be cheated like Jacob had been, when Laban had swapped Leah for Rachel on the wedding day itself. Help me, HaShem. What was she like? Until this very moment, her face had blazed in his memory but now his mind had gone blank. Three wide black fedoras obscured his view as the Rabbi, the cantor and his father-in-law bustled towards the Bedeken Room door. He had met her three times and proposed on the fourth — but now what on earth did his bride look like? Hazy with hunger his brain rebelled, presenting him with a doughy smudge for her features. Heat held him in a vice-like grip; smothered in layers of clothing, he swayed on his feet. His uncle and father caught him. They propped him up like a drunk being escorted out of a bar. They hoisted him along, one step closer, then another. He was sweating so much his glasses steamed up. He had no chance now; the door was swinging open.
Chani remembered when her parents had time, when her mother had waited at the nursery gates for her. They would walk home together and talk all the way, her mother gripping her hand tightly, listening carefully as she gabbled. She had a faded memory of her mother playing hopscotch with her in the back garden, picking up her skirts and leaping deftly from stone to stone. But then the other babies had followed in quick succession. Her parents staggered through a mire of formula and stinking nappies. On the way home from school Chani carried the shopping, while her mother pushed the buggy and waited for the trailing toddlers to catch up. Eventually when she reached secondary school, her older sisters walked her home.
Her father was a respected rabbi of a small shtiebel in Hendon with a modest following. He was a gentle, slight, quiet man, absorbed in his spiritual world, more there in spirit than in body. His beard was long and feathery like grey candyfloss. He wore the customary black suit, with braces underneath the jacket to keep his trousers up. Her mother always bought him trousers that were slightly too large, perhaps imagining he would grow into them. Yet her father had seemed to shrink as her mother expanded.
Chani adored him. He had been a warm, loving father, full of light and laughter. She remembered the swoop of his thin arms as he swung her through the air. But as his family had grown, his delight in her had been replaced with an absentmindedness that felt like rejection. He wandered through the house as if dazed by an eternal state of fatherhood.
It wasn't just the other daughters. The community had stolen him from her. In the neglected semi that was her home, the doorbell rang incessantly. A stream of unhappy wives, confused fathers and eager scholars trooped through the hall, needy for her father's advice. He squirreled them away to his study where his door remained shut for hours. As a child Chani would play outside it, just to hear the rumble of his voice. Her patience would be rewarded by a pat on the head upon his exit. She could recognise his trouser legs anywhere. When she shut her eyes she would see the shape of his hunched shoulders, his black velvet skullcap sliding from his bald spot as he had disappeared downstairs.
Her mother had become a machine whose parts were grinding and worn. Once, she had been a slender and supple young woman, joyful and quick in her movements. Over the years, Chani had watched her mother's stomach inflate and deflate like a bullfrog's throat. She had never known her mother not to be nursing a child. Now, when she looked in her mother's eyes, she saw that the light had gone out. Her mother had become a stranger, an exhausted mountain of dilapidated flesh, endlessly suckling, soothing, patting or feeding.
Her father had sown his seed time and time again in his wife's worn out womb. Chani would shudder imagining each painful birth, baby after baby being urged into the world. She swore that when it was her turn, things would be different. Her children would never be needy for attention. Although her knowledge of contraception was a little vague she had vowed that somehow she would stop at four.
But she had had to be patient, to wait in line until suitable spouses had been found for her older sisters. The vivacious girls, who had thumped up and down the stairs, fought over the phone, alternately cuddled and teased her, had vanished. The family photos arrived from Brooklyn and Jerusalem. Her sisters were fading like ghosts as their own broods increased.
On the phone their voices were flat and hoarse. There was no time to talk, no time to ask all the questions to which she needed answers. Her turn had arrived.
Chani wore no jewels, forbidden as they are in the Torah. A Kallah, a Jewish bride must stand under the wedding canopy, hands ringless, ear lobes unadorned to signal the impending union as a commitment based on spirituality and not material acquisition. Chani looked down at her hands as they glowed against the spine of her prayer book. The nails had been smoothed and painted a clear pink, but they were ugly and too short. She had bitten them down to the quick. Her hands looked childish, the fingers stubby. She missed the blaze of her ring — the fierce diamond, a bauble of obscene size which had looked even bigger against her moist little fist. She had loved flashing it about and had taken to pointing with her left hand and gesturing with it whenever she could.
She opened the book, but the ancient letters skittered and would not be still. Where were the men? Why hadn't they knocked? Surely the singing was getting louder? She couldn't wait any more. But she had to. After all, she had been waiting all her life. She wanted a mirror to check her make-up. Gingerly, she prodded the grip that bit into her scalp, securing her floor length veil. The veil drifted over her shoulders and cascaded down her back. Was it sitting straight? She turned to ask when the door jumped in its frame. The knock forced her mother to her feet. Mrs Kaufman rocked towards the door, shoes squeaking, bunions throbbing.
Her mother grasped the doorknob and turned it. She stepped back, eyes downcast as the door swung open. The two parties, male without and female within, stared at each other. For a moment there was silence, stillness, as if everyone was listening to a single chord that chimed in the dust-mote laden air.
Baruch almost fell into The Bedeken Room. He righted himself, wiped his glasses on his tallis and stuck them back on his sweaty nose. Somebody gave his backside a firm shove, and he was propelled deeper into the room and its heady, alien, female aroma.
And there she was. His eyes met hers and he flamed the colour of chraine. Baruch bent to examine the face in front of him. Her large eyes were mischievous brown, almond-shaped and artfully emphasised with kohl. The lashes were long and sleek. Her nose was long but straight, her skin the colour of milk. The face was sharp and alert. It was not a doll's mask but alive and expressive. Her hair was a twist of slippery jet, pinned into place with pearls. Within moments of the ceremony's completion a wig would hide its liquorice sheen. She was very pleasing. He had chosen well, but surely a good Yiddisher girl would not stare back so? A half-smile played over her mouth and he remembered why he had chosen her.
His hands shook as he pulled the veil over her face. 'Amen!' boomed the men behind him. She was the right girl — but who was she really? He felt dizzy with terror at what he was about to do.
Chani had been on date after date after date. All arranged, each prospective suitor having been carefully considered by her parents and the matchmaker. She had suffered hours of cold coffee and awkward conversation. The men that she favoured did not favour her and those that wanted her, she had found dull or unappealing. After each meeting, the boy's mother would call to give the verdict regardless. Her mother made polite noises into the receiver. Then she would hang up, her face a wall of patient disappointment. It was hard enough being rejected, but it was galling to be rejected by a boy you didn't even want. One by one, her peers were getting engaged. She was desperate not to be the last. She did not want just to settle, but it became clear she had little choice.
What was the point in an unmarried Jewish girl? She did not want to be like Miss Halpern, the bible teacher at school, her long, pale face souring with each passing year, her uncovered head bent over tattered exercise books, ignoring the sniggers of the young girls she taught; girls who were on the verge of womanhood, alive with the vitality of hope and promise. So Chani gritted her teeth and persevered.
After a while she had come to resent them all, even the ones that wanted her. She could not bring herself to say yes to the pasty scholar, the squat teacher or the melancholy widower. All highly observant, all seeking a good Yiddisher girl to stir the cholent and light their Shabbes candles. An instant wife — just add water. None of them wanted to know about her.
At night, under her big white knickers, her hands explored her own naked form, enjoying its smells and contrasting textures. She pressed and caressed and felt a momentary electric thrum. But her body remained a mystery to her.
Invisible barriers surrounded her. As a small girl, she had wanted to hitch up her frumpy skirt and hurtle down the street for the bus, her legs pumping like pistons. Instead, she had learned to walk and not run, her arms clamped stiffly to her sides. She had longed for freedom of movement but had been taught to restrict her gait.
At school aged fifteen, her garrulousness had got her into trouble. In response, she filled old exercise books with angry scribbling. She was considered audacious but gifted. Her grades soared. Everything interested her — the little she could get her hands on. There was no television or internet at home or school. 'A television is an open sewer in the living-room,' her father growled. After school at Brent Cross shopping centre, she stalked the front of Dixons, mesmerised by the flickering screens and lurid colours of a world which she desperately wanted to plunge into.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Marrying of Chani Kaufman"
Copyright © 2013 Eve Harris.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – Chani. Baruch.,
Chapter 2 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 3 – Baruch,
Chapter 4 – Chani,
Chapter 5 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 6 – Chani,
Chapter 7 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 8 – Chani,
Chapter 9 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 10 – Baruch. Avromi.,
Chapter 11 – Baruch,
Chapter 12 – Avromi,
Chapter 13 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 14 – Baruch. Chani.,
Chapter 15 – Avromi,
Chapter 16 – Baruch,
Chapter 17 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 18 – Chani. Baruch.,
Chapter 19 – Avromi,
Chapter 20 – Baruch. Chani.,
Chapter 21 – Chani,
Chapter 22 – Avromi,
Chapter 23 – Chani. Baruch.,
Chapter 24 – Baruch. Chani.,
Chapter 25 – Avromi,
Chapter 26 – The Rebbetzin. Avromi.,
Chapter 27 – Chani. The Rebbetzin.,
Chapter 28 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 29 – Chani. The Rebbetzin.,
Chapter 30 – Avromi,
Chapter 31 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 32 – Chani,
Chapter 33 – Chani. Baruch.,
Chapter 34 – The Rebbetzin,
Chapter 35 – Chani. Baruch.,
Chapter 36 – The Rebbetzin,
A Conversation with Eve Harris, the Author of The Marrying of Chani Kaufman
You spent time teaching at an ultra-Orthodox girls' school and this experience informed the novel. When did you realize that there was a story to tell?
During the year I taught at the school, I got married under the auspices of an Orthodox rabbi. I experienced first-hand many of the rituals Chani goes through as a bride and after I left, I continued thinking about the strangeness of the Charedi world. About a year after I left the school, I began a writing course and I was the only one in the room that did not have a novel to complete; merely a set of paltry short stories that garnered short shrift from the tutor. My confidence was knocked and I left the class feeling deflated and miserable. A few days later, I began the fight back. When I next read to the class, a few weeks later, it was the passage that would become the first chapter of the novel. Suffice to say it got a much more positive reactionand everyone bought me a pint in the pub afterwards!
The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize - what was that experience like? What did you do when you found out?
It was completely unbelievable. In fact, when I heard I was actually deeply asleep and thought I was dreaming. It was 7:30 am and I'd fallen back asleep after a terrible night due to a summer storm. I was woken by my husband bounding into the room, leaping on the bed and shouting at me. I thought something had happened to our toddler (who was thankfully also asleep!) He thrust a phone at my face and that's when I heard my agent's teary voice telling me I'd been longlisted. Then the world turned upside down and the phone started to ring off the hook.
How did the novel begin - as a short story? Or was the full structure there from the start?
It began with a very strong image of a bride dressed in all her finery, waiting in the Bedeken Room for her husband-to-be to lower her veil. The dress seemed to take on a life of its own. I kept thinking about it and how impatient and nervous the bride must be feeling. The structure developed from this single image. She was the core and the story radiated outwards, almost in rings, from her and her dress.
The book's characters are astonishingly strongfrom the Rebbetzin, who is starting to question her life thus far and is losing her faith, to young Chani Kaufman, strong-willed but also young and sometimes quite wide-eyedhow did you get the inspiration for them?
Chani is an amalgamation of all the naughtier Charedi schoolgirls I met and enjoyed teaching. The Rebbetzin is a consolidation of the frustrations I felt for women in that world (although I am sure many would disagree with me). There is plenty of myself in both characters too!
How did you write the sections set in Jerusalem in 1982 - did you approach those in a different way from the sections in contemporary London?
I lived in Israel for 3 years as a new immigrant many years before I wrote the book. I spent half that time living in Jerusalem, falling madly in love with the city. When I was 18 during my gap year, I lived on campus as a foreign student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and spent plenty of time sitting on the basketball court, watching the lights of the Old City flicker below. I dug deep into those memories.
What was the most difficult part of writing the book? The most rewarding?
Having never written a novel before, the structure was the biggest challenge. I ended up with a lot of colored post-it notes stuck to two flattened cardboard boxes donated by my local corner shop. Each note represented a chapter and each color represented a different character. I moved them around until I felt dizzy! Writing is a grueling, lonely slog, but the days when it just felt right and my characters leapt off the page were the best.
There are aspects of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle that seem very limiting to those looking in from the outside, but at the same time, much of it seems almost liberating. Can you elaborate?
I would agree with that statement. In the secular world, there is no framework and we have little to fall back on. Our lives are chaotic and many struggle to find direction and some sort of meaning in life. In the Charedi world, everything has a meaning and a reason. Prayer, ritual and customs provide the backbone to people's lives. Their futures are usually mapped out for them and so they don't have to worry too much about carving a career for themselves or finding a partner to love. The year has a shape and a flow to it, so that people know what's coming next, both temporally and spiritually. To have those answers can be very comforting.
Who have you discovered lately?
Hannah Kent's Burial Rites and Ivy Pochoda's Visitation Street.
[Both were 2013 Discover Great New Writers selections - Ed.]
Great writing and very interesting.
I found the sections involving the Rebbetzin quite engaging. This was described as funny, but I found it sad with some uplifting moments.
I thought that the characters were well drawn. The conflicts they experienced seemed real.The novel gave insight into a community that lives with self imposed restrictions .
Gives depth and inside feeling to what looks from the outside like a rigid life. Really enjoyed reading this. However, it just suddenly stopped, as though the author didn’t know where to take it.