Most non-Jewish and many nonorthodox Jews have a skewed view of what life is like in the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jewish communities. For the most part, these communities are viewed as one homogeneous stereotypical prototype. The result of this is that the diversity and vibrancy of the different communities tend to become blended into a monotone image. This distorted ideal is often found in literature.
Naomi Ragen has written a number of books that look at the lives of Haredi women, and which do not adhere to the common stereotypical banalities. In Sotah, Naomi Ragen takes an honest and unapologetic look at the lives led by three sisters in one close-knit community. In this book she paints a portrait that is as varied as the players portrayed, and which shows both positive and negative aspects of the culture.
This book focuses upon the life of Dina Reich and her sisters Chaya Leah and Dvorah. The Reich family lives in an ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem, Israel. The life of each sister is drastically impacted by the machinations surrounding their hunt for a husband, and how the men they accept impacted the direction that their lives are to take. The lives of Chaya Leah and Dvorah are juxtaposed against the life of Dina who, after marrying, is accused of being unfaithful. In the past, a woman accused of being unfaithful (a Sotah) could go before a priest and undergo an ordeal to prove her innocence. In modern time, there is no 'out'. In a close knit and insular community, there is no such thing as a secret. Shamed and without an idea on how to go about extracting herself from the quagmire she finds herself in, she flees. Dina ends up in New York working as a maid for a nonreligious Jewish family. The emotional and physical torment of her ordeal almost destroys her, yet she preservers and rebuilds her life, and recaptures her religious faith.
Dina's husband is a loving and caring husband and father, yet she finds she cannot speak honestly with him. In large part, this is because their marriage was 'arranged' and they do not really know each other. Had she been able to speak honestly and openly with him, many of the problems that developed could have been avoided.
In Sotah, Ragen looks at the problems that can arise from arranged marriages, as well as how these marriages are often very strong and long-lasting relationships. She also looks at decidedly negative aspects of some Haredi communities, such as religious vigilantes (morals patrols) that are willing to go to the extent of physically attacking those they feel are violating religious laws. Ragen is neither condescending, nor apologetic when discussing what some may see as the 'second rate' status of women in Haredi communities. She clearly delineates the problems these women face - such as marrying young and having many children, as well as the joy and satisfaction that most Haredi women feel.
Ragen is a well-written fast paced story that is rich in details and nuances. Dina's coming-of-age saga is chronicled in a graphic and emotionally charged style that is both poignant and forceful. This is a passionate and compelling story that is destined to become a literary classic!
This Reader's Guide edition contains a forward by the author, as well as a reader's guide that presents a variety of questions that can be used to jump start a discussion about the book. These questions are suitable for all age groups and can be used in both classroom and reader group type situations.
The Sacrifice of Tamar, by Naomi Ragen.
Shortly after Tamar was raped, she discovers that she is pregnant. She does not know, however, whether the child is her husband's or the rapist's. Living in an insular religious community, Tamar is fearful that she will be shunned if she tells anyone about the assault. For a while she is successful at keeping her secret - but when the truth is tragically discovered - everyone suffers, including her son and his new wife...
Chains Around the Grass, by Naomi Ragen.
The Markowitz's are left destitute in 1955 when the head of the household dies suddenly. Each member of the family deals with the situation in their own way. We follow the plight of this fractured family through the eyes of Sara, the middle child, as we watch her grow into a young and self-assured woman.