A Stranger Among Us

First-time Author Turns Memories From Haredi London Into Best Seller

In an interview with Haaretz, Eve Harris says she tried to portray the protagonists in 'The Marrying of Chani Kaufman,' long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, as ordinary people living religious lives.

Six months after Eve Harris left the ultra-Orthodox girls’ school in North West London at which she’d been teaching for a year, the experience still haunted her.

“I kept thinking about the place, I never got over it, and the whole frum [ultra-Orthodox] way of life was fascinating to me. It was a very warm, vibrant community,” Harris, 40, from London, tells Haaretz. The drama and English teacher, a half-Israeli, secular Jew who’d written short stories as a hobby and was taking a writing class, decided to set a novel in that world.

That novel, “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman,” (Sandstone, 2013) was one of 13 books long-listed for The Man Booker prize, the annual literary prize awarded to the best original full-length English novel by a citizen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe. The short list of six will be announced in September, and the final will be chosen in October.

It’s all been a bit of a shock for Harris, who has never been published. “My life has changed completely as a writer,” says Harris, who is one of three debut authors on the list. Not that the process was easy. She spent two years writing the book, and sent it out to “hundreds” of publishers, she says, completing the final draft only a few days before her first daughter was born, 16 months ago.

The book’s publication was moved up a month from its September 2013 release because of the Booker announcement, and already sold out its first printing in the United Kingdom. (A Hebrew deal was just signed, and 250 English copies have been sent to Israel). “It’s very exciting and overwhelming—I’m extremely lucky and very grateful,” she said.

This is not the first Jewish book on the Booker list. In 2010, Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question,” a comic novel-cum-treatise on Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in London won the prize. But “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman,” is a very different type of novel.

Albeit comic, “Finkler” reveled in complex philosophical discourses that “Marrying” avoids. Similarly set in modern-day London, but instead of focusing on liberal secular Judaism, “Marrying” is set the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Hendon and Golders Green, where the 19-year-old eponymous heroine is about to marry a man she’s only been on three chaste meetings with, as is wont to do in stricter religious circles. The chapters shift from Chani’s point of view to that of her equally anxious betrothed, Baruch, as well as his best friend who is secretly dating a shiksa, and his mother Rivka, the rabbi’s wife who is supposed to prepare Chani for marriage but is herself grappling with the religious way of life.

What saves the novel from being straight melodrama is the non-linear structure, beginning at the wedding, then shifting to a week before, when Baruch meets with the rabbi for instructions for the marital bed, then two days before the wedding when Chani must immerse in the mikvah ritual bath, then backward to her talks with Rebbetzin Rivka, shifting and playing with time to reveal characters’ back stories. It goes back to 1982, when Rivka—then Rebecca, a secular Jew—visits Jerusalem and, without realizing what she’s getting into, becomes religious to please her boyfriend Chaim, who later becomes the strait-laced rabbi of the London community, a stranger to his wife.

“Marrying” tries hard to immerse the reader in the Haredi world, sometimes too hard, using metaphors like, “The bride stood like a pillar of salt,” the carpet was “parting like the Red Sea,” Baruch “flamed the color of chrein,” horseradish in Yiddish, not to mention biblical euphemisms such as “he pressed his need into the mattress,” and “her father had sown his seed time and time again.”

Harris says she investigated the religious world as she was writing the novel. But to those with intimate knowledge of that world, it’s clear the author is an outsider, as she makes minor slips in words, pronunciations, customs. Harris seems amused and taken aback by the religious people online who are “up in arms” about what they feel is wrong.

“You know what? I didn’t set out to write a documentary about the frum world. It’s not a factual book, it’s a fictitious tale. I wanted to write a good story. It’s a story, nothing more,” she says. Her point was to entertain. “I haven’t got a political agenda, I’m not making a point about the religious world: I was frustrated by it and in love with it all at once.”

And that should be the insider’s real problem with the book: the author’s frustration with the community comes across all too clear, in Chani’s chafing at the rules, in her almost comically controlling future mother-in-law, in Rebbetzin Rivka’s desire to return to her former secular life, even in the way the naïve Baruch doesn’t want to become a rabbi to redeem his father’s sharkish business ways. Almost all the characters in “Marrying” yearn for something outside the community. In the novel we hardly see any of the beauty, the warmth, and the joy that Harris talks about – a “heimishness” that truly exists in most ultra-Orthodox communities, which is what, in reality, makes them so hard to truly abandon.

“I’m not writing about rebellion,” Harris asserts. “None leave the community except one person. I’m writing about frustration. I was fed-up at times. I felt frustrated with the way the girls are taught, the way their lives are so blinkered, and what’s expected of them, how they don’t have a choice.”

“I’m a modern Jewish woman, so obviously my ideals are going to clash,” says Harris, whose grandparents are all Holocaust survivors. Harris’ mother was raised in Tel Aviv, where she’d met Harris’ father, a volunteer doctor in the Six-Day War, but they returned to London before the author was born. Harris herself made aliyah in 1999 and taught English in Israel for three years, but was “burnt out” by the Second Intifada and returned to London. “I’m a very proud Zionist,” she says.

Although Harris didn’t come in close contact with many ultra-Orthodox Jews until she started teaching at the girls’ school, she was always curious. “If you’re a non-Jewish person on the street and you see a man with payos [sidelocks] in a black suit, he seems unapproachable,” she says. “I think I humanized them; throughout the book, I’ve made them lovable and real and believable,” she says.

“As they were to me – just ordinary people living religious lives.”