“I don’t think this dating business is appropriate for Orthodox Jews … I mean, two people put on their best clothes and go out somewhere exciting and everything is so romantic. Is that reality, Rachel? Is it?”
This is the high-intensity dating advice Rachel Shine receives from her mother in Yael Levy’s recent romance novel about the Orthodox, “Brooklyn Love.” A fictional account of dating rituals among the observant, the story pulls back the curtain on an all-too-real “shidduch crisis,” in which young people are pressed to find a “good match” and marry well, although not necessarily for love.
Levy’s debut novel spins the story of three young women on their journey toward the chuppah: Rachel, an artist who falls in love with an aspiring rabbi despite her mother’s entreaties to marry a wealthy man; Hindy, who says she wants to marry a Torah scholar but falls for her accountant boss; and Leah, who dreams of becoming a doctor but must balance her studies with intense pressure from her mother, an immigrant who sees marriage as her path to a better life.
‘Moms are scared that if they don’t toe the line and push their daughters, they will never marry’
Through these characters, the novel examines the difficult decisions of young Orthodox women as they navigate a tradition-bound world — one in which marriage can sometimes resemble a business transaction or bid for social standing rather than a symbol of love and partnership.
As the protagonists weigh their personal and professional dreams against the expectations of their families and community, Levy illuminates conflicts that will be relatable to many observant Jewish readers — and, she says, to anyone whose romantic hopes have ever varied from the norm.
A freelance illustrator, journalist and blogger for The Times of Israel, Levy holds a degree in illustration from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. She and her husband — parents of a gaggle of kids ages three to 17 — live in Atlanta, where she’s studying law at Emory University.
Levy recently spoke by phone with The Times of Israel, explaining why even well-intentioned mothers often cause anxiety for single women, and joking that she hopes the novel will spark a religious ban.
A transcript of the interview, trimmed for length and continuity, appears below.
You’ve described “Brooklyn Love” as the first Orthodox romance novel. What was your inspiration? Why a romance novel?
I was living in Israel [in the 1990s], writing freelance articles for City Lights, the weekend edition of the Jerusalem Post, when my editor at the time asked me for an article on how Orthodox Jews date. Trying to develop the hook for the article, I played around with hypothetical characters and situations, and realized that I couldn’t do the topic justice in just one article. What I had to write was a book. It was a long journey until my agent and I realized the right genre for my book was as a romance.
Are your characters based on real women?
My characters and stories are composites of many people and situations I knew; however, no one character is based on any one person.
How has your own experience as a Jewish woman influenced this book? It offers a harsh view of mothers in particular for pressing their daughters toward marriage.
I started writing the novel when I was closer in age to the young women dating; at this point, I’m closer in age to their mothers. While the dating situation has gotten even [more pressure-packed] than it was when I was single, I do understand their mothers a lot more now that my contemporaries are in that [phase]. Everyone is reacting through fear. The moms are scared that if they don’t toe the line and push their daughters, they will never marry. For many women dating in such communities, this is true.
Who is your target audience?
My target audience was initially Bais Yaakov [religious school] girls and their moms. My biggest hope has been that a Brooklyn rabbi will ban my book – that way, many girls will sneak out and buy it! Seriously, though, I’ve been finding that any woman who, for cultural or religious reasons, doesn’t want to date in the way that is accepted in contemporary society has loved my book. And others just find it interesting.
In the past few years, there have been a few books that offer glimpses of Orthodox Jewish life, some from the perspective of people who’ve left that world. What do you make of these books, and to what extent does “Brooklyn Love” also expose the inside of an insular community?
‘I do want to see healthier behaviors in my community, but meaningful change takes time and a lot of hard work’
“Brooklyn Love” is one of the few books out there where the author has not left that world. I’ve got to stand by my words and answer for them. I’m Orthodox because of my personal relationship with my creator, and am happy there are Orthodox communities which give me a social context within which I can express my Judaism: I can buy kosher food, I have schools for my kids, I have a place of worship to attend. Does that mean the current expression of Orthodoxy is perfect? No. There are many social problems, but I’m not observant for social reasons, so experiencing difficulties in my community is not a reason for me to leave.
I do want to see healthier behaviors in my community, but meaningful change takes time and a lot of hard work. I’m not out to fix the world — I’m just happy to have a communal context in which I can live my life and raise my family. I’m happy there are more Orthodox books out there, though I do find the ones written by those who left the fold pretty biased regarding the problems, without any equal view of what works or what issues are in the “outside” world . . . Most secular readers have no clue as to what that world is about, and then only see and believe the negatives without understanding the society in context.
If you’re not out to change the world, doesn’t writing such an honest account of the “shidduch crisis” stoke the fire? “Brooklyn Love” implies that the system is flawed.
I don’t delude myself into thinking that I can change systems that are deeply flawed. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I do hope this book will encourage dialogue, and hopefully more practical solutions.