LONDON – Eve Harris almost got fired from her job teaching English literature at an ultra-Orthodox girls’ school when she tried to explain William Blake’s poem “London.” The problem was that it included the word “harlot.”
“I was told to say it was like a fallen woman in the Bible, and give them a knowing look,” says Harris, a secular Jew. “The bright ones were winking at me, the less bright ones didn’t understand. In the end, I said it is a woman who sells her body for money. Of course one girl scribbled it all down, her dad saw it and wrote a stinking letter, and I got into trouble.”
Her experience in the school – and in particular, of the “feistier” girls – eventually led to her new book, “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman,” set in the ultra-Orthodox London neighborhood of Golders Green. Her first novel, it was long-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, although it failed to make the short-list.
“Some people said it wasn’t literary enough to be on the long-list, but that was why it is so popular,” she says in a phone interview. “It is very readable.”
The book interweaves the stories of several figures struggling with the demands of their community and of their religion. The title character, Chani, is about to be married off to a boy she hardly knows, and whose family does not consider her good enough. (In one scene, Harris pays homage to the famous encounter in “Pride and Prejudice” between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Lizzy, when the mother of the groom tries to bully Chani into dropping the shidduch, only to bolster her determination to go through with it.)
Meanwhile Chani’s rebbetzin, Rifka – the most fully realized character – is having a full-blown crisis of faith, sparked partially by a bereavement, years ago, which she never properly dealt with. And Rifka’s son, Avromi, is secretly dating a non-Jewish girl after he persuaded his parents to allow him to attend a non-Jewish college.
In less than 400 pages, Harris deals – largely sympathetically — with some of the haredi world’s biggest problems: the shidduch system which disadvantages those with no money or status, the pressure to conform, “off-the-derech” or rebellious youth, and the difficulties experienced by ba’alei tshuvah, or returnees to the faith.
But Harris says the themes are universal, noting for example that her own friends’ struggles to find love.
‘It’s an ordinary story about people and their love lives, set in an exotic setting for some’
“When I was working in the community, I felt these were ordinary people living religious lives,” she says. “I made [my characters] normal and approachable and loveable. It’s an ordinary story about people and their love lives, set in an exotic setting for some.”
Harris, 40, seems an unlikely candidate to be bringing the haredi world to the masses. She grew up in Chiswick, a suburb of West London, and was one of only two Jews in her school. Although she always had a fierce Jewish identity – her mother is Israeli and her father a Holocaust survivor who “never let me forget he nearly died for his Judaism” – she says she had no religious tradition at home and missed being part of a community.
“I had none of the joy of it,” she says.
Harris, who nowadays lives in a more Jewish part of London, trained as a teacher and spent over a decade in non-Jewish schools, as well as two years teaching in Tel Aviv, as she is a passionate Zionist.
Working in a haredi environment – she prefers not to name the school — was for her “like walking into the set of ‘Witness’ or an Amish village,” and occasionally gave rise to funny situations, such as when a student spotted her walking in jeans, hand-in-hand with her fiancé, and the class later asked where her “chosson” lived. She avoided telling them they were co-habiting.
There were other clashes over the material taught – she recalls a skirmish over an illustration of Julius Caesar in which he appeared shirt-less – and some frustration that the girls’ education was being limited. The girls from more modern families were not completely naïve, she notes, for example telling a biology teacher who accidentally mentioned the word “sperm” that they knew exactly what she meant.
“I thought, ‘if you were in the outside world, you’d fly,’” she says of the smarter girls. “They were so bright and so interested in everything. I was frustrated for them. Why couldn’t I say the word ‘toilet’ or ‘dinosaur’ in a book?”
‘They were so bright and so interested in everything. I was frustrated for them’
If sometimes she thought it was “all a bit bizarre and extreme,” though, the upside was the friendships she forged. Once they got to know her, many of the teachers were open about what was going on in their lives, perhaps precisely because she was an outsider. Shidduchim were an unavoidable topic – both among the young single teachers she saw praying daily in the staffroom for a husband, and the older teachers frustrated that at their children’s pickiness.
Later, when she went back to the community to research her book, people also confided with her about their doubts. One man told her that he had totally lost his faith in God but remained religious because of his wife, while a woman told her that she really battles with her faith when bad things happen, urging her to give the Rebbetzin character “a full-on breakdown, get really angry.
“It gave me the push to make her more real,” says Harris.
The character of Avromi was based on two young Lubavitchers she met at a Friday night dinner, who had left their community for a short while but decided to return. One was now employed as a kashrut inspector.
“They were gorgeous-looking, drop-dead beautiful,” she says. “I thought if I was younger, I’d go with these guys. Both told me they went to yeshiva first, then to university, and went wild. One told me he went to clubs, did drugs and girls, but returned because it was all empty. They were both in their penguin suits, but equally confident in my world.”
The decision to channel all these characters into a book was almost accidental. Several years ago Harris took a writing course at an adult education college, and her tutor strongly criticised one of her short stories, leaving her confidence in tatters.
“I thought I won’t get mad, I’ll get even, and will write about something that he as a man will never experience,” she says. “I had the vision of a bride waiting with all the women around her, it was so powerful, and wrote 2,000 words that week. When I read it to my class, they were surprised I could write, and bought me a pint.”
That short piece eventually evolved into Chani Kaufman, which was longlisted for the Booker before it was even officially published – the third year in a row that a very “Jewish” book was nominated, following Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question” (which won) and Francesca Segal’s “The Innocents” (which was shortlisted).
Harris says that she doesn’t mind not being short-listed, particularly as she was completely exhausted by the effort to balance the book’s publicity with the needs of her young daughter, who was born four days before she finished the final corrections on the book.
“Everything altogether has been too much,” she says, explaining why she would only conduct a phone interview.
She says that the little feedback she has had from haredi readers has been mostly positive, but that anyone who doesn’t like it does not have to read it. Despite many readers’ requests, she has no plans for a sequel, but her publisher has told her that she “does Jewish and women really well,, and she is thinking of drawing inspiration from her “other love” – the weekly creative writing class she teaches to women who have just come out of jail.
“They are vulnerable women with chronic depression, alcoholism, victims of abuse. It’s an amazing class.”
It even includes a couple of Jews, so perhaps she will not have to stray too far from her original blockbuster material, after all.