All is vanity

Naomi Ragen forces adherents of the more stringent schools of religious observance to look inward.

ragen book 88 224 (photo credit: )
ragen book 88 224
(photo credit: )
The Saturday Wife By Naomi Ragen St Martin's Press 304 pages; $24.95 I would have loved to give this book a glowing review. After all the troubles that Naomi Ragen has been through recently with allegations of plagiarism, it might have helped to even the balance if reviews of her latest book were all enthusiastically positive. But whereas her previous books were attention-grabbing page-turners and difficult to put down from beginning to end, this one doesn't really become interesting until 200 pages in. Delilah Levi, née Goldgrab, the heroine of The Saturday Wife, is somewhere between modern Orthodox and haredi. She is attractive, but she's an outsider at school, having neither pedigree nor affluence. She makes the mistake of letting a yeshiva boy go too far - and then, of course, when she thinks they're headed for the huppa, he dumps her. Though laden with guilt feelings, Delilah is blissfully unaware of what people are saying behind her back. Her sordid secret is definitely not safe. Although Delilah is soiled merchandise, so to speak, a young rabbinical student is willing to marry her, but she doesn't discover until years later that he knew her secret. While not a brilliant scholar by any stretch of the imagination, Chaim Levi is a sincere, kind-hearted individual, with loads of integrity and modest aspirations. The self-centered Delilah would not be the first rebbetzin to feel resentment at having been saddled with an unpaid job that forever intrudes on her privacy and free time. Nor for that matter would she be the first to care about her appearance, to cultivate the right social set, to be prone to temptation and to covet the wealth of some of her husband's congregants. Those who mix in synagogue circles have all encountered variations on a theme of Delilah Levi. But to call her a "Saturday wife" is not entirely appropriate, because although she is mostly seen on Shabbat, the rabbi's wife has obligations to fulfill every day of the week. Delilah disdains some of these duties, and unfortunately does a few things not expected of rabbis' wives, but some, if not all, of Delilah's follies are probably being emulated by many outwardly pious rebbetzins. Ragen's critics have berated her for what in their perception is washing Jewish dirty linen in public. They criticize her for exposing injustice and sins of the flesh in Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox circles. But why should Ragen, who is also Orthodox, be criticized for pointing to the weak links in a particular stratum of society? After all, the Bible does it all the time. The patriarchal and matriarchal families of the pioneer generations of Judaism were riddled with deceit, cruelty and corruption, notwithstanding some of their more admirable characteristics. But warts and all, our patriarchs and matriarchs are accepted as paradigms whose character traits we should all strive to imbue in ourselves. In contemporary Jewish circles, where the Orthodox streams claim to be the flag bearers of authentic Judaism, Ragen forces the adherents of the more stringent schools of religious observance to look inward and to question their own sincerity. She does this with great skill in The Saturday Wife. As calculating as she is, Delilah does have occasional twinges of conscience, which in the final analysis may be her saving grace. Ragen leaves the reader guessing, but not before she has given the plot a grand finale twist that demonstrates the destructiveness of greed. It's just a shame that she didn't start all this riveting action several chapters earlier.