'The Choice': A feminist novel on Brooklyn hassidic Jewry - review

From the most down-to-earth subjects to the most pristine spirituality, The Choice is some ride.

 BROOKLYN HAREDIM protest coronavirus restrictions in New York City, 2020. The author delves into the entanglements, rivalries and complexities of the Brooklyn hassidic community. (photo credit: YUKI IWAMURA/REUTERS)
BROOKLYN HAREDIM protest coronavirus restrictions in New York City, 2020. The author delves into the entanglements, rivalries and complexities of the Brooklyn hassidic community.
(photo credit: YUKI IWAMURA/REUTERS)

This book is a riveting, if odd, brew of romantic love, family entanglements, Talmud study – and even struggles by Orthodox Jews to understand the essence of Jewish law and God.

The narrative takes us from studying Talmud to reading the Kinsey Report on Human Sexual Behavior as preparation for sex; from rabbinic sexual abuse to buying a wedding dress; from a discussion about God’s role in human life to mending a broken marriage involving a hassidic man and his non-hassidic wife; from remodeling a home to questioning the need for so many “fences” designed to help Jews not stray from the law – and a detailed account of two people’s lovemaking on their wedding night.

From the most down-to-earth subjects to the most pristine spirituality, The Choice is some ride.

A book on romance and crossing hassidic boundaries

The main storyline revolves around Hannah Eisen, a writer for a Yiddish-language newspaper who uses the pseudonym C.J. Covey to help her evade bias against women journalists. She goes to interview Talmud scholar Rabbi Nathan Mandel, and after the interview, she persuades Nathan to teach her Talmud – a violation of Jewish law.

As the lessons proceed, a mutual attraction develops between them. Finally, they express their feelings for each other, become engaged and marry.

Hasidic Jewish men gather for a morning prayer outside of a synagogue, closed due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York (credit: REUTERS)Hasidic Jewish men gather for a morning prayer outside of a synagogue, closed due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York (credit: REUTERS)

As the story unfolds, the author reveals the entanglements and rivalries among various sections of the Brooklyn Orthodox community – and some horrible behavior they try to conceal.

The study of Talmud, a central theme of the book, encompasses the “most important – even critical – aspects of modern Jewish life,” says Nathan, such as “the existence of synagogues, our liturgy, the blessings we say, how we keep Shabbos and other holidays” and how to observe the laws of kashrut. 

The laws of women and family in Judaism

Among other subjects Nathan and Hannah study is the status of women in Judaism. In Orthodox synagogues, women are not permitted to be counted toward a minyan nor have aliyot. But Nathan and Hannah discover through Tractate Rosh Hashana that 900 years ago, women in Rabbeinu Tam’s community had aliyot.

Nathan’s father shows them another source, Mahzor Vitry, written by a disciple of 11th-century commentator Rashi. It states, “You should know from Talmud that everyone in a minyan can be one of the seven [aliyot] of Torah – one of the seven who read from the Torah on Shabbos – even women. Women are exempt [from] Torah study, but if called for an aliyah, they must do the blessing.” 

“You should know from Talmud that everyone in a minyan can be one of the seven [aliyot] of Torah – one of the seven who read from the Torah on Shabbos – even women. Women are exempt [from] Torah study, but if called for an aliyah, they must do the blessing.”

The father of Nathan

Nathan’s father comments: “This is amazing. Nine hundred years ago in France, women were counted for a minyan and read from the Torah on Shabbos, in public.” 

The characters also discuss other aspects of Jewish law. The laws of “family purity” prohibit sexual relations during and after a women’s period. But the law prohibits more than sexual relations. When Nathan enters Hannah’s hospital room after she has given birth, he knows she is niddah (halachically impure) and he cannot physically touch her. This is another of those “fences” – conceptual structures that broaden the law to prevent Jews from sinning.

Nathan thought, “It wasn’t fair, this extra fence around the Torah. Did the ancient rabbis really believe that without their fences a man would jump into bed with his wife immediately after she had given birth? Didn’t Rashi disapprove of making many fences, saying that Judaism shouldn’t be difficult for the people?” 

In fiction, the most important skill is creating reader empathy for the characters. In this regard, I can only tell you that I smiled after Nathan finally told Hannah he loved her and wanted to marry her; when Benny and Sharon, a couple that had separated, reunited; and when Nathan and Hannah had twins – a boy and a girl.

In the preface, Maggie Anton writes that as a youngster she loved Chaim Potok’s novels The Chosen and The Promise. But when she reread them as an author many years later, she noted that the female characters received “short shrift.” So she decided to write a book inspired by Potok’s works but “giving names and backstories to girls and women” and “criticizing Jewish women’s unequal and inferior legal status.” 

She has achieved her goal: a feminist novel about Brooklyn Orthodox Jewry and Judaism in the 1950s.

The writer’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books), is available online and at bookstores. 

Editor’s Note: Different Orthodox groups have different views about women studying Jewish law and about the correct interpretation of the sources quoted in the book regarding women receiving aliyot.

The ChoiceBy Maggie AntonBanot Press376 pages; $16.99