Even this material girl cant bring a good shul down

Imagine, if you will, a blonde shiksa goddess merging with Madame Bovary and morphing into an orthodox rebbitzin. This is the premise for Naomi Ragen’s latest, “The Saturday Wife.’

Having enjoyed a number of Ragen’s earlier works, especially “The Sacrifice of Tamar,” I began this new novel (to be released in August) with enthusiasm.

The story opens with the young Delilah, daughter of an auto mechanic and a low-level office worker, being taken by her father to enroll in an Orthodox Jewish day school. The school administrator points out that Delilah in the Bible was the one to bring down Sampson. One wonders if the story line would have altered if her father had decided to change her name on the spot.

Her mother, unfulfilled and frustrated at not being one of the wealthy mothers of Delilah’s classmates, focuses her frustrated existence on making sure that Delilah will enter the world and fulfill her dreams. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and along the way Delilah absorbs an all-consuming ambition to be wealthy, glamorous and “have it all.”

Delilah herself is nothing less than stunning, blonde, curvaceous and slim. Her energies, however pretty much stop there. She is a lackluster student, lazy and Orthodox only because she finds the cocoon of familiarity safe (not out of any devout belief or spirituality). Unsure of what she should do after high school, she finds herself at Bernstein College, an affiliate of Yeshiva University, seeking her “MRS” degree.

Having no driving ambition to work herself, she needs to find the right catch. Her weakness is that pleasure comes first, and she finds herself in a bad relationship that she only narrowly escapes unscathed. Repentant for about 10 minutes, she latches on to the first respectable boy she can tolerate and mesmerizes him. They are engaged after a whirlwind romance.

To her chagrin, her intended, Chaim, realizes that his best bet is to take smicha (rabbinical ordination) and become a rabbi at the shul where his grandfather’s has been rabbi for years. With this assured pulpit as an assistant rabbi, Chaim sighs in relief that his future is secure.

Married life begins in a small flat in the Bronx, and for a short time Delilah and Chaim are happy playing house and stepping into their new roles.

But ambition quickly rears its ugly head and Delilah realizes she is going to have to be the one to push Chaim forward to a larger congregation, more responsibility, as well as a bigger house, higher salary and more prestigious friends if she is to be happy.

Chaim resists, but in facing his incredibly unhappy wife, whom he adores, he begins to relent. When his grandfather dies and the shul dissolves, he has no choice but to interview and ends up at a once prestigious synagogue in Connecticut.

“The Saturday Wife” delves into layers of political texture within the Orthodox community, which to an outsider is absolutely fascinating. In truth, the similarities for all the movements for rabbi selection are one and the same. All congregations want an inspirational and dynamic leader who will be a wonderful teacher, counselor, advisor and chaplain.

The debates arise when congregants have to figure out which value is of the highest importance and how to handle a rabbi who is so inspirational that children become more religious, make aliyah and choose paths different from the ones they grew up with. There are too many personalities and biases to ever have unanimity within a congregation, and the complexities are entertainingly detailed in the novel.

Chaim and Delilah are delighted with their new home and thrilled with the birth of their son, Abraham. Delilah is actually more excited about the idea of Little Abe than with the work involved. She is much more interested in who has what and how can she go about getting it.

All hell breaks loose when Delilah finally makes a friend, one who has wealth beyond belief. The resulting jealousies, competitions and slights bring the congregation to the point of spiritual collapse.

Chaim, who starts out as a mediocre talent with minimal Talmudic capacity, grows in his role as rabbi and becomes an increasingly caring, spiritual guide. His inability to see Delilah for what she is, is frustrating, but I found myself cheering for him to wake up and take charge.

The book evokes an earlier era — that of Jane Austen — when women had few choices and had to shape their future around whom they were able to marry. While Othodox women certainly have career options open to them, to be a wife and mother are two of the highest honors that can be achieved, at the expense of possible personal professional desires.

To be a rebbitzin is an even higher call (and if this story can be believed, unbelievably exhausting).

For many women today, career is decided first, then marriage and family. For many Orthodox women it is family first, career second. This works fine as long as the marriage is strong. If the marriage fails and a career, not to mention employment, is missing, disaster looms. The story helps to bring these issues to the fore.

My biggest problem with the story was the emphasis on all of the negatives within the Orthodox community. Each community has its bad apples, gossip, politics and socio-economic stresses.

But orthodoxy is so much more. The warmth, welcoming, caring and spirituality was all but drowned out in the overindulgence of Delilah’s actions. While an Orthodox life is not my choice, the Shabbats I have spent with my Orthodox friends, along with my visits to Orthodox shuls, have been wonderful, warm and spiritual. I was sorry to see this missing from the book.

Saying this, I read the book in two days. I found it entertaining and interesting, and if I ever meet Delilah on the street I’m going to knock her upside the head and give her what for.

“The Saturday Wife’ by Naomi Ragen (292 pages, St. Martin’s Press, $24.95)