In London, a beloved Rabbi addresses his congregation in spite of his failing health. The Rav’s voice has lost some of its resonance but the people do not want to believe that he is dying, “he from whom the light of Torah seemed to shine so brightly that they felt themselves illuminated by his presence”.
On the other side of the Atlantic, his daughter Ronit, who had left her roots, her father and everything they represented, dreams of him. “I knew him by his words. I dreamed of a huge room filled with books, floor to ceiling the shelves stretching on and on further and further out, so that the harder I looked, the more became visible at the limits of my sight. … I came to a long, wide table. … And on the table was a book. And the book was him.”
Ronit is a successful woman living in New York with a good job and a married lover. But when her father dies, she finds herself being pulled back into the world of her childhood. Although the Rav didn’t ask for her when he was dying—which hurt, in spite of herself—she returns.
Ronit’s mother died when she was a child, and she was raised by her father. But she never really fitted in, rebelling against the confines of her community. Her two best friends were Esti and Dovid. Ronit and Esti had a brief affair but then Ronit left, assuming Esti would also leave and make her own life.
But when she returns, she finds that Dovid had been her father’s right-hand man and is married to Esti, who has become a traditional wife. Ronit can’t understand it—Esti is clearly gay. But the couple seem to be happy together, although Esti tends to keep her distance from the other women. But she had never really stopped thinking about Ronit, and Ronit’s return stirs up old unresolved feelings.
Naomi Alderman captures life in the small community beautifully and I enjoyed her sense of humour. Mrs. Bloom and Mrs. Kohn meet at the butcher’s and gossip by the refrigerator. “To speak with each other in Levene the Butcher’s was easy, a simple thing that could do no harm.” Where had Ronit been all this time? “Perhaps she’s been living in Manchester with her family? No. There had been that slit in her skirt. Unless standards in Manchester had fallen dramatically—and the women did not discount that possibility—it seemed unlikely. So had it really been her? The Rav’s daughter, the one who…Well, there had been rumours at the time.” The women leave, but they have been overheard by Mrs. Stone, “unintentionally concealed behind the large poultry freezers”, and Mrs. Stone starts making enquiries of her own. (This scene had echoes of the gossiping women Under Milk Wood, set in Wales.)
Instead of pitting modernity against tradition, the book gives a voice to both. You get Ronit’s point of view through a first-person narrative. Dovid and Esti’s points are expressed through a third-person narrative that also explains the rituals and the faith. This is certainly not the first book I have read about the Orthodox Jewish community (Chaim Potok’s books come to mind) but I learned so much from it.
Although Ronit gets to tell her story directly to the reader, the centre of the book is really Esti, who grows into being her own person. In the end, this is a book about friendship.
There is a film based on the book, which I saw before I read the book. I thought the film was good until I read this: the book is far more nuanced. The film throws in conflict and sex that story doesn’t really need. Dovid is a much more sympathetic and understanding character here than in the film. Although the film stands on its own merits, I would suggest you read the book instead.