INTERVIEW WITH NAOMI RAGEN

An Unorthodox Match (Yaakov and Leah Book 1)

Naomi Ragen

St. Martin’s Press

Sept.24, 2019

An Unorthodox Match by Naomi Ragen has a basis for this novel, the insular world of the Jewish community; yet, any denomination can fit into this beautiful love story.  The powerful and moving plot considers how faith, love, forgiveness, and acceptance are all intertwined. Issues sensitively explored include hypocrisy, bigotry, family dysfunction, the stigma of mental illness, and the economic hardships confronting men who choose to be studious religiously, instead of earning a living.

The story begins with Lola Howard, now called Leah, who has decided to change her life after it imploded. She seeks spirituality and meaning far outside the secular parameters of modern life in the insular, ultraorthodox enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn. Fate brings her to the home of Yaakov Lehman who is struggling to bring up his five children after the loss of his wife. Recognizing that he is not coping well, he finally accepts that he must look for someone to help with household chores and the younger children.  In steps Leah who helps out and turns the household around.  Unfortunately she is not accepted by the oldest daughter, Shaindele, a teenager, who was given all the responsibilities and has had to grow up way too soon. Tension arises when Shaindele tries to make trouble for Leah who is seen by many in the community as a convert.  Ragen beautifully balances those in the community who are cruel, short-sided, prejudicial, and judgmental, with those who are virtuous, welcoming, kind, loving, and generous.

The relationship develops very slowly considering Yaakov and Leah seem to never be at the same place at the same time.  Yet, when they finally do meet they are immediately attracted to each other but their match is considered, “unorthodox.” Readers might be reminded of “Fiddler On The Roof” where the children were presented their future spouses by a matchmaker. Both Yaakov and Leah must work around their feelings, by using the communities rules. The relationship appears very realistic as Ragen skillfully shows how they were able to overcome their different backgrounds.

The theme is very believable. Just as with Leah, most people have doubts about their place in the world and they look for something true and lasting to believe in that has meaning. Readers will cry and laugh with the characters and realize that the novel depicts some of the pettiest aspects of human nature, but also highlights some of the most noble.

Elise Cooper: How did you  get the idea for the story?

Naomi Ragen: When I was in France lecturing about two years ago, there were a number of religious girls there in their thirties who told me how difficult it was to find a husband.  I also have a son in his early thirties who isn’t married, and my heart goes out to him, because I know he really wants a wife, a partner, children.  This got me thinking about matchmaking today.  Simultaneously, I read an article about a very well-known actress in Israel who was a baalat tshuva (the return of secular Jews to the religious community) and even wrote a book about it.  She said how difficult it was to live in a religious community which snubs her and her husband and children.  I found that shocking and realized what a serious problem that is. 

EC:  What about the love story?

NR: I wanted to write a love story because my last book, Devil in Jerusalem, was such a difficult book to write.  I wanted something happier, and so the story came to me about a lovely young woman and a handsome young widower.

EC: You have scenes regarding the feminist movement and the Orthodox Jewish community?

NR: You’d be surprised to learn that there is a very strong feminist movement among Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) women, which is expressing itself more and more, just not in the way Western feminists are used to.  Haredi women are organizing politically and ran in elections in Israel, although many in the Ultra-Orthodox community demand to keep women from being part of public ceremonies and initiatives.  The backlash has won victories, and these practices are now being challenged openly.

EC: How would you describe the Orthodox view of women?

NR: The Orthodox view is that a woman’s traditional role is highly respected, and has immense value, unlike the secular view of women which admires and exalts a woman CEO who goes back to work a day after giving  birth.

EC: Is the matchmaker in the community like the one in “Fiddler on the Roof?”

NR: There is a little bit of Yentel in every matchmaker, but now it’s Yentel with a cell phone and a computer.

EC:  Do you think Shaindele was made to grow up too soon?

NR: I think all children in large, poor families grow up too soon by necessity.  Haredi (religious) children are no different.

EC: How would you describe Shaindele: Arrogant, snobby, jealous, selfish, having innocence, just a child with fears?

NR: My heart goes out to Shaindele, who behaves like a spoiled brat, but whose aching heart is that of a wounded and grieving child.


EC: Describe Leah?

NR: Leah is smart, capable and forward-looking, but she did not find anything real in the secular lifestyle she grew up in and excelled at  to make a life.  She wants a real life –a husband, children, real joys, not designer bags and concerts, and tickets to the ballet.  She wants to give of herself, to love unconditionally.  In her secular life that love was betrayed first by tragedy, and then by a cheating partner.  She’s looking for a better world where her love will be accepted and respected and returned.

EC: Describe Yaakov?

NR: Yaakov is a truly good person who is limited by the world he grew up in.  He sincerely wants to take care of his family, but he never learned the skills.  He is innocent, even naïve, in some ways, inexperienced with the world – how to make a living, how to cook a meal, how to put up a load of laundry.  But what I love about Yaakov is that he has enough consciousness about his situation to regret his lack of abilities, and to try to do better.  He doesn’t take the easy way out by marrying a rich widow and abandoning his children.  He wants to be a better person.  He takes responsibility.  He is my idea of a sincerely religious man.

EC: Describe the relationship between Leah and Yaakov?

NR: I see two people who each in their own way has experienced tragedy and loss.  Two people who blame themselves for not being able to save the people they loved.  In a way, their relationship is like a rebirth for both of them, a gift they never expected to find, and a blessing.  They admire each other so much, and are sensitive to each others’ needs and pain.  They truly want to be the light in each other’s lives.

EC: Did you want the readers to understand about the Orthodox community?

NR: As always, as an Orthodox Jew myself, I wanted to show all the reasons why an Orthodox lifestyle with its restrictions and rituals can be a  beautiful life, not only that but those who choose its restrictions over the freedoms of a secular life, would still never give up what they gain from their lives as Orthodox Jews.  But Orthodoxy is not perfect.  It has social problems and prejudices that counter its sincere desire to live a good and holy life.

EC:  What do you want readers to get out of the book?

NR: All my books about the haredi (religious) world come from a place of love.  If I criticize, I do so because literature is a mirror, and the only way for a society to see their true face is in literature written about them honestly. If the face is ugly, don’t blame the writer.  Change the face.  There is so much good there.  But it needs to be better simply because it can.

EC:  Can you give a shout out about your next book?

NR: My next book continues the story of Leah and Yaakov.  What is their marriage like? Can they overcome their differences? What happens to Shaindele?  How does the community treat them as a couple?  An Unorthdox Marriage. 

THANK YOU!