This was a book I read until exhaustion each night for about the last week. Tamar is a member of an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Orchard Park, New York. Everything seems perfect to her. She is attractive, pious, has married a Talmudic scholar who will become a rabbi. She has a good friend Jenny. She plans to have children. Everything seems good until one day she is babysitting her older sister’s baby and she comes across an intruder with a knife in the living room of the the apartment. He threatens to kill her and the baby if she doesn’t do what he tells her to. He rapes her.
Now she is in a quandry. She decides she does not dare tell anyone. The kind of community she lives in is one where everyone knows your business and judges you accordingly. She thinks her husband might divorce her because she was defiled. All her neighbors and congregants would always look at her as the woman who was raped. She takes a long shower, borrows some clean clothes from her sister and goes to the mikvah (ritual baths). She purifies herself and goes home to her husband and they make love.
She finds she is pregnant. Now she has another worry. Is it the black rapist’s baby or her husband’s child? She finally confides in her friend Jenny and another friend Hadassah who was the daughter of a famous Rebbe but was shunned because she divorced her husband from an arranged marriage. They sort of counsel an abortion, but in the end she decides to keep the baby. When Aaron is born he has dark hair, but otherwise nothing unusual in his looks. Both parents are blonde so there is some comment on that.
Life goes on. Aaron goes to study in Israel and falls in love with another pious girl Gitta Chana. She starts to get a bad feeling again that something may go wrong if they marry. But finally she decides it is just that as the mother, no girl will ever be good enough for her son, the scholar. Her life is about to fall apart.
The characters are well developed. The story is a fascinating look at the constricted world of Jews in Orchard Park. I was a convert to Conservative Judaism in the early 1990’s, so I know some of the traditions, but nothing to the level of halacha that these people live in. They remind me somewhat of the insularity of the Amish. The descriptions of Israel also make me want to visit there more than ever.
Naomi Ragen has written a number of books about Jewish women. There is a trailer for a new book, The Tenth Song, that takes place in my old stomping ground near Harvard, so, of course, I want to read that one, too. She also wrote Ghost of Hannah Mendes, about Jews in Spain during the Inquisition which sounds interesting.
Ragen, Naomi. The Sacrifice of Tamar. ISBN 978-0-312-57022-4, paperback, 458 pages.