Sunday 4 May 2014

Jephte's Daughter by Naomi Ragen

Although Batsheva has been bought up as a Hasidic Jew, she has always been indulged by her wealthy father and allowed to taste more freedom than her school friends.  She reads Western literature, pursues photography and dreams of living her own life before becoming married.  But when Batsheva turns eighteen, her father arranges for her to marry a scholar in Jerusalem, and she is sent half way across the world, away from everything she knows.  Isaac Harshen follows his religion strictly and wastes no time in destroying her books and 'training' her in the ways of being a Hasidic wife.  Gradually Batsheva's freedoms are curtailed, her actions are punished, and her marriage becomes an abusive cage.  When she tries to reach out to her family and others in Hasidic society, they remind her that marriage is forever and that husbands are to be obeyed.  Batsheva has retained some of her spirit, but is it enough to enable her to challenge the society she has always known?

Jephte's Daughter was published in 1989, and was apparently quite controversial in it's portrayal of women and domestic abuse in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.  I have to admit that it was the religious aspect of the book that drew me to it; I am non-religious myself so am always fascinated by stories set in societies that are so different from my own.  I can't imagine what it would be like to have religion at the centre of your life, to have so many rules to follow, and to be so withdrawn from other beliefs and lifestyles.  Batsheva's religion in Jephte's Daughter forms part of her cage; divorce is seriously frowned upon, and being married to a respected scholar like Isaac is seen as the pinnacle of a woman's life anyway.  It's hard for her to complain about the loss of intellectual freedom when she isn't expected to think.  But although Ragen shows us this downside of such isolated, strict religious communities, she also shows the love Batsheva has for her religion, and the way she wrote about Jewish beliefs and communities was fascinating.

Jephte's Daughter is really a book of two halves.  The first half deals with Batsheva's marriage and the domestic abuse, and the second is about what comes after, and the issues she has to face as a consequence. I much preferred the first half of the novel; I felt it was a powerful portrayal of an abusive marriage, and strongly written.  I was rooting for Batsheva and had an enormous amount of sympathy for her.  Unfortunately the second half was a bit of a let down.  Batsheva's journey to regain her confidence was delicately handled, but some plot events felt unrealistic, especially something convenient that happened at the end of the novel (mentioning no plot spoilers).  Things fell into place a little too easily, and I felt like this distracted from the power of the first sections.

Still, I've never read anything quite like Jephte's Daughter before.  It reminded me in some ways of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston;  it had similar themes of a woman finding herself and not letting others define her.  I would recommend it, and will look out for more books by Ragen in the future.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1989
Edition Read: St Martin's, 2010
Score: 3.5 out of 5


  1. This makes me think of the society and marriage we see in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' by Khaled Hosseini. Extremely interesting.

    1. I've not read anything by Hossieni, but Thousand Splendid Suns is the one that sounds most interesting to me. I'll have to see if I can get hold of a copy.

  2. I am also drawn to books with religious aspects even though I am not very religious. I don't think I'll hurry to get this one, but it does sound interesting.

  3. I loved this book - my review is here:

    Ragen's books are still seen as quite controversial, from within the Jewish community - particularly within the Ultra Orthodox. I think part of the problem, in that regard, is that she's writing from within, I suspect that many see her work as a betrayal of sorts. From my own perspective, as much as I have respect for those communities and the basis of faith that informs their lives, I also think that too much damage is done by their insularity and secretiveness, so books like this are important. There are always problems when the letter of the law becomes more important than the spirit of the law...and that's one of the biggest causes of conflict between the different streams of Judaism as I experience it myself.