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The Sacrifice of TamarRagen, NaomiSt. Martin's Press (2010)

Praise for the Novels of Naomi Ragen

Sotah

“The pleasures of Ragen’s book arise… from thought-provoking comparisons of Israeli Orthodox and American Jewish life.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Richness of faith and family lovingly evoked, with the other side—religious and cultural intolerance—equally given its due.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Sotahis a passionately honest novel. Gripping from start to finish.”

—Maisie Mosco, author ofAlmonds and Raisins

Jephte’s Daughter

“An emotionally potent book.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Eloquent writing and vivid characters.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Ragen weaves the religious issues throughout the plot so that they become part of the suspense, giving this skillfully rendered page-turner… real substance.”

—Jewish Week

“First rate.”

—Susan Isaacs, author ofLong Time No SeeandPast Perfect

“Terrific!”

—Jacqueline Briskin, author ofThe Naked Heart

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes

“If you love history and romance, this is a book for you. Using the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews in 1492 as her prism, Naomi Ragen has envisioned a modern variation on Renaissance themes—an ingenious idea that works!”

—Jacqueline Park, author ofThe Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi

“Naomi Ragen delivers a mesmerizing tale about the journey of a discontented and disconnected family as they are lead by ghosts—both real and imagined—to discover their past and their present. Ragen skillfully blends together contemporary voices with voices from the little-known era of the Spanish Inquisition to weave a stunning tapestry that brings fresh meaning not only to the lives of her characters but also to our own.”

—Gay Courter, author ofThe MidwifeandCode Ezra

“Ragen examines questions of faith, responsibility, and the urgent desire to ensure the continuation of a family line… . Ragen’s forte is her ability to forge a connection between past and present, while the book adroitly addresses issues of faith and family.”

—Publishers Weekly

“A sixteenth-century ghost helps her present-day descendant preserve the past, in a story by American-Israeli Ragen (The Sacrifice of Tamar,1994, etc.) that’s as much a heartfelt plea for continuity as a family saga. A glossy celebration of culture and family.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Ragen’s engrossing novel depicts one family’s search for their Sephardic Jewish roots… . As Ragen presents her fictionalized version of Mendes’s extraordinary life, she captures the terror of the Spanish Inquisition. By weaving together the past and the present, the true and the fanciful, she also shows how much a family’s history affects its future.”

—Booklist

“Ragen beautifully articulates what Jews must do to survive in every generation. Highly recommended, especially for Jewish readers.”

—Library Journal

“[An] absorbing story… Ragen’s fourth novel is very worthwile.”

—The Jerusalem Post

“As with Ragen’s other novels, the bestsellingSotah, Jephte’s Daughter,andThe Sacrifice of Tamar,this book engages the reader with its combinationof history, passion, and spirituality.The Ghost of Hannah Mendesis not to be missed.”

—Hadassah Magazine

“If you likedSotah, Jephte’s Daughter,andThe Sacrifice of Tamar,you’ll enjoy this one, too.”

—Cleveland Jewish News

“The blending of past and present in the story’s denouement creates a beautiful ending to a story that educates as well as entertains.The Ghost of Hannah Mendeshas a little bit of everything: history, romance, adventure, mystery.”

—The Jewish Star

“Jews and non-Jews alike can delight in these stories of unusual pioneers who preserve a unique cultural heritage.”

—San Francisco Bay Guardian

The Covenant

“Gripping, emotionally charged.”

—Publishers Weekly

“The Covenanthas so much depth, with characters so rich… and a story so frightening it will leave your spine tingling for days, if not weeks.”

—Bookreporter.com

“A thrilling page-turner from start to finish,The Covenantis not only a mesmerizing tale with finely drawn characters, it is a story of truth and integrity, a multigenerational novel of love, friendship, and duty. This is a MUST-READ book.”

—Faye Kellerman, author ofBlindman’s Bluff

“Naomi Ragen’s books are always compulsively readable, andThe Covenantis no exception. An emotionally charged and engrossing book,The Covenantis a tribute to the power of friendship and the strength of love in the face of evil.”

—India Edghill, author ofWisdom’s Daughter:A Novel of Solomon and ShebaandDelilah

“The Covenantis as suspenseful as a Mary Higgins Clark novel as you worry about the fate of characters hour by hour, minute by minute. It brings the headlines heartbreakingly home and redefines the unlimited boundaries of lifelong friendship.”

—Gay Courter, author ofThe MidwifeandCode Ezra

“Ragen captures the truth about Israel and the Intifada in a highly readable account with a gripping story line. This work of fiction contains insights that are closer to the truth than many supposedly factual media reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

—Tom Gross, former Jerusalem correspondent for theLondon Sunday Telegraphand the New YorkDaily News

The Saturday Wife

“The pleasure of this novel is in its mercilessness, with Ragen raising the stakes until the very end.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Ragen tells this story with insight and humor, vividly illustrating the consequences oflashon hara(gossip). This is chick lit with a Jewish message.”

—Booklist

“Ragen does an apt job illustrating the numerous demands upon a rabbi and his wife.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“[A] must-read.”

—Baltimore Jewish Times

“Sharper than a Torah pointer, a high comedy, social satire with a bleeding heart.”

—Anne Roiphe, author ofWater from the Well

“WithThe Saturday Wife,Naomi Ragen proves herself an adept satirist as well as a brilliant storyteller… . The heiress to such eternally discontented heroines as Emma Bovary and Undine Spragg, Delilah Goldgrab Levi’s story is funny, poignant, and unforgettable.”

—India Edghill, author ofWisdom’s Daughter:A Novel of Solomon and ShebaandDelilah

THE SACRIFICEOF TAMAR

Also by Naomi Ragen

The Tenth SongThe Saturday WifeThe CovenantChains Around the GrassThe Ghost of Hannah MendesJephte’s DaughterSotah

THE SACRIFICEOF TAMAR

Naomi Ragen

  New York

Table of Contents

 

Title

Copyright

Dedication

Foreword

Acknowledgements

Part One

Chapter oneChapter twoChapter threeChapter fourChapter fiveChapter sixChapter sevenChapter eightChapter nineChapter tenChapter elevenChapter twelveChapter thirteenChapter fourteenChapter fifteenChapter sixteenChapter seventeenChapter eighteenChapter nineteenChapter twentyChapter twenty-oneChapter twenty-two

Part Two

Chapter twenty-threeChapter twenty-fourChapter twenty-fiveChapter twenty-sixChapter twenty-sevenChapter twenty-eightChapter twenty-nineChapter thirtyChapter thirty-oneChapter thirty-twoChapter thirty-threeChapter thirty-fourChapter thirty-fiveChapter thirty-sixChapter thirty-seven

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

 

THE SACRIFICE OF TAMAR. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Ragen.All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

 

www.stmartins.com

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ragen, Naomi.The sacrifice of Tamar / Naomi Ragen.p. cm.ISBN 978-0-312-57022-41. Jewish women—Fiction. 2. Rape victims—Fiction. 3. Jews—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. 4. Blacks—Relations with Jews—Fiction. 5. Families—Israel—Fiction. 6. Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. 7. Israel—Fiction. 8. Domestic fiction. 9. Jewish fiction. I. Title.PS3568.A4118S23 2010813’.54—dc22

2010014924

First published in Great Britain by The Toby Press LLC

 

First St. Martin’s Griffin Edition: August 2010

 

10    9    8    7    6    5    4    3    2    1

This book is dedicated toManny and Shirley Ragen,And to Shanie,Whose courage inspired meAnd whose brave retellingBrought me closerThan I ever dreamed possibleTo understanding.

Foreword

The Sacrifice of Tamaris the third—and last—book of what I have begun to call my “haredi trilogy,” which includesJepthe’s DaughterandSotah. I didn’t know when I wroteJephte’s Daughtermore than a decade ago, that I would be returning again and again to mine the rich lode of material provided by the lives of religious Jewish women. Yet, with the completion of each book, I felt questions arise that I needed another book to answer.

Jephte’s Daughterwas the story of the atypical: A Chassidic princess married to a great scholar, who turns out to be both less and more than he appears.Sotahtried to focus on the ordinary lives of haredi Jews living in Jerusalem, and to give some of the real texture of everyday life. WithThe Sacrifice of Tamar, I wanted a story based in the haunts of my own childhood, the neighborhoods of New York I knew so well, comparing the lives of haredi women in the Diaspora to those in Israel.The Sacrifice of Tamarwas also my most critical book, the one in which I gave myself the most freedom to express my opinions about the shortcomings of the social strictures that often impeded—even strangled—the true progress of religious life based on Jewish law. Perhaps too, it answers with the greatest force those of my critics in the religious world who have suggested that social problems in the religious Jewish world are better dealt with in silence under the cover of darkness. Those people are convinced that the perpetuation ofsocial evils is preferable to the embarrassment that comes with their exposure.

I remain convinced that the opposite is true.

Naomi Ragen

Jerusalem, Israel 2001

Acknowledgements

I would like to express my appreciation to the following people: To Betty Prashker and Erica Marcus, my gifted editors, for the insightful reading and invaluable guidance. To my agent, Jean Naggar, for encouraging me to pursue this project and for continuing to be a writer’s fairy godmother. To the many former Bais Yaakov and other yeshiva girls who grew up in Brooklyn in the fifties, for agreeing to be interviewed and for providing such valuable insights. And last, but not least, to my husband, Alex, for his continued generosity and dependable wisdom.

 

 

 

Consider the work of God:for who can make straight, whichHe has made crooked? In thydays of good fortune be joyful, andin thy days of adversity consider;God has made the one as well as the other,and man cannot know what liesin store for him.ECCLESIASTES7:13–14

Part One

Chapter one

Orchard Park, Brooklyn, 1970

A few hours before it happened, Tamar Finegold stood smiling at herself in her bedroom mirror. With the shades drawn and her husband gone, she stomped around the room doing the “mashed potato,” like a sixties teenager or an Indian, right there, a dance of happiness and excitement.

She was humming an old Neil Sedaka song to herself as she brushed her pretty, curly blond hair toward her high cheekbones, giving herself what she believed to be a seductive look, at least as seductive as a very devout rabbi’s wife from Brooklyn imagined she could look. And as she studied herself, her lovely gray eyes began to sparkle and her cheeks grew warm.

It was mikvah night, the night thehalacha, religious law, permitted her to go to the ritual bath and bathe away the spiritual uncleanness of menstrual blood, sending her back into her husband’s arms after two maddening weeks of total physical estrangement. It was more than not sleeping with him, she often thoughtwhile suffering through the long days of separation. It was being forbidden to touch him, to feel the casual brush of his hand against hers as he handed her a cup or sat companionably beside her on the couch, reading.

And even though she knew Josh was simply following strict rabbinical decrees meant to prevent casual contact from turning into uncontrollable passion, still, irrationally, his distance made her feel unloved. But there was nothing to be done. She might as well have tried to convince him to commit murder as seduce him to hold her hand.

They had never touched at all before their wedding night. Under the wedding canopy he’d looked so severe in his dark black suit and hat, his austerely trimmed beard and mustache reminding her of old pictures of Prussian generals. It had terrified her a little. But soon enough she had experienced the startling revelation that men, deprived of their outer trappings, in the secret sexual cosmos of their relationship to their women, were as vulnerable as the frailest baby. In that cosmos, the wrong word, the smallest hesitancy on her part, could utterly crush him. And once she had learned this, she understood the mysterious smiles of women secreted behind the synagogue partition as they watched the men bluster and propose and direct the service to G-d like kings.

This was not to say that nothing of the Prussian general remained in Josh. As several minor but frightening incidents in their short marriage had taught her, when it came to adherence tohalacha, he could be as harsh and uncompromising as any sergeant lambasting a raw recruit. Quite aside from her own sincere religious convictions, there was nothing Tamar Finegold had come to dread more than being found out in some infraction of religious duty by her husband.

This quality in him didn’t overly disturb her. Women were not taught thehalachathe way men were, and it was the men’s responsibility to steer them straight, to ensure no hint of sinblemished the family’s good name. Had not her father and grandfather been the same?

But tonight, sanctioned byhalacha, she would unwrap herself to him once again like a bride. Fresh, desirable, and immaculately clean, she would reach out to him, and he would lay aside his Talmud and devote himself entirely to pleasing her.

She was twenty-one years old and very eager for the night to begin. She loved him.

She loved his hands, eager and considerate; his temperate voice; his unending compassion for friends and neighbors. She loved his intelligence and uncompromising righteousness that had earned them both success and status in the yeshiva world. She loved him and had never ceased to be amazed at her incredible luck in meriting such a husband. After all, he could have done so much better.

A little thrill went through her, remembering the unbearably dainty scrounging for husbands that had gone on among her classmates at the Ohel Sara Seminary for Young Women. A scholar of Josh’s caliber, with the potential to one day head his own Talmudical academy, was the Lincoln Continental of matches, a genuine commodity. He was the kind of son-in-law for whom Orthodox parents were eager to burden themselves with serious debt so that his learning might continue unimpeded by material cares.

Josh could have had any one of her classmates—and a free apartment in a two- or three-family house in Orchard Park, a new Pontiac, and four years of uninterrupted, fully financed yeshiva studies.

Instead, he’d chosen her. “I don’t want the spoiled daughter of the rich. I want a woman who is willing to sacrifice to reach the highest levels of holiness. A woman who will share my life and not complain of the hardships,” he’d told her frankly. “A woman who’ll let me learn in peace.”

Yes, any one of her classmates would have been thrilled to accept such a proposal, to share the life of such a man! A life that ensured the most elevated status imaginable in the ultra-Orthodox world of Orchard Park and a golden reward in the World-to-Come. Any one of them, she breathed deeply, proudly, with a secret little smile.

Well, almost any one of them.

She rubbed the bridge between her eyes reflectively, her pleasure tarnished, as it always was when she thought of Hadassah. But then, no one had been good enough for Hadassah. She thought of her friend/enemy with love/hate and, finally, pity. So many years later, her story was still sending shock waves through the community. Her father—the Kovnitzer rebbe, heir to the century-old Hasidic dynasty founded in Kovnitz, Czechoslovakia—had nearly died of a heart attack, and her mother—always such a youthful, pretty rebbetzin—had grown haggard and old overnight.

Who would have imagined such a fate for Hadassah?

She gave an involuntary cringe. Then she smiled again into the mirror. And who would have predicted such a fate for herself, the pretty, plump child of financially strapped Orthodox immigrants who had survived Hitler’s nightmare? The shy, self-deprecating young woman who had grown up in the shadow of a dazzling older sister who got everything perfect? Even the matchmaker, her own aunt, had been shocked that things had worked out.

But from the first moment, Josh had never made her feel that he was doing her a favor, overlooking things he had a right not to overlook. She remembered the young men who had turned over her parents’ china to read the brand name, who had asked her point-blank if their home was rented or owned.

Josh had never asked. He had always treated her like some precious, rare find. He had been looking for a modest, sincerelydevout young woman of impeccable reputation, a woman with no taint on her character or activities or desires. And he had found her.

She looked over her nails, taking out manicure scissors and paring them down mercilessly until her fingertips were almost raw. She had no choice. Either she could cut her nails off, or the mikvah lady—that powerful inspector of female bodies who ruled the ritual bath, without whose approval no female flesh was allowed to enter its purifying waters—would cut them off for her. Besides, not preparing yourself properly for the mikvah was a sure way to start tongues wagging. This thought, more than any other, slapped her into submission. For despite all the noblehalachicrestrictions against gossip, gossip was the lifeblood of Orchard Park. People were quick to judge and incredibly slow to forgive and forget.

She sighed, vowing once again that the moment she got pregnant and thus liberated herself from a year’s worth of mikvah inspections, she would let her nails grow and grow and grow, polishing them with shiny lacquers with names like Passionate Red, Tropical Dream, and Tawny Amber.

When she got pregnant…

Every single time she’d gone to the mikvah in the last two years, she’d prayed she wouldn’t have to go again for nine months. She wanted a baby so badly, so badly… It was something almost physical, a yearning that came up from her bowels and stomach and heart like a wave of purest desire. She had hailed prayers on G-d, begging, pleading, demanding, making rash promises, and proposing various deals. She’d received blessings from numerous rabbis and purchased amulets. She’d visited numerous gynecologists. Everyone had promised she would have a child.

But when… when… when?

Every time she saw a woman with a baby carriage, every time she saw a mother cat with kittens, her heart gave thatwretched little skip of despair and envy. But the worst part was watching Josh’s face at the circumcision ceremonies of friends and relatives as yet another son of some G-d-favored couple was welcomed into the Jewish people. For the past two years, she’d seen his wistful longing grow sadder and more desperate. Sterility was a curse; fertility a blessing. To be childless, according to the Talmud, was akin to being dead. It was also a sign that G-d was not pleased with the union of a certain man to a certain woman.

A chill crept up her spine. What wouldn’t she give to hand her husband the most powerful proof of all that G-d approved of their marriage—a son for him to teach everything he had learned, akaddishulto pray for his soul when he died? Or a daughter, she thought reluctantly. She had nothing against girls. Just—every religious couple looked forward to abechor, a firstborn son. Let it be a healthy child, she told herself. That would be more than enough.

She rubbed her forehead, feeling tension crease the smooth young skin between her brows. “Relax,” she could almost hear her friend Jenny say in that serene, strangely decisive and encouraging way of hers. “Just relax. G-d in his own good time will answer your prayers. You’ve been to doctors. There’s nothing physically wrong with either of you. Just trust. He will bless you…” Such calm, beautiful faith. From Jenny, of all people…

She bit her lip, aware that it was wrong to question such things. Tamar Finegold believed, at that moment and long afterward, that when the wind blew, G-d’s hand was personally involved in turning every leaf on every tree in the direction He desired. And so, she should not have found it remarkable that Jenny Douglas, daughter of two assimilated Jews—an Ethical Culturalist mother who liked bacon with her eggs and an atheist-Communist father—had become—next to Josh—the most deeply faithful, scrupulously observant Jew she knew.

But would her faith be quite so perfect if she were marriedand childless? Tamar comforted herself with uncharacteristic cynicism. A moment later, though, her mood changed. For as long as she could remember, Jenny had been her best friend and a really good person. Her faith was solid and real. And perhaps she was right. Relax, just relax. Have faith.

She brushed her hair back and twisted it into a tight knot that she pinned down as flatly as she could. Then she took out an elegant new wig of almost identical color and pulled it carefully over her head, mercilessly concealing every errant wisp bent on escape. Turning her head from side to side, she admired it, feeling her heart once again stir with joy.

This was surprising. For of all the many religious laws she was bound to obey as an Orthodox Jewish woman, she found covering her hair the hardest, and harbored a secret resentment toward the wigs,tichels—head scarves—and hats that hid the glory of her own sunlit mane. Besides, it never failed to remind her of one of the worst “incidents” with Josh.

After three months of marriage and constant wig wearing, she’d noticed her beautiful hair going as dull and matted as an old doll’s. In a panic, she’d run to the hairdresser and had it washed, rinsed with blond highlights, and blow-dried.

“I wish my husband could see it this way just once before I put the wig back on and ruin it,” she’d told the hairdresser wistfully.

“Why not put on a hat instead?” the sympathetic woman had suggested.

She’d hesitated. Even though she’d been scrupulously careful to hide all her hair since her wedding day, she knew thehalachahad a more lenient interpretation. Many religious women, including her own mother, believed it was enough to cover most of, not all, your hair. Her mother always wore hats. With this in mind, she’d tried on a little hat and looked at herself. What harm could it do? she’d wondered. After all, it was just a few minutes’walk to the house. Besides, everyone would probably think it was the wig underneath, not her own hair. It looked exactly the same. She’d walked home with the wig in a bag, feeling pleasantly wicked and joyfully young.

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