The Sacrifice of Tamar
Naomi Ragen, 1995 (U.S. printing, 2010)
St. Martin's Press
From the author of Jephte's Daughter and Sotah comes The Sacrifice of Tamar, a powerful novel that examines with unflinching honesty the dark heart of racism and the surprising capacity of the human spirit to soar above its sordid consequences.
Tamar Finegold is twenty-one years old, the happy, beautiful bride of a rising young Rabbi in one of Brooklyn's insulated, ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Having married the man of her dreams and taken her place as a wife—and hopefully soon-to-be mother—in her community, Tamar feels as though the world is at her feet.
But her secure, predictable existence is brought to an abrupt end when she is raped by an intruder. Fearing the unbearable stigma and threat to her marriage that could result from telling the truth, Tamar makes a fateful decision that changes her life forever.
Her feeling that she did the only thing she could under the circumstances explodes when years later a shocking, undreamed of turn of events finally forces her to confront her past, once and for all. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—July 10, 1949
• Where—New York, New York, USA
• Education—B.A., Brooklyn College; M.A., Hebrew University
• Currently—lives in Jerusalme, Israel
Naomi Ragen is the author of seven novels, including several international bestsellers, and her weekly email columns on life in the Middle East are read and distributed by thousands of subscribers worldwide. An American, she has lived in Jerusalem for the past thirty-nine years and was recently voted one of the three most popular authors in Israel. (From the publisher.)
Ragen’s first three novels, which described the lives of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women in Israel and the United States, dealt with themes that had not previously been addressed in that society's literature: wife-abuse (Jephte’s Daughter: 1989), adultery (Sotah: 1992) and rape (The Sacrifice of Tamar: 1995). Reaction to these novels in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities was mixed. Some hailed her as a pioneer who for the first time exposed and opened to public discussion problems which the communities had preferred to pretend did not exist, while others criticized her for “hanging out the dirty laundry” for everyone to see, thus embarrassing the rabbis who were believed by many to be effectively dealing with these problems “behind the scenes” and also putting “ammunition in the hands of the anti-Semites.”
Her next novel (The Ghost of Hannah Mendes: 1998) told the story of a Sephardic family brought back from the abyss of assimilation by the spirit of their ancestor Gracia Mendes (a true historical figure), a 16th century Portuguese crypto-Jew who risked her life and her considerable fortune to practice her religion in secret.
Chains Around the Grass (2002) is a semi-autobiographical novel of the author’s childhood which dealt with the failure of the American dream for her parents.
In The Covenant (2004) Ragen dealt with the contemporary theme of an ordinary family sucked into the horror of Islamic terrorism.
The Saturday Wife (2007), the story of a rabbi's wayward wife, is loosely based on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and is a satire of modern Jewish Orthodoxy.
Ragen is also known as a playwright. Her 2001 drama, Women’s Minyan, tells the story of an ultra-Orthodox woman who, upon fleeing from her adulterous and abusive husband, finds that he has manipulated the rabbinical courts to deprive her of the right to see or speak to her twelve children. The story is based on a true incident. Women’s Minyan ran for six years in Israel's National Theatre and has been staged in the United States, Canada and Argentina. (From Wikipedia.)
Returning to familiar terrain in her third novel (after Jephte's Daughter and Sotah), Ragen again examines the lives of ultra-orthodox Jews and the severe consequences that can befall even the most faithful when they take a serious, albeit human misstep. Most of the story takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood resembling Borough Park, although, as in her previous books, dramatic fanfare occurs in Israel, too. Pious Tamar both adores and is in awe of her warm and brilliant husband, Josh. She is looking forward to an intimate evening after her ritual visit to the mikvah (here Ragen offers a tediously detailed description about Jewish conjugal laws), but that evening she is raped by a black man. She does not tell her husband about the attack, and when she discovers she is pregnant, she does not abort the fetus, because she is not sure whether the rapist or Josh is the father. In trying to make the reader understand why Tamar would choose silence and sustain the pregnancy, Ragen flashes back to Tamar's youth, particularly her relationship with two friends who play pivotal roles throughout her life: Hadassah, the beautiful, rebellious daughter of the neighborhood's primary religious leader, and Jenny, who comes from a secular background but easily adapts to Orthodox observance. The interplay between the girls as they take tentative steps into the secular world of the late 1960s provides some charming scenes, and the final chapters prove moving and dramatic when later consequences of Tamar's deceptive silence shatter her family's life. While Ragen is an able storyteller and handles dialogue deftly, her plots are becoming hackneyed. It's an insular and provincial world that she has chosen to portray, and here she adds little that is new or eye-opening to the reader.
Ragen (Jepthe's Daughter) continues to describe life in the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities of the United States and Israel. After being raped, Tamar, the young wife of a brilliant rabbi, chooses to conceal the crime. Soon, she discovers that she is pregnant and wrestles with a moral decision she is ill equipped to make. "What's not nice we don't show" is the modus operandi of Tamar's world, a creed to which she adheres until 20 years later when she must step forward or see innocent lives destroyed. The author paints a picture of a rigid, unyielding people for whom true tolerance and understanding is a luxury only the most saintly can afford, and she juxtaposes the more worldly modern orthodox as a positive alternative. Although Tamar is not a truly lovable heroine, and her transformation is difficult to accept, the author's fluid writing and fascinating descriptions of an exotic community will make this an attractive title for public libraries. —Andrea Caron Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS
The rape of a young, ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman and her ultimate redemption are at the very heart of Ragen's latest novel....The author handles this complex and moving story with a deft touch as Tamar's outwardly perfect life must finally be reconciled with her long-kept secret. —Alice Joyce
Classic urban-Jewish myth replaces Bible stories in this latest chaste offering from Ragen (Sotah, 1992). Ultra-Orthodox, 21-year-old Tamar Finegold is raped by a black man while babysitting her nephew. Unwilling to become an object of pity and gossip in her tightly knit Brooklyn community, Tamar resolves to hide the fact from her family, friends, and neighbors. She even keeps the incident a secret from her pious husband, Josh, afraid that he will divorce her if Jewish law commands him to. When Tamar discovers that she is pregnant, however, she must reevaluate. The child could be the rapist's, but it might also be Josh's, with whom she slept that very same night. After soul-searching and sleeplessness, Tamar finally confides in her two best friends from childhood: Hadassah Mandlebright, the fallen only daughter of the revered Kovnitzer Rebbe, and born-again Jew Jenny Douglas. The three women meet at Hadassah's apartment in Manhattan and Tamar leaves the next morning determined to go through with her pregnancy. Eight months later she gives birth to a white child, Aaron. Tamar believes that the episode is finished; for the next 20 years she lives a spotless—if troubled—life, giving birth to two more children, becoming a respected matron in the community. But when Aaron's wife is punished for Tamar's sins of omission, Tamar must again make a decision, this time one her conscience can live with. Although Ragen exposes herself to charges of racism here, the black rapist is more important as a plot device than a representative of his race. More central is Ragen's typically harsh judgment of the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, although she does create some saintly religious characters. As in Sotah, Ragen's moral is that fulfillment can be found outside the rigid boundaries of community but within the teachings of the commandments. Cliche-ridden and predictable, but also strangely affecting.
1. The social code of the ultra Orthodox world serves not only as the background for The Sacrifice of Tamar, but as one of its most controversial elements. How would you define that code, and in what way is it a catalyst for the behavior of the characters?
2. In discussing this book, the author said portraying Tamar sympathetically was extremely challenging. In what way does Tamar’s behavior evoke antagonism in the reader? What events and information does the author supply that help evince sympathy for her decision and her plight?
3. Describe Josh. What do you think his reaction would have been had Tamar told him the truth immediately?
4. Tamar hides the truth. How would the community have reacted had Tamar let the truth about the rape be known? Her family? Was Tamar’s sacrifice in vain?
5. Tamar’s cousin Zissel appears only briefly in the story. Why is Zissel important to the story?
6. At the beginning of the book, Tamar has the simplistic belief that “God treated you the way you treated others.” What happens to this belief by the end of the book? Is it still intact? Has it changed? In what ways?
7. What, exactly, is the sacrifice Tamar makes? Or is it Tamar herself who is sacrificed? What does she gain from her behavior, and what does she lose?
8. The Sacrifice of Tamar has an important racial element. Is Tamar a racist? How does the book portray racism?
9. In Tamar, Jenny, and Hadassah, the book presents three models of religious adherence. What are they? How would you describe the positive and negative role religion plays in each of their lives?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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