A gentle evocation of love and faith in Jerusalem’s Orthodox community.
There are peevish singles in the “City of Peace,” a small crowd of Orthodox thirty- and forty-somethings, smart and independent to a fault, whose recreational hours are made up of long-drawn-out flirtations with the Torah. It’s enough to drive a matchmaker up the Weeping Wall. Especially Tsippi, who emerged from Treblinka with an extraordinary motive for making matches (“Every couple she brought together—saliva in Hitler’s stupefied face”). Her chief frustration is Beth, a never-been-kissed American who walks away from a string of favorable dates with Akiva, a sensitive house-painter plagued by violent twitches and spasms. King then seems, like a Jewish Jane Austen, to insinuate into the tale a rakish rival for Beth’s halfhearted affection. But Beth and Binyamin don’t hit it off; the latter, a cynical artist who adds Jewish symbols to his canvases in order to increase sales, finds in every potential mate an intolerable aesthetic flaw. The hyper-virginal and hyper-intellectual Beth becomes a Bridget Jones in reverse, obsessing over her nability to desire a man; she breaks down, buys sexy tangerine panties, makes a play for Akiva. Meanwhile, Tsippi and fellow matchmaker Judy begin to find their own marriages wanting; each discovering, largely through renewed interest in Torah studies, a fervent rekindling of the hearth. Much of the story’s strength rises from King’s generous description of Jerusalem, from fig and acacia trees to synagogues and tomb factories. Especially of interest are the numerous passages involving the characters’ performance of Orthodox rituals and their deep pokings-about into theology. Their religious principles keep the tale on the straight and narrow path of 19th-century literature: there’s no sex here, though Akiva does caress Beth’s shoe with obvious yearning while sitting in the park.
A tender, enlightening debut that, urban setting aside, reads like a comedy of provincial manners.