In her debut novel, Seven Blessings, Ruchama King brings us into the closed world of matchmaking as she weaves tales of modern-day Jerusalemites looking for love. King's skillful prose reveals the heartbreak and the joy involved in trying to find the right partner, and her beautiful descriptions of the city make Jerusalem a place that readers will not wish to depart.
At the center of this lively novel is Beth, who soon meets the man of her dreams, only to discover that he has a seemingly insurmountable flaw. There's also Binyamin, a talented but arrogant painter, who strains even the matchmakers' patience in his search for a perfect beauty. While these two are confounded in finding a partner, the matchmakers themselves stumble when they find their own marriages need propping up. Tsippi, a Holocaust survivor whose passion is uniting unlikely couples, comes home every evening to a husband who never looks up from the Talmud, while Judy, an alluring matchmaker and mother of six, seeks out the Torah study halls in a quest for larger meaning.
Seven Blessings immerses readers in an Israel rarely glimpsed as the novel threads through the holy city's yeshiva study halls, the Jerusalem Forest, and a tiny grocery store which is called 'an outpost of heaven' because so many matches are made there.
Ruchama King received a traditional Jewish education in Silver Spring, Maryland until she moved to Israel at the age of 17. She lived in Jerusalem for the next ten years, where she got an inside look at the secret world of matchmaking. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and children.
Aish.com had the following conversation with Ruchama King.
Q. Why did you first start working on your book?
A. I wanted to write about a Jewish religious community – my community – from as inside a view as possible, without any particular axe to grind, and without a sentimental stance, but as the community is on its own terms, within its own parameters. When I read other books about religious Jews, they reminded me of a scene of a deaf man watching people dancing at a wedding. He sees people contorting and leaping, looking ridiculous, but he never hears the music that inspires them. I wanted to capture this world in a lived sense, without overly explaining it, without poking too much fun at it, but to bring people to a point where they could dance with these characters a little bit, even while recognizing their flaws and the flaws in the community.
Q. What was one of your greatest challenges in writing it?
A. I wanted to write an honest book, and yet I feared going overboard in my honesty. Getting the balance right was very hard. I didn't want to use my community for the sake of advancing my writing career, to turn my characters into objects of irony and ridicule. The thought of my doing so made me feel like a bully, joining the prevailing culture which is only too happy to depict religious people in an absurd or hypocritical light. I equally didn't want to write a book of propaganda, a two-dimensional novel depicting the cozy delights of living in a religious community. I'd read those books too in our Jewish bookstores. To stay on course, true and honest to my vision, was the hardest thing I ever tried to do. I hope I succeeded.
Q. Why did you decide to base your novel in the world of matchmaking?
A. I thought the best way to achieve my goal was through the universal interest in matchmaking. Here I was loaded with experience. I had lived at one point in the home of a matchmaker, and I would come back from my job and see men and women in her living room, of all ages, some of them disabled, blind dates in progress. She'd ask my opinion about whom to set up with whom, she'd tell me her dating theories, she'd tell me great stories – like the Czechoslovakian policewoman who proposed to a Russian Hassid by pointing her gun at him. He accepted.
As for my own blind dates – I always enjoyed them, because even if they were flops, it was always fun and insightful to analyze them afterwards with the matchmaker. Some of these ladies were amazing and powerful. The episode of the matchmakers banding together against Binyamin is based on an actual incident. I'd had a hand in a few people getting married, and had counseled many roommates and friends through the shidduch dating process. In short, I had approached matchmaking from both ends of the stick.
Q. Did you have concerns that a broad audience would find it difficult to relate to such a traditional, foreign system of dating?
A. Many people go to a matchmaker these days. They just call it a different name. The desire for a soul mate is universal.
Q. How did you meet your husband?
A. Not through a matchmaker or an intermediary… not that people didn't try. My husband was burned out from dating and turned down suggestions to go out with me that came from a few divergent sources. We ended up meeting at a shul on Purim. He asked me out and I had to say no because I was in the middle of dating someone else. We became acquaintances, started a group for religious writers and musicians, and after a year he asked me out again. By that point, when I said yes, I knew I had come home.
Q. One of the themes in your book is the intellectual quest for learning Torah from a woman's perspective. What was your experience in learning Torah?
A. It was in Israel that Torah study became my passion. I don't know if it's the setting, the quality of teachers, the intensity of people seeking wisdom, or the very air that makes Torah study in Israel so...how can I put it?... such a thrilling and urgent experience, so necessary to your life. I loved the community of women, the creativity and deep friendships formed around intellectual inquiry and spiritual/emotional growth.
Q. Your book accurately describes life in Israel. What is your relationship to the land of Israel? Do you plan on coming back?
A. My relationship to the land of Israel is a question I ask myself every day. I came to Israel when I was 17 and my family followed me and still live there. I left, ostensibly, to pursue an MFA in fiction writing, but the subtext was I left to get married. There are things that I love about Jewish religious life in America, but there is no question: It feels second best to me, an ex post facto existence, as if at times my spiritual life and growth were on pause.
It doesn't have to be this way. I know many people who have carved out very fulfilling soulful lives here in America. But for me the grace and beauty are missing. There is something abnormal and disconnected about praying three times a day for rain based on the Israeli agrarian cycle. What am I doing here if I'm praying for rain over there? I mention Jerusalem all the time after eating a piece of cake or pizza when I make the after-blessing. I bump into Jerusalem a hundred times a day. As a religious Jew, I can't escape this land. I hope to return, but who knows? I know if I don't make aliyah it will haunt me forever.