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Hasidim--Through a Young Girl's Eyes : THE ROMANCE READER by Pearl Abraham . Riverhead $21.95, 304 pages

August 29, 1995|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Refreshingly different from other coming-of-age novels, "The Romance Reader" is set in a tiny Hasidic community in Upstate New York, where the narrator's father hopes to establish an influential synagogue. He is a scholar and a dreamer, and his optimism seems unrealistic given the fact that the town is all but deserted for 10 months a year when its summer renters return to their homes in Brooklyn. The rabbi and his large family are among the few permanent residents, crowded into one cabin and keeping a second for prayer. Finding the required 10 men for services is a problem at the best of times because the town has two thriving rival sects, but in the winter the rabbi and his young sons must actually post themselves in the street to corral candidates.

When the novel opens, the eldest daughter, Rachel, is 12 years old, already able to record the family's hermetic life with a precocious blend of irony and affection. There are seven children (three boys and four girls), the youngest born as the book begins. Only Rachel is rebellious; the others, including her spirited younger sister Leah, are far more accepting of the myriad restrictions governing their lives. Confining as these regulations are, they do provide an uncommon security, insulating the children from the turmoil in the outside world. Daily life for the ultra-orthodox is designed to take place in a virtual time-warp; a snug environment that manages to exclude most of the distractions and discontentments surrounding it. Even radios are discouraged, and although the children study standard English subjects in their parochial schools, they are expected to leave worldly matters behind when at home.

Rachel resists, spending her baby-sitting income on the novels of Barbara Cartland and Victoria Holt, creating an alternative life for herself, one that almost compensates for the constraints of her actual existence. Her story is briskly paced, and by the time she's 15, she and Leah have succeeded in finishing a Red Cross lifesaving course, an enterprise demanding great ingenuity and a discreet amount of outright deception.

Hasidic girls are expected to swim wearing dresses and stockings, a rule that must be circumvented if they are to be effective lifeguards. Fortunately, just as the entire community unites to shun the rabbi's two wicked daughters, Rachel manages to save a child's life, an event that instantly turns her from hussy to heroine. Almost simultaneously, the scholarly book that her father has been writing for years is published to considerable acclaim, and the family's economic circumstances improve dramatically.

The fantasy synagogue and school become a reality, financed by sales of the book and donations from interested communities all over the world. Rachel's overworked mother, who had always resented her husband's desire to live in such an isolated place, finds life suddenly far more agreeable. Now that her children are growing up, her own horizons expand, particularly after she takes a job as a saleswoman in a local shop. The tension between her and her daughters lessens once she herself is exposed to a larger world.

Rachel graduates from high school and goes on to teach English--teaching being one of the few acceptable, if only temporary, occupations for a young woman in her particular sect. Even so, the notion of an actual career is unthinkable, and her parents immediately set about arranging a marriage for her, an urgent priority because the young men of this particular persuasion are expected to marry at the age of eighteen. If Rachel dawdles, her brother will precede her to the altar, a virtual catastrophe. Presented with a young man judged suitable by her family, Rachel agrees to the marriage after one encounter, believing that marriage offers her at least the chance for limited freedom. She's mistaken, and her response lends the novel an added dimension of humor and poignancy.

An intimate, unsettling, and wholly engaging look inside a seldom-revealed world, "The Romance Reader" benefits from the unique quality of its setting and the fact that the narrator has grown up within the community. Though there have been some fascinating nonfiction excursions into the life of the Hasidim, these have been from an outsider's dispassionate viewpoint. Here the subject is treated with an empathy and understanding that no mere observer, no matter how sensitive, could possibly summon.

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