July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Spend Shabbos Afternoon with Unexpected Gifts

Unexpected Gifts by Azriela Jaffe is the story of how two imperfect people created a perfect union, though not perfectly and not alone. They face challenges of overcoming their past histories, helped by faith and friendships, while trying to carve out a life in the present. They contend with parents who won’t help and children who can’t.

Jaffe’s novel touches on some of the most sensitive issues in the Jewish community—divorce, alcoholism, childhood ADHD, and parental resentment towards children who become religious against their wishes. She writes with obvious affection for her characters and leads the reader through a mine field of social troubles with breezy humor. The story is infused with Jewish thought and culture, affirming choices the author has made in her life.

In a small Jewish community, somewhere in, say, New York or New Jersey, Liba looks into the mirror, before a blind date, and fears she will never measure up to anyone’s ideal of the right woman. “I’ve put on fifty pounds since the divorce. There’s not a man on God’s green earth who’s going to want to marry me,” she confides to the friend who set her up. Meanwhile, Joshua, a yeshiva English teacher, reflects on his own shortcomings as he leaves the house to meet Liba, who is a friend of one of the teachers he works with. “How’s she going to feel about a guy who’s got one working kidney and a pile of pills he has to take every day to stay alive? Who am I kidding?”

Their courtship is sweet and refreshing. They put the negatives on the table at the very beginning, and instead of being repulsed by them, both characters find they can finally be themselves and be part of a couple. Witty dialogue gives the reader an emotional respite from the couple’s pre-first date tension.

Years later, with their family growing, Liba and Josh take on added complications when they buy an old house, guaranteed to be a money pit, in a new community. The obstacles will be familiar to many readers—the dual pain of paying for and living through construction and the loneliness that comes from having to find your place in a new setting. Jaffe deftly addresses Liba’s insecurities and frankly shows how she deals with them through emotional eating.

Here’s where the plot starts to develop twists and turns. Liba visits the local park and has an accident that changes her life. She makes new friends who wind up connecting to her long-buried past. Developments that she thinks are sent by God to punish her instead bring unexpected gifts.

Jaffe draws on her own life for some of the setting, plot, and character. Scenes of living through renovation were lifted from her memory. The dialogue between a newly religious student in Joshua’s class and the student’s mother are almost verbatim from struggles she had with her own parents. “Anybody who’s been there can recognize these conversations,” Jaffe said in an interview with JLBC.

A wife and mother of three who lives in Highland Park, Jaffe deliberately chose not to give the fictional community a name, so people would not presume they knew the real identities of the characters. But she wanted to make elements of the story familiar to a wide cross-section of the observant Jewish world. “I’m an Orthodox woman writing for the Orthodox community,” she said and anticipates that women like herself will comprise the majority of her audience.

Jaffe approached her novel by envisioning it as something to read on a long Shabbos afternoon. “I wanted it to be suspenseful, and not predictable, but it also had to be acceptable, with real characters and real issues,” she said. Conducting research is a pre-requisite for most novels. Jaffe also had to give careful attention to making sure the characters’ predicaments were resolved in halakhically appropriate ways. She wrote the whole book with rabbinic consultation.

Unexpected Gifts is the author’s second novel but 32nd book. She left a career in Human Resources after 15 years to become a writer and counselor, focusing on helping entrepreneurial couples manage their work and personal lives. After becoming a Baalas Teshuva, she began writing for the Jewish community, beginning with the book, What Do You Mean You Can’t Eat In My House? She has just written her eighth Holocaust memoir; she writes, produces, and publishes books, on commission, for survivors and their families. Jaffe also teaches public speaking at Rutgers University and Rinas Bais Yaakov, and teaches English at the IDT yeshiva. She has been a columnist for Mishpacha Magazine for eight years. Last year, the Jaffes founded Edison Pack and Ship, and Unique Gifts, a store within the store, putting them back into the business world.

Despite her packed schedule, Jaffe welcomes Shabbos with a relaxed, even serene attitude, as the founder of the Chatzos movement which spreads the concept that Erev Shabbos should be a peaceful time for the family. “This is the seventh year that the Friday afternoon madness is no longer a reality in our home,” Jaffe said. “It changes the whole atmosphere of Shabbos. Chatzos is not a burden; in fact it makes life easier.” Another unexpected gift from Azriela Jaffe.

By Bracha Schwartz

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