Beware of the devil

Naomi Ragen’s latest novel takes on a chilling tale of child abuse in Jerusalem – based on true events.

Border policeman in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Border policeman in Jerusalem
Just last week, discussing an article in The New York Times about the horrors endured by young boys in Afghanistan at the hands of sexual abusers and pedophiles, a friend asked whether I had read The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini based in that country during the rise of the Taliban.
“Yes! It was so powerful that I was actually a wreck for days after,” I responded in the online conversation. “It bothered me so deeply because it was fiction, but it really wasn’t fiction.”
The same can be said of Jerusalem- based author (and former Jerusalem Post columnist) Naomi Ragen’s latest book, The Devil in Jerusalem, “a novel inspired by true events.” The piercing, heartbreaking story will not be forgotten quickly by the reader.
A captivating, intense read, the plot centers on Daniella Goodman, a young woman who perceived the affluent American modern- Orthodox community in which she was raised as shallow and materialistic. A high academic achiever with a drive to make a positive impact on the world, she faced a number of obstacles on the way, causing her to lose confidence and direction.
A capable individual nonetheless, she married a much less intelligent person who happened to be, as her beloved grandmother described him, a luftmensch – an impractical person with no down-toearth plan for making a living. Idealistically motivated, the young couple moved to Israel in search of a more meaningful religious lifestyle.
As the years went by, Daniella – often left to cope on her own with several children while her husband attended lectures on Kabbala, and in search of spiritual mentorship – felt increasingly isolated.
That, coupled with her spouse’s inability to make a living, resulted in profound loneliness and apprehension.
Finally, the couple fell victim to two charismatic con artists, one after the other, posing as religious leaders. These charlatans were, in fact, sociopathic cult leaders who maintained total mind control over their victims. The latter, referred to as the Messiah by his devoted followers, brainwashed Daniella into accepting the notion that severely punishing her children through intense beatings, burnings and other diabolical means was necessary in order to “purify” their souls.
What ensued was a most shocking case of child abuse, based on court testimony in Jerusalem in the trial of Elior Chen, who was found guilty in 2011 of severely torturing eight minors.
One of the children suffered permanent brain damage. Those who survived physically intact will likely require therapy throughout their lives, having experienced the most extreme trauma imaginable, both tangibly and emotionally.
Beside basing her story on a true case, the author did extensive research into the psychology of psychopaths and cult victims as well as on mothers in cults and child abuse in cults. Specifically, she touched upon the question of how a loving mother, let alone any human being, could allow extreme pain and torment to be inflicted on her own children.
While the story is revolting, to say the least, the message of the book is crucial.
The point, it seems – other than storytelling – is to warn naïve searchers for wisdom and truth through various forms of mysticism to beware of spiritual frauds and not to lose sight of their own values and individuality.
“People who get involved in cults never know that it’s a cult,” the author cautions through one of her characters. “The most prime candidates for cults are smart, inquisitive.
They’re leaders, idealists, people who want others’ love and approval. But they are also people who are full of selfdoubt, people who fear for the future.”
Falling into a cult, she continues, “can happen to anyone at a certain vulnerable moment in their lives.”
In fact, it is an ancient phenomenon, as noted by Ragen, who cites the ancient child-sacrificing cult of Molech, which included many Jews just south of the Old City of Jerusalem in biblical times. She points to the valley of Kidron, where it all took place.
The Devil in Jerusalem is Ragen’s 10th novel, most of which are set in the haredi community and address sociological issues pertaining to ultra-Orthodox society. The existence of cults, however, is worldwide.
Since the Chen case, numerous dangerous cults, religious and secular, were discovered in Israel and abroad.