Nothing but dirty laundry?

Reva Mann's desire for attention has kept her from writing a sensitive account of waking up to her unsuitability for haredi life.

rabbi book 88 224 (photo credit: )
rabbi book 88 224
(photo credit: )
The Rabbi's Daughter By Reva Mann The Dial Press 368 pages; $24 Do religious Jews make love through a hole in a sheet? It's hard to know what to make of Reva Mann's inclusion of this hoary urban legend in her sensationalist memoir The Rabbi's Daughter. As the daughter of Morris Unterman, the late spiritual leader of London's posh modern Orthodox West End Marble Arch Synagogue, himself the son of Israel's second chief rabbi, Mann's recollections of hard sex, hard drugs and hard religion garnered her a cover photo and gushingly flattering six-page spread in London's Sunday Times supplement, which predicted a movie in the offing. But its author fretted that there might be "more bizarre religious practices that [Mann] left out lest she be accused of embellishing." "Only among some hassidic sects," Mann recalls her Czech-born bridal counselor as answering when asked the question that one prominent Israeli anthropologist has said is the first invariably put to her when people find out that she studies haredi communities. "The voman covers her naked body mit a sheet, and the man enters through the hole that the bride embroiders before the wedding... But this is not for you, Revaleh. You and Simcha are not ready for such stringent behavior." Is Mann recording this tall tale as anthropological fact? Give the gentiles credit - while the Times suspected it might have been cheated of some bizarre practices, from this familiar example it stayed well clear; Haaretz in English, however, blazoned the "hole in the sheet" bit on its weekend magazine cover. Perhaps Mann meant to underline the ignorance of the wedding counselor who, as a Jerusalem yeshiva matchmaker, set her up with the American newly religious student with whom she would share a bitterly disappointing marriage? If the latter, it's a more subtle touch than any other in Mann's blunt - sometimes coarse - text. Mann has it both ways as regards her religious background as well. Sometimes she suggests that her home's "strict adherence to Jewish law" set her off on the road of promiscuity and drugs. At others, she blames the too-worldly atmosphere of her home and education for the lure that the isolation and extremism of the haredi world held for her. Mann later shows greater appreciation of her father's path. When he dies, she calls him "the last of a generation of thinkers who were not afraid to mold the law to respond to the needs of an ever-changing reality" - a somewhat strange observation for a woman whose own Jerusalem neighborhood, the German Colony, provides a wealth of avant garde Orthodox synagogues. It's too bad that Mann's narcissism and desire for attention from as wide an audience as possible has kept her from writing what the world really needs - a Jewish version of The Nun's Story, that delicate chronicle of sobering up to the self-realization that one is unsuited for regimented religiosity. A few of Mann's passages demonstrate enough insight to suggest she might have been capable of such a work, as when she describes her father's reaction to her new husband at their wedding meal: "I know my father cannot bear the way Simcha is lifting the bread up high in the air and is whispering the blessing. He cannot stand the extravagant display of devotion, the ways of the newly repentant who have no traditions of their own, who adopt rituals at random without understanding their meaning." Instead, as befits the paradigm of dysfunctional childhood memoirs that she follows, Mann keeps up a constant litany of grievance against her self-absorbed parents who fail to provide the approbation she craves. But though she tattles on her parents' every failing, even religious infractions, she does allow them to emerge from her pages rather sympathetically - disconcertingly so, in fact. Her father usually displays the forbearance of a saint, providing support through every twist in her rebellious route, from springing her from a Jerusalem jail for a drug-dealing rap, to providing the economic underpinning for her ultra-Orthodox studies and then marriage to a man who works only at the study of Torah. The only time her father seems to wash his hands of her completely is after she takes up with a gentile rock photographer, when he turns her out of the house. Even then he supports her in secret, buying the house in which the young couple live, so that their "rent" payments are actually mortgage ones. The couple's discovery of his covert generosity ironically leads to their breakup, as the boyfriend takes offense. For her own parental bad behavior, Mann sets the bar breathtakingly low: "I must admit I have taken Sam into my bed and loved him in earshot of my children. I have moaned and groaned in pleasure and ignored their worried calls of 'Mummy.'" By the obligatory redemptive ending, Mann announces that she has finally conquered her need to indulge in extreme behavior and found balance. But her book suggests not. By insisting on a "memoir" framework, Mann has betrayed three generations: her (once) dignified parents, her feckless ex and her national religious teenage children, who must deal with the dubious legacy of a mother who commits to print clinically graphic accounts of her miserable sexual encounters with their father. On the other hand, Mann's graphic comparison between the merits of a circumcised male member with an uncircumcised one might have been almost as mortifying to them had she packaged her book as a novel. Throughout her story, Mann sprinkles biblical and rabbinic pearls from the treasure chest of Jewish tradition. But the effect is like studying Torah through a hole in a sheet.