THE RABBI’S DAUGHTER by Reva Mann
Publishers, Hodder Stoughton UK 2007 Soft cover 326 pages NIS 65 at Steimatsky or order on Amazon
Reviewed by Pamela Peled
Reva Mann orders a carrot juice. It arrives, and she quizzes the waiter: no there is not added sugar, and yes, it is freshly squeezed. On the side the Rabbi’s daughter orders a cup of boiling water. Not quite what a reader of her torrid autobiography might expect to be her drink of choice. “I’ve been a huge disappointment to the British media,” admits Mann, “the journalists read the book and expect a sexy woman to slink through the interview…and then they see me.” (Spoler alert: skip to paragraph three if you want to miss the plot).
The Rabbi’s Daughter is touted as a “true story of sex, drugs and orthodoxy” and there are not too many English-speaking readers in Israel (especially those from Britain) who haven’t either read it or refused to read it. In a nutshell the no-holds barred outpourings traces Mann’s troubled childhood and subsequent rebellion, her downward spiral into drugs, her unorthodox sexual escapades, described in perhaps rather too much detail (do we want to know that her first time was on a “bima” in a North London synagogue, or that she exclaimed “halleluya” when it was over?), her aliyah and studies to be a midwife, her retreat into a firls’ Yeshiva for Hozrei Bitshuva and her subsequent marriage to another newly pious hassid, the long-suffering Simcha. There is more: three kids later Mann shucks off her skirts and sheitel and roars off into the night on the back of a new lover’s motorbike, the lure of sex and drugs and rock’n roll replacing the competitive kashrut and stringent laws of purity of her married life. There is still more: a lover who is more often stoned than sober loses a brother in a terrorist attach and retreats from Mann, who in the meanwhile has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Plus, her father dies. Then her mother comes to live in Jerusalem where she commits suicide. And there’s also a retarded sister and a category of parental emotional abuse.
But there is something that turns Mann’s story into more than another Amy Winehouse-type saga. Reva Mann’s grandfather was Rabbi Iser Yehuda Unterman, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of the State of Israel from 1964 to 1972. And her father, on whose plushy-carpeted pulpit she found a kind of heaven, was Rabbi Morris Untermann, beloved spiritual leader of the West End Marble Arch Synagogue in London. The Rabbi’s wife – Mann’s mother – who is represented as a pill popping, unable-to-cope, self-centered mother we’d rather not have- was a popular and admired Rebbitzin. And that’s why so many of the outraged community are refusing to read the book, shocked and saddened that the Rabbi’s daughter is dishing out the dirt on her parents in this way.
Mann is unfazed by the criticism. “The book created a new, healthy life for me” she explains, “by tracing the patterns of what went wrong and helping me to clean up from all self-destructive things.” Anyway, she adds, people are generally fascinated to hear the inside-scoop about her parents. “I was recently invited by the UJIA to be a guest speaker at three Orthodox synagogues in London,” she say, “and there were a lot of questions. One woman simply couldn’t believe that my mother had plastic surgery – she wanted to hear the details!” More than simply providing a list of the prurient personal details, Mann believes that her book has “brought Judaism to the masses” in a manner that would make her illustrious forebears proud. “I wrote about the laws of nida (purity) and the mikve (ritual bath), for example, and my story acted as a bridge between worlds, opening up the side of Judaism to people who had never heard of it before. The Sunday Times called this section “strangely beautiful” and I have had emails from all over thanking me for these insights” Mann also hopes that her successful battle with addiction will help people to stop “self medicating” and she is interested in finding a program where she can volunteer, drawing on her experiences to inspire other addicts to rehabilitate themselves.
Drugs were only one method of reaching a different reality from what Mann describes as a “terribly unsafe childhood” and the traumas that this left on her as an adult. Religious ecstasy and total immersion in Jewish laws and traditions was another. The highs and lows of both, and how they impacted on how she mothered her own children, are vividly recorded in her book. But the daughter- turned- mother is not perturbed about the effect her exploits could have on her own kids. “They haven’t read the book,” she says, with one hundred percent assurance. “It’s been translated into French and Polish, Czech, Hungarian and more, but not into Hebrew – to protect my children. They don’t read books in English.”
Mann who says she feels “the weight of the Jewish people on her shoulders,” and professes herself sensitive to the way Judaism is portrayed in her book, recently turned down the offer of turning it into a film which she felt would not accurately reflect her ideas. But she is hoping that eventually a suitable producer will come along to make the movie, and entice Kate Winslet into playing the lead.
In the meantime the book can be found at many book clubs in Israel – look for one closest to you! Love it or hate it, the writing is pithy and succinct; the emotion raw and genuine, and there are times that you will, for sure, laugh out loud. And whatever your reasons for reading on, you will probably not be able to put it down.