The Rabbi's Daughter is a book about carnality, the often uncontrollable desires and appetites of the body, and the religious codes that are used to control them. It is not for the faint-hearted reader, or for people who prefer to have sex with the lights off, or for those who are offended by open lewdness. That said, this memoir is a beautiful book, beautiful in its compelling ugliness, written by a woman whose life has been a bridge between the holy and the profane.
Reva Mann is the father-identified daughter and granddaughter of important rabbis in London and Jerusalem. As a teenager, she rebels against the strictures of her Orthodox family's faith, indulging in drugs, sex, and exhibitionist behavior. Repentant and seeking redemption, she goes to Israel to train as a midwife, has a religious experience, and enters a yeshiva (a school for ultra-Orthodox Jewish women). At twenty-five, hoping that marriage to an ultra-Orthodox man will help her fix what is wrong with her and get closer to God, she goes to Mrs. Frankel, the matchmaker ("And vat kind of a husband are you looking for?"). After a few false starts ("Reva, darlink...making a match is harder for God than parting the Red Sea"), Mrs. Frankel provides Simcha, an American Hasidic Jew whose ultra-observant piety seems to Reva to open the path to purification. Within two months, Simcha proposes and gives her a prayer book as an engagement present. Mazeltov.
But the constant rituals soon become meaningless, especially those that require sexual separation during the weeks she is a niddah, unclean. Six years, three children, and one affair later (with Mr. Fixit, who comes to remodel the kitchen), she finds herself in the Rabbinical Court, seeking a divorce. After that, there is sexy Sam (a fixer of a different kind), her father's death, breast cancer, her mother's death, and a reunion with a brain-damaged sister. As the years go on, Reva ceases to ricochet between desperate piety and equally desperate promiscuity and eventually finds a middle way, a true path to redemption, "creating a synthesis of the sacred and the secular...bringing together the holy and the profane."
Reva Mann has a deft touch with description, particularly the ludicrous. After her ritual cleansing mikveh, the matron of the bath pronounces her clean: "And I know I am now as kosher as the salt beef sandwiches at Bloom's delicatessen, the ones made by the proprietress, an overweight ballbuster with long white whiskers growing on her chin." When she meets Mr. Fixit, she is impressed by "the way his sex juts out like a mango." Reva's father thinks her ultra-Orthodox husband has a bad case of "messianic fever," and the rabbi who pronounces her divorced wears a frock coat with tails that "flap like bat wings." The erotic scenes might be overpowering if they weren't so over-the-top and downright funny, reveling in the ecstatic messiness of whole-hearted, redemptive sexuality.
The Rabbi's Daughter exploits many of the clichés of the "bad-girl-turned-good" memoir. But while there is certainly a great deal of disorderly, sensational rule-breaking as well as intricate descriptions of what it takes to be "truly good" (at least by Hasidic standards), this book is much more. It is a rabbi's daughter's courageously honest attempt to answer the unanswerable and universal question: How do we live fully in our carnal bodies while we nourish our immortal souls? It is an unforgettably compassionate book about our fragile, faulty human efforts—never quite right, never quite enough, but always heroic—to find a way to the Divine.
Reva Mann writes a weekly column for the Jewish News London and the Jewish Advocate Boston. She lives in Jersalem with her three children.
(See another review of this book, here)
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