This is the story of Isabel, a teenage girl living in Long Island. It could have been just another coming-of-age story, but this one is really different. For one thing, it is set in a strictly religious Jewish Orthodox community, and for another, it has the dark theme of parental abuse. Isabel tells her story to the reader, introducing characters along the way. These include her best friend, other girls at school, and boys too, of course. We also get insights about the teachers, religious leaders, and her parents and grandparents. Halfway through, it struck me that descriptions were sparse, usually concerning clothes and hairstyles. But this didn’t matter in the least, as the excellent writing style allowed me to picture everyone of them clearly in my head.
A Yeshiva is a religious school, only attended by the children of Orthodox and Conservative Jewish families. Isabel has been removed from a more liberal school to be sent there, as her troubled father has decided to upgrade his religious observance, and try to increase his standing in the community. He has a reason for this of course, as he has been accused of inappropriately touching a young girl, and faces suspension from his job, as well as police proceedings.
As events unfold, we are left in no doubt that he is not only guilty, but has also molested his own daughter in the past. Family tensions are palpable, with the father’s outbursts often resulting in violent acts. In the claustrophobic confines of the tight-knit religious community, Isabel turns for help to the boy she is attracted to, her best friend, and her own mother and grandfather. With others reluctant to upset the system, she is in turn neglected, or disbelieved, causing her considerable emotional distress, and making life both at school and at home almost unbearable. As we follow the course of the story, it is impossible not to feel for Isabel, as well as her beleaguered mother.
I became totally involved in this book, right from the start. Despite the dark theme, there are no unpleasant or graphic descriptions, just inferences and allegations. I also got an insight into life in a closed religious community, with a life lived according to countless rules, where women are treated as little more than second-class citizens. They are expected to obey, to observe the restrictions on their lives and behaviour without complaint, and even endure emotional and sexual abuse without recourse to justice. Coming from a pretty much agnostic background, I found it fascinating that people are prepared to surrender every aspect of daily life to strict religious observance. And although this book is about the experiences of a Jewish girl, I feel certain that it could apply to any religion that demands life be led to a set of restrictive laws and rules.
There are many Yiddish and Hebrew words and terms used, as well as the names of various food items and cooked dishes. However, these never confuse the non-Jewish reader, as they are cleverly explained in the context of events. Though no dates are used, the fact that nobody uses a mobile phone, laptop, or computer would suggest it is set during the 1960s or 1970s. I certainly got that impression. But the time period didn’t appear to be important to me as I read, as I am sure such things have gone on for a very long time, and will continue to do so.
An excellent debut, from someone writing about what they know and understand, and managing to get that across to readers with no experience of the way of life described.
Here is a link to the book, and a link to Rachel’s blog.
I would like you to know that I bought the Kindle version of the book, and I am not reviewing a free copy.