Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Dark Side of Life in the Holy Land

Naomi Ragen, The Devil in Jerusalem: a Novel Inspired by True Events

When EMTs rush a comatose child into a Jerusalem hospital, doctors seek his mother, until they realize: she’s in another room, saying prayers over another tragically injured child. Youthful, pious Daniella Goodman, an American heiress living on a religious commune, cannot explain her children’s injuries. Her kids refuse to be separated from her. Hardened detectives find Rebbetzen Goodman a revolting case, but nobody can unlock her wall of silence.

American readers might immediately recognize the core of Israeli author Naomi Ragen’s latest novel. Witnessing Mrs. Goodman recite psalms over her wounded children, and stand on religious ceremony with police, we know we’ve seen similar stories with survivors of reactionary religious groups. Headlines about deceased Christian Scientist children come to mind—but, ultimately, explain little. The longer Ragen’s story continues, the less predictable it becomes.

Ragen proceeds along two parallel tracks. In the first, a strict police procedural, Detective Bina Tzedek gets drafted into the effort to unlock Goodman’s story. Police officials believe Bina, a wife and mother herself, will elicit Goodman’s sympathy and dislodge whatever mental block keeps the story from unfolding. But the longer the investigation continues, the more hardened Bina finds herself becoming: Goodman, she believes, is completely inhuman.

Meanwhile, Ragen also unfolds Daniella Goodman’s story in flashback. Raised among largely assimilated American Jews, Daniella and her husband find their identity by immersing themselves in religion. Their personal faith melds Chabad, Kabbalah, Hasidism, and other influences into a fundamentalist pan-Hebraic goulash, culminating in their relocation to Israel. The collision between their pious expectations and Israel’s largely secularized reality, however, leaves her open to greedy religious predators.

Naomi Ragen
The tension between Ragen’s two stories, a straight-up police thriller and a more literary exploration of modern discontent, will please some readers, alienate others. Some audiences might prefer Ragen pick one genre and stick with it. I’m not among such audiences, though they have my sympathy: the movement between Ragen’s parallel tracks is sometimes wrenching. She demands readers unmoored from conventional marketing categories to really appreciate her accomplishments here.

This tension highlights, however, Ragen’s ultimate message. The Goodmans have highly romantic expectations regarding Israel and the prophesied return to Zion, or Aliyah. Influenced by dead European Talmudists and living American summer camp counselors, the Goodmans expect a Biblical welcome, open arms and a life of unstinting holiness. This despite their sketchy command of Hebrew, limited job skills, and frustrating propensity to procreate despite mounting costs.

In Israel itself, they discover a wholly modern, largely Westernized society, deaf to their piety. The kind of society where everyone needs paying work, where religious pilgrims must make compromise with secular citizenry, and where jaded cops speak with CSI brusqueness. Shlomie Goodman discovers married men cannot study holy books full-time in Israel; Daniella discovers she’ll get no help raising copious children. (Are religious Jews forbidden from using contraception? #AskingForAFriend)

Meanwhile, in brief glimpses, a third reality emerges. Though too scarce to constitute another parallel storyline, Ragen permits us snapshots of somebody manipulating events through cunning and patience. As with common Thomas Harris villains, we know this somebody exists, but gain such slow, dribbling insights that, following each encounter, we know less than we did before. Daniella’s disillusionment, and her children’s pain, serve a shadowy figure’s personal, sanctimonious ends.

For us, as for the Goodmans, this collision between expectation and reality forbids resting comfortably on whatever came before. Though Ragen’s prose isn’t exactly a nail-biter, her narrative enacts the old truism that the only constant is change. Whenever we think we’ve mastered her story, and can predict what comes next, circumstances reveal that our expectations failed to account for something. Facts always exist, even if we couldn’t see them.

If anything, Ragen’s more conventional mystery chapters provide a much-needed seventh inning stretch from her intensely grim literary chapters. The Goodmans’ disappointment unspools before us with almost Anna Karenina-ish remorselessness. As their choices become circumscribed, their future bleak, it becomes easy to understand why they’d accept obedience and suffering, as acceptable trade-off to recover some prospect of comfort and control. The mystery intrudes because we, like they, need a break.

Not everyone will enjoy this novel equally. Ragen’s juxtaposition of styles, and her dark themes, forbid half-brained reading. She basically dares us to rebel against her storytelling. Yet smart, engaged readers will find plenty to challenge their preconceptions and upend their comfortable illusions. Audiences willing to invest their patience and thought will find this a rewarding book, one which lingers ruthlessly long after we close the final cover.

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