By Harriet P. Gross
I’ve just finished reading a book I’d like to talk with you about. It’s a memoir called “The Rabbi’s Daughter.” I hated it!
Yet the story of Reva Mann’s life (which had the telling subhead “Sex, Drugs and Orthodoxy” on its initial British publication) makes a compelling read; it offers all the fascination of watching a snake swallow a live mouse. Because the author — who’s now in her 50s — was a true “wild child” who purports to tell it like it was. Her life story teeters uneasily, looking for balance between the sex and drugs on one side and devout Orthodoxy on the other.
We have to believe it’s true, because she is not only a rabbi’s daughter, but a granddaughter as well, and not of garden-variety rabbis, but of immensely prominent ones. Her late father was Morris Unterman, beloved spiritual leader of London’s West End Marble Arch Synagogue. And her late grandfather was Isser Yehuda Unterman, the scholar who left his native England for Israel and became his adopted country’s second chief Ashkenazi rabbi.
Reva just shortened her family name, and provides a disclaimer: Other names and identifying details as well have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved. But she doesn’t seem to feel the need to protect any of her own private matters — not even her “private parts,” which she lets “hang out,” to use her hippy lingo, quite literally.
Ms. Mann plays the same song over and over: how she’s spent a lifetime trying various ways to unite in herself her warring physical and spiritual urges. But every time she thinks she’s found some place of peace, she loses it again.
The South African playwright Athol Fugard wrote a great scene into one of his early dramas. A young man moves dreamily through life, trying to “find himself”; another, more practical character, challenges him: “I didn’t know you were lost. You’re right here.” But Reva Mann is proof that a person can be totally lost to herself. She loses her virginity in the darkened sanctuary of her father’s synagogue, on the bimah, in front of the Ark — and at an “appropriate” moment, actually shouts “Halleluyah!” Or so she recalls. After a few arrests for drug possession, she goes to Israel, falls in love with the Torah’s mitzvot — or at least the idea of them — and with the dream of marrying a Torah scholar. Which she does. Then, six years and three children later, he divorces her, because he cannot live under the same roof with an unfaithful wife. The Torah teaches that, too. But Reva finds its spirituality restricting her physicality.
And so it goes for more than 300 pages, with Reva searching for some way to glue the two halves of herself together. Throughout, she’s having the same dichotomous problem with her parents. She loves them. She hates them. Their brand of English Orthodoxy doesn’t satisfy her spiritual needs; they are certainly not accepting of how she plays out her physical ones, but they try — unsuccessfully — to save her from herself.
If she reports accurately, her father was a rigid hypochondriac and her mother a self-centered depressive. I feel there’s an ethical problem here: Are Reva’s readers entitled to know all these things? For a long time I’ve been considering, and been concerned with, what responsibility a writer has to the people s/he writes about. Should their privacy be protected? If so: Does making a simple name change provide enough protection? As is the case here, does the death of those people mean all bets are off, and anything is fair game?
I’m not the only one questioning the avalanche of revelations and reproaches in this book, and especially the shucking of all parental coverings. One of her parents’ friends said Reva had certainly not followed the commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother,” maintaining it still has force even after they are dead, as hers already were when she wrote so fully about them and her conflicts with them. She cites “honest truth” as her cause — and her defense.
Ms. Mann gives her writing a noble purpose. In a Haaretz article, she said she hoped her book would “reach people who are self-destructive, and help them rehabilitate their lives. That they will learn from me.” I think that’s a stretch. I suspect she still has much to learn from, and about, herself.
By Harriet P. Gross